“This is my breakout role so to be mentioned with [SAG and Oscar nominated films] is a great thing in of itself,” he tells PEOPLE. “At the same time, if we don’t go home with any hardware, I wouldn’t feel any kind of way about it because this is the first time. Like really, is this my life right now? It’s so incredible to even be thought of in that realm.”
Mitchell, 29, didn’t start acting until he was 23, a time when the New Orleans-based actor was looking to make a positive change in his life, one that up until he began taking acting classes included real struggle and some illegal activity.
“Growing up in New Orleans helped me live a real life,” he says. “I experienced so many things. I’ve been in a house with the lights [shut] off. I’ve been sleeping next to my sister like, ‘We’re going to be okay tonight.’ My mom would be working overnight and just busting her ass as a young single parent, just really trying to grab it. I lived the street life for a minute, I lost a lot of friends.” Mitchell says that acting saved his life, despite the fact that his first big acting break didn’t go at all the way he planned.
“My first big film was Contraband and around that time I got caught with some contraband,” he admits with a laugh. “It was not going well. I was kind of selling drugs and doing the whole thing. Acting was starting to get to that point where it could take that next step and build.” Unfortunately, Mitchell missed the premiere of that first big film because he was in jail.
“I’m in jail, looking at the TV screen like man, I’m supposed to be going to this premiere right now,” he recalls of seeing local news coverage of the event from his cell. “It was an international premiere, a huge situation, I’m sitting in jail like an idiot. I cannot be serious, I couldn’t even take myself seriously then. I piled up everything because in jail you can’t share your feelings, you have to pile up all those things and think, what can I do to make the next step for my own life, how can I take self preservation to the next level?” Mitchell said he dug in, earned his release and turned a corner, for good.
“They offered me some time and the way God worked the whole situation out, not only did I become a free man that was outside the walls, but I was off probation, I was off all these things because I had such good behavior,” he says. “I just happened to have a mishap, happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time but God has a whole situation worked out for me and here I am with a story to inspire.”
Which brings us to his breakout performance in Compton and how, for his character’s climactic scene in the hospital, he was able to tap into his pent-up emotions and experiences and let them go.
“It was crazy because I had to do that scene so many times in the audition, and for my first audition,” recalls Mitchell. “I tell everybody that people don’t make themselves vulnerable enough, so you’d be surprised how much you have built up. It was easier to get there than I thought. We did that whole scene in four or five takes.” It is a scene that brought cast and crew to tears and provided a wonderful release for the actor. Even better, Mitchell’s mother was there to see it.
“I brought my mom to come visit me in LA, come to set and all that,” he says. “We were at Roscoe’s [after filming] and Dr. Dre called me and sent me a car to come get me. ‘I want you to meet Jimmy Iovine,’ he says. I’m like, ‘Cool.’ So I get there and as I’m walking in he’s playing the hospital scenes, and that was the first time I saw them. It was like tears on tears on tears, in his front room with his kids, it was incredible, a moment I’ll never forget, and I had my momma with me, it was so super dope.”
To hear Mitchell tell it, his entire ride with the success of and attention paid to Compton has been super dope and surreal, including meeting a few famous fans.
“I met Leonardo DiCaprio and Busta Rhymes the same night, on my birthday in New York,” Mitchell says. “They were hugging me and kissing me like ‘Bro, you’re going to be special,’ and I’m looking at them trying not to cry. Like ‘Okay guys, I’m trying not to be emotional, there are females here.’ What is my life?”
Mitchell says he “hit the life lottery” and is still adjusting to where he’s landed.
“I just didn’t think I would get there this fast,” he says. “I don’t think that mentally I was prepared for my life to change the way it did. I was the epitome of rags to riches. I would’ve given myself a pat on the back for being where I am now in ten years, easy. It is a complete blessing.”
And might a SAG trophy add more to that blessing or provide the proverbial icing on the cake for his breakout year?
“I’m just going to be honest, I don’t need s—. This is my first time around! But [director] F. Gary Gray, the producers, Donna Langley [chairman of Universal Pictures], all those people, whatever helps them, they deserve that. They fought for this, this is ten-year-in-the-making movie. That’s so dope. I can’t tell you how many people call me trying to get Ice Cube to do a Part 2, I’m like, ‘Then what?'”
Straight Outta Compton is now available on Blu-ray.