Detractors suggested the untested actor had landed the role of his own father Ice Cube in F. Gary Gray’s chronicle of the rise and fall of legendary hip-hop group N.W.A. only by virtue of the family connection.
Jackson confounded his critics with a stunning debut, and has been proving them wrong ever since, first as a darling of the festivals circuit with indie comedy “Ingrid Goes West,” and now as an action star.
“I love that people doubt me because it just pisses me off and makes me get my ass up to go and put the work in,” the 26-year-old told AFP in a recent interview to promote his latest project, heist movie “Den of Thieves.”
“That’s the Kobe Bryant in me. I love it, bring it on.”
Jackson was born in 1991 — the year his dad was getting his big acting break in John Singleton’s acclaimed social drama “Boyz N The Hood” — and grew up in LA’s distinctly leafy, unhoodlike San Fernando Valley.
Encouraged by Ice Cube, he began rapping in his late teens, and before long father and son were performing together. But his first love was film, and Jackson enrolled on a screenwriting degree at the University of Southern California.
He’d shown no serious commitment to acting when Cube suggested Jackson play him in “Straight Outta Compton,” bringing in acting coaches to get his son up to speed for a somewhat daunting debut acting role.
Giving the lie to the nepotism charge, Jackson was pitted against hundreds of other actors in an intense, two-year selection process that involved numerous acting classes, auditions, callbacks and chemistry tests.
A big priority was placed on sessions recording N.W.A. hits, which Jackson sailed through, and, finally, a screen test for executives at Universal.
– ‘Eat some crow’ –
Ice Cube, who has since described seeing his son playing him on set as a “‘Back to the Future’ moment,” was clear when the film came out that he had allowed his son no special treatment.
“I knew that people would think I just gave him the job. So I wanted him to be more than ready. I wanted him to be a great actor by the time we started to shoot,” Cube told People magazine.
The surprise summer hit of 2015, “Straight Outta Compton” raked in $200 million with its depiction of the larger-than-life members of the group that revolutionized the music industry, inventing what we all now know as “gangsta rap.”
Reviewers noted with admiration that Jackson not only looked uncannily like his father — those distinctive, arched eyebrows deserved an Oscar of their own — but he had also managed to get the voice, facial expressions and mannerisms down to a tee.
Despite the acclaim, Jackson turned to low-budget indie for his next role, unconvinced that he had managed to extricate himself from Ice Cube’s aura.
“I credit that to ‘Ingrid Goes West’ — being able to go to Sundance and having people that wouldn’t normally go see ‘Straight Outta Compton’ see that I’m not just a one-trick pony,” he says.
“You can’t typecast me, I’m here to work… I try to be extremely professional any time on set, and to show that maybe you got to eat some crow a little bit when it comes to O’Shea.”
“Ingrid Goes West” stars Aubrey Plaza as a disturbed, unstable woman who moves to California to meet an Instagram celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen) and ends up in a relationship with her landlord, played by Jackson.
His turn as an aspiring screenwriter fantasizing about getting his Batman script filmed, despite having no rights to the franchise, provides much of the emotional and comedic heart of the movie.
– ‘Passion project’ –
“‘Ingrid Goes West’ was a complete passion project. I kind of got a little bit of flak for that. I’m not gonna say no names, but people were nervous with me taking a role like that,” Jackson recalls.
“I had to let everyone know that if I read something and it means something to me, I’m going to take it and I’m going to kill it.”
With “Den of Thieves” in the top ten and Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” due out next year, Jackson has moved consciously into action, “just to get back into people’s eyes as a serious actor,” he says.
In “Den of Thieves,” he plays a getaway driver alongside Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Pablo Schreiber, a more physical role than his previous performances which sees him taking heat from Gerard Butler’s maverick elite police corps.
Jackson says he allowed Butler and his henchmen to rough him up just a little, and even gave as good as he got in one particular take that ended up on the cutting room floor.
“It’s going to make our film work and Gerard’s going to have a performance he didn’t think he was going to be able to do, and the same with me,” explains Jackson.
“I know that I’m the new guy on set; this is my third film. I hate to look at it like that, but this is a big role, my third one, so I wanted to come in and really stand my ground.”