LEFT TO RIGHT: CHRISTOPHER MEYER, JAHKING GUILLORY, AND CHRISTOPHER JORDAN WALLACE IN LOS ANGELES, AUGUST 2016. PHOTO: CARA ROBBINS.
Out tomorrow, Justin Tipping’s Kicks is a modern day, hip-hop infused version of Bicycle Thieves. Based on the first time writer-director’s own experience of getting mugged, the film follows the often bullied, baby-faced Brandon (Jahking Guillory), whose impoverished life is improved drastically when he scraps together enough cash to buy a pair of the classic Air Jordan 1’s (or knockoffs, but no one can tell the difference). Brandon’s high is cut short, however, when the psychopathic Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) steals his new kicks at gun point.
Finally looking to stand up for himself, Brandon convinces his best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace—son of Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G.) to join him in an ill-advised mission to retrieve his sneakers. Shot with fluid, lyrical camera movements in an unnervingly empty Oakland, Kicks explores the way masculinity, street violence, and poverty are so enmeshed, all through a pair of Jordan’s.
The definitive takeaway from watching the film is the power of its core trio, an immediately recognizable group of kids whose chemistry is natural and potent. Guillory plays Brandon—our hero—with a silent, emotional intensity, forever trying to match his personality with the intimidating front he puts on. Wallace’s Albert cuts the tension with his braggadocio, blithely claiming to have bed as many women as Wilt Chamberlain with little proof to back it up. And Meyer as Rico gives the three a de facto leader, an effortless lothario who’s defined by his charm, loyalty, and flaring temper.
Speaking to all three stars over the phone, it was immediately clear that their bond transcends the screen and that the story is an honest one. Guillory cited a friend who had been killed over a backpack and Meyer spoke of the film’s dedication: “We did this for the city of Oakland and for the poor neighborhoods. We did this for the ‘hood and for the youth, and that’s who we really want this to speak to.”
NAME: Jahking Guillory
HOMETOWN: I’m originally from Moreno Valley, like Riverside and [Inland] Empire. Now I’m living in Long Beach to pursue my acting career. I’m closer to L.A.
ATHLETIC BEGINNINGS: I’ve been playing football since I was five. My dad put me in it just to put me in it. I found that I really liked playing the sport. I would come home with bruises and nicks and my mom would complain, “Oh no, my baby is getting hurt!” My dad would be like, “He’s a boy, he can take it.” Football just came naturally to me. I’ve been blessed with this talent: speed and ability to run hard. I was pretty good. Running back, linebacker—I played every position.
COACH SNOOP: Snoop Dogg actually recruited me. When I was 11, my team won back-to-back championships. Snoop Dogg heard about it and he said, “These boys from Riverside—I really got to get a hold of them.” He got a hold of my coach, and my coach was actually his cousin. Right when they got in contact it was an easy team swap. I was on his team and he was the coach and everything. Snoop Dogg was cool. He was a great coach. I would be on the sidelines and he was very supportive. He called me King.
CHOOSING TO PURSUE ACTING: I started acting when I was probably seven. I was doing background and all of that. What really inspired me to be an actor was Disney Channel’s Suite Life on Deck with Zack & Cody. That really [made me say], “Mom I want to be on TV!” I just really enjoyed it. It was funny.
I didn’t really take it seriously because I was playing football and running track. I really started acting—like really, really started being dedicated—when I was 12 because my mom made me make a decision between acting and football. It was a lot of money going into acting and we were playing teams [in football] all the way in Las Vegas for tournaments and all that. It was too much and I chose acting. Right after I did that I became more dedicated to perfecting my game and I booked Kicks.
THE IMPORTANCE OF KICKS: It means a lot of things. It’s not just about kicks; it could stand for something else. Kicks is very important because people get killed over shoes every day, and other things too. One of my friends got stabbed to death over his backpack. He got stabbed like 15 times walking to pick up his sister. I hope this film really opens people’s eyes and lets them know it’s not just about shoes, This story is going on every single day. We are showing the daily Oakland life for teenagers. If this film saves a life then we did our job.
