At 28 and 26 years old, respectively, actors Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins were practically in diapers during the prime years when Compton's revolutionary rap crew, N.W.A, were dropping knowledge and re-inventing hip-hop. But that didn't stop the actors from taking on the roles of two of hip-hop's most enigmatic legends, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, in the group's upcoming biopic, Straight Outta Compton. The relatively fresh faces—Mitchell a NOLA native with five years in the business, Hawkins a Juilliard grad with a Broadway debut under his belt—have thus far been known for minor supporting roles. But that's all about to change come Aug. 14 when Straight Outta Compton finally hits theaters.

Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright were both pivotal members of N.W.A  and, thus, are key figures in the film. Tackling the rise and fall of the group, the flick humanizes Dre, Eazy, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella beyond their gangsta rap personas. Yes, there are obviously low riders, 40s and half-naked groupies; it wouldn't be an N.W.A movie if there weren't. But the audience also sees moments of unbridled brotherhood, like when Dre copes with his younger brother's death or Eazy reacts to the HIV diagnosis that would claim his life by 1995. Executed with bravado and honesty, it wouldn't be a stretch to deem this film Mitchell and Hawkins' ever-so-cliche "big break."

Ahead of its nationwide release this Friday, XXL caught up with both men to learn how they prepared for their roles, what advice they received on playing rap legends,\ and how Straight Outta Compton still lives on in the context of today's hip-hop culture. —Sidney Madden

Ed. Note: For more coverage of Straight Outta Compton, check out our interviews with director F. Gary Gray, DJ Yella and Eazy-E's daughter E.B. Wright.

Corey Hawkins, who plays Dr. Dre (Getty Images)

Universal Pictures And Legendary Pictures' Premiere Of "Straight Outta Compton" - Arrivals

XXL: Were you a fan of N.W.A growing up?
Corey Hawkins: Yeah, I mean I grew up listening to them. I was born around the time that they were making the album, but you know, my family had the vinyls and we always listened to it and I was definitely a fan before I even heard the film was being made. Obviously, I’m a fan of Cube, a fan of Dre and so it was always sort of a part of me growing up, because you know, in talking about Compton, they’re talking about D.C., where I’m from. They’re talking about New York, they’re talking about L.A., Chicago, so these issues have always kind of been a part of who I am.

One of the themes in the movie that stands out is the police brutality and how N.W.A reacts to it. And that anger, that oppression is something that’s still felt today.
Exactly. I mean, it’s kind of scary almost that these issues are reflecting. This film reflects on a bygone time, but if you think about it, it’s not a bygone time. It’s a really dynamic situation and I think the film opens up that conversation, and I think that’s what they were trying to do. And they were just being honest and they were talking about reality. They called it reality raps before the media labeled it gangsta rap. A lot of the scenes with the police and those situations were scary because we would shoot them and then go home and turn on the news and something else happened. Nothing’s changed. O'Shea [Jackson] always says, “The only thing different is the calendar and the technology,” because now we have social media to see all this stuff real time. That’s a great quote. These things are still around, still pertinent.

In the movie, we shot a montage of the L.A. riots. I remember they shut down Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, a huge stretch of the boulevard. And we had to recreate the riots that happened after Rodney King. And when I went home after, that’s when Ferguson happened. And it was almost eerie. And it’s really sad, but it’s about accountability. It’s about educating ourselves as to what our rights are as people and then also just holding authority and police accountable for what they do and they say. And I think it’s up to police to hold each other accountable, too. Because they weren’t rapping about all police, just about the bad ones. It’s funny because my mom is a cop.

Oh, really?
Yeah, but she has a program where she and her partner volunteer in D.C.—which we used to call District of Crimes back in the day—but it’s gotten a lot better thanks to people actually getting out into the communities and reaching out and giving kids a place to go and something to do. She’s part of program called Friday Nights Out, where it’s an impromptu thing where the police force brings a stage and give a chance for kids to get on stage and local artists to rap and sing and paint and create.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Favorite scene would have to be Detroit. [Laughs]

The concert?
Yeah, because the energy was just crazy that day. The big production. We had 3,000 extras. We had the fans coming out and a lot of them weren't being paid to do it, they were there just because they wanted to be a part of history. We're making history about a group who made history, you know? [Director F.] Gary [Gray] always said that to us and he always kept that at the front of our minds. That was probably my favorite scene.

Dr. Dre was heavily involved in making this film. Playing a hip-hop icon, that's a lot to fall on your shoulders.
Yeah, that's an understatement. [Laughs] Dre was like, from the very beginning he was there. From the first time we had dinner at Katana, we sat down, had a private room, it was me, Gary, Dre and friends. We didn't even talk about the movie, we just kicked it. And I mean, it was nerve-wracking for me, because I'm sitting across the table from Dre. And he's not always in the public eye a lot, so this movie was really going to define the humanity in him and [allow people to] just learn about the man, or at least about the young boy growing up, because that's where you can learn from, seeing the good, the bad [and] the ugly, you know. And also the greatness, the discipline, his laser focus. He is iconic and he always operated from honesty and truth. He's sonically just a genius, obviously.

