Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray says he "wasn't expecting" the SAG nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast
“Not to sound cliché but we worked really, really hard to get this on the screen,” Gray tells PEOPLE excitedly. “It took us years to find this cast and we put them through a lot to deliver those performances and they delivered. So to be acknowledged and amongst a lot of great artists and a lot of great films, we honestly didn’t expect it.”
The N.W.A. biopic was a surprise hit at the box office this year and is now poised to take awards season by storm as well. The Outstanding Performance by a Cast category, which is often a precursor for Best Picture nominations at the Oscars, is stacked with all-star talent, from films like The Big Short, Trumbo, Spotlight and Beasts of No Nation.
“The guild is filled with professionals who spend decades working and training, so to acknowledge these young guys that have little to no experience is a testament to talent, and also hard work,” Gary says proudly.
The stars of Straight Outta Compton were relative unknowns when they were cast. O’Shea Jackson, who plays his father, Ice Cube, had never acted before. But Gray is adamant that Jackson and the other newcomers were cast more for their talent than their resemblance to the real members of N.W.A. “I had a rule with my casting director Cindy Tolan,” the director explains. “I wanted performance first, meaning can they perform onstage and can we believe they’re from Compton? Likeness was the last thing on the list.”
Fortunately, Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge are all dead ringers for their N.W.A. counterparts: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren respectively. “I was lucky that I got guys that had the look and feel of the [original members], but it certainly wasn’t first up. It took us years to find these guys and I feel great that they were nominated because ‘performance first’ was the mandate and now we’re being rewarded for that effort,” Gary says.
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Having his group of first timers recognized at the highest level is “a testament to truth, hard work and brotherhood,” the director adds. “These guys came to the table ready to work and they became brothers in the process.”
Regardless of the strength of his actors, Gary knew that Straight Outta Compton would only succeed if the story struck a chord with audiences. “In the wrong hands it could’ve just been a rap movie,” Gary admits. “I always knew we could deliver the what, the when and the where, but the why is the heart of the film and what separates it from the average bio pic.
“Sometimes it’s easy for people to just write off N.W.A. as controversial entertainment, but if you go a little deeper and peel back the layers and examine why a 16-year-old would write a song like ‘F— tha Police,’ that’s the story that we wanted to tell. I think that’s part of what resonated and the reason why it crossed over.”
After a year filled with racial controversies, Gary says “it means a lot” for a film starring an all-black ensemble to be recognized. “It’s a diverse world out there and we’re glad that Donna Langley and Universal understands that diverse entertainment is not only welcome, it’s needed,” he says, adding, “I feel a shift happening in a good way in that we’re now able to tell these types of stories.” But the director is quick to add that “nobody wants to be nominated just because of the color of their skin. You should be nominated and rewarded for the work, and we’re happy to be acknowledged and to be in the conversation.”
As for how the original members of N.W.A. feel about the acknowledgement, Gary says, “I was just with Cube 25 minutes ago and he seemed really happy and really proud.” But for most of the people involved with the movie, just having it out in theaters was exciting enough. “I think the celebration started the moment we wrapped because it was so hard to cast and get the green light.”
He adds, “We’ve been celebrating since we wrapped the movie. A lot of this stuff is really just icing on the cake, and we’re enjoying the icing.”