Straight Outta Compton – the PGA Award nominee that was the surprise smash of 2015, covering the rise and fall of rap group N.W.A – has brought relative newcomer Jason Mitchell Critics’ Choice and SAG noms for best ensemble, with more Oscar buzz currently brewing. Mitchell’s was no easy task. In the role of the late Eazy-E, he would need to do more than just act, he would have to perform like him too–all under the gaze of exec producers and former band members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube–surely an intimidating experience? “To be honest,” Mitchell says, “as crazy as it seems, it’s empowering. It’s like having your dad at your first football game.”
You were acting already (Contraband, Major Crimes), but this film has to have been pretty life-changing?
Absolutely. Everybody has their aspirations on life and what would happen if everything went right. There are certain challenges, it’s a period piece and you’re playing an icon, and all these things that challenge you, but it lets you pull out so many creative guns that I let it all go.
How did you cope with Dre and Ice Cube watching you work? They knew Eazy-E so well…
When somebody like that tells you that you’re the man for the job, you really have no choice but to believe him. It was really good having them. To have them take it so serious because they could’ve easily produced it and not been there. Even when Dre wasn’t there he was floating on an iPad next to you.
What was the casting process like for you?
They call me, and they were like, “would you like to fly to LA for a callback?” and I’m like, “The way my bank account is setup I don’t really know if I should come? I need to kind of know I’m going to get the part. I don’t really have that kind of money.” I ended up Skyping with Gary (director F. Gary Gray) for an hour and 17 minutes. It was the most intense reading of these five scenes, It was like I’m crying and he’s like, ‘Just breathe, just breathe,’ and then I just busted out laughing because I’m like, ‘it’s over now. I’m not nervous anymore,’ and I hear all these voices just start laughing and I was like, wow, I didn’t even know that many people were in the room. I was cast right there on Skype.
You’re playing a real person who’s passed away who was very important to the men making the film. How did you prepare and learn about your character?
I never knew how to approach asking them about that. One day I’m like, ‘why me?’ and Dre was just like, ‘I just liked the person you are because Eazy was a big person in such a little body and he stood for so much, and he was so much in him.’ And I couldn’t get it because it was so simple to them, so I just hung with them a lot. The more I was comfortable being myself, the closer we became. I just used that and kind of channeled it because they were like, ‘trust me, you got that.’
You really physically embody the character–you look like him and move like him–did you watch a lot of tape of him to get that?
Well, it’s kind of sad to say but LA has a lot of gang culture and it has a lot of uniform movement, and it has a lot of very distinctive things. You can’t be Eazy-E and not move a certain way basically. So, I studied the culture of it and also one of my uncles is from LA and he’s great. He was like my performance coach. He helped me get the lingo down pat. He helped me get a lot of things down pat because I would talk in that accent for 10 hours a day.
How does it feel now to have been a part of bringing attention to a piece of music history?
It’s absolutely an honor. I feel like the work just started and it’s a huge responsibility. It was beautiful to see the history. But to see where they’ve come now, it makes me feel like, if this how their career started I feel responsible (for my career). It’s not like I worry everyday, but I feel like the eyes are on me for a reason. I shouldn’t just, for lack of a better term, f*** it off.
There’s been some controversy about the film. What’s your take on the people who’ve said, ‘you skipped over some of the uglier parts of the story.’
Well, I would say it like Eazy-E: ‘All publicity is good publicity.’ No, I’m joking. Sometimes it’s sad that people feel like that but at the same time there are a lot of things people don’t know. One thing that didn’t go in the movie was that N.W.A couldn’t go to their own album release party because they (the security) said they looked like gangbangers. That would’ve been a great thing to put in the movie. They were like, ‘who are these people? They can’t come in dressed like that. Y’all look like trouble.’ You can expect people to say what they’re going to say, but I feel that this movie did our job. I loved it.
What’s up next for you?
Well, I already have two movies in the can low-key, which are Vincent-N-Roxxy and Keanu with Key and Peele, which is my first comedy and it’s going to be super dope, definitely funny. They’re so great and they’ve been such life coaches to me.
And you’re co-starring with Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island, right?
I am. We get along. We kick it on our days off. I think we’re both kind of in the same place mentally where we’re not caught up on the hype of it or none of that. We’re still at a super-homey point. No matter how much people talk about awards stuff, we still love it so much that everyday matters, every moment matters to us. It’s dope working with somebody like that. I felt like I had to give her a rap name. She always wanted a rap name her whole life, so I’m like, ‘you’re Young Brie now.’