Tupac Shakur was many things in his life: chart-topping rapper, visionary poet, outsider iconoclast. Beyond his music and public persona, he also carved out a niche on the big screen. Before his death 25 years ago this September, Shakur acted in movies including Poetic Justice, Gridlock’d, and Above the Rim. His most iconic role may have been his first major one, however: Bishop from the movie Juice, a 1992 crime thriller that showed off the full range of a young Shakur’s acting potential.
In his new book, Changes: An Oral History of Tupac, New Yorker writer and editor Sheldon Pearce explores the life and legacy of Shakur, who would’ve turned 50 on Wednesday. Below is an excerpt from Changes that looks at how Shakur landed the role in Juice despite having no credits to his name. Also be sure to check out the latest episode of Black Girl Songbook, which explores Shakur’s rise and host Danyel Smith’s relationship with him.
Levy Lee Simon, actor, 127th Street Repertory Ensemble: A lot of people would make comments that he was a rapper that became an actor. No. Most people didn’t know he was an actor first. Before he ever entered into the hip-hop world, he was an actor. So when he got these opportunities, I was not surprised that he excelled.
Gobi Rahimi, videographer: Since he was a trained actor from the Baltimore School for the Arts, he knew how to project. He knew how to use emotions. He knew how to articulate feelings visually. So he was a phenomenon. I’ve yet to work with anyone who is comfortable and able to deliver at 1,000 percent the way he did in front of the camera.
Richard Pilcher, retired principal acting teacher, Baltimore School for the Arts: I only knew him at a particular point in space and time, but if you look at his movies, he’s just someone that the camera loved. You can’t always tell that, frankly, in a classroom. I’ve had students that I thought were quite good and they got on camera and they’re just not electric; other students, you think, “Yeah, they’re solid.” They get on camera and you go, “Holy cow.” There’s just something about the camera that some actors relate to in a kind of magical way, and he was one of them.
I remember seeing him in Juice and I just went, “Oh my god.” He is unbelievable on the camera—the eyes, what you see going on inside, the subtlety. Major movie star time. He really had a tremendous career ahead of him in film as an actor. Denzel Washington—that sort of potential.
Simon: When he did Juice, I remember thinking to myself before seeing the movie, “He better be good, man!” Because he represented us, you know? I knew what talent he had. I was never surprised by what he delivered.
Jaki Brown, casting director, Juice: After I cast Boyz n the Hood, I didn’t meet anymore for jobs. They’d just say, “We want you to do the movie.” Two months after Boyz n the Hood, I got a call from Ernest Dickerson, whom I didn’t know. He told me he’d been Spike Lee’s DP, and that he was going to be director of a film called Juice. He asked me to work the movie, but I told him I needed to read the script first. They sent me the script. I said, “We’re back with more boys in the hood—without being typecast.” Because New Jack City was happening at the time, and that was much more intense and much more violent. I decided to do it. They put me on a plane within a week. I’m now in New York working with two guys that have never produced a film ever: David Heyman, who went on to get the entire Harry Potter series, and Neal Moritz, who did all of the Fast & Furious franchise. Ernest’s career didn’t go how theirs did.
Khalil Kain, Juice actor, “Raheem”: David Heyman went on to executive produce the entire Harry Potter franchise. Neal Moritz did all the Fast & Furious movies and a whole bunch of other shit. This is what happened after Juice—for them.
Brown: Here I am, fresh off Boyz n the Hood. I’m in their office, we’re talking about breaking down the script, which is what you do with a director. But now I’ve got two producers who are both green. I explained to them how it goes. I get into what the director wants. His vision for the film is what I’m trying to create. I said, “You guys happen to be the producers and you want to get on board, that’s fine. But you have to be in unison about saying yes or no.”
Normally, what happens is, I have a director that I’m working with, and we love somebody, and then we have a producer who doesn’t. And if the director is strong enough or has enough of a name, they can get what they want, or the producer and the director are on board and the studio says no. I’ve had all that happen. In this particular incident, Neal and David were the final word.
