And kicking 1992 off, a little movie called “Juice” hit theaters to mark the big screen debut of a few folks you may know: Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, En Vogue’s Cindy Herron and some rapper named Tupac Shakur.
While Shakur and his performance easily come to mind when thinking of “Juice,” the film’s director holds up every member of the film’s “Wrecking Crew” as what he remembers most.
“It was a good experience and I was able to find four really, really good young actors to play the characters. And one of them was Tupac. The others were Omar Epps and Jermaine Hopkins and Khalil Kain,” Ernest Dickerson told EURweb regarding “Juice” and the men who portrayed Wrecking Crew affiliates Quincy “Q” Powell (Epps), Eric “Steel” Thurman (Hopkins), Raheem Porter (Kain) and Roland Bishop (Shakur).
“They were great to work with. They were brand new. Jermaine was the only that had any previous film experience,” the filmmaker shared while noting Epps struggle in choosing between acting and making his mark as an emcee. “Omar was a senior in high school and he was trying to decide if he was going to have a music career and an acting career. He was really torn between the two. And Tupac was a lucky accident. We found him totally by accident. He just happened to come in at the right time.”
Shakur’s accidental discovery didn’t come without Dickerson going through a slew of contenders to fill the role of Bishop, including Shakur’s friend, Naughty by Nature frontman Treach, actor/comedian Flex Alexander and Darien Berry. Berry’s name may not ring an immediate bell, but his character in “Juice” is one fans know well. The part? Q’s friend Blizzard, who was ultimately killed by cops when he tried to rob the bar Q left after making a phone call.
“We were having a hard time finding the right Bishop. We were still seeing a lot of young people, a lot of guys coming in. One day, Treach from Naughty by Nature came in and he did a pretty good job. He had this guy hanging out with him,” Dickerson recalled. “I was trying to find the right Bishop. There is a subtly to Bishop’s character that a lot of young actors who came in to read for it just didn’t capture. They didn’t capture the vulnerability, the deep pain that the character of Bishop has inside. And so we were having a hard time finding him. Treach did a pretty good job and this other guy that was hanging out with him, I said, ‘Hey man. How about you? Do you want to read? How about you reading?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’
Although Shakur ended up nabbing a lead role as Bishop, Dickerson initially had the rapper read for the role of Q, a character that just didn’t fit well with who Dickerson had in mind for Shakur.
“He did a pretty good job, but I just had a feeling about him and I asked him if he could stay a little bit longer and I gave him the sides [scenes from “Juice”] for Bishop. He went away and came back about an hour later. He knew it and really gave the definitive performance. We asked him what was his name and he said, ‘Tupac.’ I said, ‘That is an interesting name. What does that mean?’ He says, ‘a Mayan deity.’ And that’s how we found Tupac.”
Taking account of Shakur’s stint studying acting at the Baltimore School of the Performing Arts, Dickerson attributes his selection of Shakur to fate more than his skills as an actor. Especially since time was running short to find the best person to bring Bishop to life.
“I was actually getting a little desperate because I wasn’t finding anybody that really could capture the character. And he just happened to be there. I said ‘How about you? Why don’t you try it?’ and he did and he knocked it out the park. So I like to think it was fate more than anything else. I guess it was fate.”
Once Dickerson found Shakur, there wasn’t room for an alternate to play Bishop. Fortunately, for Alexander, Dickerson’s plan B for him was to capitalize on the “One on One” star’s comedic vibe with casting him as a DJ in a memorable scene with Queen Latifah. You know the scene. The one where Flex’s skills on the turntable left a less than favorable impression on Latifah’s Ruffhouse M.C., who opted for Q as one of the disc spinners competing in “Juice”’s famous DJ competition.
“Some of the guys that we didn’t pick for leads wound up in the movie in other roles, said Dickerson, when asked who would’ve played Bishop had Shakur not been with Treach at the audition. “That’s something I’ve never really entertained in all these 25 years because Tupac really did become Bishop and he was the ideal person for that role. So I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role.”
Like Shakur, Kain, Epps and Hopkins read for other roles in “Juice.” Despite this, Epps’ turn as Q was too good for Dickerson to pass up. So much so that the former “House” star was on the director’s radar from the jump. To hear Dickerson tell it, he “felt pretty early on when I first met Omar that he was the ideal person for Q.”
“We went through a lot of different people. When we were gonna do the film, I knew that there was nobody that I knew in that current run of young African-American actors who could play those roles. I mean I was looking for unknowns. And we cast hundreds of people. My casting director went through hundreds of people and we narrowed it down. What it was was each of those four guys had to be able to come together and create like a fifth character, which was the group mind,” Dickerson explained. “So I was looking for guys that could act, that could breathe life into these characters. But they also had to interact with each other so that they together created that fifth character, that group mind. Even when we narrowed it down, we did mixing and matching. We tried different auditions and different scenes with different combinations of the different actors. And the guys that really felt more real and more like they had been friends for years were those four guys [Epps, Shakur, Kain and Hopkins]. And so that’s how we locked them in.”
Made on a $3 million budget, “Juice” hit the ground successfully with a number one spot on its opening weekend with $8,085,915 made at the box office. Overall, the film, which centered on four teens whose friendship is tested after plans to gain universal respect from robbing a local bodega take an unexpected turn, collected a total domestic gross of $20,146,880.
The film’s success spilled over into its hip-hop fueled soundtrack, which went gold in 1992 after peaking at #17 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the Billboard’s Top R&B Albums charts, featured a string of hits such as Naughty by Nature’s “Uptown Anthem,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Juice (Know the Ledge), Aaron Hall’s “Don’t Be Afraid” Big Daddy Kane‘s “‘Nuff Respect” and Teddy Riley and Tammy Lucas’ “Is It Good to You.”
