Relentlessly fighting to uphold your idealistic ideas about what it means to live a truly equal life, where everyone’s rights are equally supported, is a visionary concept that isn’t easily upheld. The gripping exploration into how far people are willing to go to endorse that concept is shown in director F. Gary Gray’s new drama, ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ The biopic, which opens in theaters on Friday, follows the determination of rappers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and the other members of the persistent acclaimed hip-hop group, N.W.A. The group strove to protect their communities and family, including Dr. Dre’s younger brother, Tyree, who’s played by up-and-coming actor Keith Powers, against government leaders and anyone else who disagreed with their lifestyles and decisions.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ begins with teenage friends O’Shea Jackson and Andre Young, who are known by their stage names, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), as they try to escape their meager realities in their gang-ridden title California city through music. While Dre’s mother doesn’t approve of his desired career choice, and he’s struggling to provide for his girlfriend, their young child and Tyree, he sees potential in Cube’s writing, and the two decide to become collaborators. They decide to join forces with Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell), a drug dealer who’s known as Eazy-E who can provide them with capital. Once the group begins working together, the vocalists they hired to record a song Cube wrote, ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood,’ decide not to go through with their arrangement, the group convinces Eazy-E to provide the song’s vocals instead.
After the song becomes a local hit, the group attracts the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who connects them with Priority Records. The label then releases the revolutionary title album to much acclaim, which pushes Eazy-E and Jerry to become partners on the rapper’s Ruthless Records. When Cube realizes that the rest of N.W.A isn’t receiving their fair share of money from the contracts that Jerry’s hesitating to have them sign, he leaves the group to start a solo career. Dre also then leaves the group, and forms Death Row Records with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). While Eazy-E and the other N.W.A. members, including DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), try to keep the group’s momentum going, usually by thriving on public outcry and police harassment over their lyrics, the rappers all learn the meaning of what it means to truly stand up and defend themselves.
Powers generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Straight Outta Compton’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to play Tyree in the biographical drama, as he was interested in being a part of a film that told the story of the history behind N.W.A, who he listened to growing up in California; how he had a responsibility to the record producer and his mother to accurately portray Tyree in the film; and how he thinks the drama can really help audiences learn to respect who N.W.A was, and the fact that their music stands to give a voice to the misrepresented youth.
ShockYa (SY): You play Tyree Crayton, Dr. Dre’s younger brother, in the upcoming biographical drama, ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ What attracted you to play the character, as well as helping tell the story of N.W.A., in the film?
Keith Powers (KP): Well, I auditioned for the role of Tyree twice. I was in love with the project right off the bat, because I grew up on N.W.A and West Coast hip-hop. So being a part of a project that tells the story of the group and this kind of music was enough motivation for me. So I was ready to immediately take on the role and do my best.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you’re a fan of N.W.A’s music, how much knowledge did you have of their lives before you began filming? Did you do any additional research before you began filming?
KP: I didn’t really have to do much research, but I did have my acting coach with me on the set to help me with the role. As soon as I got the part, Dr. Dre began talking about what his younger brother was like. So the best way for me to prepare was to put myself in that little brother perspective, and what it would be like to be in his shoes. I have a little brother, and I thought about how he used to copy me.
SY: How does the process of playing a real person compare and contrast to portraying a fictional character in your projects? Do you feel a certain responsibility to portray a person like Tyree in a certain way, particularly in paying tribute to his life?
KP: I had a big responsibility with this role. I grew up on Dr. Dre-his songs were some of the first ones I listened to when I was young. I thought, I really have to take on this role and make Dr. Dre and his mom proud. That turned into my main objective, because when Dre became proud, I know I did my job. Everyone else is going to fall where they may.
SY: What kind of research did you do into their careers and lives before you began shooting the drama? Were you able to speak with the group’s members, particularly Dr. Dre, before, and while, you were filming?
KP: That process was amazing. He was on the set every day, and he’s very observant. He’s a very humble, well-spoken man. He listens, which is so great. He was always able to give me tips about his brother and the way he acted, which really helped me take on the role. Having him on the set really meant something, and helped me get everything right.
SY: Since Dr. Dre had such a close relationship with Tyree, what was your working relationship like with Corey Hawkins, who plays the rapper in ‘Straight Outta Compton?’ How did you build your working relationship together?
KP: Corey and I clicked right away, and he was like a big brother on the set. He’s such a cool, humble guy, and our chemistry was on point. We worked together off camera to help build our characters. The whole cast was so cool off camera, which made the chemistry on camera so easy.
