EXCLUSIVE: Dominic Santana on Tupac's Death & Playing Suge Knight in 'All Eyez on Me'

@officialdomsantana/Instagram

Dominic Santana is heading to the big screen for Tupac Shakur's highly-anticipated biopic, All Eyez On Me.

The Puerto Rican actor stars as Suge Knight, the leader of Death Row Records who was in the car the night of the drive-by shooting that killed the hip-hop artist. Knight, who is currently in prison facing murder charges, has long been the subject of debate on the conspiracy behind who murdered the prolific rapper. 

We chatted with the Puerto Rican star who talked about his preparation for to role as the music mogul, remembering the days following Tupac's death, and more.

Read it all in our exclusive interview below:

MORE: Rosie Perez Was Apparently the One Behind Madonna & Tupac's Romance!

Tell us a little bit about what fans can expect from All Eyez on Me.

They can expect, of course, the entertainment aspect of it, but that wasn't the foremost intention, that was just an added bonus. There's a lot of jewels in it. A lot of lessons. It's not a "preachy" movie, it’s just real life stuff that anyone can relate to. Most of all, if you don’t know Tupac Shakur, you get introduced to him from the beginning and you get to learn about him as a person, not just the actor or rapper. You get to know about him and what it was that made him the way he was. They shot it in a brilliant way. They understood that there were going to be some generations that don’t really know that era or don't know that much about him. Some don't know anything. If you already do know about him or you're already a fan, you get more insight into him as a person and get to fall in love with him more. If you don't have any idea about him, you will when leave.

How did you prepare for the role as Suge Knight?

I did some of the quintessential stuff like researching. Thank God for Google and YouTube and things like that, because you can find anything under there! [Laughs] I watched a lot of videos that were popular that a lot of people know about. Then really digging for obscure material like candid videos, where you're not really paying attention to the camera. Also, obscure interviews and things like that. I was really fortunate enough that on this film, the producer that brought this from conception to where it is now, LT Hutton, was there during that time. He really knows these people. Then there are other people involved with the film that really knew and still know these people. We had a good group of people we can reference things to. They could say, "Yes, that’s really how it was" or, "No, that’s not accurate." We were lucky in that we were working on a film like this, which you don’t normally see a lot of, which is it's being put on by the people who were really there. 

Do you feel like there's bigger pressure being in this film because it's so anticipated?

Oh, yeah! I mean it was instant pressure. It’s funny because I had to fight to get the job and then once I got it, it was celebratory for a minute but then reality kicks in taking on this role as an actor. It’s a big gamble because it's such an anticipated film that if done wrong, everyone's getting shredded. [Laughs] That was that pressure. Honestly, once we got going the pressure was building but then we got to set and started working and starting to see some of the award-winning crew members and people involved, like the editors and all that were hired; they're some of the best of the best in the business. As well as the determination and tenacity of LT Hutton to be involved in every aspect and how everyone was really giving 110%. Of course, the biggest thing was if they have a good Tupac, we'll be alright. Once they got around to Demetrius [Shipp Jr.] and saw how serious had he had taken it — he had been working on it for several years, preparing.  Once I saw him in action I was like, okay. Then I got comfortable because I knew, "Alright, we're good."

There's a huge weight on the shoulders of those in this film. Do you feel like it's just as heavy as Demetrius' or even heavier since the character you portray is still alive?

I wouldn’t say heavier just because although Suge is still alive, Pac still resonates so strongly around the world. I'm not going to lie, that's a job I wouldn't want. [Laughs] Major kudos to Demetrius. Fortunately, I have the second-best job and that was portraying Mr. Knight. There was a lot of pressure to do it right because everyone has their ideology of who he is. A lot of it is one-sided due to what the media pushes and has pushed for years. I was doing an interview earlier today and the guy said, "How does it feel coming into this movie playing the big, bad guy?" It was funny because that’s the first thing people think of. I didn't approach it that way because we didn’t want a caricature of him. We wanted reality; a humanized version of him, whether it be good or bad. I came into the project not looking at it as, "Oh, I'm playing the bad guy," but as I'm playing someone who's complex and he doesn't do things the way people think you should do it sometimes. Some things were extreme and some things weren't but there were also good sides,  just like everyone. The only people out here who only have bad sides are those who have some kind of condition, who are insane or have some kind of psychological condition. As far as the rest of us, we all do good things and we all do bad things. Some worse than others. Some better than others.

It seems like everyone is expecting your character to be the antagonist but it's good that you're showing the reality of him.

Right! They definitely had a brotherhood and you get to see that, but it's not sugarcoating either. They are just like anybody. It's funny because the more I say this in interviews to people, their eyes kind of open like, "Oh, that actually make sense." But when you have a brotherhood or have family members — first of all, any time you mix money and family you have an 80% chance something is going to go left. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them anymore but you can get into a position where you're rubbing each other wrong or something happens and you're at odds for losing. You get to see that. There was some friction between him and Suge Knight at some point. You have one person who doesn't understand the workings of a label because he's not a label, he's an artist. He is focused on that. Then you have one person who does understand the label and is the label and understands what has to be recouped, so when someone says, "We're still cool but I don’t want to just be with you, I want to be like you. I want to have my own but we're still going to be cool." The business side it's like, "Well, there's still some things that need to be taken care of. You can't just up and say, 'Hey, that's what I want to do and then it just happens that way.'" That'll cause a risk. But instead of being the bad guy that’s been portrayed of him, he could've just been like "Well, screw that you ain't going nowhere until you make me some more albums 'til this money is recouped." He didn't do that. Instead, he went in a different direction where you see the love and you see the compromise. You'll see that in the film.

The film is being released on what would've been Tupac's 46th birthday. Do you feel that there is more depth in this premiere because of that?

Definitely! Definitely! Honestly, I was surprised they were even able to make that happen. I don’t think people realize how huge that was to film business-wise. You're talking about a film that’s not a summer blockbuster film budget, but it's being released dead in the middle of the blockbuster season. All the films that are dropping around were like 100 million plus and our film was like 40- 45 million. It's just not a Transformers film. There aren't a bunch of special effects and all that stuff. It's still a major film and they wanted to have it on his birthday. I don’t know who made it happen, but somehow LT and Morgan Creek and Lionsgate and all those guys, they made it happen on a special day. It's not only the release but it's also a huge worldwide celebration.

How was seeing Demetrius bring Tupac back to life?

It was surreal. It was exciting. I've been a lifelong fan of his before this. There were times where I had to remember I'm working, I'm not just spectating. I had to take in the moment as both a fan and an actor.

What do you remember from the day that Tupac passed away?

I remember nobody believed it. I was in school. I was young but I do remember the disbelief and people kind of blew it off until late that night, or the next morning, when more and more reports were coming out confirming it. I remember seeing people cry. I even remember seeing my mother cry. She was a fan of his, but she was from a different era so it's not like she listened to him religiously. She was a fan of his and she liked him. I remember that kind of really shocked me because my mom at that time listened to a lot of gospel music, so to see her cry, I think that was the first time I really realized the impact he had on people.

Who are some artists you look up to?

I tend not to listen to newer stuff. Of course Pac was always my all-time favorite, as far as hip-hop was concerned. Then there's Jay-Z, mostly because he's been able to do something that is very rare, which is be a really great artist, but also flip that into a business empire and manage it very well. No one's quite done it as big as he's done it. Definitely Prince and Michael Jackson, [they] just became larger than life, and were kind of on their own planet being that talented. I can't even imagine what life is like being that big.

All Eyez on Me is in theaters today!