Newcomers bring NWA to life in 'Straight Outta Compton'

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Posted: Aug 10, 2015 1:17 PM
Newcomers bring NWA to life in 'Straight Outta Compton'

LOS ANGELES (AP) — To turn three unknown actors into Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, they'd have to become friends for real.

"Straight Outta Compton" director F. Gary Gray was looking for chemistry when he cast the stars of the N.W.A. biopic, and he found it in Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O'Shea Jackson, Jr.

The three Hollywood newcomers say they "built up a brotherhood" during the years long process of making the film, and their bond shows on screen and off.

"The reason why the performances are outstanding is because they tapped into what's real," Gray said, "and we created something that was very real for them to access when they performed."

The actors made a rap album together. They spent time with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Jackson's real-life dad. They even hung out on set on their days off.

"We were there like every day, being extras," Mitchell said.

"Putting on wigs," Jackson added.

Here's a peek at the three young stars of "Straight Outta Compton" and their mutual admiration:

JASON MITCHELL (EAZY-E)

Mitchell is the kind of person who hugs instead of shaking hands and has so much energy he can hardly sit still. He mostly stands during this interview.

The 28-year-old actor becomes Eazy-E onscreen, and his excitement and gratitude for the role is obvious.

"This is going to change my life forever," he said.

He has the most movie experience of the three stars, with previous small roles in such films as 2012's "Contraband" and 2013's "Broken City." But this is his biggest part by far. Mitchell's performance as Eazy, who was 31 when he died of AIDS in 1995, is the heart of the film. Mitchell gained weight, learned to rap and shed his New Orleans twang to play the rap icon. He spent more than a month preparing for the role with Cube collaborator Dub-C.

"He helped me work on the accent situation and the walking and talking," Mitchell said.

His transformation wowed his co-stars.

"When you see him," Hawkins said, "that's Eazy-E."

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COREY HAWKINS (DR. DRE)

A Juilliard graduate who most recently appeared in "Romeo and Juliet" on Broadway, Hawkins was met with playful skepticism when he was first cast to play Dr. Dre.

"I'm the guy coming from Juilliard. I'm saying I just did Shakespeare, playing Tybalt on Broadway," he recalled. "I had a moment where everybody was like, 'I don't know if you're going to be able to do this. Do you listen to rap music? Have you ever heard N.W.A. before?'"

The 26-year-old learned how to DJ for his role and spent ample time with the man himself — producer-mogul Dr. Dre.

"This opportunity just kind of opened my world," Hawkins said.

Neither his academic pedigree nor his lack of film experience mattered when it came to working with Mitchell and Jackson, he said.

"We came in on day one on the same page from beginning to end," he said. "So we had to hold each other accountable. We had to be there for the group, for the movie."

Mitchell said Hawkins' vulnerability during performances early in shooting helped the three stars bond, while Jackson compared Hawkins to the character he plays.

"Dre, he saw the music as an art, like he appreciated it as an art," Jackson said. "My man Corey is from Juilliard; he sees acting as the art."

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O'SHEA JACKSON, JR. (ICE CUBE)

As Ice Cube's son, Jackson has spent years observing the rapper-writer-movie star. But he still had to study acting and audition repeatedly for two years to win the role of Cube in "Straight Outta Compton."

Jackson was already a rapper: He started performing with his dad, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, when he was 18.

"That's why I wanted him to do the movie, because I knew that he would have that part down pat," Cube said. "It was just the acting chops. And he focused, and I'm extremely proud of him."

For Jackson, the opportunity was enticing and intimidating.

"It's a big-time studio, and (director) Gary don't play," the 24-year-old said. "It's a lot to take on, especially if you never acted before."

To prepare for the role, Jackson trained with some of L.A.'s top acting coaches and immersed himself in old N.W.A. interviews, "just to see how they were joking around and to get some of that old lingo." In the process, he earned the respect of his director and co-stars.

"He has a scene that he had to fight for," Mitchell said. "We would come (to the set) on our days off and support each other."

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .