NEW YORK — If you think Demetrius Shipp Jr. is the spitting image of Tupac Shakur, you're far from the first to say so.
"It's every day at this point, everywhere I go," Shipp says. While no conspiracy theorists have ever mistaken him for the late rapper, people often joke about it: "Like, 'I knew he was alive!' "
Shipp, 28, is making his film acting debut as 2Pac in All Eyez on Me (in theaters Friday, which would have been Shakur's 46th birthday). The sprawling biopic, which is projected to debut with $20 million at the box office, is named for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's fourth and final album released before his still-unsolved murder in 1996 at age 25. It paints a detailed picture of the hip-hop star's life, from his Harlem upbringing by Black Panther activist parents to his formative years in Oakland, Calif., where he got his start performing with the group Digital Underground.
Familiar faces such as the Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard), Dr. Dre (Harold Moore), Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) and Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis) dot his meteoric rise, which is punctuated by dizzying highs (No. 1 singles How Do U Want It and California Love) and lows (a nine-month prison stint in 1995 after being found guilty of sexual abuse).
Born and raised in Carson, Calif., Shipp never dreamed of becoming an actor. His acting debut was in a sixth-grade Christmas play, as a comic-relief character named Bubblegum Bart. "I stole the show then, to be honest," he says. "I don't even know how I got put in that. It was just like, 'Hey, do you wanna do this?' And I was like, 'Whatever.' "
Shipp was working at a 24 Hour Fitness when an online casting call went out for Eyez in 2011. He submitted an audition tape at the behest of his cousin, who saw the uncanny resemblance to Shakur, which was later brought to movie producer L.T. Hutton by his father, Demetrius Shipp Sr. His dad had worked with Hutton at Death Row Records in the late '90s and produced 2Pac's single Toss It Up.
Meeting Shipp for the first time, "it was like, 'Lo and behold, it's 2Pac,' " Hutton says. Beyond the physical similarities,"his spirit and the human being inside is what ultimately landed him the role. The kid's a natural, in every sense of the word. He was born to play this."
To prepare, Shipp spent months immersing himself in 2Pac music videos and interviews, recording tapes of himself mimicking Shakur's voice and mannerisms. He worked with a vocal coach for scenes of Tupac performing, which use a mix of his own vocals and lip-syncing to 2Pac recordings. He also read Shakespeare plays and poetry books that Shakur studied at the Baltimore School for the Arts, a public arts high school.
"He’s a layered person, so you have to tackle all the aspects of Tupac individually," Shipp says. "The people who worked and grew up with him all said the same thing: Tupac worked like there was a clock in his head. He knew he didn’t have enough time and was always just going."
The most challenging part for the novice actor was the physical transformation, which sometimes included two hours in the makeup chair having nearly two dozen fake tattoos applied to his torso. He lost 10 pounds and worked out vigorously to achieve Shakur's chiseled physique, eating six small meals a day that consisted primarily of protein shakes.
What you see onscreen is the product of "a lot of hard work and a mean diet — it ain't no joke," Shipp says. "I had to do my best to not indulge in Reese's and chocolate-chip cookies."
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