RELATING TO BRANDON: I could compare to him [in] many ways. Brandon is an underdog. People don’t believe in him. In football people didn’t believe in me because I had long hair. They thought, “Look at this little pretty boy. He’s a girl.” I proved them wrong by hitting harder than them and being faster than them and playing smarting than them—getting touchdowns every play. I proved them wrong and Brandon proves them wrong.
FAVORITE SNEAKERS: I have to say the Yeezys. Kanye West—he’s just so creative and stylish. Everything that he touches turns out to be gold. The Yeezys—I just saw them and took an immediate liking to them. I have two pairs. [laughs] I went to the Adidas store right when they opened and there was a line out the whole store and down the block! I was like, “What the heck?” Right [after] it was my turn they were all sold out. I love them. I wear them like every single day.
FUTURE PLANS: I’ve been so busy with meetings—meeting with directors, producers, everybody, new people. I think Kicks is so special. I don’t want to do anything for the sake of doing it. I want something that is a really good project and is as special as Kicks—one that means something.
NAME: Christopher Jordan Wallace
HOMETOWN.: I was born in New York—in Manhattan—but I’ve grown up in L.A. most of my life.
BIG BREAK: The first movie I ever did—the first time I ever really auditioned for something—was for Notorious. It was a really good experience to be able to do that at a really young age. I got a lot more knowledge on my dad from that. I [do] wish I was a little older so I could really understand. I was like 12 or 13 I think—still in my pre-teen years, not really at my full growth and knowledge yet. I feel that connection with my dad now that I’m a little older.
My grandma asked me if I wanted to possibly play him as a kid. At first I was a little hesitant about it. She showed me who was going to be playing my dad and I saw the resemblance and I felt like it would be a cool experience. I think it was kind of meant to be. I still had to audition for it. There was a lot of people trying to get my spot but I still feel like it was one of things where it was only right.
FOLLOWING IN HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS: With my siblings—we’ve been making music since we were little. Me and my brother and my sister, since we were nine years old or even before [we were making music]. My sister made beats—she was the first one of the pack to do her own thing. She inspired my brother and he started making beats and rapping. As I saw he got good with it we started our thing. Over the past few years we’ve been taking it seriously. We’ve been making music all our lives though.
Notorious—that was one thing I felt pressure with. That got all my jitters out my stomach, if you will. The pressure doesn’t really shake me that often, though it does with music more than anything.
GETTING INVOLVED WITH KICKS: My aunt sent over some sides to me. I was told to do a self-tape the first time, when I first heard about it. I sent it over to them and they loved it. I remember doing the self-tape in the car with my brother. It ended up being pretty funny. They liked my creativity and they called me in.
I did my first audition with Chris and Jahking—all of us together in the same room. We just had that connection. It was immediate, as soon as you saw it. At first I didn’t know Justin was the director. He was in the audition room while we were in there. I didn’t even know who he was at the time. It’s actually pretty funny—I never told him that. [laughs] Now that I know he was in there he definitely saw something in us three. It was pretty funny how that all happened.
WELCOME TO OAKLAND: I had never been to the Bay. That was a crazy first experience—to meet so many Bay Area legends like MISTAH F.A.B. and a lot of people involved in the movie. They were happy we were doing this and we were out in the Bay even though I think most of us have never been there before. I was accepted with open arms being there the first time. It was pretty humbling.
THE ESSENCE OF ALBERT: I’m definitely not [wisecracking] all the time—not as much as Albert. I’m more laid back. I’ll definitely hold my tongue sometimes. Being with Chris and Jahking—they gave me this confidence, and I liked being someone I’m not.
I definitely could say I relate to Albert a little bit—in a weird way. I wish I had Albert’s confidence. It’s funny cause he doesn’t get the girls but he makes you think he does. He plays it so well. You think he’s actually the dude he says he is but really he’s not. I don’t know if I wish I was Albert, but I wish I had his confidence for sure.
