Jarrett Ellis’ previous acting experience was in the play Three Little Pigs back in elementary school, but he makes an impressive feature film debut in All Eyez On Me, the Tupac Shakur biopic, as living legend Snoop Dogg. The tall, wiry 22-year-old, a native of Riverside, CA, who just graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a major in a cross-discipline, individualized studies fine art degree, grew up playing basketball.
Ellis was turned on to old-school hip-hop by his father, a recently retired fire chief, and remembers being mesmerized at an early age by the raunchy cartoon cover of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle album. He wrote a term paper for his African-American Studies class in college on the relationship between Tupac Shakur and his mother Alfeni, learning about the rapper’s own art-school background and his mom’s history with the Black Panthers. “That when his legacy hit home for me,” says Jarrett. “I began to understand what he was really all about.”
Jarrett’s resemblance to Snoop has followed him around since middle school, where his basketball coach and friends called him by the rapper’s name. But it wasn’t until a family friend, All Eyez On Me executive producer L.T. Hutton, who worked with Snoop as an A&R man at Death Row, Ruthless and Interscope Records, insisted he audition for the role that Ellis took acting seriously. His previous experience, aside from his grade-school theatrics, consisted of roles in commercials, student films and music videos (among them Vic Mensa’s “U Mad,” featuring Kanye West).
“He knew I looked like Snoop and carried myself just like him,” explains Jarrett, who auditioned for the role in Atlanta, earning the juicy role opposite Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s uncanny Tupac. Working with Shipp also helped him prepare for the role. “Seeing how he embodied the character of Tupac really made me believe we were back there in the ‘90s, hanging out in the studio and smoking weed. It was surreal.” “I looked at these old YouTube videos of Snoop just hanging out behind-the-scenes with his buddies, the more candid side.” Ellis also studied John Singleton’s 2001 movie, Baby Boy, to get the more hard-core gangster side of Snoop.
Although he was nervous on set at first, Jarrett quickly warmed to the part. “At first I was super-nervous because of the magnitude of the role. I knew I had to do it justice because Snoop is a living legend. The more we filmed, the more relaxed and fun it was for me, which is where I began to discover my love for the process. Just being able to work with this team of filmmakers and actors, how collaborative it was… that’s what I really enjoyed. Being able to tell this story people needed to see, to be part of history. The ability to be vulnerable enough to be somebody else.” Hanging out with Snoop producer and hip-hop legend Daz Dillinger on set was also validation for him, while Snoop himself has relayed word that he “loved his performance” and “I had his mannerisms down pat… that I killed it.” Seeing himself on screen was another rite of passage. “After I saw my first scene and heard the response from the audience, I relaxed and felt proud of the work I put in.” Although he has a home studio and beatmaker on which he plays around “just for fun,” Ellis is not quite ready to parlay his role as a rapper into a musical career, at least not yet. “I’m in no rush,” he says. “You have to learn to master your craft first. Doing this role definitely opened up my eyes to the possibility. I got to experience what it’s like to be a rapper. And what went into Tupac’s art.” Moving forward, Jarrett is using the exposure to “get my foot in the door, and see what else I can explore. Just keeping myself open and see where it takes me.
With his acting career off to an impressive start, Jarrett is anxious to keep working on his mixed-media art pieces and XK fashion line, hoping his new-found notoriety can help him expand in that area. His passion for sports and design led him to create, while still a freshman in high school, his own streetwear company XK (for Xtra Kredit), whose T-shirts and clothing – all sold online at www.jarrettellis.com -- is also influenced by hip-hop and California culture. Ellis’ current series of custom-made, one-of-a-kind installations, “Hoop Dreams,” includes basketball backboards and rims which incorporate gold-gilded frames and custom upholstery, selling to the likes of rappers Drake and Rich the Kid and sneaker designer Sean Wotherspoon, owner of the vintage Melrose Avenue clothing boutique, Round Two.
The product of a stable, middle-class family who kept him far from the streets (his father grew up in Watts), Ellis was able to channel some of his relatives and acquaintances to get at that side of Snoop. Socially conscious, he donates a portion of the earnings from his fashion line and art projects to the San Bernardino, CA, community, to fund food and toy drives.
His experience acting in All Eyez On Me have got him thinking, “If Thug Life can go to art school, maybe I can be an artist, too.”
Right now, All Eyez Are On Jarrett Ellis, because his possibilities are endless.