Kain: When I met Pac, I was 27. I was not a kid. I grew up in New York City. My family was pretty much broke the entire time. We grew up in a cool area, though—the East Village, Lower East Side, very diverse. It was the ’80s, ’90s; there was crime, but if you knew people, you were fine. And if you grew up in New York, you were used to it. I never was that kid in school that wanted to be an actor or be on the big screen. I wasn’t necessarily ambitious. I was always being put in some program or other for gifted kids, but I still came from the street. So I never really fit in with those programs. It wasn’t something that I was really ever getting value out of. I was generally causing problems.
I went to Hunter College High School. It’s a college prep public-private school—it’s getting money from the state. But at the same time, you have to be recommended and then take a test to get in. So I was recommended by my principal because of my grades. It’s only me and this Asian kid from my school got into Hunter. Turns out we had to go to summer school that summer after sixth grade, to get us ready to go to seventh grade. Get there in September, beginning of seventh grade, and then all of a sudden I see all these kids that were not in summer school with us—all these white kids. Now I’m on some shit about why some of these kids went to Hunter elementary school so they just sort of matriculated in or whatever the fuck. Immediately my radar was up and I was talking shit. All the fucking Asian kids, and Black kids, and the Puerto Rican kids were the kids in summer school. So I asked: “Did they not take the same fucking test?” “Yes.” So what’s good?
I pretty much carried that attitude well into my 20s. So by the time I was 27, I was banging around. I’m in survival mode. I’ve done every fucking job possible. I’m popular and I’m kind of known around the city and the nightlife and whatever. I’m able to make moves and people already know who I am. But that was more from just kind of being that New York dude. There was a club in the city called the Roxy back then. It was the spot for hip-hop right when it was the jumping-off point. Afrika Bambaataa, Zulu Nation, Red Alert—all these DJs are up in there, killing it. Rock Steady Crew, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I saw Madonna perform in there. It opened as a roller disco in 1980. I was the dude back then on skates. So I ended up being there and I knew the owners from all the other clubs, so I could kind of move around. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but my name carried a little bit of weight in this town, and I understood the importance of that, the value of that.
When the opportunity came to do some acting, that was more like an opportunity to make some extra money. It wasn’t something that I was looking at as, like, “This could be it for me.” That’s the unfortunate attitude of many of my brothers and sisters. We’re not socialized to think in those terms—What’s my career gonna be? No, what’s my hustle going to be? How am I gonna pay the rent this month? How am I gonna put money in my pocket? Am I gonna be able to get some new boots for the winter? That was kind of more where my head was at.
So I was put in a place through other people’s enthusiasm. I think I booked like three national commercials back-to-back-to-back. The agency that I went through was very excited. They’re the ones who suggested, “Would you be interested in auditioning for some legit work?” I said yes. Do I know what legit work is? No. I don’t know what the fuck that means. I know what work means, and that’s what I heard. So I was like, “Yeah, I’m down.” I figured whatever comes, I can handle it.
That means auditioning for film and television—like actual roles, not commercials. Oh. I find this out. All of a sudden now I’m being sent in for movies. I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I’m very green, but I’m also honest with myself. I can understand that I don’t really feel like the response was good from that audition. So how am I going to adjust? It wasn’t about me becoming a better actor. It’s about not taking an L. I got better, the feedback started getting better. I started getting some callbacks. I got close on a couple of things.
Then Juice happened.
Brown: They said they saw the character of Bishop being a rapper. So I sent Humpty from Digital Underground the script. He said, no, he didn’t want to do it. Treach from Naughty by Nature—he was a rapper. So I called Shakim Compere, who was copartnered with Dana Owens [Queen Latifah], to find out if he’d come audition for me. I told Shakim I wouldn’t even have anybody else come in the day he comes in—just bypass all that other stuff and go right in to the director and producer.
