BACKSTORY: Auditioned for the role of Tupac Shakur in 2011 while working odd jobs (including installing satellite dishes for Dish Network), and despite having no real acting experience or even ambitions of becoming an actor, he got the part—over four years later
FROM: Carson, California
YOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: Probably nowhere—yet—though his uncanny resemblance to Tupac might convince you otherwise
NOW: Leading Benny Boom’s biopic All Eyez on Me and running his own record label, Push the Line
Demetrius Shipp Jr. must have a great memory.
At least, that’s how it seems as he rattles off ostensibly trivial dates marking his journey from cable guy to starring at Tupac Shakur in All Eyez on Me, the long-in-production film about the life (and death) of the iconic emcee.
“I was a candidate since 2011. I was officially cast twelve days before pre-production—November 18, [2015,]” he remembers, as if he’s charting the time on a calendar. “We began filming in December, 2015. The majority of it we filmed in Atlanta, and we finished up on February 28, . We took a month off…and finished up completely in April—April 17—after the last three days of filming in Las Vegas.”
Dig a little deeper, and you realize there are coincidences: the twenty-eight-year-old Shipp’s birthday is November 20, two days after he was cast as Shakur—a date he won’t soon forget. And then there’s fate: Shipp’s father was a regular at Death Row Records and knew Tupac; he worked on production for “Toss It Up,” from Shakur’s posthumous fifth album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and assisted on the soundtrack to the rapper’s first film vehicle, Juice.
“I knew certain things my father would tell me—certain little…issues?” Shipp says, choosing his words carefully. “He would reveal this to me, just how [Tupac] dealt with family issues, intimate things. I learned so much about how he came to be the man he was, the situations that led to him…basically being in the car that night.”
“Be real with yourself at all times. Through the good, bad, and ugly, he was always real with himself.”
He’s referring of course to the night of September 7, 1996, when Shakur took four bullets in a drive-by shooting off of the Vegas Strip, leading to his death six days later. Filming in Vegas—and reenacting those fatal moments—provided Shipp with the chance to peel away the last vestiges of iconography to get at the man he was tasked with playing, flaws and all.
“You see that he just didn’t make the best choices that he could,” Shipp admits, thinking about what he’s taken from the experience of being Tupac. “Also, be real with yourself at all times. Through the good, bad, and ugly, he was always real with himself. He would say if something’s wrong. He would never think that he had all the answers, or that he was always right, or that it was his way or no way. He was open to change and he was open to being wrong.”
Beyond that is the eeriest coincidence of all: Shipp looks exactly like Tupac. The resemblance is practically unnerving. So much so that once he started taking acting classes—having no experience whatsoever in the craft—his fortunate casting didn’t alienate him from his peers. His fellow artists knew it was a matter of destiny.
“I sat with actors and people who were taking that long trip [to stardom],” he says. “And I’m amongst these people who are bartending, who have been at this for years just trying to land any role. Their reception and their reaction was that this role was meant for me. Relations, timing… It just really feels like this was all meant to be.”
The more Shipp ruminates over what it means for a previously unskilled actor to take on such a culturally daunting role, the more he seems to intuit a higher calling. Everything just lined up perfectly, almost celestially so: “It was ordered as far as I’m concerned.”
As he waits for the film to premiere and for his fledgling gig to balloon into a full-on career—complete with expectations and agents and high-profile opportunities—what’s left might be the hardest part: getting out of the character he was born to play.
“The good thing is that it’s been a while [since the film wrapped],” he says, “so I’ve de-characterized. I don’t have any struggles there. The mannerisms, I’ve let go of those. I’ve let go of Tupac.” FL