Published on July 22nd, 2019 | by Percy Crawford0
From Weight Gain to Shaving His Head, Dominic Santana Explains His Transformation to Playing the Role of Suge Knight!
If you have followed the recent string of Tupac films, you should be familiar with, Dominic Santana who has portrayed, Suge Knight in the “All Eyez On Me,” and “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” series.
Portraying hip-hop mogul and head of Death Row Records, Marion “Suge” Knight is not an easy task. Knight, was a temperamental CEO of one of the most successful record labels’ in the 90’s. With Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, The Dogg Pound and Rage already on board, in the mid-nineties, Suge would add, Tupac to the roster to complete an all-star cast. The label would go through it’s fair share of ups and downs from, Snoop Dogg beating a murder case to Tupac’s ongoing legal battles. In 2017, director, Benny Boom and producers, L.T. Hutton, David Robinson and James G. Robinson would release, “All Eyez On Me,” a biopic dedicated the late, Tupac Shakur. Shakur’s role was played by, Demetrius Shipp Jr. while the role of Death Row CEO, Suge Knight was portrayed by, Dominic Santana. Santana has several credits under his belt including, “Dead Heist,” “Furnace” “Love For Sale,” and many other movies, but his light shined brightest in his role as, Suge Knight. In fact, he shined so bright in the, “All Eyez On Me,” film that he attracted the attention of the production team for a USA Network series titled, “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” where he would once again land the role of, mogul, Suge Knight.
I recently spoke to, Santana who takes us through his transformation to becoming, Suge Knight on screen, how he prevented not staying in character once off the set and how Martin Lawrence perhaps inadvertently inspired his acting.
How have you been?
Dominic Santana: It’s been great, man. My partner and I started this production company, so I’ve been more producer focused. That’s part of the headache of today; solving problems and fixing issues. But I’m doing good, man.
How different has it been being on the other side of things now?
Dominic Santana: It’s very different. As an actor, you’re kind of insolated and protected. Everyone wants you to focus on doing the best job that you can do. So, they pamper you and keep you away from a bunch of bs. You don’t really have to worry about anything else going on, on set or with the project other than doing your job. So, it’s pretty cushy as an actor, but then you get to the other side, the other side… you get to stick your hands in the dirt. You down there solvi0ng problems, fixing issues, negotiating and trying to get things done. The hard grind. It’s much more like the farmers work. The blue-collar work (laughing).
How much has, “All Eyez On Me,” and “The Unsolved Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” changed your life and in what ways?
Dominic Santana: I think the most, I have been a super-super, Tupac fan since I was a kid. I lived out west for like 5 or 6 years. It just so happened was in an era where Death Row was in it’s prime. Back at that time, with everything going on, they didn’t play a lot of east coast stuff. We moved back to the east coast, actually not long before, Pac died. I didn’t even know who, Biggie Smalls was until we moved back to the east coast. I’ll never forget I was in middle school and I remember everything being hyped about this, Biggie Smalls character and I asked the dumbest question, I guess at the time. I said, “What in the world is a, Biggie Smalls?” The whole class went quiet and they looked at me like I was retarded. I’m back on the east coast with my Chucks on and my locs. My whole west coast swag.
So, being a huge Tupac fan, I was one of them people that were like, “When are they going to do a Tupac movie? They keep doing all of these biopics, when does, Tupac get his movie and his shine?” To be a part of that and essentially having people from his circle say, “Now, you’re a part of his legacy in your own way.” Just feeling that, beyond the money and the fame and all of that stuff, that was the part that I was most excited about because, Pac is not here. So, as a super fan of, Pac, loved his music, to be a part of his legacy in some way, I was a kid in the candy store. I told them afterwards, I didn’t tell them before, “I would have done this for free.” I was that big of a fan. So, just having those experiences and meeting his people. Meeting his family, his friends and people from the Death Row era people he rolled with; Noble and E.D.I. Mean and Mopreme. To really get to sit with those people and hear the stories that you don’t hear in public; the backstories. Or stuff you did hear about in public, but you didn’t know the backstory or what was connected or how it got there. Listening to these guys talk and reminisce. Telling me about, Suge, telling me about, Pac and Death Row. All that insider information that I would have never been able to be a part of or even hear it. There are some stories that I will never repeat because it’s not my place to repeat it. But just to bare witness to the information, I never would have gotten that without this opportunity. It was a blessing, man.
