Corey Hawkins is a man who still can’t quite believe his luck.
Nearly six months on from the release of Straight Outta Compton, the Washington-born actor is at pains to insist he’s still not tired of talking about the film. Which is amusing as, for quite some time, Juilliard graduate Hawkins had to talk himself into even auditioning for the biopic based on the career of N.W.A.
“I’m going to be talking about this movie for the rest of my life,” a chirpy Hawkins tells Loaded.
“I can’t stop talking about it now, but I never thought I was going to get it. I wasn’t even going to go to the audition, to be honest with you. I had to talk myself into that.”
The 27-year-old, who honed his craft on Broadway and has recently become a regular in The Walking Dead, wanted to make a break into movies. But he lacked confidence. And the softly-spoken Hawkins certainly didn’t seem like an obvious candidate to play Dr Dre in the gangsta rap biopic. Not least to himself.
“I didn’t think I should bother wasting my time,” Hawkins says of the day when he was called on to audition for the role. “I didn’t think that anyone would take me seriously.”
The actor, who also attended The Duke Ellington School Of The Arts, then found himself in the truly bizarre scenario of sneaking into an elaborately decorated room in posh Juilliard to participate in a Skype audition with director F. Gary Gray and N.W.A rapper Ice Cube watching on.
“I’m a huge technophobe so I really didn’t think I was going to impress anyone over Skype,” Hawkins laughs. “I had to run to Juilliard, and next thing you know I’m standing in an office there doing this Skype interview – rapping and cursing and all of this stuff – and people are asking me ‘What are you working on?’ I couldn’t even tell them.”
As well as Gray and Ice Cube, Hawkins immediately made a big fan in Dr Dre, who called Hawkins to tell him: “You are the only person in the world that I want to play me.”
So play him he did, spending months studying the work of the group once dubbed “The most dangerous music act in the world”. During an intense couple of months filming in Compton and across the States, Death Row Records co-owner and Beats founder Dre was in constant contact with Hawkins about his role. Dre shares producer rights on the film with Ice Cube and Eazy-E ’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright.
“It was an intense and long process,” Hawkins says. “Dre worked with me the way he works with his musicians. He’s hands on, but hands off at the same time. He allows you some freedom – but you know that he’s watching you every step of the way. He got the tapes at the end of each day and would call. I could be visiting family down South and Dre would be on the phone talking to me, which is pretty surreal.”
As well as praise for actors Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson Jr, who played Ice Cube, Straight Outta Compton earned over £170million at the box office to surpass Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line as the highest-grossing music biopic of all time.
Since then, Hawkins played the mysterious Heath in the last two episodes of the most recent series of The Walking Dead. In the comic books the Fox show is based on, supply runner Heath is a major character. So presumably we’ll see him back for season seven? Hawkins suddenly clams up, but he admits he has certainly got the telly bug.
“I was really impressed by how efficiently TV works, especially on The Walking Dead,” he says.
“It’s like making a movie, but every single week. It’s intense, they shoot fast and while it’s a lot of fun, it’s also a lot of work. But we’re like a family. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with Heath…”
Hawkins has also been cast in Kong: Skull Island alongside Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, but he insists he isn’t about to lose himself in the bright lights of Hollywood.
“Look, I know I am blessed that I get to do this job, but it’s not as if we’re doctors going around saving people’s lives,” he says. “As long as I’m working, challenged and doing something that I love, then I’m going to be grateful.”
Does Dre keep in touch? “We speak from time to time, yes.”
Did he offer you a lifetime supply of headphones?
“I did get some Beats off him,” Hawkins laughs. “Straight Outta Compton ones, of course.”
Straight Outta Compton is out on DVD/Blu-ray on January 11th.
Loaded’s entertainment editor Jennifer O’Brien is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about popular culture as a national newspaper columnist and author. Follow her on Twitter at @Jen_OBrien1