For Cindy Herron, who played Q’s girlfriend Yolanda, “Juice” marked a memorable side hustle away from the world of En Vogue, which was on tour during filming. The drama couldn’t have come at a better time as Herron spent her days off from the then-quartet shooting her scenes with Epps.
“They scheduled it so that I could just fly in to New York and do my scenes on those off days from the tour,” Herron said. “And then when I was done, I flew back out and re-joined En Vogue in the next city where our next show was. It was perfect, perfect for me.”
Having Epps to work with only enhanced Herron’s time filming “Juice.” So much so that the actor emerged as the thing that left the best impression on Herron.
“Looking back, the thing that I remember most was Omar Epps because he was such a talented young actor,” said the singer, who also noticed Epps’ other talent. “I remember, I think at the time, that we did the film, I think he was 18 and at that point in his life, he really wanted to be a rapper. I think his favorite artist was EPMD, I think. He was talking about EPMD and rapping, wanting to be a rapper. But he was such a brilliant actor, and I just remember saying, ‘You need to pursue acting. Pursue it as well. Don’t let this just be the last film of you because you really want to rap so bad. You’re so brilliant as an actor. At least give that a chance and pursue that some more.’
Epps apparently kept Herron’s suggestion in mind as he blazed a successful trail an actor, with notable movie roles in “Higher Learning,” “Love and Basketball,” “In Too Deep,” “The Brothers” and “Almost Christmas” as well as small screen ventures on “House,” Resurrection and “Shooter.”
“He was just a very talented young guy and a sweetheart and funny,” Herron expressed about Epps. “He had a really great sense of humor. And so that’s what I remember most. Just him sort of befriending me. I felt that bond there, you know. I was just really blessed and happy to be a part of the project.”
“I can’t remember the name, but I do remember him being with a group and they were working on music…I have no doubt that he would have had a lot of success there too because he would just brought who he is and his talent to that genre of entertainment. But you know oftentimes, the music industry can be a shorter-lived career than acting. And so I think he chose right. He made the right decision.”
Khalil Kain’s appreciation for Shakur is even more evident, considering he knew the late rap icon before he became the entertainer he developed into.
“It was cool. We were having fun. We were all really having a real good time and acting up,” Kain fondly reminisced. “When we did ‘Juice,’ Pac wasn’t a mega star at the time, so he was cool as a fan. We had a good time.”
It may be easy for fans to put “Juice” in the realm of classic cinema, but the reality is that it was furthest thing from Kain and Herron’s mind. Yet they acknowledge that their first feature truly struck a chord that makes it hard for fans to dismiss.
“I think #1 it was a great story. Not just that, but also I think it had a lot to do with the cast. You had some great actors and of course, the great Tupac. He was brilliant in this movie, to me. And Omar Epps. I mean all of the actors were really good actors. And it was a good story. It was a well-written story, too,” Herron stated. “So I think it’s several elements that just sum it all up. But mainly I think the cast and it was a great story. And it was a great look into the life and times back then. Just from the outside looking in, it was like we get a peak into what an everyday life is for a character like Q and all of his friends and just his relationship with Yolanda. Just that little element, you know. It was just an all-around good movie. Very well directed too by Mr. Dickerson.”
Regarding the caliber of talent she was around, Herron couldn’t have predicted how successful her co-stars would be after working with them in “Juice.”
“I knew they were very talented, but back then I had no idea that everybody was gonna blow up. I just knew I was in a cast of really talented actors and we were all working for just one common goal, which was to create a great film, a great story. And that’s really all I knew. I didn’t think about it much beyond that, except for that moment we were all brought together to do this work to present to the world and just hope we did our best,” she said. “Of course looking back, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh! Look where everybody has gone in their careers. And I do believe that ‘Juice’ had a lot to do with it, giving the exposure to everybody. It was a springboard for so many things for a lot of the actors. But beyond that, I just knew we were there to do this job. Everybody had great talent. We were all working for the common good, you know. And that’s really all that I knew back then.”
“And then the big mindblow is looking back at everything. Hindsight is always 20/20,” Herron added. “Looking back at everything and just seeing how the film did and how everybody’s career just really took off. Look at all the talent that was in that movie. It was like, ‘Wow.’ It was lightening in a jar.”
“I had no idea,” Kain said about the reverence “Juice” attained. “I hadn’t done a film before that. So I really didn’t know what to expect. I was really just kind of amped up to have the opportunity to do this.”
The experience of “Juice” was an eye opener for Kain, who marveled at how much of a collaboration the movie proved to be.
“What struck me the most that I hadn’t expected was how collaborative an effort making a film is. I had never done anything in my life up until that point that included that many people working towards one goal and getting it accomplished,” he confessed. “I mean, like everybody’s job is important and everybody is getting after it and focused and really pushing to get this done. Think about it. Every single day you got 40 people coming together and we’re working on the same thing. I have never been a part of anything like that before. I thought it was really cool. I was like, ‘This is dope. I dig this.’”
No matter the opinion of “Juice,” the reality is the film has transcended age to lay hold on the current generation. Need proof? Just ask Kain, who met a 14-year-old fan with nothing but love for the film that introduced him to the masses.
“When you got some kid that’s like 14 coming up to you. I’m like, ‘Yo, what do you know about ‘Juice,’ man? I’m like, ‘Come on man. You weren’t even born when the film came out,” said Kain. “It’s crazy. And he was so open. He was just like ‘Yooo.’ I talked to him a little bit and it was really funny to me. It tickled me that they’re still watching this movie, man…The legs on that film is incredible. It’s really shocking, stunning.”
Watch the “Juice” trailer:
Chris Richburg is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Contact him via [email protected]