There's a part of Orlando where I'm from that you don't visit. It's not near Mickey Mouse.
For the second consecutive year, the Oscars nominated 20 white actors across its best performance categories, generating widespread controversy. Twitter exploded in a #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Chris Rock was quick to rebrand it “The White BET Awards.” Industry mainstays such as Rashida Jones and Lupita Nyong’o lashed out on social media, with George Clooney describing the lack of minority representation “moving in the wrong direction.” Spike Lee announced plans to skip the ceremony—as did Will and Jada Pinkett Smith—and demanded affirmative action in Hollywood to address racial disparity. For her part, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement saying she was “frustrated by the lack of inclusion.” The problem runs deep: films about black lives did in fact receive recognition this year, but the nominations went to either white writers (Straight Outta Compton) or a white performer (Sylvester Stallone in Creed). Will Packer, one of the executive producers behind Straight Outta Compton, called the whitewash “embarrassing.”
This will be the whitest Oscars since 2015, and therein lies the fuel to the fire. The latest name to weigh in on the controversy is, appropriately enough, actor Neil Brown Jr., or DJ Yella of N.W.A. fame in Straight Outta Compton. In this comprehensive interview, we touch on a variety of topics in and around the Oscars debate, including Brown Jr.’s early years in the business, work ethic, and his upcoming film Sand Castle co-starring Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill and Glen Powell.
Straight Outta Compton is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, and On Demand.
So you’re from Orlando, Florida. What were your aspirations growing up down there?
I was gonna go to the military and join the Special Forces—and become a ninja. And then… [Laughs] I decided that pretending to be one would be much more awesome. I was gonna go to West Point and I was working on getting a scholarship there. During that time, there was a producer from Universal, Patty Thomas Robinson, who came in looking for a kid to be on a martial arts TV show. They kinda found me and I caught the acting bug. But before that, I thought I was gonna go to the military, join the Special Forces, then come out and be in law enforcement.
Your father was a military man, wasn’t he? You were following in his footsteps.
Yeah, my father was a marine.
Then WMAC Masters happened. That’s the show you were referring to.
WMAC Masters happened, it really did. [Laughs] I was a pretty handy kid. I was a champ. I was undefeated, in the ring and outside. [Jean-Claude] Van Damme and Bruce Lee were my favorites. I used to copy everything Van Damme did. There’s this kick I used to do in the air—I had hops. I could leap over six-footers and they hired me. They even gave me some lines and they realized, “this kid can act,” and told me I should never stop doing it. And I didn’t. I was 14. I caught the bug instantly. I realized that who I really wanted to be were the guys in the movies I was watching. I thought I actually wanted to be those guys, you know, the loner detective fighting for what’s right. It turned out that I just wanted to pretend to be them. As soon as I got on set and had to pretend to be this kid, I was addicted. According to my parents, I’d been coming up with these wonderfully articulated stories all the time and acting them out. I had a lot of energy.
How long did it take for you to make the move out to Los Angeles?
In 1999, I was acting in Florida and I was pretty fortunate to get as many local roles as I did. Then a movie came through called Tigerland with Joel Schumacher. I booked that, essentially this glorified extra role, and I was there through the whole run. I even got a few lines. Once I did that, I knew I had to make a trip out to L.A. In 2000 or 2001, I made my first trip out for a little less than a year, went to blind casting sessions, and booked a small role on a TV show. MDs was my first role in L.A. Then I ended up going back to Florida and worked a lot out there, just supporting my family. I guess I came out to L.A. permanently in 2005 or 2006. I booked Fast & Furious without an agent, and that helped facilitate me getting a manager, which then lead to an agent. I think that was around 2008 or 2009, so that’s how long it took me to get an agent and a manager out in L.A.
What was the big takeaway for you on Tigerland, your first experience on a feature film? I remember Joel Schumacher was a big deal during the ’90s and early ’00s.
I learned about work ethic. You learn to check your ego at the door. Joel was big on that and didn’t cater to anyone’s ego: “You’re here to work. Do the work.” All the guys that I worked with like Cole Hauser, Colin Farrell, Matt Davis, and Clifton Collins Jr. were already in the business and blowing up at different stages of their careers. I learned a lot about how to navigate certain attitudes and ways of working. I still talk to all of those guys to this day and we’re all pretty close. Also, Michael Shannon… That movie had a lot of star power in it, which wasn’t necessarily star power back then. But everyone’s gone on to be awesome. It was a great segue into my career.
How has your perception of the industry changed over the years?
