Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) has had hit movies before, but even he couldn’t have predicted that a film about his former rap group N.W.A would one day break box office records as the No. 1 musical biopic and the biggest August opening for an R-rated movie. But that’s exactly what happened this weekend when “Straight Outta Compton,” the $29-million dollar biopic about the influential — and controversial — L.A. group, grossed $60.2 million after opening Friday.
“As a producer in Hollywood, I don’t usually get my props” said Cube, 46, who’s also behind the “Friday” franchise of films. “People think of me as an actor, a performer. But I play many roles.”
One of his roles is that of father. His 24-year-old son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays a young Ice Cube in “Straight Outta Compton.” The film follows the group — who included Dr. Dre, the late Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella — from their rise in the late 1980s to their success and demise in the 1990s.
Ice Cube spoke with The Times on the eve of the film’s release about working with his son, his relationship with his former band mates and what it took to produce “Straight Outta Compton” — more than a decade in the making.
The themes in N.W.A’s songs — namely harassment by the police — are being echoed all over the U.S. now. The film is certainly relevant, even though it takes place 30 years ago.
It is. But I don’t know when a story about the struggle of black people isn’t relevant in this country. When I was growing up there were movies that showed the Watts riots. When I was looking at what happened then I thought man, that’s relevant today, in 1985.
There are plenty of famous rappers who act now, and famous actors who want to rap. But you chose mostly unknown actors for the film. Why?
That was part of the magic we wanted to bring to the movie. We didn’t want you looking up there and thinking, “Does this rapper look like Ice Cube?’ Or, “Does that guy look like Eazy?” We wanted fresh faces.
Your son had to reenact your history with N.W.A, which included a lot of bad behavior — sex, drugs, heavy weaponry. Most parents try to keep these kinds of stories from their kids. How did you navigate that?
Me and my wife Kim, as parents, always agreed we’d be truthful to our kids, but also age-appropriate. So whatever their little minds could handle at 5, that’s what we were gonna tell them. And whatever they could handle at 10, that’s what we tell them. Then 15, 18, 25, whatever. We weren’t ever going to expose our kids to anything that would damage them mentally, but we weren’t going pretend that stuff wasn’t out there. We just had to figure out how to explain it to them at the age they are.
It’s eerie how much O’Shea sounds like you in the film when he raps.
I know, everyone keeps saying that! The whole movie is eerie. It’s N.W.A you’re looking at. It’s like … I can’t explain it. It’s a carbon copy of who we were and what went down. Like I said, eerie.
The actors who play all the other N.W.A members are also young so have no idea really what it was like back then. The game has changed a lot. How did you transform them into rappers circa 1989?
We had help from [veteran West Coast rapper] WC, who’s been my partner in rhyme for 20 years. He was in Westside Connection. He coached the guys on mannerisms, stage presence, the L.A. swag from the ‘80s and ‘90s. My son already knew how to rap, he already had stage presence so he didn’t really have to worry about that part. WC just showed them what it is to be from Compton, Watts, South Central in the ‘80s and ‘90s, how to carry yourself, that kind of stuff.
This film took a while to make. You went through different directors before landing with F. Gary Gray and wrangled with studios before landing with Universal.
It was very hard to get it off the ground. I was constantly holding it together. There’s a lot of moving parts to this movie. I had to really keep everybody motivated. Keep us fighting the good fight. There were plenty of times when people were looking for the exit, but I just wouldn’t let that happen. It almost unraveled several times because certain things you don’t compromise on. You do it right or you don’t do it at all.
Was it difficult to keep the story authentic while also making sure it was an entertaining feature film?
Yes. I was trying to be true to the history of what went down with N.W.A, what was true to life but also tell a good story. It was a tightrope walk.
Did you ever consider not including a Suge Knight character in the film since he didn’t play a central role in N.W.A? You had to know by including that the real Suge would come around — and he did when he tried to get on the set.
We just wanted to make the story as real as possible, and that meant having a character for him. We never thought of not doing that.
Eazy-E [who died in 1995] plays a huge role in the creation of N.W.A and he’s a major character in the film. Was it hard re-creating his story line without him there to advise?
His family advised us. [Director] Gary Gray met with family members and interviewed them and got their take. As much as we needed them, there was also a lot of this stuff we knew firsthand cause we were there.
You were making another film during this, weren’t you?
Yes, [laughs]. I was producing “Ride Along 2" in Atlanta and “Straight Outta Compton” with my team here in L.A. It wasn’t easy but I wouldn’t ask for it any other way. Dre was also on the set day to day.
When I was on set last year, Dre and DJ Yella were there, and someone said Ren dropped by later. Do you all see each other regularly or did you just come together for the film?
We’ve done a lot of things together before this movie. They helped me putting together my “30 for 30" documentary, and my “Straight Outta L.A.” documentary. A lot of these dudes talked on my VH-1 “Behind the Music.” They did "[NWA: The] World’s Most Dangerous Group” documentary. We’ve been in communication for a while. Ren and I performed together on the Up in Smoke tour. It’s been a great relationship.
Paul Giamatti is the most high-profile actor in the film. He told me he was pulled in last-minute to play Jerry Heller.
Since we had so many unknown actors, we wanted to really let people know we were trying to make a top-notch film, so we wanted an actor with enough weight. Someone who would bring in great acting skills and not just a name. Who would help our young actors step up. Paul Giamatti had worked with Gary Gray on “The Negotiator” so Gary really pushed for him, and I endorsed it. I also felt Paul would get us a positive reaction from an audience who might not think that N.W.A is their cup of tea.
I saw “Straight Outta Compton” here in L.A. People were cheering, singing along. It was like they were celebrating part of their own history.
I knew L.A. would get all nostalgic over this. That’s great. That’s exactly what I wanted. I know whoever goes and sees this movie is going to laugh, cheer and cry. And that’s what happens at the movies.