The beloved 1992 street drama Juice was a collision of first-time film talents. It was the directorial debut of Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee’s longtime director of photography. It was the feature film debut of Omar Epps, who starred as Q, an aspiring DJ lured into a life of crime. And it was the first screen acting gig for rapper Tupac Shakur (not counting a cameo as part of Digital Underground in 1991’s Nothing but Trouble), who delivered an explosive, scene-stealing performance as the hot-tempered, trigger-happy Bishop.
During a recent visit to Yahoo Studios to promote his new thriller Traffik, Epps reminisced about his scene partner Pac, who was killed in 1995 at the age of 25 in a still-unsolved murder.
“Tupac was one of those larger-than-life characters in real life,” said Epps, now 44 (watch above). “He just had a magnetic presence. And he was an amazing actor. He had chops.
“What I enjoyed about him was he was super smart. Way more book-read than what people knew. … You could feel his artistry. He just had this energy on him that was just bubbling. It was like, ‘Man, this guy is gonna go somewhere.'”
The performances of Epps (who felt “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but focused” in his debut) and Shakur are so seamless that you would never know the acting ingenues were improvising. “We basically ad-libbed the whole movie, literally” Epps revealed. “Because the original screenplay that they wrote, those guys were a little older, so some of the verbiage was, ‘Hey, jive turkey!’”
Speaking of writing, Shakur, who was recording his first album (2Pacalypse Now) as they were in production, was drawing inspiration for it throughout filming.
“We get to set one morning, and we’re reading the papers. A woman had thrown a baby in the trash, which is horrible, right? So Pac was just so bothered by that, and by lunchtime, he was like, ‘Hey, come in the trailer.’ He starts rapping this song, and I’m listening, and I’m like, ‘All right, that’s cool.’ And a couple months later ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ comes out.” The heartbreaking track eventually climbing to No. 7 on Billboard‘s rap charts, marking the first of many hits to come for Shakur.