I was going to ask you about that. Maybe I forgot or never knew about it, but the, Snoop Dogg airplane scene was the part that I had no clue about. I’m sure there were several scenarios and situations that you learned about while on set.
Dominic Santana: Oh yeah! It was a lot of stuff. It’s just like the dinner scene. I get so many compliments about that and people comparing it to, “Goodfellas” or one of these mobster movies. For me, that was a huge compliment. The funny thing is the writers… when we shot that dinner scene at, Monte’s and the writers came up to me daily like, “Man, have you seen that dinner scene from the other day?” And I was like, “Nah, I haven’t seen it yet.” They kept asking me about it. And the writers came up to me and was like, “Man, we just want to thank you for how you delivered on that scene. Dude, it’s up there with, “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather,” and I’m like, “Man, come on.” I thought they were just hyping me up. I was like, “I appreciate it fellas, but that’s a little extreme.” Then when the movie came out, other people who would approach me would say the same things. That would be the main thing they talked about. Everyone was like, “Man, that dinner scene. It was like, “Goodfellas.” It’s like, “Wow, I guess they weren’t just hyping me up.” But to answer your question, that particular scene was an actual true scene. That scene happened in real life. Every little thing, especially L.T. Hutton, it happened in other scenes as well, but that scene was real particular because they kept reiterating, “This is a true story of something that really happened. We want to show it as close to the way it happened as possible.”
When I stabbed the stabbed the knife through the plate, the knife going through the plate and breaking and sticking in the table, that wasn’t real. That was accidental, but it played off so well, they were like, “Can you do that again?” Just that whole scenario, I think it really captured… I don’t know, Suge personally, but just from everything I heard about him and everything they talked to me about him, I think that was one of the things that really captured, Suge. Because the hardest part about, Suge was, everyone always said the same thing. The thing that was unnerving about, Suge was, he was so calculated that you never ever really knew what he was thinking. You could be partying and having fun one moment and then an hour later find out that it was all just a setup to deal with this individual. Or you can think something negative is about to happen and it’s like, boom, he hits you with a good surprise or something. That was like his thing. You just never knew. You couldn’t read him. You couldn’t get a feel for the thoughts that was going through his mind. So, in that scene you see it go from celebratory as I’m walking around the table and then you just notice that the energy starts to shift slowly and then boom, it’s like, we thought it was celebratory. And then everything goes down like that. But yeah, the food and everything was important to recreate that moment at Monte’s as it was back in the 90’s. Stuff like that. Even like you said, the, Snoop on the plane scenario, I wasn’t familiar with that one either. There were multiple other things.
Even working on, “Unsolved.” The whole thing with the connection with, Tre Lane and all those guys; his uncle and how that kind of played out and connected. That’s what I liked about, “Unsolved.” With a TV show we had 10-episodes. That’s 10-hours to give way more details. I actually hate when people come up to me… sometimes people come up to me and be like, “Man, the show is better than the movie.” I’m like, “Dude, it’s 10-hours long (laughing).” If you got a whole season of a show, that’s covering a similar subject as a movie, and the movie is better than the show, that means the show failed. You have 8-more hours to go in depth.
You nailed the role in the movie, was it difficult to kind of recreate that same person and that same energy for the show because we rarely see an actor or actress play the same role for two different situations?
Dominic Santana: To be honest, when I take a project… and that’s the first time I had to play the same character in a different project. It’s a different team, different direction and a different vision. I didn’t come into, “Unsolved” thinking, “I’m going to do what I did in, “All Eyez On Me.” You can’t because you don’t know what the director’s vision is. You don’t know the angle. They may want to show a similar story from a different angle. You gotta be open to listen and accept what the director is trying to accomplish or what the producers are trying to accomplish. But before I went into it, I didn’t want to play, Suge in this light and then come to a show and become this wild and completely different version of, Suge.
