Interview | Corey Hawkins on Straight Outta Compton and Kong: Skull Island

It’s a very good time to be Corey Hawkins. The star of Straight Outta Compton is currently enjoying a tidal wave of good will, in the form of awards nominations and new roles in films like the upcoming fantasy adventure Kong: Skull Island. And it’s partly because F. Gary Gray’s biopic about the influential rap group N.W.A. is one of the most acclaimed and popular films of 2015, and it’s partly because Hawkins is just that good in his role as music legend Dr. Dre.

Two weeks ago we got on the phone with Corey Hawkins to talk about Straight Outta Compton, which premieres on home video today. It was shortly after his film started receiving guild awards nominations in the run up to the Academy Awards (where it was only recognized in one category, for Best Original Screenplay). We spoke about connecting with the real-life Dr. Dre, performing N.W.A. songs with his co-stars, and what we can expect from the mysterious King Kong reboot when it debuts in 2017.

Read on…

Corey Hawkins Straight Outta Compton

Universal Pictures

Related: #OscarsSoWhite | Academy Award-Worthy Actors of Color from 2015

Crave: You must be having a great time lately. You’ve got a SAG Award nomination, an Image Award nomination, the Oscars are coming up… how does that feel?

Corey Hawkins: [Laughs.] It feels great! It feels good. It feels really good to be counted among your peers and to know that people value the work, the hard work that we put into this movie and the time we put in and the responsibility that we gave the movie and took on. So it feels good. It feels really, really good.

I mean, I don’t know. It’s always weird when it comes to awards and awards season because, how can you say that this performance is better than this performance? Art is so subjective. So just to be nominated and just to be even talked about in contention with other films that were made this year… I mean, it’s a really great feeling.

If the whole competition aspect feels weird to you, you could always be one of those actors who refuses the award.

[Laughs.] That is true. That is true. But it does feel good to have it on the mantle, though, I will say. It does feel good. But that’s the thing, I mean, some people… it feels good because of certain people sort of validating your work, and it doesn’t invalidate – I think that’s the word – the other work [of] the other people who were nominated, and it doesn’t take anything away from them as well. I just feel blessed to be in the conversation.

“We weren’t trying to make it something that it wasn’t. It was just what it was, and that’s what art should be.”

Straight Outta Compton was a bigger hit than anyone on the outside ever anticipated. Was there a moment before it came out when you wondered if it would find an audience? Did doubt creep in at some point?

Uh, every day? I mean, I don’t know what to say about that. It was like every single day we came to set we were operating from the mindset of, we have to tell this story and we have to tell it right. So we didn’t say, “Okay, audiences are going to love this” or “Audiences are going to hate that and this and that,” we just wanted the story to be honest.

And when you come from an honest perspective and an honest place you can’t really go wrong, and if you ask the people who were there, helping to tell the story and also helping to check each other… you know? Because if something wasn’t right, the other member of the group was going to be like, “Well, it didn’t actually happen like that.” You know what I mean? Both conversations were happening, positively, on set every single day, and we were involved in those conversations when it came to the script and all of those things.

When it came to whether or not the audiences would like it, it felt like we were making a little indie film. Even though I know it seems sort of weird to say that, it felt like [it.] We didn’t have a huge, huge budget but we had a sizable one and it felt like we had to make decisions, we to be smart about the script. But we were all on the same page and we collaborated on it, and I think that’s what the audience felt. That honesty, and that we weren’t trying to make it something that it wasn’t. It was just what it was, and that’s what art should be.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

What is it like playing a person who is also a producer? Can you just call Dre up at any time and ask, “What’s my motivation?”

[Laughs.] I can! I just hit him up yesterday and congratulated him on the PGA nomination, because he’s now a producer. He’s in the Producers Guild. But I didn’t have to call him up because he was on set every day. And also prior to the film I was calling him up. I was probably annoying him a lot more, but like, he’d be like, “Call me on the house phone. We’ll be here at this time,” and then we’d just talk for hours. Hours and hours, and we would talk about his life during the N.W.A. years, before the N.W.A. years, post-N.W.A. years, his life now.

