Director Ernest Dickerson remembers Tupac Shakur’s first film role — and the trouble he found on set

Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain in ‘Juice’ (Everett Collection/Paramount)

Ernest Dickerson famously transitioned being from the director of photography on Spike Lee’s seminal early work (including 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcolm X) to making his directorial debut on a contemporary classic in its own right, the street drama Juice.

Dickerson’s slide into the director’s chair wasn’t as seamless as that timeline implies, though. He and his Juice co-writer, Gerard Brown, originally penned the film — about four Harlem teens whose lives spiral out of control after they hold up a bodega — in the early ’80s.

“The script was written nine years before we were actually able to make the movie,” Dickerson, 70, told us in a new interview promoting the film’s new 30th anniversary 4K Ultra HD release (Juice was released in theaters 30 years, on Jan. 17, 1992). “It sat on the shelf for nine years. It was written in the early ’80s after I just got out of film school at NYU. And nobody wanted to touch it. They said, ‘Nobody wants to see this movie.’”

It wasn’t until Dickerson’s career as a cinematographer took off, and Brown, who was a writer-in-residence at the Public Theater in New York, scored a new agent that the Juice script was dusted off and eventually sold to Paramount.

Ernest Dickerson directing a scene with Khalil Kain and Omar Epps on the set of 'Juice.' (Everett Collection/Paramount)

Ernest Dickerson directing a scene with Khalil Kain and Omar Epps on the set of ‘Juice.’ (Everett Collection/Paramount)

Then the casting hunt started for the roles of Q, Raheem, Steel and Bishop, the four teens who — tired of harassment by the police and a local Puerto Rican gang — conspire to win respect on the streets, or “juice,” by robbing a corner store. But the hold-up goes horribly wrong when Bishop shoots and kills the owner.

Dickerson didn’t think there were any young Black actors on TV or in film at the time that could play the roles, so they cast a wide net across the Tristate area, looking in performing arts schools and church and neighborhood theater groups. “It was a long, painful process,” says Dickerson, whose casting director narrowed hundreds of candidates down to 10 or 12 actors they “mixed and matched.”

Soon they landed on Omar Epps as Q, the aspiring DJ most reluctant to enter a life of crime, Khalil Kain as the ill-fated Raheem, and Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins as the portly Steel. Finding their Bishop, the hot-headed loose wire among the crew, remained elusive.

An iconic ’90s rapper came into audition as Bishop, but not the one you’re thinking. It was Anthony Criss, aka Treach from Naughty by Nature. Accompanying Treach to the audition that day, however, was his friend — the up-and-coming rapper Tupac Shakur, who had just debuted under the stage name 2Pac as a roadie-turned-supporting emcee for Digital Underground. Dickerson asked Shakur to audition as well, and was blown away by what he saw. The role of Bishop was his.

Today, of course, Juice is famous in large part for Shakur’s fiery performance, all the more impressive considering it was the rapper-actor’s film debut (not counting as part of a Digital Underground performance featured in the infamous 1991 turkey Nothing but Trouble).

“We found out later that Tupac trained as an actor in the high school [at the Baltimore School for the Arts],” Dickerson said. “And the thing that he knew about Bishop is that all of the bravado, the anger, came from pain, and that’s what he put into his auditions. And that’s what he put into the character.”

Shakur could be intense on set. He’s said to have gone method on set as Bishop. Hopkins once shared a story about how teased once teased Shakur that he was being fired, and it lead to fight.

“You know, there were a couple times that he got into trouble,” Dickerson admitted. “But the great thing about Tupac was that he was really interested in people. In Harlem, if he saw somebody that looked like they were going through something, or there was something different about them, he would talk to them. He would spend a lot of time talking with people. Tupac was a great student of human nature.”

Shakur was writing his debut album 2Pacalypse Now while working on Juice, and as Epps once told us, was so affected by a story he read in a newspaper one morning — one depicting an utterly tragic side of human nature, a woman having disposed of her newborn baby in the trash — that he penned the future hit “Brenda’s Got a Baby” that day.

At times Shakur could be too interested in people. Dickerson recalled his star talking to a young lady near set one day. “Her boyfriend found out about it, and her boyfriend had just come out of [the infamous New York jail] Rikers Island and he looked like he had spent a year in Rikers lifting weights. And so he came and he wanted to start trouble. And Tupac was like, “F**k him.’” He wasn’t gonna take that. So we just had to get him out of the neighborhood real quick.”

Another time, there was a small group of “these young ladies who were hanging around set checking us out,” Dickerson recalled. “And, you know, they were very attractive young ladies. But then we started looking at them and realized they had razor bumps and [Adam’s apples]. We realized they were actually [trans women]. And Tupac started rapping to one of them. And he did not know. And the rest of the crew did.

“One day we’re setting up a shot and and we could see him down the block talking to this young lady. And I told my [assistant director], ‘I don’t think he knows.’ He said, ‘I don’t think so, either.’ I said, ‘You better go down and tell him.’ Shakur was asking her for her phone number, but she wouldn’t budge. “She said, ‘Honey, you don’t want my phone number. … I’m telling you, you don’t know what’s going on here.”

According to Dickerson, the object of Shakur’s affection had actually been one of the featured subjects of the famous 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, about the LGBTQ scene in late-’80s New York.

Shakur laughed it all off once he found out.

“He knew the joke was on him,” Dickerson said. “And he could laugh at himself. It was a cute moment, him finding that out and laughing. He was just a great human being.”