ON SET: We improvised. It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t say I’ve never had comfort on set but Justin was another breed as a director. He really let us say what we really say. He tried to make it as real as possible. It wasn’t like he ever gave us complete control—he definitely had control; it was always his set and his movie. It was cool in him letting us be real and ad lib and make things more real.
He also referenced the masculinity and being a young African American in America [a lot]. It’s really tough. It touches on so much. It’s a great story for what’s going on in today’s culture.
NAME: Christopher Meyer
HOMETOWN: I am originally from Brooklyn, New York—specifically Kennard Street, which is off the east side. Right now I’m living in Los Angeles. Acting prompted the move. [I miss Brooklyn] every day dude. I think New York City is the best city—I mean Brooklyn is the best city in America! I wish I could go back every day.
STUMBLING INTO ACTING: I went to an arts school. I only auditioned because my best friend auditioned and I didn’t want to go to middle school without my best friend. I auditioned and I was like, “What do I have to lose?” Apparently I got the highest score out of nowhere! I had never considered acting seriously. I had always been a class clown. I had always just been making jokes, making people laugh. Once I got into the school and started doing plays and stuff like that I really fell in love with it.
RAPPING AS A SIDE CAREER: [There were] many freestyle battles in the school courtyard. I remember going to school and there was always a big crowd and there were these dudes rapping. I remember listening and thinking, “I can do that!” I went home one day, wrote up a nice little thing and came back to school, did it and everybody went crazy. There was only one dude who was better than me and he’s my best friend. I now think I’m better than him. Ever since then I kept writing and kept writing. I came out to L.A. and saw how accessible it was to get into studios and I started creating. I actually have a mix tape coming out sometime in the fall. It’s called Wolftape.
JOINING KICKS: I had a meeting with my new manager and we sat down and talked about what I wanted to do—what project I wanted to be attached to. I brought up movies like Juice and Boyz N the Hood, Paid in Full—’hood classics like that. When [the Kicks] script came across his desk he called me very ecstatically. I was like, “Dude, what’s going on?” He sent an email and they were nice enough to send me the entire script. I immediately fell in love [with it]. I knew it was something I had to do and I had to do work very hard to get it.
PLAYING RICO: [laughs] Rico taught me a lot for sure. It’s fun to play like that. That part is definitely the most fun part—being so free and loose. Everything with the girls was improv, which was why it was so fun. I’d like to think he’s rubbed off on me, but you’d have to ask my lady friends.
OAKLAND AS INSPIRATION: I was scared [when I got the part]. I’m not going to lie. When you are a lead in a movie—whether it’s an indie or not—it can be a scary job. It’s a big responsibility that you’re carrying this movie. When I got it and I got the call that I booked it, I immediately was happy and then turned into fear. I have a big fear of failing. Before I went to Oakland I just didn’t have a plan as far as character prep. When I landed there it was very clear I had to immerse myself in the environment and becoming a kid from Oakland. I barely spent time in the hotel. I was out all the time—whether it was at the mall with my castmates, at the movies, hollering at girls in the street in places I maybe shouldn’t have even been in… [laughs] I did a lot of exploring—the good side and the bad side, all of it.
THE ACTOR TO EMULATE: Shia LaBeouf. I love that guy. I love the preparation he puts into his work. I know he can get a bit crazy sometimes, but I think you have to be if you want to great. Name one genius that wasn’t crazy and I’ll stop acting tomorrow.
I actually got to meet him at [the Tribeca Film Festival]. It was really cool. I was coming out of Paper magazine doing an interview or something and he was coming in and walked right past me. I literally asked this random lady, “Is that Shia?!” I ran and stopped the elevator he was getting in like an idiot and he stopped and talked to me. He actually saw Kicks and he gave me props.
RELATING TO KICKS: Rico and I grew up in the same environment. West Coast and East Coast are a world apart, but we grew up in poverty-ridden neighborhoods. I grew up with liquor stores on every corner. I grew up in a neighborhood where kids did get jumped for their sneakers or their necklace or their wristband or their hat or some shit. It wasn’t that hard to jump in the world since I’m from there. I relate to Rico. And we both smoke weed, so that helps too.
KICK COMES OUT TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 9, 2016.