In the new Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me,” actor Dominic L. Santana takes on the biggest role of his young career as music producer and co-founder of Death Row Records Suge Knight. The film covers the life and untimely death of Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), from his rise to fame in the early 1990s to his career in the rap game with the controversial record company Knight helped create, which included artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
During an interview with me, Santana, who is half Puerto Rican, talked about getting to the truth behind the personal and professional relationship between Shakur and Knight, and how he was able to humanize such a complex character. He also discussed the influence of Shakur’s music and other Death Row rappers had on him growing up on the West Coast, and what he would like to ask Knight if given the chance to meet him one day.
What was it like when you found out you’d be part of this film and play Suge Knight?
It was surreal. I thought, “Is this really gonna happen?” I ended up being a part of it and got to see how much love and care and professionalism went into the film. Tupac is more than just a rapper. We didn’t come at it like that. We didn’t treat it like that. We came to the movie and Tupac with much respect. I can’t believe it’s here now for the world to see.
It’s been reported that Suge wasn’t very happy with the way he was portrayed in the film “Straight Outta Compton.” Did you think about that at all? Did you feel any pressure?
I went into it comfortably. The attitude of the producers and the director was that it would be fair and there wasn’t going to be any sugarcoating. We weren’t going to purposefully make someone look worse than they really are. It was going to be the truth—whether it was an ugly truth or a beautiful truth. L.T. [Hutton], who is the main producer of the film, started at Death Row. He was friends with Suge then and he knows Suge now. He let Suge know what was going on and how he was going at it. When Suge found out it was L.T. who was making the film, he was cool with it from that point on. That’s the difference between your enemy making a film about you and someone you’re cool with.
In other films, Suge is portrayed as the the villain. Do you think “All Eyez on Me” does that?
It’s not aimed at him as being the villain. Now, does he do some villainous things in this movie? Yeah, but you can’t deny that those things happened. But it was a fair balance. He was humanized. They didn’t do that in other films. In this one, he is a human being. He has some bad sides and some good sides. You get to see a wider range of Suge and a more purposeful version of Suge. Yes, there are some crazy things that happened, but some of those things you can relate to.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?
The first thing I did was look up old videos—the ones people are familiar with. Then, I really dug deep to find obscure, candid videos of Suge and Pac interacting at clubs or behind the scenes at music videos and stuff like that. I wanted to see that relationship when they didn’t know the camera was on them. I wanted to see that brotherly love they obviously had. I studied Suge’s face just to get the mannerisms and little nuances. I’m big on details when I’m playing a character. Then, having some of the guys from Death Row [on the set] like L.T. and [Young] Nobel that could tell me stories and things I could use to build up the personality of Suge in my mind helped.
I know you didn’t get a chance to meet Suge, but if you did, what do you think you would’ve asked him?
Oh, man, I have a million questions I’d like to ask him. I think the first thing I would ask him is to describe what was his relationship was like with Tupac outside of the music, money and fame—just him as a man and Tupac as a man.
How did Tupac’s music and West Coast rap influence you as a kid growing up, if at all?
Some of my most formative years were spent listening to Tupac. I’m originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina. When I was a kid, my mom remarried and we moved out west. It was at the time when Death Row was just hitting its prime and was exploding and ruling the music scene on the West Coast. That’s all we heard out there—Death Row and West Coast artists. That’s what I was listening to—Snoop, Pac, Dre, all those guys. These are guys that I still listen to today. I loved East Coast music as well, but I think it was a time in my life when certain things just stuck with me forever. West Coast rap really stuck with me and has always been my favorite.
Is there a specific message you want audiences to take from this movie?
There are a lot of jewels that drop in this film. There are a lot of things you can take from it. If you’re already a Tupac fan, you’re going to love him even more and you’re going learn a lot more about him as a person. If you don’t know who Tupac is, then this is a great introduction to him. I’m sure you’ll be a fan after you come out of the movie theater.
What part of your Puerto Rican heritage do you feel closest to?
Latinos are all about the tribe and taking care of each other and brotherhood. In the Puerto Rican culture, you don’t have to know each other and you could walk up to someone on the street and go, “Hey, what’s your last name,” and suddenly you’re family. I don’t think that kind of togetherness is that common in mainstream America.
You’re fairly new to Hollywood. What do you ultimately want to get out of this career? Are there specific goals you have set for yourself already?
I’m a writer and producer as well as an actor. Ultimately, what I want to do is bring forth my vision. When you write a film and sell it, people can come in and change it and do whatever they want. One of my biggest dreams is to star in a movie that I wrote, directed and produced. That’s a tall order to take on. Right now, I want to do more films and other projects and then bring it back around when I feel like I’m ready. I want to do it right because it’ll probably be only once or twice I’ll get to do that in my life.