One of the strangest and most daunting aspects of conducting an interview, is knowing that you’re about to embark on a conversation with a total stranger and as such, have no idea what that person is like, or how they might react to your questions. With O’Shea Jackson Jr., who stars alongside Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber in Den Of Thieves, the film marks only his third feature film, making previous interview material fairly limited, so when they connected our call and he greeted me a buoyant “Duncan, what it do!” it set the tone for an interview with quite possibly the most enthusiastic person I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to.
Known for playing his own father Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, the biographical film about legendary gangsta rap group N.W.A, his acting debut was an assured start and based on his compelling and sympathetic performance as Donnie in the compelling heist thriller, Den Of Thieves, is hopefully going to be an actor we see more and more of.
Our chat covered everything from weapons training, to John McClane style vent crawling and being strangled by Gerard Butler, so without further ado, Mr O’Shea Jackson Jr…
How are you doing?
I’m good man, chilling, it’s cold in New York, I’m from LA, so I’m out of place!
I’m sat in my office near London, but England is always the same, it’s just average all the time!
Firstly, I wanted to say was congratulations on your performance.
Thank you. Hell yeah!
I’m right in saying this is only your third feature film, isn’t it?
It was a great performance and it might be a strange way of phrasing it, but how did you get to be so good so quickly?
Ah dude, I’ve been around films my whole life, the only bit of acting I had prior to Straight Outta Compton was a drama class in middle school, you know? I did get the AEE in that though! Then with Straight Outta Compton, I had took two years into the University of Southern California’s film school, I was a screenwriter for two years, so you know a little bit of that writing aspect helps me with acting and from that I did Ingrid Goes West. In Ingrid Goes West, I wanted to show my range and I wanted to get back into the drama category with Den Of Thieves and that I was able to do little bit more physical acting, a lot more painful acting!
Presumably you spent quite a lot of time on film sets growing up, like you say?
Yeah, yeah and that helps to kind of drown out the ‘ooh and ahh’ of movies you know? You kind of look at it as business from the job and that definitely helps.
Yeah, sort of strips away the glamour, I guess, that people see from the outside.
Yeah, you kind of see the smoke and mirrors early! [laughs]
How did you first get involved with Den Of Thieves?
It was, I think it might have been before Ingrid Goes West, actually, that I heard about this film. And you know, if was after Straight Outta Compton, I was unemployed [laughs] looking for a job and I had my agent looking around and they set up a meeting with Christian (Gudegast, the director) and Christian is you know, he’s from LA, he went to UCLA though, so I won’t hold that against him! But, you know, he’s definitely passionate about his work and if I see you love what you do, that kind of gets me kind of hyped up and you know, all you need is little bit to get Shea hyped up and I’m on your side! [laughs]
So I was hoping and wishing that he would give me a part in the film and then when it came time for the nitty gritty, they told me ‘yeah, you’re actually, you got Donnie’. So, I was like ‘Oh hell yeah’, you know that’s the one you want! So I was definitely down for a while and I’m so thankful for Christian, to come through and choose your boy and I feel like we got something nice coming out on the 19th.
Christian obviously worked with Gerard Butler before, as he scripted London Has Fallen, but for a first time director, Den Of Thieves was shot beautifully and there was a real slickness to the thrills and action. Did he have that assurance coming in as a director on set?
Oh man, when you can see… Den Of Thieves is his baby. Like, he’s had this for a while, trying to get it where it is now and you know our DP Terry (Stacey), he was beast with it as well, but they will keep you there until they get the shot, let me let you know! [laughs] But when you see somebody as passionate about the project as Christian is, you know that he’s doing anything and everything he can to get it right and in our business to get it right – that’s where we’re all heading. You know, it doesn’t, with takes, it doesn’t matter how many there are, you only need to get right one time, so when you see somebody who’s that passionate about getting it right, you already knew that this was going to be something nice to look at.
So did he do the whole Stanley Kubrick thing and make you do, like, twenty takes?
[Laughing] We had our long days for sure!
I love that you’re not going to be specific with how many takes!
[He laughs a lot]
One of the things I really wanted to talk to you about is obviously your first scene with Gerard Butler – he’s made you wet your pants, he belittles you, he smacks you about, strangles you; reading the script did you think ‘I’m sold, yeah I want to do that!’?
Oh no, dude I… Listen, I’m a team player, but I’m not going to act like I didn’t bitch and moan on those days bro! But Gerard’s super professional, during that day he actually, was like, trying to kind of fake choke me and I let him know ‘dude, I’m a pro wrestling fan, you know, I’m a WWF Attitude era type dude. I’ve done some fake fighting before, let me put this arm up – dude, we gotta get out of here, let’s get this take baby!’ [laughs] It definitely was me showing off my chops a little bit, because I could see everybody’s face in the room of disgust, that’s when I knew that I might continue to be an actor!
[Laughing] Yeah, because it looked, it’s one of those things you’re watching it and you’re thinking ‘is he actually choking you, has he gone method on this?’
You can thank Stone Cold, The Rock and The Undertaker for that!
Aha, nice! But, I mean that whole scene must have been fairly intense, because one of things I like in the film is the dynamic where you’ve got two groups, but you can’t really say that one is good and the other bad, because the whole theme is that there’s shades of grey. But, in that scene in particular, you’re on your own, isolated from your gang, so does that help when you’re facing off against Butler and his crew?