So, before I even took the show, I talked to them. I actually flew out to L.A. and I sat with the executive producers and we had like a 2- or 3-hour conversation about the show and my character. I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page because I know what went into the care of the character in, “All Eyez On Me.” One of the first things the producers told me on, “All Eyez On Me” was, “This ain’t some of that other stuff you’ve seen. This is inside information. Some of us actually know, Suge. We’re been around it. We don’t want to sugarcoat shit, but what we want to do is show reality. Suge wasn’t just some crazy monster. He did crazy shit, but he didn’t just do crazy shit just because. It may have felt like it, but there were always reasons behind what he did.” Just from talking to those people, he was either the best friend you ever had or the worse enemy you ever made. That’s what they wanted to show, and I believed in that. that made more sense to me than any other portrayal that I had seen. That’s not shade to anybody. I’m talking story wise, that made more sense to me. As an actor… I even talked to the people for, “All Eyez On Me,” and I said, “Look man, I’m not a believer that, Suge was just some wild animal. So, if that’s what you guys want, I’m not interested.” And they were like, “No, we want to show, Suge the human being. There were people who loved him and there were people who hated him, we want to show you both sides as to why.” We wanted to make him human. Even some of your… and I’m not comparing, Suge to any of these people, but there’s people that loved, Manson and Dahmer. His momma loved him. He was human to somebody. So, you can’t just tell a story like that and not include any of the humanity in it. I know he did some crazy stuff, but, if we’re going to do this, I’m only doing it if we’re also showing the humanity. They were on the same page, so I wanted to make sure that the, “Unsolved” producers were on the same page as well. We talked and they were on the exact same page. “We don’t want to sugarcoat him; we don’t want to lie about him either. We want to show you the multiple sides of him.” So, we had a long conversation about the humanity of, Suge and showing him as a human being with feelings and emotions and a person who has wins and losses.
Sometimes you can play a character so well that even if there is little to no resemblance of that character you kind of start to look like them through your acting. Before the role, were you ever told you resemble, Suge Knight?
Dominic Santana: That’s the funny thing, I never got that reference in my entire life until I did, “All Eyez On Me.” Something funny that happened with that, even now, I’m 40-pounds lighter than when I did, “All Eyez On Me.” I had to put on weight to be, Suge. And then I had a head full of hair. I’ve never been bald in my life until I played, Suge. I just never really got those references. I got the, Al B. Sure references and all that, but, Suge Knight was never one of those. But after I did the movie, it’s funny because people would come up to me, people who didn’t know I was me from the movie and say, “Ah man, this dude come up in here looking like, Suge Knight.” “Hey Big Suge.” Trying to be funny and I was like, “Okay, I’m confused, are you just saying that trying to be funny or you referencing me from TV or movies or whatever?” Like I said, I just never got those references before and then I started getting it so much.
And my boy, Wavyy who played, Biggie on “Unsolved.” We were out in Burbank going to eat and somebody called me that and I was like, “Yo, I just don’t get that. How all of a sudden, I get all of these references now and I’ve never been called that before.” And he brought something to my attention because I’m a little older and he is a younger guy, he brought something to my attention. He was like, “Dom, you gotta remember, a lot of the people who went and saw the movie, you talking about 20-something years later. These people were babies and some not even born, so they don’t really know, Suge like that. they know his name and the reputation, but they’re not familiar with him like that. Pac is still super relevant, and everyone still listens to his music, Suge wasn’t an artist. He is more so like a myth to everybody. They don’t know much about him. They don’t look at him all the time. So, you playing, Suge in the movie… you did so good that the younger generation, when they think of, Suge Knight they see your face.” Even though, Suge and I don’t look exactly alike, I’ve kind of inadvertently taken his image as far as when people see me. It’s like, “Damn, that dude looks just like, Suge Knight.” Once he broke it to me like that, I was like, “Damn, that makes sense.” Almost like when “Ali” came out. Some younger people who wasn’t that familiar with, Ali, now, you say, Ali, they picture, Will Smith. Just crazy stuff like that, man; side effects.
I spoke to, Omar Gooding recently.
Dominic Santana: I know, O (laughing).
He said when he was getting into character to play, “Sweatpea” in “Baby Boy, he distanced himself from the rest of the cast and he really had to get into character to be a gangster. Did you have to do the same getting into character for, Suge or are you a lights, cameras, action guy and when the lights come on a switch goes off?
