Malcolm, the protagonist of the fresh-to-death coming-of-age film Dope, is burning with ambition. He may be a poor, geeky, virginal black teen from the mean streets of Inglewood with a hi-top fade and a penchant for “white shit” like Donald Glover, but he has his sights set on Harvard.
Shameik Moore, the 20-year-old who plays Malcolm, has loftier ambitions. Namely, he’s after the King of Pop’s crown.
“The amazing part is, right now, the world is about to see only one-tenth of the brand,” says Moore with the braggadocio of a pre-fight boxer. “When it’s presented the way that it’s about to be, it’s going to be an awakening. That’s what I’m focused on now. For me to be blessed like this? I can’t take this for granted and have to keep pushing myself, because the world needs it. That feeling Michael Jackson gave, Janet Jackson gave, James Brown gave when they were in their prime? I’m not in my prime. I’m only 20. But what I’m about to present is something historical.”
Indeed, Big Sean’s “Blessings”—as sung by Riley Curry—would be a fitting soundtrack to the past year-plus in the life of Moore, who was plucked from relative obscurity by director Rick Famuyiwa for the lead role in critical darling Dope, a film that runs on a heavy dose of Moore’s boundless charisma and aw shucks likability.
In fact, of the main characters, Moore was the last one cast in the film. The casting director and Famuyiwa were having a difficult time finding their Malcolm—until they received an audition tape Moore had shot of himself from his home in Atlanta.
“I had sent out 100 audition tapes within 365 days, and then I got the Dope audition,” recalls Moore. “When I sent that out, two days later my manager called me and said they wanted to fly me out to L.A. to audition. So I called my Mom and went to the audition and saw Kiersey [Clemons], Tony [Revolori], and Blake Anderson in there. Then we started reading together, and it just clicked.”Despite having only one major credit to his name, the Cartoon Network sketch-comedy show Incredible Crew, Moore was cast, he says, “a week before we started shooting.”
But he almost wasn’t. According to Famuyiwa, Moore completely bombed his first audition for the role. He was in pieces—until he received a call from Famuyiwa inviting him back for a second shot.
“I had to do it a second time,” Moore says with a chuckle. “I was ridiculously nervous! I was shaking just thinking about it. I had a lot of pressure on me, and I’m not comfortable being uncomfortable. No excuses, but I was very thankful for the second chance.”
Dope centers on three ghetto-fab geeks—Malcolm (Moore), Diggy (Clemons), and Jib (Revolori)—navigating the treacherous hallways of high school by day and “hood traps” of Inglewood, California, by night. Their distinctive ’90s style was modeled on, Moore says, “Kris Kross, Aaliyah, and Kid ‘n’ Play.”
One fateful night, the gang gets invited to the birthday party of a local drug dealer, Dom, played by the rapper A$AP Rocky. After a shootout that leaves several men—including the rapper Tyga—dead, Moore comes into the possession of a backpack filled with the titular dope, or in this case high-grade MDMA, and a handgun. Caught between an imprisoned Dom and a crime boss, the green teens are forced to move the drugs the only way they know how: by enlisting the services of Will (Anderson), a hacker they met at summer camp, to set up a Silk Road-like online store on the Deep Web that runs on bitcoins.
Along the way, he runs into Lily (supermodel Chanel Iman), a drug-fiend nymphet who lounges around her father’s mansion in the nude. When she accidentally samples a bunch of the gang’s product, her horny meter hits Chernobyl, and she jumps a terrified Malcolm in a bathroom—only to puke all over him. Believe it or not, being straddled by a nude Chanel Iman is not as glamorous as it sounds, at least according to Moore.
“That was some pudding or some soup of some sort, but it was nasty. It was weird. It went in my mouth, bro. It was bad!” says Moore. “We had to shoot that scene about 20 times. At least it was Chanel doing it. I had a supermodel on top of me throwing up. Some people would be into that.”
