One of the biggest challenges for any filmmaker tackling a biopic is finding an actor who resembles the real-life character they’ve been hired to portray. Usually, you’ll get someone who can mimic a person well but rarely do you find someone who can embody that character from head-to-toe.
Sean Penn did it effectively with Harvey Milk. Jamie Foxx had us believing he was Ray Charles and now Jamal Woolard has successfully resurrected the spirit of the late Christopher “Biggie” Wallace in “Notorious.”
Faith Evans, Wallace’s ex-wife, said she was freaked out by Woolard when she visited the set with her son Christopher “CJ” Wallace Jr., who plays his dad as a kid in the film that hits theaters on Friday. “I mean, he even acted like Big when he was out of character,” Evans said.
Derek Luke, who plays Sean “Puffy” Combs in the film chronicling Wallace’s rise from the streets of Brooklyn’s Bed-Sty to the top of the rap game, was a little unnerved, too. “We were shooting some studio scene and I was out in the hallway. I turned around and I looked in the window on the side and I said, ‘Biggie?’ It was Jamal with the hat on and he was just resting. I went up to him and said, ‘Man, you just freaked me out.’ Jamal just embodied him.”
It took about 45 pounds, four months in Biggie boot camp, an acting coach in Los Angeles and the validation of Wallace’s mother Voletta Wallace to transform Jamal “Gravy” Woolard into the man they liked to call Big Poppa or the Notorious B.I.G. When Voletta Wallace, who is also one of the film’s producers, saw Woolard for the first time she said, “That’s my son there.
“He was wearing black with his Gucci glasses and I don’t know whom he was trying to impress because he never saw me,” she added. “He had on one of those Fedora hats and he walked in with a voice like Christopher and I had goose bumps just looking at him.”
‘It’s great when you’re compared to the King’
In person Woolard does bear a remarkable physical resemble to Wallace, who was 6-foot-3 and weighed more than 300 pounds when he was murdered at age 24 outside L.A.’s Peterson Automotive Museum on March 9, 1997. The most noticeable difference between the two is that Biggie’s public persona was pretty hardcore while Woolard reminds you of a giant Panda bear.
But even prior to playing his rap idol, Woolard was already spooking folks.
“People used to always say that man,” Woolard said with a thick Brooklyn accent that is about an octave above Wallace’s voice. “Oh, he thinks he’s Big… I was already rapping before all this as Gravy and I never sounded like Big. I had my own range. It’s great when you’re compared to the King. You always want to be compared to the best.”
Even though they came from the same neighborhood, grew up in single parent homes and are around the same age, the closet Woolard ever got to Wallace was watching the rapper’s funeral procession roll down Fulton Street in Bed-Sty. Once he got the role, however, Woolard discovered that there was an “undeniable spiritual connection” between the two.
“There were similarities going on while we were shooting,” said Woolard, who was an unemployed expectant father living in Charlotte, N.C. when director George Tillman tabbed him for the role. “Big had his daughter when he got that Bad Boy (record) deal that changed his life. And I got the movie deal when I had my daughter. It’s real spiritual and it’s real crazy. My daughter was born on March 10 and he died on March 9.
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“And even now it’s like he’s kind of hard to shake. Right now I’m talking like me but at times I slip back and talk like him.”
Ode to his idol
Woolard’s research on Wallace started with periodicals, listening to his two albums and watching YouTube clips. Unfortunately, there was more video documentation on Biggie than there was Christopher, so Woolard filled in the gaps by spending time with Evans, Voletta Wallace, Combs and various members of Wallace’s team, including his manager Wayne Barrow, another producer on the film.
“We had to teach him the way Big moved, how he sat down, how he would hold his cigarettes, how he would hold a can of soda, how he would say certain words and how he would slur them,” Barrow said. “The breathing, the voice patterns. This man even learned how to spit like Big. And then we had to teach him things about Christopher. It wasn’t Big, but for a guy portraying Biggie, I was extremely impressed. It brought back a lot of great memories but at the same time it left you a little sad because it was so daunting and trying every day to be on that set.”
For Woolard, who now plans on pursuing an acting career, the most important thing was to represent. He knew if he messed it up he might be deported from his beloved Brooklyn.
“I just hope I did a great enough job for the world to be happy with it,” said Woolard, who also used his own vocals on some of the music tracks included in the film. “I definitely didn’t want to make any mistakes. I definitely made sure I put my perfection on because for the people who didn’t know Big, I didn’t want to make a mistake and put Jamal in it any way, shape or form. I kept it all Big. I kept it all Christopher. I kept it all Notorious.
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