Dominic Santana: I’m a hit the switch kind of actor. I can’t even lie, I got that lesson from Martin Lawrence years ago on the set of, “Black Knight.” I was just an extra on that set, but Martin was one of the biggest actors I had seen in person at that point. He was real cool and everything. I was at that phase where I was just starting out. I had done a few things, but I was trying to do some bigger things. I’m listening to everybody do the, Meisner technique and do this and you gotta be all dramatic to get ready for the shoot. And I seen Martin come on and as good as he is, he was completely different than what I thought, Martin Lawrence would be. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but you know how crazy, Martin is in his shows and whatnot. He comes on set in designer clothing and he’s super chill and cool.
The Martin you see in, “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” that’s more, Martin for real (laughing). He’s quiet, he’s chill, and he’s just not saying a lot. The director was like, “Mr. Lawrence, we are ready when you are,” and I’m like, “Yo, why is he just so chill and not being crazy Martin; he’s Mr. Smooth?” He sat there for a minute and I guess he was just sitting there thinking of his lines or whatever, he jumped up and down a few times kind of hyping himself up, clapped his hands, stuck his hands out because he had gloves on. It was like February. He stuck his hands out, assistants ran in and pulled his gloves off and he said, “Alright, I’m ready.” And when they said, ‘Alright… rolling… action,” and when they said, action, he damn exploded. And I’m like, “Whoa, what the hell just happened right here (laughing)?” It was the scene where he came back from the medieval times and he was happy to be back and he’s running to all of the people hugging them and kissing on them and stuff, it was that scene. He just exploded on, action. I saw him just flip and turn into a completely different person in a second. I was like, “So, wait a minute, you ain’t gotta get all extra deep trying to get prepared and tucked away in your trailer with the lights off,” and all this other craziness. You gotta get to a place where, you know your job, you know what you gotta do and when they say, “Action,” you turn your switch on. So, that’s the approach that I took and like I said, I will always give, Martin Lawrence the credit for that. I don’t even know if he knows he did that for me, but I dumped all of that other crazy thespian stuff. I’m sure it works for some people, but for me… also, we play so many different characters.
Some people actually do lose their mind. People don’t think about, when you’re dabbling with all of these different personalities because we’re not impersonators. If you want impersonators you go to Vegas. We’re not impersonators. What we do is study the characters and then we engrain the character in our mind and then when we’re playing a scene, we’re not acting. People think we’re acting it out, we’re not, we’re living it out; t least the good actors. Good actors go in there and for those few minutes that you’re doing a scene, because you shoot it in pieces, but for those few minutes you’re shooting a scene, you’re living in that moment. You’re not just impersonating it. Audiences could tell if you’re impersonating a character. It doesn’t feel real.
Elaborate on that if you could.
Dominic Santana: It’s energy, right. Energy can be felt through the screen. That’s why you can sit there and look at something on TV that’s completely fake, completely written out of somebody’s mind and fictional, but it makes you cry in real life looking at it because it’s the energy. If the actor did a good job, they sent the energy to you. But that energy has to be real. If you’re supposed to be crying in this sad scene, I have to really live that and feel it so that I can send it through the camera, that way when you’re watching it in theatres, it comes through and you feel my pain. That’s what makes you cry. The audiences know when you bs them, so you can’t bs them. So, when you’re dibbling and dabbling in all these different personalities made up or real people and then you look up many projects down the road and you got 30-characters in your head, it can mess you up. It messes some people up. Everybody’s chemical makeup in their brain is different. Some can handle it better and some can’t. I’ve always tried to be wary of that because I’m a lover of psychology. I try to be wary of putting myself in a position where, I can’t even remember who I really am anymore.
Even playing, Suge. I didn’t do the method acting where I stayed in character even off screen. It did change my personality a little bit because I had to be in that mode for hours every day. I did get a little bit more bossy than normal. I was a little bit more demanding than normal and sometimes I can feel it and I have to reel it in. And then when it’s all over you’ve got to, “Thanks for the good job,” and then you have to somehow turn it off. Even when I left and went home, I had to be cognizant of it. people were like, “Man, you’re kind of demanding today.” And I’m like, “My bad-my bad. I’ve been in this mode where I was the boss and aggressive. I have to tone it down a little bit.” But it happens you just gotta be aware of it.
I appreciate the time; it’s been very informing and enlightening and I hope to speak to you again soon. Is there anything else you want to add before I let you go?
Dominic Santana: Just follow me on Instagram @officialdomsantana, Facebook I’m, Dominic Santana and Twitter @DominicSantana. By all means, follow me, follow my guy, Percy!