Twenty two-year-old Jarrett Ellis will make his big screen debut this week in All Eyez on Me, a biopic of iconic rapper Tupac Shakur's "untold story" that premieres nationwide on June 16. The up-and-coming actor will be starring as legendary rapper Snoop Dogg in the new film. When I asked Ellis about his previous acting experience, he listed an elementary school production of The Three Little Pigs, plus a few "arty" student films he appeared in as favors to his classmates at Loyola Marymount University—from which he graduated less than a month ago. He's also been in the background of some music videos, including Vic Mensa's "U Mad" featuring Kanye West.
Growing up in Riverside, California—about an hour east of Los Angeles—Ellis was always far more into sports and streetwear than drama. In high school, inspired by his love of the "Jesus is My Homeboy" T-shirts, he worked on his own designs and brought them to local screen printers, launching a clothing line called Xtra Credit. That lead to a college major in Fine Arts Individualized Studies, where he created his own curriculum and explored the intersection of fashion and fine art.
His first clear connections to Snoop Dogg were starring at the raunchy cover illustration of Doggstyle as a kid, and once seeing the Pomona Steelers (a team in the Snoop Youth Football League) bus pull into a gas station.
"To me, it felt like the New England Patriots pulling up," Ellis told me, as we sat in his soon-to-be-vacated college apartment, a day before his first Hollywood premiere. "They had all this fresh gear, and I just wanted to play for them so bad. You'd hear how Snoop's really out there on the field coaching the team. He's a guy who likes to give back, and I think that's a big secret to how he got to where he's at now."
The opportunity to be in All Eyez came through a family friend who worked as an executive producer on the movie. While not quite a dead ringer, Jarrett says strangers do occasionally make the comparison, and he's had a few coaches call him Snoop based on his tall, lanky frame. Auditioning for the role was both intimidating and exhilarating. His month on set proved incredibly educational. He especially treasured the time he spent with Daz Dillinger, Snoop's cousin, producer, and frequent collaborator, who also worked closely with Tupac on some of his biggest hits. Daz was the one who let Jarrett know that Snoop himself heartily approved of both the movie and how he played him.
I caught up with Ellis to find out how he prepared for the role.
VICE: Tupac was killed when you were just two years old. Was his music and legacy a part of your life before landing this role?
Jarrett Ellis: My dad's from Los Angeles, so he's a big Snoop Dog, Tupac, West Coast rap guy. I grew up around that music, but I never really understood the message behind Tupac because I was so young. It wasn't until I went to college, and wrote a paper for my African American studies class on him, that I learned his mother was a Black Panther, and her whole life story. And that he went to art school. Which definitely got me thinking that if Thug Life can go to art school, maybe I can be an artist, too.
How do you think people in your generation perceive Tupac?
There's a kind of surface-level understanding of him as just a hard-core gangster. But there were so many different sides to this one individual. That's something I learned from researching his life and being on set. For instance, his poetry, his politics, how many different kinds of music he was into, and his good nature. Because of the way he went out—by the gun—a lot of times people think that's how he lived all the time. But there's a lot more to him. And I know for sure that portraying his complexity is one of the main goals of the directors and producers of the film.
What about Snoop? He's been famous for your entire life.
When I first found out I was going to play this role, I immediately thought of Snoop Dogg now. The guy I watch cooking on TV with Martha Stewart. And wondered how I could possibly play this larger-than-life legend who's been through it all and come out on top. Because that's really how people my age see him: Uncle Snoop. But when I started doing my research and saw the way he carried himself back in the 90s, I realized how much he's transformed—even though he's still the same person now, with the same spirit.
Aside from reading the script, what source material did you use to inform your portrayal?
When I did my preparation for the audition, I was still enrolled in college, but the only acting class I'd ever taken was Voice for Stage. So I emailed literally every professor in the Theater Department. Copy and pasted them the same letter, explaining that I got this opportunity and asked to come in during office hours and get some advice. And one of those professors invited me to lunch in the cafeteria, where he broke it down and told me I had to learn everything possible thing about Snoop. He said to take on my character study like it was an in-depth research paper.
How did you do that?
I just dug in and tried to find every piece of material related to him from that era. The most useful stuff was actually old amateur videos of him posted to Youtube. Hidden gems, with like 3,000 views, of Snoop on the tour bus or whatever reacting to people. I got to watch him in his twenties, just having fun, And then there's the movie Baby Boy from that era. Snoop plays a super hardcore Crip about to get out of jail. He's the bad guy. And that's exactly what I needed to see. Because I'm not a street kid. I didn't come up that way. So I watched Baby Boy probably five hundred times, trying to lock in to the part of him that was a real gangster, who really went on trial for murder. And I also watched a few more recent videos where he talked about his relationship with Tupac and tried to understand their dynamic.
What was your first day on set like?
When I got cast for the role, I had full on dreadlocks. So naturally I agreed to let them take my dreads out, only they were too locked in. They had to call in a special "loctician" to do it, which is really what they call them. It took 16 hours straight of her picking out my hair. I had my first scene the next day. So I was tired as shit when I got to set, and then they're doing my make-up and picking out my Afro.
When did you meet Daz?
Daz and Snoop's Dad were the first people I ran into after I got my hair picked out. Right when I saw them, it hit me like, oh shit, I gotta go out there and be Snoop. That was also my first chance to ask Daz to just give me everything, any little notes, or a certain way Snoop had of moving—his mannerisms. I asked what he was going through back then, and how he carried himself, and Poppa Snoop broke it down for me. He told me how Snoop and Tupac would get together and make five songs in a day. He really stressed their work ethic, but also their energy and enthusiasm.
What was the first scene like?
The first one I filmed was in the recording studio. For me, that was really the first time in my life I was truly acting. I remember after the scene, Daz came up and said, "Damn, that really brought me back to my younger days." And then when Snoop's Dad approved, I was truly happy. From then on, it was just boom, boom, boom. One time, the director asked me to add a bunch of dialogue to a scene. I stayed up all night practicing my two lines and now he wanted a lot more new stuff. It was frightening, but then I discovered that I had just kind of internalized Snoop, and I could simply let him speak through me. I think I said cuz about five hundred times that month.
Playing Snoop, you've got to assume your character is pretty stoned a lot of the time. Was that part of your prep?
Well, back in my college days, I definitely dabbled in some weed.
Your college days?! You graduated literally two weeks ago…
Well, yeah. Anyway, I got my medical card in California, and I looked up some of his favorite strains to smoke and tried them while I rehearsed my lines. Strictly for research purposes, of course.
All Eyez on Me is in theaters. For more info, visit the film's website.
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See more photos by Nathanael at his website.