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It’s the eyes. Those gorgeous almond-shaped eyes. Then there’s the same strong jawline. It’s insane, really, how much actor Demetrius Shipp Jr looks like legendary rapper Tupac Shakur, who he’s portraying in All Eyez On Me. Spooky, even.
The newcomer was plucked from obscurity to be cast in the role of the late musician, who was brutally gunned down and killed at the age of 25 in a drive-by shooting in 1996 in Las Vegas.
By some crazy coincidence, Demetrius has his own personal connection to Pac – his father Demetrius Snr produced the track ‘Toss It Up’ on Pac’s first posthumous album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
Now over 20 years after Pac’s death, music video director Benny Boom has teamed up with the rapper’s producer and close friend L.T. Hutton to release the biopic.
Demetrius brings a steely aggression to the role, although today he’s curled up sleepily on the sofa of a Soho hotel, knocked out from jet lag.
But his co-star Kat Graham, who plays Pac’s lifelong friend and Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith, breezes in a bundle of energy, ready to defend the movie for all its worth.
Jada has publicly criticised the portrayal of their relationship in the film, but despite the controversy, All Eyez On Me has already surpassed box office expectations. Bringing in an estimated US$27 million in its opening weekend in the US, it shows there’s still a huge appetite to find out more about Pac’s short but turbulent life.
Culture Trip: Demetrius were you always getting compared to Tupac growing up?
Demetrius Shipp Jr: Yeah, it could be worse. I could have had another nickname or another comparison so it was cool. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I look like Tupac,’ and going around gloating or anything like that.
CT: Did your dad share any stories about working with Tupac?
DSJ: Tupac was a workaholic. He said he’d never seen anyone write a song so fast from complete beginning to end.
CT: Did you guys feel pressure or a sense of responsibility taking on these real-life roles?
DSJ: Not a great pressure but there’s something there. Just as we all have to be in the same chord, we have to deliver the best possible movie that we can offer because of Tupac.
Kat Graham: I wouldn’t say pressure is the right word. I think it’s a commitment to telling the stories of our culture with integrity and putting in as much inspiration as, in our lives, we felt from them.
CT: Do you feel that Tupac was essentially misunderstood as he’s portrayed in the film?
DSJ: I think the mainstream media likes to paint him as misunderstood, but I think he’s understood and that’s why people connect with and love him.
KG: I feel like people didn’t necessarily want to give Pac all of his props while he was alive. And I feel like that with this movie – people don’t want to give this movie all its props and see it for the in-depth look at this man’s life that it really is.
People wanted to profile Tupac as a certain Thug Life rapper, but he was so much more than that. I’m getting a similar vibe with this movie. Seeing people who haven’t even seen the movie talk about it. You’re profiling this movie in the same damn way that you profiled this man when he was alive. Just shut up and go see the movie.
CT: What was the most surprising thing you found out about Tupac while making this film?
KG: I’d say the relationship with the women in his life and how much his mother influenced him. I mean I knew he was close with her, but I didn’t realise how much she influenced his choices.
DSJ: He is a direct reflection of Afeni Shakur. His mannerisms, the way he talks, how he speaks. It all comes from his mum and I did not know that. It caught me a little off guard. Doing research, I was watching an interview with Afeni and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s just his mamma all over’.
CT: Did you get the chance to speak to Afeni about the film?
KG: She passed two weeks before she was going to see it. She’d been supportive the whole way. It’s unfortunate that she didn’t get to see it, but in a really deep way I think she and Pac were sitting at the premiere together eating popcorn, watching the movie and holding each other’s hands.
DSJ: I honestly feel Afeni would have been proud, and also that the BS that came along with this would not have occurred had she still been with us.
CT: Jada Pinkett Smith tweeted that she was ‘deeply hurt’ by how her relationship with Tupac was portrayed in the film. What do you have to say about that?
KG: I’ve got nothing but love for her. All we ever wanted to show was love and respect. Meech [Demetrius Shipp Jr] and I have both individually lost people. We understand how difficult that is. We understand that emotions come up and it’s a sensitive subject, but we don’t want to take away from the fact that this film is to honour this man. That’s the most important thing.
DSJ: We have nothing but love for Jada. It’s unfortunate. The most unfortunate thing is the timing of this all. I know for a fact that L.T. Hutton tried to reach out to Jada for consulting on this film. She denied. I know Kat Graham tried to reach out to Jada through every outlet that she could possibly go through prior to filming for consulting and for support. Nothing.
So to see tweets at 9am on the day of Tupac’s birthday after all of this. After the trailer had been aired. All this time went where it was available for her to see. I believe June 16 [the day the film came out in the US and the rapper’s 46th birthday] is not the day she’d seen it. June 16 was just the day she decided to say something about it. The timing was just disheartening.
CT: What do you think about all these theories that he’s still alive?
DSJ: He’s not alive because the people closest to him said he’s not alive. They were there when he passed.
KG: I think through his music, he will be forever alive.
All Eyez On Me is out in cinemas now.