Kim Hardin had seen hundreds of kids. As days turned into months, the veteran casting director, whose impressive résumé includes Friday, Hustle & Flow, and Think Like a Man, was losing patience. Hardin’s specialty, as it were, was placing musical artists in films, from Ludacris in 2 Fast 2 Furious to Beyoncé in Cadillac Records. For Justin Tipping’s debut feature Kicks, she was on the hunt for a chubby teen to play Albert, the fast-talkin’, thirst-havin’ comedy relief—think Jonah Hill in Superbad—and one-third of a high school squad navigating the Bay Area’s mean streets. When C.J. Wallace entered the room for a chemistry read, something clicked.
“I got to see C.J. in a room with Jahking [Guillory] and Christopher [Meyer], and it was just magic,” recalls Tipping. “C.J. was ad-libbing with one-liners, just like he does in the movie.”
C.J. was born Christopher Jordan Wallace, Jr. and is named after his late father Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or simply Biggie—one of the greatest rappers of all -time. He’d had bit parts in films before, playing a younger version of his dad in the biopic Notorious and a neighborhood kid who befriends Will Ferrell’s man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous breakdown in Everything Must Go, but Kicks was his first lead role. And, much like his auditions, Wallace is a natural onscreen—a compelling mélange of self-effacing humor and laidback cool.
Kicks tells the tale of Brandon (Guillory), Albert (Wallace), and Rico (Meyer). When Brandon, the smallest of the bunch, gets his brand new Jordans jacked by a local gangbanger, the trio head deep into the heart of the Oakland hood to find them. And Albert is the goofball of the group, an aspiring R&B singer who hawks his Pussy Mixtape Vol. 4 on the streets while getting precious little action in the sheets.
According to Tipping, the script served as a mere blueprint, with the filmmaker communicating the general sentiment he hoped to get across to his actors prior to each scene. “After week one, it was just, ‘C.J., give me five different versions of this,’ and he’d nail every one.”
When I meet 19-year-old Wallace in person, he’s just as gregarious as he comes across in the film—albeit considerably slimmer.
“I was actually just grubbin’ that summer!” says a chuckling Wallace. “I’d just graduated high school and was not thinking about anything, and then I get this call for this movie and it worked out great. But starting this year, I began going to the gym, trying to get different roles.”
While the film was shooting on location in Oakland, Wallace would visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner from where he was staying three to four times a week. Each time, he was joined by his chaperone: Lil’ Cease, a Biggie mentee and member of his rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A.
“Cease was everybody’s chaperone. He was the Hood Pope,” recalled Wallace. “There was one day where some dude just came on the set and was like, ‘Hey, where’s Lil’ Cease at?’ The word just got around that Lil’ Cease was shooting in Oakland.”
Wallace is the son of Biggie and the singer Faith Evans, and was brought into the world on Oct. 29, 1996. Less than five months later, Biggie was shot to death in Los Angeles. The murder has never been solved. Evans married music executive Todd Russaw in 1998, who helped raise Wallace Jr.
“It took a while to really realize the impact he’d made,” says Wallace. “But at an early age, my dad who raised me, Todd Russaw, schooled me that I needed to be aware of who my dad was and his impact, and to not be afraid of what I represent. He told me, ‘Don’t be ashamed of anything.’”
His favorite Biggie song? “I have too many favorites, but if I could see any hologram song up close, it would be ‘Machine Gun Funk,’” Wallace says. “That’s the one right there.”
One experience that gave Wallace a greater understanding of his legendary dad was portraying him at a young age in 2009’s Notorious.
“It was nerve-wracking. I was really scared,” he says. “Playing your dad as a kid is scary when you’ve never had a conversation with your dad. Of course, my grandparents and my mom are always telling me, ‘You look just like him, you act just like him, you do all the same things,’ so it only made sense for me to play him. I was up for the challenge.”
After 2010’s Everything Must Go, Wallace took time off to attend Saint Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica, California. Though born in New York, the family moved first to Atlanta when he was 4, and then to L.A. at age 7. Wallace has been out there ever since.
“The sushi is great, man. All I eat out here is sushi,” he says, laughing. “And I wear flip-flops a lot in L.A. Flip-flops and socks.”
Yes, even though Kicks is about urban America’s sneaker fetish, Wallace doesn’t consider himself much of a sneaker head. He went to Catholic school, after all, where he was forced to wear a uniform every day (“I thank my parents for that because it taught me so many lessons,” he says). But one pair of shoes he covets is Kanye West’s Black Yeezy Boost 350s, aka the Pirates.
“I like the all-black Pirate. Those are clean,” says Wallace. “I don’t own a pair though, just to let you know. I can’t get ’em! You gotta get in a raffle to get ’em like it’s the lottery or something. It’s like, chill ‘Ye! Chill! Can we just get the shoes, man?!”
Wallace is also keen to follow in the formidable footsteps of his MC father, collaborating on projects with his half-brother Joshua, aka Jahad.
“My brother and I, we’ve been rapping since we were little. We’re taking the music more seriously now,” says Wallace. “We go by C.J. and Jahad. He’s a producer and he sings and raps, and I rap. We were born into music and it doesn’t seem right not to make music. Even if I wasn’t rapping I’d probably sing because I just love music.
“We’ve been working on this project for about a year now called Malibu Nights, and are hoping to finish the project this month,” he continues. “There’s a lot of singing on it. My brother sings, but I rap—so I’m on there rapping and singing. I can’t even compare it to Drake because my brother doesn’t listen to the new stuff. He says, ‘I can’t listen to that, because then I’ll act like it.’ So we listen to Dwele or Outkast when we’re trying to come up with new ideas.”
And when it comes to Wallace’s favorite rappers, in addition to his dad, he tends to lean a bit less mainstream than most. “I listen to Common, The Roots, Black Thought. I’m an oldies head,” he says, before taking a long pause. “But I’m just really thankful even being able to say that’s my dad. I can’t really explain how cool it is.”
As for Kicks, the film opened to solid reviews following its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, and gave the up-and-coming actor a great deal of confidence.
“After Kicks, I really think I can do this professionally,” says Wallace. “It’s a lot of fun and I love to do it. I also love music though, so we’ll see how I can balance the two.”