Is there a trick to casting the biopic?

Demetrius Shipp Jr. portrays Tupac Shakur in a new biopic.
Quantrell Colbert
Demetrius Shipp Jr. portrays Tupac Shakur in a new biopic.

The young man had never acted. But when the call went out for auditions to play the late rapper Tupac Shakur, friends and family insisted that Demetrius Shipp Jr. submit a tape.

He’s the spitting image of Shakur. Same smooth dome and fine features. Same thick eyebrows and pretty eyes. Same shirtless V-shape.

In interviews, the newcomer has acknowledged that his fellow high school students called him “Pac.” His work colleagues at Target called him Pac. With any acting chops at all, he was born to play Tupac.


That’s just what he’s done, appearing in the starring role of “All Eyez on Me,” the new biopic about the revolutionary rapper who was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996. After years of snags and a revolving door of directors, the film opened Friday.

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What does it take for an audience to believe an actor who takes a role as a famous figure? Must the likeness be striking? Is it simply a matter of a good wig or some prosthetic wizardry? Or are the mannerisms, the bearing and the voice — the actor’s acting — of paramount importance?

Earlier this year producers shelved a planned film project involving a portrayal of Michael Jackson after a public uproar. Fans (and the late King of Pop’s daughter) objected loudly to the casting of the actor Joseph Fiennes, who looked, in the trailer that sunk the launch, less like Jackson than the singer from Jane’s Addiction.

Fiennes was unapologetic when the project was announced a year ago. “I deal in imagination, so I don’t think imagination should have rules stamped on [it],” he said, not unreasonably.

Many filmmakers would agree.


Choosing a doppelganger didn’t seem that important when Chadwick Boseman was picked to play James Brown. He’s half a foot taller and a good deal less weathered than the late entertainer. It took some doing to imagine the young actor as the Godfather of Soul, but he pulled it off in “Get On Up” (2014).

And Joaquin Phoenix didn’t look especially like Johnny Cash when he played the singer in “Walk the Line.” But his willingness to attack the role in spite of the physical limitations sold the performance.

On occasion, the dissimilarity between subject and actor is even notable enough that it becomes a perverse selling point all its own. The news that Johnny Depp would play Whitey Bulger struck a lot of people as ludicrous, until the costume department got to him. Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan? (Not just a complete unknown: the curls and Wayfarers got the idea across.)

“It’s called movie magic for a reason,” says Angela Peri, founder of Boston Casting, which worked on “Patriots Day” and an upcoming feature about Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick tragedy. “Those hair and makeup people are so fantastic. They’re artists.”

In the business, it’s called “matching” — finding an actor who can pass as a recognizable real-life person. For the historical film “Lincoln,” the great Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis convinced viewers that he was, in fact, the embodiment of the 16th president.


Matching is often the first order of business, Peri says, but the casting decision should ultimately come down to the answer to the question, “Who’s the better actor?”

Actors love a challenge, and playing someone the public thinks they already know is one way to ensure it. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman earned an Academy Award as best actor for his transformation into Truman Capote. When Michelle Williams took on Marilyn Monroe (for the 2011 film “My Week With Marilyn”), she cited the risk involved.

“The worst that could have happened to me is that I make a fool of myself,” she said, “but I wouldn’t die from that.”

John Cusack was well-received for his role in “Love & Mercy” despite the fact that he looked very little like the middle-aged Beach Boy Brian Wilson. As if to accentuate the mismatch, alternating scenes in the 2014 movie featured Paul Dano nailing the image of the younger Brian. He had the benefit of that windswept moptop and those hokey striped shirts the Beach Boys all wore when they first became pop stars.

Years after Will Smith bulked up to play the heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali in 2001, he told an audience that the opportunity defined what he loved about being an actor.

“For four or five months at a time, I get to wear people’s lives,” he said, “so I got to wear Muhammad Ali’s greatness.”

It’s a lesson you’d like to think the makers of “All Eyez on Me” heeded. To play Tupac, it’s not just the doo-rag and the tattoos. It’s the greatness.

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.