Yeah, you kind of get that feeling of ‘you against the world’ and my character doesn’t really fit in anywhere and that’s something visually I wanted people to see, because everybody in his movie some ripped, meat-head, jackass [laughs] and like Donnie is a super regular guy in a polo shirt! I definitely wanted to keep that aspect of ‘he doesn’t fit’. And a lot of the times, that guy usually is the first one to get killed! So, I wanted to keep the people on the edge about my character and I feel like it works for, not only me being able to show my range once I’m with those guys one on one, but for the film and how it goes.
Yeah, it’s an interesting position to be in, because Donnie is the most sympathetic character in the film and normally it would be the Butler type character, who’s a cop with a family, but he’s not. You feel sympathy for him at times but he’s not a sympathetic character. He says to you in the scene “You think you’re the bad guys, we’re the bad guys.” Was that moral greyness an appealing part of why you wanted to do the film as well?
Yeah, because with the outlaws and the regulators, you’re not really sure who you’re rooting for the entire movie, you know? It’s so great, it’s like the yin and yang, the yin and yang I always say is the greatest peace of art ever. Because both sides are equally as powerful, but you will forever have a piece of each other within you – that’s the yin and yang and once that happens you know, it starts to become this grey area and that’s life, at the end of the day, that’s how life is and that’s what makes our movie real. And I’m glad to be the most relatable character, because reliability is likability and I need people to like me! [laughs]
It’s interesting that you and the film use Old West terminology like outlaws and regulators, because I’ve always been a fan of westerns, but they never seem to succeed anymore in popular culture. You get people attempting to make them now and again, but they don’t seem to be able to capture the same box office success they once had. So I think films like Den Of Thieves are where that sensibility now lies, if that make sense?
Yeah, yeah, definitely and you know Den Of Thieves might not have the happiest ending, but it definitely shows, I feel, a real picture of that outlaw vs. the sheriffs type feel. And everybody likes a good inside hero, you know, everybody likes somebody who does it for a good cause, but not necessary for anybody else but themselves!
Definitely! I’ve got to ask as well, because you inevitably got to crawl through some vents, did you quote any Die Hard to yourself?
[Bursts out laughing!] Oh my God, no! No, but I did moan and bitch about crawling through some vents! Because that sucks, when you’ve got the camera directly in front of you and you can’t back up and you start getting claustrophobic! [still laughing]
Yeah, it’s funny because every time I see a scene like that in a film, it just freaks me out!
Dude, and then like I hear “Shea, you’re crawling too fast!” and I’m like “I know, I know! I’m trying to get the fuck out of here!”
Head butting the cameraman trying to get past him!
Yeah dude! Oh my god, what a bad day!
I was going to say, because in that whole section of the film, I thought you did the panic and sweaty nervousness scarily well. Did props have to keep spraying you?
Oh my god, not at all. [both laugh!] No props, no fakeness about that. It’s just like ‘please God, just let me get through today, let me get through today!’
You were saying about Donnie being like a regular Joe and because the other guys, particularly in your crew, are all supposed to be ex-military types, so did you get to skip weapons training for this?
Oh no, I felt like that was the only cool thing I’d get to do, so I definitely wanted to get in on that. Also, whenever you’re doing these films, it’s best to take something from the film that can sharpen your skills in regular life, so, if they tell me there’s this Special Forces guy coming in to train everybody on how to be a badass, how could you not want to take that training? But my whole complaint was ‘why do I have to get up at eight in the morning in cold ass Atlanta, when my guy is just the driver? You know? If you’re going to teach me some weapons stuff, can we do this around noon?’ [both laugh] But it was definitely fun bonding with the guys and I do miss those cold mornings.
It’s good you get the bonding time, because I know sometimes if you’re not doing that, or they bring you in late and you get to miss it.
Yeah, the chemistry is everything.
Yeah, and did they give you, because you’re the driver and there’s a few driving scenes, did you get to exploit that for any driving tips?
Oh, I definitely got the punch that Mustang a little bit! I didn’t get to do all the cool drifting, Baby Driver crap, but you know, it was definitely was a safe environment for me, but the scene where we’re at 50’s house in the back yard and they give me the keys and I did get to punch it outta of that cul-de-sac, I do it like that and it did have some giddy up, but I was on a flat-bed bro, trying just to throw my body inside the Mustang with Pablo, pretending to take a hard right! [laughs]
It’s funny isn’t it, because, like I was saying England is pretty familiar, but the opening of your film with the statistics about LA and the daily bank robberies, is crazy and made me think of when I watched Man On Fire and you get the kidnapping stats at the beginning. Were the stats something you were aware of and that they were that insane?
Oh dude yeah, Christian did a lot of research on heists and heists around LA and the federal reserve and the replicas that we built were pretty on point, but there is no way in hell, anyone is robbing the central reserve. It is madness in there and there is no way you’re going to make it out, you know, we’re all living the dream in Den Of Thieves but dude, anybody in the real world, I will let you know, there is no way! [laughs] Forget those vents, forget all of that, it’s crazy in there.
After what you’ve said I don’t think anybody would want to crawl through the vents anyway!
Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Well thanks so much, I think we’re nearly out of time, but next out of the gate for you is Godzilla: King Of Monsters, isn’t it?
Oh yeah, I’ve got Godzilla: King Of Monsters and I’ve got Flarsky with Seth Rogen coming up.
Yeah, Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron.
They should be awesome. It’s always one of those things – you always want to ask about forthcoming films, but it’s like no, no, you can never say anything about them before they’ve come out anyway!
[Laughs] Yeah, they’re coming and they’re going to be great!
Well thanks so much for your time and best of luck with the film!
Thank you man, Happy New Year!
And the same to you! Mr O’Shea Jackson Jr. thank you very much!
Den Of Thieves is in the UK on the 2nd February.