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All eyez on Demetrius Shipp: Actor talks playing Tupac Shakur, making Snoop cry

When it was announced that a biopic about the life and career of Tupac Shakur was in the works, fans everywhere reacted with what can best be described as cautious optimism. Shakur was and is one of the most iconic artists in the history of hip-hop; his legacy and persona are forever burned into the culture’s collective consciousness. His image is so revered and so ubiquitous that it seemed virtually impossible to find an actor who could effectively convey all that Shakur was — and it seemed just as unlikely that a film could present his well-documented history in a way that felt fresh, evocative and powerful.

Over the next several years, the rumored film never seemed to rise above the early stages of production. Directors’ names were tossed around and prospective actors lobbied for the chance to portray hip-hop’s most beloved folk hero. But no film ever materialized. That all changed in 2015 when it was announced that an unknown actor named Demetrius Shipp Jr. had been cast to play the fallen icon in an upcoming film helmed by director Benny Boom.

That film, All Eyez On Me, is now set to hit theaters on what would have been Shakur’s 46th birthday, and Shipp sits on the precipice of what could be a star-making turn as Shakur. It’s a heavy moment in his life and a major one in his career, and Shipp isn’t taking any of this lightly. At the core of his performance as Shakur is Shipp’s understanding that the rapper was multifaceted as a man in a way that even his most devout fans sometimes don’t appreciate.

“Everybody has the Tupac that they admire,” Shipp says. “Certain people love the hip-hop person, the rapper. Strictly just the rapper. A lot of people, the newfound Tupac fans … they’re into Death Row-era Tupac. But that was only nine months! People think he was with Death Row all these years because he put out albums — [it was] technically nine months. But then you have the people that love the revolutionary side of Tupac. Some people like the crazy side of him [that was] always turnt up! Some people like the more sophisticated, voice of the people, leader-type of Tupac. We tried to combine all of that into one and present him as truthfully as possible.”

The son of a music producer who had similar aspirations before catching the acting bug, Shipp had been preparing for the role since 2011 when it was announced that John Singleton was attached to the project. As names like Singleton’s and Antoine Fuqua’s came and went, the project remained in limbo. Once things settled into place, Shipp was eager to get to work. But now with the film’s release looming, he acknowledges that it was a long road.   

“It was a long time coming,” he recalls. “At that time, it was four or five years, I started in 2011. So a little over four years of preparation in trying to get the role. So aside from [being] excited, it was just [the] amazement that it’s come full circle.

“As far as research goes, I just watched a ton of video on Tupac. There’s a lot of him on YouTube. Night in and night out, I just watched that. And my acting coach, she put it on us to try and dive into his mind: what he liked, what his upbringing was like. I learned about the Black Panther Party. He loved Shakespeare — I read Shakespeare. Malcolm X. The Art of War.”

Shipp also spent time with those who knew Shakur best — beyond the cameras and easy caricatures.

“E.D.I. Mean [of the Outlawz] was really dope — a great insight,” he shares. “For me, I wanted to know the intimate stuff about Pac. I feel like that was what we were trying to [convey]. I wanted to know how he was at the house, just chilling.

“Treach came to the set when I was filming the courtroom scenes, when [Shakur] was getting sentenced. Treach had tears in his eyes and he said, ‘You’re bringing my homie back to life.’ That was really his boy; Pac and Treach [were] really tight. I didn’t know that [he] and Busta Rhymes had a good relationship. Busta watched the movie tearing up.”

When depicting true events that actually affected many of the people who will see the film, one has to be mindful of getting the details right. Shipp believes that judging from the reactions of those who knew Shakur, he was able to do just that.

“They’re not playing to my feelings,” Shipp says. “Nobody’s like, ‘OK, we don’t want to hurt this guy’s feelings, so say that he’s doing a good job.’ This is Tupac. They’re not going to be nice about it. Either they like it or they’re gonna say something about it. The reception has been good. Snoop [cried] in admiration of the film and missing his friend and understanding what happened.

“Leila Steinberg was Tupac’s manager and really responsible for bringing him to Digital Underground. She was the spark of his career. She is a big part of Tupac becoming the artist that he became. She came in like, ‘I was ready to tear this down. I didn’t believe anybody could get this right and capture the essence. But you made it happen.’ ”

And as far as his career, this could obviously be a major turning point for Shipp. The 28-year-old was working as a Dish Network installer six years ago when a friend encouraged him to submit an audition tape.

“I’m waiting to see how the world feels about it. What standard it’s going to be held to. And how my work will resonate with the people. Somebody just told me that with art, you put it out there and let it do whatever it does. You can’t hold onto it. You do it and you let go of it. But as far as acting, I hope that this will propel me into more leading roles, TV shows, producing, directing, all types of stuff,” he says.

And Shipp is encouraged. All Eyez On Me is happening amid a surge in Black films and television. It’s the second major hip-hop biopic in as many years (following 2015’s blockbuster N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton) and comes in a year when Moonlight won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Get Out became the biggest sleeper hit of the year.

“Black films and television are growing and getting the recognition … and the opportunities,” says Shipp. “There’s so much content now. The accolades are falling in. It’s expanding at a rapid rate, [and] Black actors are getting more chances to display our work in the industry.”

But he’s not getting ahead of himself. The movie’s box office, the reviews of his performance — he’s made his peace with the anticipation and the scrutiny. But Demetrius Shipp Jr. holds himself to a standard as an actor that goes beyond what the outside world thinks of him. He’s already grown just from being a part of this experience. And he’s happy to admit that he still has a long way to go. Even with luminaries dropping by the set or watching screenings and praising what he was doing.

“I was always critiquing my work,” Shipp says honestly. “I let everybody else around — producers, directors, other actors — they give the nod of approval or the praise. Because I tried to always bring the best, so even if they were happy with it, I was still scrutinizing it. I will say that praising the work and admiring it means a lot to me. That’s all I can ask for.”

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