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“I don’t want people to feel like we got lucky,” says Jason Mitchell, the subject of heaps of best supporting actor Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the late hip-hop artist Eazy-E in Universal’s Straight Outta Compton, as we sit down at The Hollywood Rerporter‘s offices — along with his co-stars O’Shea Jackson Jr. (who plays his father, Ice Cube) and Corey Hawkins (who plays Dr. Dre) and the film’s director, F. Gary Gray — to record episode six of the Awards Chatter podcast. “For lack of a better expression, we worked our asses off.”
This quartet’s hard work on Compton — a $28 million, R-rated, two-and-a-half-hour drama that subjects/producers Cube and Dre spent 13 years trying to get made — resulted in one of the few films of 2015 that has won the enthusiastic seal of approval of critics (89 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences (it’s about to cross $200 million worldwide) and, at least to some degree, Academy members (it got an over-the-moon reception at its official Academy screening over the summer).
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Shannon and Ridley Scott — on iTunes.)
“We had no idea that people would respond to it this way,” says Gray, who withdrew his name from Marvel’s shortlist of candidates to direct Captain America: Winter Soldier because, he says, “I felt like Compton was the film of a lifetime.” The story of the rise and fall of N.W.A is deeply personal to him for a lot of reasons, he emphasizes: “It’s partly my story, as well — I grew up on welfare, in the hood, my mother had a drug addiction, my father wasn’t around, I didn’t have the resources to go to college and I had to work my way out of a Compton-like environment to enter Hollywood without any resources, just like they did with music and electronics and then movies.”
Gray’s association with Cube dates back more than 20 years. After collaborating on some music videos, Gray explains, Cube recruited him — though he was just 24 years old — to direct the film Friday, which became the most profitable film of 1995. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Speaking of going back a long way with Cube, Jackson, 24, is his son — and looks just like his father did at the same age. He had no plans to act prior to his father approaching him about Compton — in fact, he was studying screenwriting at USC — but he decided to embrace the challenge and earned the job after two years of studying. He talks about his own process of discovery about his father’s past, preparing for the part and consulting with his dad daily during the shoot (“He would tell me what he was really thinking about during that time period”). And he cracks, “My favorite part of this whole experience is just the text messages I’ve been getting from ex-girlfriends!”
Hawkins discusses his journey from Juilliard to off-Broadway to Broadway, the reasons for his brief hesitation about then taking on the role of Dre, his initial meeting and interactions with Dre, and Gray’s demands that he learn how to DJ professionally, like Dre, but on a very tight timetable.
Mitchell touches upon his discovery of acting after experiencing tough times coming of age in post-Katrina New Orleans, landing the part in Compton (“I feel like I hit the life lottery”) and the valuable presence on the set of rapper William Calhoun (“WC”), a member, along with Cube and Mack 10, of the ‘90s hip-hop supergroup Westside Connection, who schooled the cast on period-appropriate “West Coast” phrases, behavior, etc.
All four discuss some of the film’s hot-button scenes. Among them: Gray says of the opening, “The audience gets a sense, ‘OK, let me hold on to my seat because I have no idea what’s about to happen.’ ” Mitchell says the unforgettable scene in which the police rough up N.W.A outside of a recording studio for no reason — eerily similar to many recent incidents involving cops and young black men — left him with “tears in my eyes.” And, of the powerful final moments of Eazy-E in the film, he says, “I had a thousand things to cry about, and I was just allowed a moment to myself where I could really tap into something real … turning it on wasn’t really the problem, it was the turning it off.”
Gray emphasizes that Compton “is not an anti-cop film,” says he is “optimistic” about the future of race relations in America and thanks the Academy for giving the film a fair hearing. Then, after notifying his castmembers that he recently became a member of the organization (“The diversity thing is slowly starting to shift”), warns them with a smile: “You guys better act right if you want my vote!”
Straight Outta Compton, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Universal, is now playing nationwide. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture, Gray for best director, and Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell for best supporting actor.
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