Fox Searchlight finds its Biggie Smalls

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CORRECTED 7:28 p.m. PT March 5

Fox Searchlight has found its big-screen Biggie.

The specialty division has announced that Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn-based rapper, will be cast in the role of the late rap icon Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., in its upcoming biopic "Notorious."

Derek Luke, Angela Bassett and Anthony Mackie also have been cast in the movie, Searchlight said. Luke will play Biggie record producer Sean "Diddy" Combs, who offscreen is an exec producer on the film. Mackie will play rival rapper Tupac Shakur, while Bassett will play Biggie's mother Voletta Wallace.

The production held an open casting call in the fall in the hope of finding the next Notorious B.I.G., nee Christopher Wallace, the generously built East Coast rapper who was killed in an Los Angeles drive-by in 1997.

The idea, execs said, was that as with casting for sports movies like "Miracle," the production would be better served with a nonactor who can rap and imitate Biggie than with a pro actor who might need to be taught how to rap.

More than 100 Biggie wannabes, many of them nonpros and all with the requisite size, turned out to show off their rapping and impersonation skills.

Woolard, who also is known as Gravy, is not a total unknown. He has released a number of albums, though he's perhaps best known for being shot before a radio appearance outside the New York hip-hop station Hot 97 two years ago, after which he proceeded with the interview and became a part of hip-hop lore.

Like Biggie, Woolard was a drug dealer before he became a rapper. He had released a number of albums on indie labels in the 1990s before being signed by Warner Bros.

Voletta Wallace cited "Jamal's charming personality, warm spirit, wonderful sense of humor and beautiful smile" as reasons for the casting. "He is a talented and charismatic actor, and I am excited that he will bring Christopher's character to life," she said.

Biggie, who drew on his experiences as a drug dealer in his rapping, is considered a seminal figure in the hip-hop world; his posthumously released "Life After Death" was a top seller and is considered one of the most influential hip-hop records of the modern era. "Notorious" is expected to examine his troubled life, his music and his impact.

The movie -- directed by George Tillman Jr. and produced by Huntsman. Voletta Wallace, Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, Bob Teitel and Trish Hofmann -- goes into production this month and is set for release in January.
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