IN HIS FATHER’S SHOES
O’Shea Jackson gained a huge insight into his father’s NWA beginnings, playing him in the hip-hop biopic Straight Outta Compton
Actors often enthuse about being “born to play” certain parts. But for O’Shea Jackson Jr, star of Straight Outta Compton, it was true. In the hit biopic of seminal LA hip-hop band NWA, he plays his own father, O’Shea Jackson Sr, aka rap legend turned movie star Ice Cube.
But while the 24-year-old, who studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California and raps under the moniker OMG, might have had the right genes for the part, he certainly wasn’t an automatic selection.
When his father first raised the prospect with him after the much-mooted project was finally given the nod – but before there was even a script – Jackson admits he was nervous, but game.
Director F. Gary Gray, who had directed videos for Ice Cube as well as his feature film debut, Friday, was keen, too, and took the first-time actor under his wing during a gruelling audition process that took two years.
“He knew that this movie had to be authentic and nobody is going to handle this role as passionately as I would because it’s my family’s legacy,” says Jackson Jr. “He wanted me to make it work so he got me acting coaches – it was a lot of hard work.
“I had to lose weight to look 17 years old. They got me a trainer and I ate nothing but basically grass, water and nuts and I lost 15 pounds in 24 days. It was a gruelling boot camp, but at the same time, Gary was building my confidence so I know that it was earned and not given.”
The gritty Straight Outta Compton, which has taken a mammoth $170 million in the US, traces the rise and fall of game-changing hip-hop act NWA – from its genesis on the drug and violence-ridden mean streets of LA, through dodgy deals, race and profanity controversies, intra-band strife and the inevitable breakup.
Ice Cube was a still a teenager when the band released its debut album, also called Straight Outta Compton, which went on to sell more than three million copies and helped pioneer gangsta rap.
As one of the chief lyricists and rappers, Cube’s tales of life on the street in songs such as Gangsta Gangsta, Dopeman and F--- Tha Police, reverberated around the world and helped shine the spotlight on race relations in the US.
By the time Jackson Jr was born in 1991, Cube was already two years into his solo career, having left the band in 1989 over royalty disputes at the height of their success.
Jackson Jr says he knew of the band’s history and revered place in hip-hop – but only from his father’s perspective.
“Of course, I didn’t know the things that the other members were going through and he didn’t even know,” Jackson Jr says. “So while he was watching the film, he was being informed just as the audience is.
“The thing that caught me by surprise, though, was that I didn’t know he didn’t have a plan when he left the group.
“He didn’t say ‘all right, well I am just going to go solo’. It was him going back home with nothing and being like ‘damn, what do we do now?’ It takes a lot when you are the youngest and the most responsible.”
Jackson Jr says his father, who was a producer on the film along with former NWA member turned superproducer and headphones billionaire, Dr Dre, and the widow of band leader Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, kept a respectful distance once production had started, but was always on call to help his son with first-hand accounts.
“He would call me every day to ask how I was feeling and let me know where his head was during that scene in real life,” says Jackson Jr.
“That helped me to add to it and make it real. But my whole process with this film is Gary Gray taking the time and the technique to mould me into something nice.’’ Cube has said seeing his son, who bears an uncanny physical and sonic resemblance to him, on screen was like something out of Back To the Future.
Jackson Jr’s upbringing was a million miles away from that of his father, who is estimated to be worth more than $100 million thanks to his solo work and acting career. But he still has family in the downtrodden suburb of Compton and says he was raised to never forget where they came from. “It is the upbringing and the foundation of my family,” Jackson Jr says.
O’Shea Jackson Jr (third from left) as Ice Cube, with other members of the band.