Like, I got to pick the mind of a genius and I realized why he was a genius. And I realized the man behind the veil, or whatever you want to call it, do you know what I mean? I got to see what makes Dr. Dre Dr. Dre, and I got to interpret that. It’s hard to put it into words so the only thing I know how to do is put it on the screen. It’s something about him. It’s behind the eyes. He’s quiet. A thinker. He plays chess, and that’s how he deals with life, you know?

Did you play chess with Dr. Dre?

No, no, no, I meant that’s how he looks at life. You know? That’s how he kind of goes about it.

“I want to know the pain that [Dr. Dre] is going through. I want to know what he’s feeling without him having to even speak.”

Dr. Dre’s life hasn’t always been sunshine and roses. When you’re talking to a person about playing them, how do you get them to open up about the darker, stickier corners of their subconscious?

That was easy. That was easy. He was more than willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about, and we did, and we talked about a lot of things that I wouldn’t share, that didn’t necessarily have to do with… that wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

But even the stuff that wasn’t all sunshine and roses that was in the movie, we talked about, and sometimes I think people thought, or I even thought it would be difficult. How am I going to broach this topic or talk about this, talk about that, and he made it easy. You know? He’s a human being and he was a growing boy, do you know what I mean? He was a young man, really early, and we all make mistakes.

The only thing that I know how to do as an actor, as a trained actor, is you can’t villainize the character you’re playing. Whether it’s a fictional character or a real character. Because then you operate from that sort of negative point of view and you can’t humanize him. And that was the whole point, was to humanize Dre and just get behind… yeah, we know the accolades, we know all this, we know all that, but I want to know the pain that he’s going through. I want to know what he’s feeling without him having to even speak.

And that was a lot of it, was just him watching him. Because he’s a watcher. He likes to sit back and observe, and when he does it, when he does whatever he plans to do, he does it well and he goes full at it. And I respect him. So that was the challenge, was just kind of navigating that.

Straight Outta Compton Jason Mitchell Corey Hawkins O'Shea Jackson

Universal Pictures

Can you tell me about the performances, as N.W.A., that you had to do in the film? Playing to a crowd, does that feel like live theater or is that an entirely different beast?

Oh man, we felt like rock stars. I felt like a rock star. I’ve never experienced that in my life. I grew up singing, and I played on Broadway to thousands of people, you know what I mean? Live [performance], you can’t go back, you can’t cut, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.

And even though we were making a movie, we still had to perform. We had to get up on that stage and make those people, those fans, those hardcore – 2014 at the time – those fans, we had to make them believe that we were back in the early 90s, N.W.A. And they did. They bought it. That’s thing, when you see their reactions in the movie, we were performing for them when the cameras weren’t rolling. We were just having a good time.

We had to re-record the album. They would send the tracks that we just recorded… We would be in the studio all day long […] and Dub-C, who was our performance coach, he gets so much of the credit because he was there when it was happening. So they would send the tracks to Dre and Cube, and Dre and Cube would send them back to us with notes. [Laughs.] And we would redo them and we would be in the studio getting on each other, like, “Listen, if it ain’t right” like I say in the movie, “It’s not making the album.”

And that’s how it was in the studio. We would argue, we would fight, we would laugh, we would play, we would joke around, and that’s the sort of energy that would transfer onto the live stage because we felt like a group by the time we got there. You know? And we had each other’s backs.

“We were performing for them when the cameras weren’t rolling. We were just having a good time.”

Now I know you can’t talk too much about it, but have you started shooting Kong: Skull Island yet? 

Yes.

Okay. Have you met King Kong, and if so, what is he like?

[Laughs.] I can’t! I can’t say anything about that. I mean, I will say that it’s different from anything you’ve seen, and it’s such a good cast. It’s such an unbelievably good cast! I mean, when you think about it… Sam Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Jason Mitchell, Jon Ortiz, it just goes on and on and on.

All I’ll say is that this movie is going to be something that I think a lot of people… it’s going to be special. It’s just going to be special and it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to take you back to sort of old filmmaking era, you know? That’s what it feels like making this movie. I mean we’re shooting at all these different locations. We’re stealing a little shooting right now. It’s going to be a wild, wild ride, and I love my character. I love my character.

Top Photo: JB Lacroix / Getty Images North America

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.