Hollywood newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. landed the leading role as Tupac Shakur in the new film All Eyez on Me after a friend suggested he audition back in 2011, given his strong resemblance to the legendary hip-hop artist.
Telling PEOPLE he “never aspired to act,” Shipp Jr., 28, based his much buzzed-about performance in the biopic (in theaters Friday) on “the people who knew [Tupac] and who grew with him.”
Here are five things to know about the rising star, who says the positive reviews about his portrayal are “well past what I expected.”
1. He’s always turned heads because of his resemblance to Shakur.
“At this point, there’s just too much to pinpoint only one,” he says of being stopped because of his similarities to Shakur. “It’s all in fun! People will say I look like Tupac and some people will just stare.”
After signing on for the role, Shipp Jr. “researched and watched Tupac all day,” he says. “If I was about to eat, I would turn on Tupac. When I was going to sleep, I would turn on Tupac and watch that until I fell asleep. Throughout the night, it would just be playing so that if I woke up in the morning, the first thing I would do was watch Tupac.”
2. His dad had a hand in Shakur’s music.
Shipp Jr.’s father, Demetrius Shipp Sr., produced music for Tupac on the album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory for the song “Toss It Up.”
“My father, who produced for Tupac, shared my audition with LT Hutton, who’s one of the producers on the film,” he says. “He and LT had worked together back at Death Row. Then, they got me in for a table read.”
3. He waited until the last minute to send in his audition tape.
Though he was “hesitant” to try out for the part because acting was never a career he had in mind for himself, Shipp Jr. took advice from his friend and help from those around him to enter this “whole new world.”
“I was working—just a regular working-class guy—but, at the same time, always aspired to do music,” says Shipp Jr., who previously worked at Target and installed satellites at Dish Network.
For more details on Shipp Jr.’s portrayal of Shakur and the real story behind the late star’s death, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
4. He took home life lessons after portraying Shakur.
In September 1996 when Tupac was shot to death in the passenger seat of fellow rapper Marion “Suge” Knight’s white Cadillac while driving down the Las Vegas strip, Shipp Jr. was just an 8-year-old boy.
Now 28 years old, the star has gained an “understanding that you have to be able to be precise and discerning, and your discernment has to be sharp; it’s a fine balance that I’m learning,” he says.
“He was prolific and powerful at that young age,” continues Shipp Jr. of Shakur, who was 25 at the time of his death. “It didn’t just happen when he became Tupac, he was powerful when he was a kid; it ran through his blood.”
With the help of his acting coach, Angela Gibbs, Shipp Jr. was able to immerse himself in Tupac’s world through “reading the books he read, understanding his childhood, how he grew up and what his influences were.”
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5. He’s officially been bitten by the acting bug.
After this breakthrough role, Shipp Jr. is continuing his career in Hollywood. “I love acting,” he says. “This is certainly my thing, and I can’t wait to get on screen and bring my own character to life.”
“I can’t wait for that next project,” he continues. “I want it to be just as potent, just as important to my career.”