Famuyiwa’s film was shot in just 25 days while high school was in session, so while the trio of Moore, Revolori, and Clemons were in the science lab packaging fake Molly, kids outside the door would be peeking inside with confused looks on their faces. “Tony was always telling everybody that we were shooting Hancock 2,” says Moore.
When they’re not dodging sneaker and bike thieves or listening to The Thermals and ’90s hip-hop, the trio also rock out in a punk band, Oreo. None other than Pharrell Williams curated the throwback soundtrack to Dope, and crafted four new songs for the fictional movie band.
According to Moore, Pharrell was pretty damn impressed with his musical skills.
“Pharrell’s chill, man. He was wearing the hat, too. I thought, ‘Wow, we’re in the presence of greatness,’” says Moore. “And working with him was crazy. When I recorded with him, he just said, ‘Bro, you got it—just keep doin’ it.’ By the time he came back, we’d finished two songs. He said, ‘Man, you done already?’ and I said, ‘Yup,’ and he just went, ‘I see you. I see you.’ It was dope.”
While Tony had the guts to try on the infamous Ranger Rick hat when Pharrell wasn’t looking, Moore says he was too scared: “I didn’t try on the hat. I didn’t want to get in trouble because he wasn’t in the room!”
He pauses. “It’s crazy to think about it now. It felt like I was shooting it for years, but it was only 25 days, and just to see what could happen in my life with a focused 25 days, I couldn’t be unfocused after that. I had to keep going. I’ve seen the results.”
In addition to the songs he sings in Dope, Moore, who got his start uploading dance videos online and released a mixtape called I Am Da Beat in 2012, is about to release an EP he’s really excited about called 30058. He’s also just begun working on a full-length album. “We’re just now starting on an album, but I have a project called 30058 that’s about to come out that’s already done. It’s six songs, and it’s crazy and amazing. Get ready,” he warns. “As the world found out who I am now on June 19, I want them to know that there’s so much more to come.”“It’s going to be a message,” he adds. “30058 is the ZIP Code I grew up in in Atlanta, so the music represents where I’m from, and the mindset of 30058. It’s got a touch of reggae and a hip-hop feel. It’s soothing, I think.”
He’s also starring in one of the most anticipated TV shows next year: Netflix’s The Get Down. Created by Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield), and directed by Luhrmann, it is, according to the streaming service, “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco—told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world…forever.”
Moore, who is the lead of the 1970s-set series, plays Shaolin Fantastic—a thrill-seeking troublemaker.
“Shaolin Fantastic is representing the birth of hip-hop,” says Moore. “We know hip-hop has taken over the world in 2015, but nobody knows how it really started. People know it started in New York with b-boying, graffiti, and DJing and all that, but the real story behind it is amazing. And I’m the character that that’s coming through? Bro, I’m affecting history.”
He takes a deep breath. “My character is b-boying and he’s a bad boy, which is a total switch-up from Malcolm. I promise I’m going to deliver.”
There will, Moore says, be plenty of opportunities for him to show off his considerable dancing skills, and he also gets to team up with another formidable musician-actor hybrid in Jaden Smith, who plays Dizzee Kipling, a member of his crew. “Jaden is a part of my best friend’s family, so we link up and become a crew. It’s an interesting situation,” says Moore, before chuckling. “Bro, it’s Baz Luhrmann. Trust that it’s gonna be amazing. Period. We’re shooting on location in New York, but there’s going to be some green screen, too.”
Moore knows he’s on a serious hot streak at the moment, having spent five years struggling in the industry and going on hundreds of auditions before landing Dope. He utters the word “thankful” at least a dozen times throughout the course of our chat. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t brimming with confidence and swagger—traits that should serve him well in Hollywood and hip-hop.
“I’m working to be the best—the very best,” he says. “There are a lot of people in this industry, and I’m trying to be the best. I’m working to affect history in a positive way.”