But yeah, every day he was on set and when he wasn't on set, say it's four in the morning and I have a question about something, I could pick up my iPhone and call him and just sit there and hash it out about what was going through his mind at the time. And a lot of it for me was staying one step ahead. Sort of [like] playing chess. 'Cause that's true of all of them. Cube, Eazy, Yella and Ren, they were always playing chess. And it wasn't about shying away from heat, but a lot of the performance was about subduing it and keeping [things] simple and truthful and honest. It's not a fancy role, it's an honest role.

Is there one piece of advice that Dre gave you that really stuck with you?
The first thing was, he was like, "I'm not interested in an impersonation. They could easily find somebody who looks just like me and sounds like me. That's easy to do. But the easy stuff, we're not interested in that. I just want you to capture what N.W.A represented at the time." And it was something I don't even think they knew at the time, until they knew. And then they put their foot on the gas even harder with it.

What was the first hip-hop album you ever bought?
Oh my goodness. First hip-hop album... To be honest—like, this is no bull—I had the N.W.A vinyls in the house and it would always be playing when I was in middle school. And I'm a fan of old classic Motown stuff, so we always had the record player going. So I had the Straight Outta Compton joint, The Chronic. I remember we had those. I couldn't buy any of them at the time, personally. We were all just fans of music in general, so anything that was honest and dope and sounded different, we were fans.

Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy-E (Getty Images)


XXL: Were you a fan of N.W.A growing up?
Jason Mitchell: Oh yeah. I was a huge Bone Thugs fan. N.W.A was a little bit before my time so I had to look back a little, do a little homework. But I was definitely an Ice Cube fan, a Dre fan; how could you not be, right?

How does it feel being part of this moment in hip-hop history?
The history, to be honest, it’s the best part, because I think when we’re dead and gone, like 100 years from now, they should look back and still be like, "These guys really took their art and put it in a time capsule." It’s a history that’s incredible, you know what I mean? It’s far better if you read the book. It’s going to be history on so many different levels, not just hip-hop history. So I think I have a lot of things to look forward to when it comes to that part of it.

And you had a key role in the film. Eazy-E did everything—he was comic relief, he had a heart-wrenching scene when he learned of his HIV diagnosis. How did you attack that audition to set yourself apart?
To be honest, just [went] in there and let it all hang out. I cried in the audition. I actually booked the role over Skype and I cried when we Skyped it. [Laughs] I really just let it all hang out. I went through all the emotions. The way I envision myself when I do self takes and stuff like that is I try to create this whole world around me and pretend that the camera's just in on my close up right now. I did all my homework I could possibly do going into it to give the scene every layer it needed and then just [went] in there and let it all hang out.

What was it like playing a character you could never actually consult for advice? You had to prep for Eazy but you couldn’t actually ask Eazy, unlike the other actors.
Of course, I had to do a lot more research. But at the end of the day, how I attacked it was just to recreate an opinion for how I think Eazy would’ve felt in some of these situations. When you the guy who’s putting up all the money, how you going to [react] when these guys are saying, “Oh, you eating steak and lobster”? Well, yeah, 'cause you didn’t have any money to start this off with. Where would we all be? There were a lot of things; I took interviews and old movies. And you know, F. Gary Gray is just so on point. So, so on point that he was helping me just stay focused, just giving me a bunch of ways that I didn't have to do anything but take direction for, if that makes sense. I just had to come in and execute the way he told me to execute, you know what I'm saying? I did the homework and I figure I got a pretty decent outcome.

One of the best scenes was when Eazy learned of his diagnosis—you felt that with him on screen. What was your favorite scene to shoot?
That actually was one of them because it was very therapeutic, you know what I mean? As men, we don't really show our feelings and hold each other. We don't do all that. And we don't cry to the point where we're all just letting it all out. But afterwards, I felt incredible. We actually did that whole thing in three takes. I was there on the first take. Normally we do 20 takes, but with that, we really got it out really quick and that was all because, I would just have to say, Gary made us feel safe. He gave us that environment to work in. Also, the Detroit scene, that was crazy; 3,700 extras cheering, you really feel like a rapper. Oh my God. There was just some days that was electric. We had Compton just coming out to support us on everything, you know, it was great. It was really great, really good vibes.

One of the underlying themes in the film is police brutality, which is what N.W.A was fighting back in the day. How do you think Straight Outta Compton will fit into the conversation surrounding police brutality today?
To be honest, I think it's exactly where it [was] at when Straight Outta Compton came out. And it's kinda sad to look at it like that, but not much has changed. Not much has changed at all. But I think with this film, it will allow people to... It gets to a point where everything comes to a head, you know? And that's how you get the riots and stuff like that. But frankly, I'm over the rioting. I don't think it helps. I think it allows people to leave themselves vulnerable instead of mobilizing, which is what you have to do as a person in general. I think a lot of people have to be smart and learn how to protect themselves without being violent. And that's exactly what we're doing with this. We're protecting ourselves but we're not being violent. That's what Compton did.

We just want to break up the conversation and have people start really talking about it. And I know it's uncomfortable. Everybody's uncomfortable. I'm sure White people are just as uncomfortable as Black people. I'm sure the police are just as uncomfortable as well as the people getting beat or whatever it may be. But it's an elephant in the room, so we have to talk about it as a people. We have to get better as a people, you know? So this is beginning.

What was the first hip-hop album you ever bought?
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin' On Ah Come Up. Yup. That was the joint among other albums. Sorry, Mom.