Treach comes in. I love this guy. I mean, he’s so sweet. Under that whole hard rapper, whatever, this man-child. We spent about an hour of me coaching him, and I realized he’s not getting any better. But I didn’t want to let Treach go away feeling like I nixed him. So I told the guys I was bringing in Treach. He reads, and he’s not right. There was a day where the producers wanted me to stay and I told my staff to go home. We started at 7 a.m. sometimes, and it was maybe 3 p.m. when we quit. I told them they could go, because I’d often stay until 8 or 9 p.m. Ernest, David, and Neal went out location scouting. Gerard Brown, who was Ernest Dickerson’s writing partner, was in his office. This is back in the day before they had people do things on camera and videotape—there’s no more pictures and résumés and hard copy [today]. I’m going through dozens and dozens of pictures and résumés and trying to find that look, and who comes bouncing into my office.
This guy says, “Hi, hi, idliketoauditionforBish—”
I said, “Calm down. What do you want to do?”
“I’d like to audition for Bishop.”
I’m looking at him: He’s a slight, literally underweight-looking kid.
“What’s your name?”
“Tupac Shakur.” He said he’d read the entire script and he’d loved it. “I can play Bishop.”
I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give you some sides, which is like five pages from the script. I want you to look at it.”
He had memorized the script already.
I read him. He was amazing—amazing. He underplayed Bishop, he didn’t yell and scream and do all that stuff. Bishop being such a nasty killer, horrible person to be screaming and yelling—Tupac figured out the best way to play it was going under. He had the intense quality, but he was perfect. I went and got Gerard. I told him I wanted him to see somebody.
“I have an actor here that I think is right for Bishop.”
He walked out, looked at Tupac in my office, and said, “Where is he?”
“He’s that kid.”
He started to laugh. I said, “No, no, save it. I’m bringing him in. He’s going to read for you. I want you to see what I saw.”
Gerard saw him read. He says, “Jaki, he’s amazing. He’s perfect.”
I sent Tupac to this place that sold burgers to hang out. I told him that my director and producers would be back that afternoon and I wanted him to do a callback. The guys come back from location scouting. They went into their office—they shared an office—and I told them: “I think I have Bishop.”
“He’s that kid you passed.”
Again, they’re laughing. So I go out and I get Tupac. I read with him just as I read with everybody. I’m the casting director. He read. He read again. I sent him out, and they said, nearly in unison, “Can we tell him he has the job now?”
I brought him back in, they told him, and he grabbed me and hugged me and he’s crying.
Kain: It was an audition for a low-budget independent film. They’ve got a character breakdown. They showed Q and Raheem and Bishop and Steel. There was no delineation for the audition. They were looking for new talent. They wanted you to come in and read. They had us all reading all the characters.
It was a long process. Weeks and weeks of bringing us back. I think I came back five or six times before I booked the job. But at the same time, by the time they had the four guys to do the film, we were pretty well-versed. So not only was it an audition process, it was also a rehearsal process. They were bringing us into the room together in twos and fours. Read the scene. Switch characters. Read it again. It was hectic. They definitely put us through our paces.
I think I had somewhat of an advantage because I was older and my level of patience is better. My level of poise is better. I don’t have a problem with these adults telling you what to do. A lot of the young Black actors that they brought in were also green to taking direction and being able to make adjustments. They really weren’t able to do that.
Pac knew what an audition was. They were bringing in cats off of a look, off of the sound of their voice, the way that they walked and talked. They don’t know how to break down a script. They don’t know how to make an adjustment during an audition. Some of these motherfuckers can barely read. Pac knew how this was going to run. He knew how to start a scene, how to build it up to a crescendo and then end it correctly. How to put a button on it. He also wanted to be a movie star. He had a specific ambition. He had already recognized: “This is a role that could propel me right to where I want to be. I’ve got this album ready to go. If I had this plus that—oh, shit.” None of us knew that. Pac did, though. This is the perfect commercial to 2Pacalypse Now.
