To say that a Tupac biopic has been a long time coming is an understatement. Perhaps few know that as well as Demetrius Shipp Jr., the icon’s “blink twice” doppelgänger who was originally cast in the role in 2011 and waited through a handful of directors, including John Singleton and Carl Franklin, before Benny Boom, the popular music-video director, completed the film. Whether people love or hate the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me, Shipp knows that his life has been forever changed, and he has put in tremendous work to get to this moment.
Ask the 28-year-old Shipp why he kept hanging on and he answers, “I don’t know,” but adds that “I dedicated myself [to the role] immediately when I first got the opportunity back in 2011. Before I was taken as a serious candidate back then, I went out and pierced my nose and lost weight without any formal indication of there being a guarantee that I would get it. I was just trying to go that extra step. So I think, throughout the years, I was like ‘I dedicated myself to this.’”
And while he admits that playing Tupac “seemed like a big opportunity for me and a break in life, in my career,” even he became doubtful as time wore on that the film would even happen. “Honestly, the very last time I got that call, I was very reluctant to even entertain the idea or go in and read again because I didn’t believe that it was real, but my mother convinced me to go through with the audition process, and it went well,” says Shipp, who spoke to The Root via telephone from a hotel room in Chicago days before the film’s release.
Of course, playing a figure as beloved and as galvanizing as Tupac is no easy feat. Although his life was cut short on Sept. 13, 1996, at the age of 25 after being shot days earlier on the infamous Las Vegas Strip on Sept. 7, Tupac made an impact in music, amassing several platinum plaques with such albums as Me Against the World, featuring “Dear Mama”; and the album from which the film takes its title, which contains the Dr. Dre-produced “California Love,” which featured a very young Kendrick Lamar in the crowd for the video shoot in Compton, Calif.
Tupac was also memorable on the big screen, particularly as Bishop in Juice and Lucky in Poetic Justice. And he was surprisingly conscious in an age in which many rappers who looked and acted like him were not. His “Thug Life” mantra even became a rallying point globally. Tupac’s life was marked by the trials and tribulations many black men still endure, be it going in and out of the court system or just trying to cope with always having a bull’s-eye on your back.
Shipp needed a way to mine the many levels of Tupac’s life, and with the help of acting coach Angela Gibbs—daughter of Marla Gibbs, who even coached actors in The Revenant, the gruesome film that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar—Shipp began the long process.
“Me and my acting coach Angela Gibbs just wrote down the different periods of his life and studied those individually as thorough as we could, and just tried to draw parallels between those moments in his life as well as mine, certain situations that I could connect to, not because I experienced the same-exact thing, but maybe it gave me the same type of feeling [from a] situation where I felt betrayed,” he says. “Tupac felt betrayed at one point.”
Throughout the film, Shipp was literally surrounded by people who knew Tupac. Shipp’s own father, for whom he is named, produced Tupac’s “Toss It Up.” All Eyez on Me film producer L.T. Hutton, who has been a driving force behind getting the film made for years, cut his teeth in music, working for both Ruthless and Death Row record companies in varying capacities as A&R and music producer.
E.D.I. Mean (government name, Malcolm Greenridge), and Young Noble (Rufus Cooper III), members of the Outlawz, the group Tupac started and groomed, play themselves in the film and were constant fixtures on the set. Ron “Money-B” Brooks of Digital Underground, the Oakland, Calif.-based group that helped launch Tupac’s career, also plays himself. Plus others, like Naughty by Nature rapper Anthony “Treach” Criss and Tha Dogg Pound member and producer Delmar “Daz Dillinger” Arnaud, who knew Tupac well, dropped by during filming.
Shipp admits to initially feeling uneasy about such reminders. “For a second I felt that pressure until they relieved me of that pressure and gave me great compliments and great words of advice and really gave me their blessings and loved my work,” he says. “So that was a great deal of weight off my shoulders because they were enjoying it and they connected with me and they didn’t feel like I was trying to do an imitation of Pac, but [that] I was trying to capture the essence, rather.”
And what was the essence of Tupac? “He was much more than just the rapper. He was much more than just the controversy. He was much more than thug life,” Shipp says. “It was the perseverance that he had. The work ethic that he had. It was the upbringing: the Black Panther Party, the activist. The 17-year-old Tupac at the Baltimore School for the Arts, who was a poet, into Shakespeare, who was into ballet. People don’t really know that. And the social consciousness that he had and the awareness that he was trying to raise back at the young age of 17.”
Even today, Shipp remains in awe that he was the one chosen to share that legacy. “It’s just amazing,” he says. “Back in 2011, if you would have asked me if I’d think I would be here in 2017, Tupac’s birthday, the movie’s coming out and I’m starring in it, I would have been like, ‘Man, that sounds like a perfect world right there. That sounds like a dream.’ So I’m living the dream. It feels like destiny.”
All Eyez on Me is in theaters now.