SY: The drama’s director, F. Gary Gray, has had a long-standing relationship with members of N.W.A., particularly with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, as he directed their hit film, ‘Friday.’ What was your experience of also working with Gary while you were filming? Were you able to speak with him about working with the group’s members during the height of the group’s fame?
KP: Well, I never fully was able to pick Dre’s brain as much as I wanted to, because we were always focusing on the matter at hand. Even at the wrap party, during which he told me I did amazing, which was an honor, I never fully was able to speak with him, except over the phone. I also spoke to Ice Cube one time on set, and he also said that I did amazing. Everyone was so close, but there were so many people on set sometimes that we couldn’t pick people’s brains as much as we wanted to. But Gary, and everyone else, were there for me. (laughs)
SY: What message do you hope that audiences can take away from ‘Straight Outta Compton?’ Do you think that audiences can take the same meaning away from the drama, whether or not they’re fans of N.W.A’s music?
KP: Yes, I think the movie can really help audiences learn to respect who N.W.A was, and what their music stands for. Gangster rap isn’t just people saying, “Let’s kill each other, because I’m a Blood and you’re a Crypt.” The group really tried to give a voice to the youth.
SY: Besides films, you have also appeared on several television series, including the MTV comedy, ‘Faking It,’ and the Yahoo! Screen comedy, ‘Sin City Saints.’ What it is about television that you enjoy working on so much? How does your approach to portraying a character on television compare and contrast to playing your roles in films?
KP: As far as my acting approach, I feel like with TV, the schedule moves faster throughout the day, so you really need to have your stuff down and let the day flow. But with films, you can work on the scenes a little bit longer, so you really have time to take in the information, with is really the only difference between the two. But I love acting on TV and in films.
But with TV, you can tweak the character every week, so you can really form a connection with your character. After you watch each episode, you have another entire week to talk about the character with other people. That’s why I feel like people really form their names on television.
SY: You play Theo on ‘Faking It,’ which explores serious issues of teen sexuality. Why do you feel it was important to showcase such an important topic, particularly on focusing on acceptance, on a comedy series that’s targeted to young adults?
KP: I think it’s great how the comedy is incorporated into the show’s serious topics, and the show really emphasizes the realness of the comedy. The show makes these real situations so funny. The comedy just falls where it falls, which makes it so natural.
SY: You also starred as LaDarius Pope on ‘Sin City Saints,’ which follows a fictional Las Vegas basketball franchise. Did your previous experience as a football player influence your decision to take part in a sports series?
KP: Yes, that experience makes it easier and more fun to be on the set of the sports shows and movies. Being able to play an athlete on set gives me the best of both worlds. But at the same time, you also do get tired of that sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to have any role, but what I love the most about being an actor is the ability to step into a whole other realm. When I’m on the set of a sports show or film, sometimes it feels like I’m being too much like myself. But when you do incorporate sports into your roles, it does make it easier if you played sports in high school.
SY: With more films and television series currently being initially released on VOD platforms like Yahoo, Netflix and Hulu, why do you think On Demand is so beneficial to having projects seen?
KP: You definitely have fewer boundaries on streaming websites like Yahoo. But the problem with filming a show for those networks is that you film the entire season before it airs. So the characters on those networks’ shows can’t truly grow as much as the ones on regular network television series, which continue filming as they start airing. So the writers are able to change things as the season develops, based on what the audience wants. Social media helps the writers know what the audience likes, and what they think about certain characters. So you can grow with the characters as the season unfolds.
SY: Besides acting in films and on television, are you interested in directing in the future?
KP: Right now, I’m focused on acting, but I definitely also want to get into directing and producing. I want to shadow some directors, and really learn about what they do.
SY: Having seen what the members of N.W.A went through in ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ are you interested in pursuing singing, as well?
KP: I’ve always wanted to get into music, but only if I can sing. I can’t rap, so I’ll leave that alone. (laughs) I’m not really the rapping type, and if I were to rap, I would have to put my all into it. I really love acting, but if I did get into music, it would be singing.
SY: Besides ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ do you have any other projects lined up that you can discuss?
KP: Yes, I’m on the first episode of ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’ which premieres on August 23. I’m also going to be on ‘Recovery Road,’ which will debut on ABC Family next year. I’m also in the film ‘Maximum Impact,’ which is currently in production.
Written by: Karen Benardello