During the audition process, he wasn’t fucking around. Talk about purpose: knows what he wants and goes after it. And he doesn’t give a fuck about none of us, wasn’t impressed by nobody. I’m looking at this kid over here, and he’s flying on confidence. And his steps were correct. Like, he killed that last scene. I’m like, “Oh, shit, all right.” If you’re smart, you take a look at your environment and you quickly pick out who you need to beat. I want to win today; I need to beat this cat right here. And that’s what happened when we were in the room: I immediately identified Pac as the cat to beat. This is the dude that’s killing right now. So if I’m gonna get a job, I’m gonna have to be as good or better than this motherfucker right here.
Because he’s looking around at us like, “Y’all better come on, because I’m murdering y’all right now.” When you get a role in a movie, you don’t know what it’s going to be. We didn’t know Juice was going to be a cult fucking hit and have the sort of relevance that it does—for hip-hop culture, for urban culture, for Black culture.
I read the script. There was nothing profound about the script for Juice. It was an indie movie about this crew doing street shit. They weren’t even a gang. They were just kids, just friends. What’s so special about that? So coming on the set, I had no idea what it was going to be. And, see, that’s the difference between me and Pac.
He understood. I know what it’s going to be because it’s going to be what I make it. I was taking direction. He was like, “Let me do my shit. Get out the way.” So they were like, “All right, Pac, what do you want to do?” And he’d kill it. And they’re like, “OK, yeah, do that! That, that, that.” To have a young Black man like that, only 18 years old, confident in his ability, not believing what white society is telling him about himself, believing in his own spirit—that is fucking monumental.
Brown: I had to find out what his background was because he’d been working with Humpty and I didn’t know what he was doing. We’re in the middle of casting, and we don’t have a budget set for how much I’m paying everybody. There’s only so much I could pay. Normally it’s a minimum; at that time, let’s say weekly might have been $1,000, might be up to $3,000. So now we’re all cast. I’ve done the deal, except having done Tupac’s deal. For whatever reason, he got a lot of money. I don’t remember why, but you guys want him, he’s worth every penny. I think he made $15,000.
Kendrick Wells, friend and personal assistant to Tupac: After he cashed his Juice check, he got a little money. They paid him like 15 grand—a check for $9,000 and a check for $6,000. I remember seeing the checks. He took the money and bought a silver collection, or maybe it was gold. Someone ripped him off in Oakland at gunpoint. He got robbed a few times. People were with him, and he thought those people were just going to make it not happen. And after this time, he was like, “This is never happening again.” Only person that he trusted to protect him was him. So he started buying guns. You go over and visit him and he’d show those guns off. I’m like, What the … ? I don’t care about guns. Show me a bad bitch! In his mind, guns were going to stop people from taking advantage of him.
Kain: Pac wanted to share his prosperity, to share his upward mobility, to share his ambition with young Black males that did not understand that this was something that they already possessed. He would invite anybody into his trailer to let them know: “Look at what I got. You can have this. This is not out of your reach.” One guy went in there and stole some jewelry, some pieces, and Pac whooped his ass. I brought this chick up to the set to show off. I wasn’t even going to work that day. I just brought her up to the set to show her around and let her know that I’m a movie star and shit. I brought her up there, we round the corner up the street, and Big Stretch and Pac are fucking this kid up, like stomping him out. My girl Liz thought it was the movie, like they were shooting a scene or something. I was like, “That’s not part of the movie.”
