Ice father, Ice son: Cubes go ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

O’Shea Jackson Jr. strolls into a suite inside Detroit’s MGM Grand Casino and Hotel, a vintage black and silver Los Angeles Kings cap resting atop his head — the kind his father, legendary rapper and actor Ice Cube, made famous in the late 1980s as a member of the incendiary rap group N.W.A.

With his large grin and stubbly face, Jackson every bit resembles his dad. When he speaks, his words spilling out in a long, slow drawl, he even sounds like Cube.

When it came time to tell the story of N.W.A., Jackson knew there was only one person who could play the original O’Shea Jackson on screen: himself.

“I started to imagine myself in the theater, l watching someone else portray my father, and me not being satisfied,” says Jackson, 24. “I couldn’t have that.”

So he went to work. He went to auditions, he went to callbacks and he studied with three different acting coaches. He flew across the country several times to take meetings. And after two years, he finally earned the role of his lifetime: playing his father in “Straight Outta Compton,” which opens Friday.

He had a leg up on the competition, of course: Cube is an executive producer of the film, which is directed by Cube’s longtime collaborator F. Gary Gray. Gray and Cube have been working together since the early 1990s, and Gray was behind the camera on Cube’s 1995 comedic breakthrough, “Friday.”

Cube is the one who first encouraged his son to pursue the role, but he wasn’t going to just hand it to him. He wanted him to earn it.

“The coach’s son’s always got it the hardest,” says Cube, seated next to his son last month at the MGM, his eyes obscured behind a pair of sunglasses. They’re both in town promoting the film, along with director Gray, and the previous night they screened the film to a packed crowd that cheered Jackson’s performance as Cube.

The rapper says he knew his son was serious about the role after he made the commitment to study with several acting coaches and kept his appointments, rather than blowing them off.

“Once I knew he was serious, it was about convincing the financiers, and even Gary. I had to convince him Shea was gonna be great,” Cube says. “I told him, ‘He’s going to do everything you ask him to do, and he’s going to have my help in any way, and he’s gonna deliver. Don’t worry about it, he’s gonna deliver.’”

He delivers. Jackson’s performance as Cube — who rose to fame with N.W.A. and broke down doors for West Coast rap later defecting from the group over money issues before graduating to a hugely successful solo career — is the film’s strongest, and Jackson nails not only Cube’s physicality but his presence and inner fire.

It’s a role he’s been training for his whole life. Jackson was born in 1991, a year after Cube left N.W.A. and released his debut solo album, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.” By age 2, he was on tour with his father and would run out on stage when dad would play “Wicked.” At the time, Cube was one of the biggest gangsta rappers in the world, and his words hit like bullets for millions of fans.

Cube always shared his art with his children — Jackson is the oldest of four — and used it as a teaching tool about the world around them.

“I’ve always exposed my kids to what I do,” Cube says. “I haven’t shied away. Even the hard stuff, at appropriate ages, I would let them dibble and dabble, and be right there to let them know what the deal was and to let them know what it’s really about.”

Jackson always knew his father was famous, but it wasn’t until he was 18 years old that he learned how important Cube was to the culture.

“That’s when I realized what it meant for him to be Ice Cube,” Jackson says. “He impacts people’s lives. That’s a real thing; he touches people from all crosses of the globe. I was speaking to people in Australia, in Japan, about what he meant to them. I had a man tell me he was in the streets, doing dirt, and listening to my father helped him become a doctor. That’s when I really started to get it.”

Jackson layered that knowledge into his performance, and Cube — who could have cast his son in any number of previous films but didn’t — trusted him with his legacy.

“This was a great opportunity, a great launching pad, like I had in my career,” says Cube, 46. “ ‘Boyz N the Hood’ was a great movie to be my first movie. I wasn’t some little side role. And I thought this was the perfect opportunity for Shea to not only come in the business the right way, but to carry a movie. And if he works hard, it will lead to bigger and better things.”

Jackson says he hopes the role leads to more work and is the beginning of a fruitful Hollywood career. Either way, he has made his father proud, and the two make a dynamic team.

“No pun intended, but I’ve got the coolest dad in the world,” Jackson says. “When you get the two of us together, it’s the world that needs help.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

‘Straight Outta Compton’

Rated R

Running time:

150 minutes

Opens Friday