This whole idea about “making it.” You have these huge ideas as an actor just starting out, but that will change and warp. You quickly realize that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You start getting it into your head like, “Things will be awesome! I’m going to live in that kind of world!” and then it’s, “Hold up. Wait a minute…” [Laughs] It doesn’t work like that all the time. Even when it looks like it works like that, it does not. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and a lot of sleepless nights. My perception of the industry really changed in knowing that, again, it’s a marathon. You have to know when to kick and you need to know when to coast. It’s also about what you say no to as well. It’s my perception that doing the work that you’re most proud of is “making it.”
Did you find it difficult saying no to stuff when you were first starting out? I’d imagine green actors are so hungry for work that it’s hard to turn down much of anything.
Absolutely. If you’re that hungry to work, you’ll just do whatever. It’s really hard to be patient. As with a marathon, if you don’t know when to give it your all or when to slow down a bit, you’ll gas out early and you won’t make it to win it. It’s very hard to control and contain that energy when you just want to work so badly. You can do something just for the sake of doing it and learn absolutely nothing. When you start out, you’re just so wide-eyed. You’re not really focused on what’s important, which is the work. Just do the best job possible and go onto the next one. You have no control over anything outside your own performance. I feel the pain of a lot of actors because I’ve been there. I was just excited to work, whereas now, it’s much more of a chess game.
What was it like to portray DJ Yella, someone who’s very much alive?
It’s always difficult when the guy you’re playing is watching you. I grew up listening to N.W.A. and Straight Outta Compton was the first record I heard. I remember it being so taboo and so awesome at the same time. It spoke the language of the streets I grew up on. There’s a part of Orlando where I’m from that you don’t visit. [Laughs] It’s not near Mickey Mouse. It’s a tough area, just like any hood. It’s very poor and dangerous, but I loved it. That music spoke to all of us. They were saying what we were feeling. We were disenfranchised in a lot of different ways.
What was the auditioning process like for this one?
Growing up, I never thought I’d get to meet these guys, let alone portray one of them. It came about like any other audition. I knew there was so much hype around it for so many years. I didn’t want to audition at first, thinking I would never book it. You assume they’re looking for someone who has more status or someone they know better. When I auditioned the first time, it went nowhere. I got a call four months later, not for a callback but for a re-audition—a do-over. It was like, “Let’s forget you did that first one and bring you back in,” and this was with [casting director] Victoria Thomas. I left, thinking to myself, “Forget this! See? I told you! I suck! The movie’s not gonna be good anyways.” Then they called me back in, had a meeting with F. Gary Gray, and I booked it. That was a very stressful first couple of weeks because I had to learn how to be a DJ. I wanted to be so accurate in this portrayal. I wanted to make N.W.A. happy, first of all. I knew that if I got their stamp of approval, the rest would take care of itself. It was a daunting task. I was very humbled and excited. When I booked the role, I cried like a baby because I couldn’t believe it. Like I said before, if you put in the work, it’ll come out the way it’s supposed to.
Once you book the part, it’s “This movie is gonna be the best thing ever!” right?
Well, you know. [Laughs] I was just angry because I felt like I sucked. When I first auditioned, the sides for Yella were Ice Cube’s sides. Auditioning for Yella with Ice Cube’s words just did not work. The words were far more visceral and angry as compared to who DJ Yella was. In the original script, just to be honest, there were maybe two lines for DJ Yella in the entire script. So there was nothing to work with. A lot of the work for Yella was just me knowing who he was as a person and how he would respond to things. All of us became very good at being our characters and how our characters would respond. A lot of it was improv’d, and since we had the outline of the script, we had to work around it. When that stuff started happening, of course, it was so great. It’s like, “This is actually gonna be dope.” The camaraderie between us, and if they’re able to catch the magic between the guys booked to play these characters, we knew it was gonna be great.
Is it common to be given sides for a different character when you’re auditioning?
It actually happens frequently, if they don’t have the new script written or if the script is top secret. I think this was a special case because this was based on a much earlier version of the script. They had a version of the script where Yella had more lines, and then another version where he basically had nothing. There was nothing to work with in the room for the audition, so they gave us Cube’s monologue. Actually, just about every character that wasn’t Cube was auditioning with his monologue. It just didn’t work for DJ Yella because he’s a happy guy. He’s happy-go-lucky, doesn’t want any problems, and he just wanted to make good music and loved the girls. [Laughs] And that’s not what was in those sides. But kudos to the writers and everyone because during the next phase of the auditioning process, they had something that was much more in line with what Yella was like. The scene right before N.W.A.’s first performance in the movie was what I was auditioning with, and then they let me improv. That’s when Gary kinda knew, “Okay. That’s Yella.”
I think we have to talk about the controversy surrounding the Oscars right now.
What controversy? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
What are your thoughts on the “white Oscars”? Or as Spike Lee called it, “lily white”?
