Photos of Kevin Powers by Marc Cartwright
Ahead of the Aug. 14 release of N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, actor Keith Powers says he’s “anxious to see what people think.”
It marks a big moment for the 22-year-old Sacramento native, who has a busy month ahead of him. Best known as Theo from MTV’s Faking It, that series returns for its second season on Aug. 31. And a week prior, he appears in the highly anticipated series premiere of The Walking Dead prequel series Fear the Walking Dead, which launches on Aug. 23, a day after Powers’ 23rd birthday.
The actor says balancing such different characters wasn’t all that hard, because he’s “been doing it my whole life,” he recalls, speaking with Variance days before the Straight Outta Compton premiere. “Watching the movie, I lived that. We lived in the more urban neighborhood—more hood area—when I was growing up, and my mom had me going to a better school in the suburbs. So I saw both worlds. And I feel like I’ve always been able to get along with any circle because of that.”
Powers plays Tyree, Dr. Dre’s younger brother, who was very protective of the rapper and their mother, according to the actor.
“Dr. Dre had a good relationship with his little brother,” says Powers. “I know me and my little brother, we used to do everything together. We shared a room, just like Tyree and Dr. Dre did. So that part of the relationship was familiar for me. Sharing clothes, my mom dressing us the same when we were young. We went to the same football practice, baseball practice. In the movie, you see that side of the group. You see that early on, his little brother was really a big part of N.W.A. He was part of their crew and it was important to him.”
Despite the massive buzz surrounding the film now, Powers says it wasn’t always clear the kind of impact the project might have. At least not until after production began.
“I don’t think I realized what we were working with until we started shooting and [director F. Gary Gray] showed us the first performance scene,” he admits. “It was him and Ice Cube. And that’s when I went, ‘Whoa.’ At first, I thought, they were going to try to soften it up. But as we started moving, I realized, they’re gonna push it like that. They’re going all the way. And then you start seeing the news and everything about the cops and these kids being killed. I thought to myself, ‘This movie is going to be more relevant than we even imagined when it drops.’ It caught me by surprise.”
As Powers puts it, though, that’s essentially the story of N.W.A. “That’s why they were so successful,” he says. “Because they appealed to such a wide culture. Everybody loved them when they were big. At their peak, they were connecting far beyond just the hardcore fan. I think part of it was that rebelliousness. But not even that really. They were just speaking their minds, speaking the truth. They gave a voice to people. And I think the movie can do that too.”
While some at Universal have downplayed the violent scenes and images of police brutality in the film, Powers says it was integral “because it happened. Just like what’s going on now, it’s important to look at the big picture. But all of these incidents and struggles are part of that big picture … If it hadn’t been for those riots and those confrontations, we wouldn’t have songs like ‘Express Yourself’ or ‘[Fuck] tha Police.’ And those songs are almost three decades old, but you listen to the lyrics and they could have been written last week.”
Powers admits taking on a role such as Dr. Dre’s brother—especially since the rapper co-produced the film—was unsettling at first. “He was on the set almost everyday, so I would talk to him. He watched a lot of my scenes, so I was kind of nervous, honestly.” But he says he recently had a reassuring phone call from Dre. “I got some feedback from him and that was good. He said he thought I did an amazing job and he actually told me his mom cried watching my performance. So I can’t even put into words what that means to me. I'm just grateful to have been a part of this at all.”
Ultimately, the actor says the film may best serve as a reminder. “It’s a reminder to past generations who grew up on N.W.A., but it’s also a reminder for the new generation,” he opines. “As we hear about Sandra Bland and Michael Brown and Ferguson, I think it’s important to be reminded that hip-hop wasn’t always about the Rolex and money and party music. It meant something. And maybe that message, that substance will resonate again. Maybe that’s what we need right now.’”
Straight Outta Compton arrives in theaters nationwide on Aug. 14.