When Shameik Moore, star of the the much buzzed-about teen movie “Dope,” first read for the part of Malcolm in Los Angeles, the impression he left was … not great.
In fact, it was a dud.
Director Rick Famuyiwa was worried.
When he and his producing partners, Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi, shopped the movie to the major studios, no one bit despite the fact that Famuyiwa was a veteran filmmaker who had been nurtured by the Sundance Directors Lab and had released several profitable films. The script centered around a kid from Inglewood, Calif., who desperately wants to attend Harvard, and his multi-culti nerdy friends who are obsessed with ’90s hip-hop and, as they say in the film, “white s—.” To studio executives, it was not immediately clear who the movie was for. It didn’t fit into a preordained demographic box, so they passed.
But Famuyiwa trusted his vision and his story (he also penned the screenplay) and decided to make it independently.
Famuyiwa found himself sitting through hours upon hours of auditions, unable to identify a leading man — leading boy, really — to carry his newest and most personal film.
So he did something he’d never done before: Triggered by desperation and a rapidly-approaching deadline, Famuyiwa started going through out-of-town video auditions, which usually hold even less promise. And that’s how he came across the Atlanta-based Shameik Moore, his rose in a field of daisies.
“When I saw it, it was immediate,” Famuyiwa said of Moore’s appeal. “It showed the power of his ability and just him as a person. It was that immediate for me that I felt like ‘wow, this is the kid I saw in my head.'”
And now this.
Famuyiwa had summoned Moore to Los Angeles to read in person, eager to offer him the role.
“I was excited, and I showed the tape to the producers and they were excited and everyone was really moved by this and then he came in to audition and really kind of bombed the audition,” Famuyiwa said. “I don’t know if he was really prepared or quite understood.”
Puzzled, Famuyiwa called Moore’s manager.
“I was like, ‘Look, this kid, I don’t think you guys realize I was ready to offer him the role today and he kind of came in and didn’t quite get it. What happened?’”
The manager mumbled something about Moore being fatigued from the overnight flight. Famuyiwa offered the opportunity for Moore to come in the next day, where he redeemed himself.
It was done. He would be Famuyiwa’s Malcolm.
Moore, who turned 20 last month, tells this story very differently, with a charming naivete that suggests a path driven by fate and smoothed by ordination from the good Lord himself.
He saw “You Got Served” and “came out dancing,” Moore said. He saw Chris Brown in concert and became determined to learn how to sing. And Moore, with his innate talent, began to see his dreams come true as he danced in music videos with Soulja Boy and Keri Hilson. He began booking commercials.
And then, there was a Very Important Phone Call. Moore neglected to mention that he flubbed his first encounter with Famuyiwa.
“Everything else was kind of God,” Moore said, speaking by phone before a screening of “Dope” at Harvard, the school with which his character is so enamored. “It was definitely out of our control. Everything just kind of fell in our lap, and we needed to be prepared for it. When I went to auditions, if I didn’t know the lines, I wasn’t getting the job. If I knew my lines, if I knew what I was supposed to be doing, I got the job. And it was always like that — if I’m working hard, I get the result that I’m looking for.”
To say that Moore’s journey to his feature film debut hasn’t been guided by divine, if earthly, hands would be disingenuous. When Moore was an 8-year-old living in the suburbs of Atlanta, his third grade teacher at Green Pastures Christian School, who he knew only as Ms. Jordan, told him something.
Shameik, who couldn’t resist the urge to sing and dance in class, was going to be an actor, she said. He just bubbled with charm.
“He was just a ball of energy in class and he was always just extra,” she said. “Everything was just always about him, and everything had to be a production. That’s how he was. I told him, ‘One day, I’m going to turn on the TV, and you’ll be on TV.'”
Twelve years later, Ms. Jordan, who is now Ty Lewis, seems like a prophet. Not only is Moore an actor, but he’s one who’s had the good fortune to be cast in two hot properties. First there’s “Dope,” which, despite attracting no takers when Famuyiwa and Co. first shopped it, set off a bidding war at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Dope” eventually netted a $7 million minimum guarantee from Sony and Open Road and a $15 million promotion and advertising budget, one of the highest-ever prices a movie has fetched at the festival.