Look, I believe the discussion has to happen. I’m super excited for the movie and the cast to get recognized like that. As far as I’m concerned, all of my castmates deserve Oscars because they’re so awesome. But we can’t do that, right? [Laughs] You know, I share the concerns of my peers in that we do need more diversity within those nominations. I think the fact that we’re having the conversation right now is a step in the right direction. Just being mentioned in the realm of Oscar is enough of an Oscar for me, personally. I’m amazed by it and I’m so very happy that so many people feel we’re deserving of that type of attention, which will help bring about the conversations about diversity. I don’t even think of it as a black or a white film, I just think of it as a great film. There are a lot of great films that get snubbed, and we’re one of them. This year and last year are similar in that there seems to be a lack of diversity in the nominations, but the fact that we’re having this conversation now, I think it’s a positive thing for everyone.
Viola Davis’ Emmy speech from last year was so on-point: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” It’s a deep-rooted issue, beyond problematic than the Oscar nominations themeselves. What has your own experience been like?
In the past, the choices were very limited. You knew that the Asian guy would play the nerdy friend. Or the scientist. [Laughs] A brother would play the thug or a slave. But now, I think we have a lot more diversity in casting, more inclusiveness. The conversation is shifting in a positive way because it’s not just one group, but everyone speaking out together. It brings us closer in a lot of ways because we’re starting to realize that the majority is championing the cause to say, “This needs to be more diverse.” I don’t think it comes from a place of racism or anything like that. I just think people live in boxes for the most part and who fits into that box is someone they recognize. Now that we’re having these conversations, people are going outside their boxes. That can only be a positive thing because America is a melting pot. There’s nothing more American than mixed culture. I think this brings about a lot of love and change. My experience has actually gotten better.
You have several projects in the pipeline this year, but Sand Castle seems particularly promising. What can you reveal about the film and the character that you play?
It’s another biopic. I can reveal that it’s an emotional roller coaster. You’re gonna love these guys. It’s based on a true story about these soldiers during the Iraqi war in 2003. They were in civil affairs, sent into save this town where the water supply had been damaged. They’re sent into facilitate the repairs and stuff goes awry. There are great performances by everyone from Henry Cavill to Logan Marshall-Green, Glen Powell and all these guys. Nicholas Hoult is amazing in it and it’s told from his character’s point of view. It’s a really good movie that I’m very much proud of. [Director] Fernando Coimbra led the charge on it. Producers Justin Nappi and Mark Gordon let us do our thing. I’m actually very happy from what I’ve seen of it and what we’ve done.
Is your character based on a real person? Is he alive to see your portrayal of him?
He’s based on a real person. The real guy is this tall, Alabama white boy. And look who’s playing him! You ask me about diversity… [Laughs] In real life, this guy was country, big, thick, football-playing white guy. And they booked me! That’s actually a testament to diversity in itself and what kinds of roles are being offered, right? My character goes through a huge range of emotions tied to life and the emotional toll that war takes. You always see these movies in war zones and this is a drama in a war setting. You see these guys and what they have to do, in spite of the fear, in spite of getting shot at, in spite of getting hurt, and in spite of getting scared. They have to respond. They have to do their jobs under this immense pressure. And they’re just kids. They’re young.
Could you share a memory or something someone said that made a big impression on you for whatever reason? I’m talking about something related to your craft, be it good or bad.
Oh man… I think there have been many, I’ve been so blessed. Does it have to be recent?
It could be anything from any time.
I guess one thing that really stuck out to me happened while I was doing a small film in Florida called Things That Hang From Trees. There was this actor on set who was on the show Deadwood, and this was back in 2006. The scenes I did ended up getting cut out of the film. I had gotten into my head that I knew what I was doing as an actor. So we were working the scene together, and I was so excited because I loved this guy on Deadwood and I was getting to work with him. I was feeling so good, but then he came up behind me, smiled, looked me in the eyes, and he said, “You know, you don’t always have to make people happy.” I didn’t understand that then. But I understand it now. That was yet another thing telling me, “Be about the work, and don’t be about the show.” Do you know what I mean? That very much stuck with me and helped me in my career.
Also, what they really wanted to figure out with me in the beginning is where to place me. Being mixed and who I am, I’m a big question mark in a lot of ways, right? “Is he black? Is he Spanish? What is he? Is he Blasian??” [Laughs] I asked Giancarlo Esposito this, a terrific actor that I love, when we were doing the show South Beach together. He sat me down in his trailer, looked right into my eyes and said, “Kid. They’re not gonna know where to put you, at first. It’s going to be difficult for you. It’s going to be hard, but you have the talent. You stick to it. When they figure out where to put you, you’re going to work forever.” And he was right! They’re just now realizing where to put me. So those two things really got to me, and they both happened on set. You always need to be open to learning, right? Check your ego at the door and you can learn so much.