Tupac Shakur’s legacy is set to come to life on the big screen in Benny Boom’s highly anticipated biopic All Eyez On Me. Looking well beyond the music of the legendary rapper, the film is set to give audiences a multidimensional look at his life and the people who made a profound impact on him. One of those people was Shakur’s then-fiancé, Kidada Jones, and bringing her to life is Person of Interest alum Annie Ilonzeh.
You’ll certainly recognize this Dallas native from her role as journalist Harper Scott in the hit musical drama Empire and from her roles on series such as Entourage, Arrow and Charlie’s Angels. EBONY.com sat down recently with Ilonzeh to chat about All Eyez On Me, Shakur’s legacy and her upcoming film, Till Death Do Us Part.
EBONY: The first thing I wanted to know was what inspired you to get involved with All Eyez on Me? Biopics can be tricky, and Tupac is such a legend. He’s become more than a rapper.
Annie Ilonzeh: I mean, literally that, the fact that this is a legend. As they say, real legends never die. Tupac is huge; he’s an inspiration. Arguably, he’s probably the biggest, most analyzed and loved artist of all time. To be able to share that and be a part of that story, and tell the authentic story. I was desperate, to say the least, to be a part of it. I wanted the job really, really bad. Projects like this don’t come around very often, and when they do, it’s special.
EBONY: Did you get the opportunity to speak with Kidada Jones, or did you base your portrayal of her solely off of the script?
AI: I didn’t get an opportunity to speak with Kidada, but the producers made it very comfortable for me. They knew her, they knew the story, they’re super-connected, L.T. Hutton and Benny [Boom], were immersed in the culture at that time. Benny is a huge, well-known music producer, so he knows that side and the artists. Benny was super close to [Tupac]. And the Outlawz were on the set too, and they would tell me stories. They really filled in all the blanks for me. I saw it as an untold love story between these two that maybe most people wouldn’t look at this artist in that kind of way. You see this artist, and huge personality, and just a big ball of fire, but here was this untold, just beautiful love story that was tucked away in a little nook. That’s how I approached it. He could have possibly changed his life if the circumstances were different. Without talking to her, and knowing how painful it is, hopefully, she’ll be OK with the performance and the story. And also, as a biracial woman, and she is as well, I know those stereotypes, too. She dealt with that, and she confronted Pac about it, and I’ve had that so many times, where you feel like you gotta prove yourself, but then you’re like, “I don’t have to prove myself.” I’m not a lack of, or I’m not too much of this, I’m not any token this. We hit on that topic in the movie too, and I could totally relate to that.
EBONY: That’s fantastic. Was there anything you learned about Tupac that shocked you?
AI: How much of a thespian he was. I know stories of Pac, but I was really, really young when he passed. The fact that he was such a thespian, and so passionate about his craft, was shocking to me in a way. I’m shocked to see that here’s this man that passed at 25 that we’re still talking about, 20 plus years later. That’s an eye-opener for me.
EBONY: That’s so important. You’ve done amazing work on so many different television shows. Most recently, you were on the set of Empire playing journalist Harper Scott. What was that experience like?
AI: That was a great experience. I am a fan; I am such a fan of Terrance [Howard]. I have been a fan of his before I even wanted to be an actor, or knew I was gonna be an actor. And then Taraji [P. Henson] too. I remember watching her in Baby Boy when I was still in Texas, not even an actor yet. [Terrence is] one of the best actors, he’s amazing. There’s nothing that that man can’t do. To watch that in the flesh; we worked a lot together, so it was like going to school. It was like training, and I was just the overeager student, just like, “What can I absorb and learn?” And then to top it all off, the cherry on top, Andre Royo, who plays Thirsty. We became such great friends, and I mean, we’re friends to this day, and we talk … I just couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. Those are the guys. So supportive, and just funny, and put you at ease.
EBONY: Fantastic. Well I know it was recently announced that you would be in a film called Til Death Do Us Part with Taye Diggs, Stephen Bishop, Malik Yoba and Robinne Lee. It’s a very important film because the narrative centers around domestic violence. Why was it important for you to be a part of a film with such a tumultuous storyline?
AI: Well, one I have to say, I didn’t even know about it. They came to me. Chris Stokes, [the] director, writer and producer, and Shondrella Avery, another one of the producers, I have to give them credit for bringing it to my attention. Normally, it’s where the actor has to fight for the role, and it was like the producers were fighting for the actor; I’m grateful. But then, once I got it and I read it, I almost was like, “I can’t do this.” You have to tell that story as genuine and authentic as possible. And to me, a woman basically imprisoned in her own home, because of her husband that she took vows with, and then experiencing abuse and violence on all different levels, is something not to take lightly, and you don’t fabricate that in any way, you live it. I almost thought it was just too much to tackle. But after talking it over in coaching, we figured it out and it was a whirlwind, I’ll tell you that. We shot that movie in a short amount of time; if it weren’t for Chris and Shondrella, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it. But really, more importantly, Stephen and I, we had a lot of scenes together, and that man went through hell right along with me. And you would think since I’m playing the battered woman and he’s playing the abuser maybe his job is easier. No, he showed so much vulnerability through the character, but also within himself, and support. And when I was ready to fall like literally fall, I was Annie, and also Madison, he literally would pick me up and just hold me and let me cry. I mean I fell in love with that man, you know what I mean, on a level of just family.
EBONY: You can’t do a project like this without a strong partner.
AI: Yeah, you can’t, you really can’t. I mean, because it gets ugly, it really does, and you’ve gotta be unapologetic about it, and be willing to get dark, and know that this person with you is either getting dark with you, or they’re holding your hand through that darkness. And he was right there, and I will forever be indebted to him. But also, Taye too, I mean, Taye is one of the most experienced actors out there. Our scenes are really light, he was just there to bring so much light and love, and comedy and comedic relief in the script as well. He was just great too. Nothing but positive things. For it to be such a dark situation to tackle, it was really a very warm and light set all around.
EBONY: Beautiful. We’ll definitely look out for Til Death Do Us Part. I believe it’s coming in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
AI: Yeah. You’ve got it down.
EBONY: So for All Eyez on Me, what do you hope people will take away from the film?
AI: I hope that people look at the impact of [Tupac] not only for his music, it’s a rollercoaster ride, and it’s a beautiful rollercoaster ride [but] to take away the fact that this man was a pioneer and a leader, and left a long-lasting legacy, that decades later, is talked about. Hopefully, every person will ask themselves, “What’s my legacy, What can I leave behind in a positive way?” What’s your impact on the world? And to know that, you don’t have to do it recklessly. To see how he passed, and to know that if we had just one more thought or just a different decision, it can change everything too. That was my biggest takeaway and inspiration, motivation.
EBONY: Congratulations on All Eyez on Me and on Til Death Do Us Part, I’m really excited to see both films, they look really incredible.
AI: Thank you so much. Thank you, that means a lot.
All Eyez on Me debuts in theaters on Friday, June 16.