Moore’s father, reggae musician Errol Moore, took Lewis’s advice to enroll Moore in acting classes. Nearly a decade later, he called Lewis and invited her to an Atlanta screening of “Dope.”
“It made my heart explode,” Lewis said. “People remember what you say to them. I had forgotten, and I didn’t think any more of it, but kids always remember.”
And now, Moore is working on location in New York on “The Get Down,” the coming Netflix musical series about the birth of hip-hop set in 1970s New York, and produced and directed, in part, by Baz Luhrmann.
It’s not just the film, but Moore himself who is the subject of buzz any newcomer would find enviable: He made Paper magazine’s Beautiful People Class of 2015, a distinction he shares with model Bella Hadid, “Jane the Virgin” actress Gina Rodriguez and Atlantic magazine writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Moore found himself catapulted into the recording studio with Pharrell Williams to work on the soundtrack for “Dope” just three weeks after he was cast. The music video for the single “Don’t Get Deleted” premiered June 4.
To understand the magnitude of this leap in Moore’s career trajectory, one must understand that Famuyiwa, with directors Malcolm D. Lee and Gina Prince-Bythewood, were the black Hollywood kingmakers of the late ’90s and early aughts. With “The Wood,” “The Best Man” and “Love and Basketball,” the trio gifted the culture with three movies that still spark new conversations, not to mention nostalgia, 15 years after their release. They helped crown Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan and Taye Diggs as part of the reigning class of black stars.
We’re deep enough into their careers that we’re in sequel territory; “The Best Man Holiday,” which starred Lathan and Diggs, was a runaway — and by some accounts “surprise” success — and a third film, “Best Man Wedding” is coming next year. They also starred together in Famuyiwa’s 2002 film “Brown Sugar.” Epps found a home in television as Eric Foreman on “House” and more recently as Agent Bellamy on “Resurrection.”
It was worth wondering: Who would emerge as the next generation of black cultural juggernauts? Who would instantly inspire the same sense of emotional connection Prince-Bythewood harnessed so well in “Love and Basketball?” What would the coming-of-age film be for the current generation, a generation that’s grown up with the Internet, a generation for whom hip-hop has always been mainstream, a generation for whom social media is central and paramount to their lives?
There was no obvious answer to those questions, so when word first began circulating about “Dope,” it was a hot script with high-profile actors and rappers reading for the lead. But no one fit Malcolm quite the way Moore did.
“He has an intelligence and a sense of humor and this ability to be confident and naive at the same time, which I guess sometimes go hand in hand,” Famuyiwa said. “I felt like he was able to understand all of that in Malcolm. A lot of people who came in to read and some of the bigger names who came in to meet didn’t quite understand that. They could get one or two things of who he is — maybe some of the humor, maybe some of the confidence — but to be able to do all of them, and bring a complexity to it, is what Shameik was able to do, even from his initial audition when he put himself on tape.”
Famuyiwa, having plumbed the coming-of-age narrative in “The Wood,” his first feature, would be revisiting the theme, now older, wiser, with a few films under his belt and teenagers of his own. That’s probably why eagled-eyed watchers of both films will note that Malcolm feels like an updated, fleshed-out version of “The Wood’s” Young Mike, played by Sean Nelson. (Epps played adult Mike). In another nod to “The Wood,” De’aundre Bonds reprises his role as Stacey for “Dope.”
Famuyiwa’s patience paid off, and in doing so, he may have found his own Brat Pack for the new millennium, led by Moore and flanked by co-stars Zoe Kravitz, Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori.
Moore and Famuyiwa have established a rapport and are certainly eager to work together again. When Famuyiwa needed to gas up Moore’s confidence for a particular scene, he would remind him, “You’re Shameik motherf—ing Moore!”
“I have the most respect for Rick,” Moore said. “You’re always going to see a Shameik Moore and Rick Famuyiwa film. I met a few of the people that auditioned for Malcom. These are well-known actors and singers and rappers. Everybody auditioned for this. I knew it was a great script, but he really chose a brand new face. He saw something in me and he believed in me, and that’s something that means a lot to me. My entire life has changed.”
“Dope” opens in theaters June 19.