Shameik Moore is rapping The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Warning” over the phone. He cuts himself off after a few lines and shifts seamlessly into 2pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” He’s offering up a taste of the 1990s hip hop culture in which he immersed himself to prepare for the role of Malcolm in Dope, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age comedy, in theaters Jun. 19. Malcolm sports a flattop haircut and listens to N.W.A on a Walkman while riding his BMX bike. That means Moore, who was born in 1995—making him a toddler when both Biggie and 2Pac were killed—had a little studying to do.
Dope follows Malcolm and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), three kids from rough-and-tumble Inglewood, Calif., who get mixed up in a high-stakes drug deal after a backpack switcheroo. Malcolm has his sights set on both Harvard and the down-to-earth, dating-the-local-drug-dealer girl next door (Zoë Kravitz), but a slew of obstacles (the drugs and the dealer, to name a few) make both a long shot.
Since Dope premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the multitalented Moore, who also sings on the movie’s soundtrack, has been catapulted into the spotlight—landing on lists of breakout stars, actors to watch and most beautiful people. If it sounds like a lot of pressure, Moore only sees it as fuel to keep pushing. Starting out with such an unqualified success, he says, means he has to work even harder: “I can’t go backwards and I can’t stay still,” he says.
Moore had a number of credits to his name before Dope, though none big enough to make the kind of splash that this film has. After his dad took him to see You Got Served in 2004, he says, “I left the theater dancing,” planting the seed for a dance career that landed him spots in commercials and music videos. But he wanted to talk, not just move his body. He got cast in Cartoon Network’s Incredible Crew and episodes of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and the BET series Reed Between the Lines. Then, after coming close to booking a handful of projects for Disney and Nickelodeon, he found himself sending that audition tape off to Famuyiwa.
Moore credits Famuyiwa, who also gave Taye Diggs and Omar Epps major early career exposure, with opening the door to his newfound star power. “Imagine you’re in a dark room, he says, “and you see light creep underneath the door, and you kick that thing down.” He pauses. “It’s him standing on the other side.” Without Famuyiwa, there is no Dope, and without Dope, Moore is still knocking on the door, waiting for an answer.
The audition tape Moore mailed to Famuyiwa from his hometown of Atlanta was one of hundreds he’d sent out for different projects. “I would send in [tapes], they would fly me out, I would test with them,” he says of the process. “It was [often] down to me and somebody else and it wouldn’t work out.” In retrospect, he’s not only thankful that it was the audition for Dope that panned out first—he believes it was destiny: “The reason everything else didn’t work out is because it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I wanted for myself. This is the way I was supposed to come out to the world. It was written.” Moore makes a lot of bold statements like this, then follows them with a moment of sheepish laughter, as though attempting to dial it back a few degrees. But it may just be this messy balance of infectious optimism and youthful arrogance that caught Famuyiwa’s eye in the first place.
Moore, who’s currently filming Baz Luhrmann’s South Bronx, birth-of-hip-hop Netflix series The Get Down, doesn’t so much situate himself in the world of entertainment as he does in the grand scheme of history. He imagines himself a bold tick-mark on the human timeline: “A hundred years from now [they’ll say], when Shameik Moore came and hit the world, everything changed. There was all this that happened until the point Shameik came out, and after Shameik came out, everything changed for the better.”
Chalk it up to delusions of grandeur or bushy-tailed ambition. Either way, Moore has no plans to slow down, and he’s confident that he and his new mentor will someday reprise the success they’ve made of Dope. “The world’s gonna look forward to the next time Rick Famuyiwa and Shameik Moore team up.”