We had a great time on the job otherwise. We played, we fought, we worked. We dug in. Everybody was fully committed. Ernest Dickerson is a marvelous human being. He helped create a safe environment for us. We didn’t feel like we were being taken advantage of. We didn’t feel like we were being overworked, underpaid, thrown around. Pac and I had a fight on set over a blanket because it was a cold day. It was some really petty, childish shit. We were walking up the street. It was a wide shot. It was setting up the shot. It was cold outside. They had blankets and they got ready to shoot. They called ready, they would take the blankets from us, then action. They called ready, took the blanket from me; Pac still has his blanket. He’s not giving up his blanket. I said something to the effect of, “Well, we can hurry up and go if Pac would give up his blanket, let’s go.” And he turned and said, “Keep my fucking name out your mouth.”
I was like, “Fuck you, I’ll say what the fuck I want.” And he was like, “Yeah, aiight, how about I fuck you up?” I’m like, “How about you do it?” And now they’re separating us. Meanwhile, we’re just cold. Now word’s going around set that Pac almost beat up Khalil. No. Khalil is a grown-ass man. I came to him, and I was like, “Yo, B, we can go right over here.” And he was like, “Man, shut the fuck up, it was my bad.”
He’s a high-character dude. Immediately said, “That was my bad, I shouldn’t have even came at you like that,” whatever. Then there was the Raheem death scene. It’s the last shot of the day. It’s the middle of the fucking night, man. We’re beat up. Now Ernest is marking his shot and Pac is like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” There was a level of intensity that needed to be there that wasn’t there. I do believe Pac had a certain amount of reservation spiritually about doing this. It’s in the script, but fuck, man, like, why is he doing this? How is he doing this? What caused him to do it? I could see he was still trying to connect the dots.
So on the next take when they yelled action and we started wrestling, I picked him up and, like, body-slammed him into the garbage cans. “Cut!” Because that’s not what was supposed to happen. Soon as they yelled “Cut,” Pac jumped up. “You motherfucker. Aiight, cool.”
I got a big smile on my face. I’m like, “Yeah.”
“I can’t wait to buss you now.”
The whole level is at a 10. You can hear a pin drop on the set. We had to get it right because there was only a certain amount of hoodies that we had that we could use the blood pack with. But we hugged after that scene. We knew it was fire.
Everybody was not ready for Tupac’s energy. Everybody could not handle that energy. For a lot of people, it was way too much. He loved and appreciated being around people who could function in that bubble. I love that about Tupac. He always kept it 100. He told you straight up. Like, “Don’t act stupid. We will fight. Wass up, bro, we fucking tonight? Yo, you want to smoke?” And he would rhyme at the drop of a hat. He would have us rolling. He was fun to be around. I feel like Pac was bipolar or something. In his own private moments, he would be very quiet and introspective, but he definitely felt like when he walked in the room people needed to know he was there. If he stepped in a space, he had to fill it with energy. But then you’re depleted, and then you have to recharge again.
Wells: Pac invited me out to New York while he was shooting Juice. I got to hang out at his trailer and see all of his costars, and I saw the transition. I saw him become Bishop. He said in a Details magazine interview that once he did Bishop, part of Bishop was always with him. And it might not be that he created it from the movie.
I think there was a part of him inside that created the character. Pac was never a villain or a mean person. His whole thing was: “You walk toward me, you’re risking your life.” But he was never saying, “I’m out to get you.” In the case of Notorious B.I.G.—sort of. He came at him lyrically. But he’s always been more about how boss ballers do. He was never aggressive going forward. He’s always just aggressive on defense.
Mark Anthony Neal, African and African American studies department chair at Duke University: The thing that really stuck out more so than the music, even 25 years later, was his acting ability, particularly his role as Bishop in Juice.
That was the moment I recognized that this is somebody that we should pay more attention to. It was an undistilled depiction of Black existentialism. The genius of pulling it off. What we see in this kind of a deep underlying rage, and even self-hatred. For someone that age to be able to play that off as an actor, to tap into this energy at such a young age, is unbelievable.
From Changes: An Oral History of Tupac by Sheldon Pearce. Copyright © 2021 by Sheldon Pearce. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.