The young actor Corey Hawkins may best be known today for a couple of tough parts that betray his early days in gospel music and theater—Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, and Eric Carter in 24: Legacy, whose premiere earlier this year was watched by nearly 18 million people, the franchise's most viewed episode. Compton was technically not his debut—he had named an unnamed part in Iron Man 3—but it might as well have been, as it announced the arrival of a major talent, his performance drawing praise for channeling one of music's most well-known figures. Earlier this year, Hawkins, 28, had two big, fat successes—one was his supporting but pivotal role in the summer blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and the other was his return to his first love, Broadway. In John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, his classic drama about class and race in Manhattan society, Hawkins was Paul, a part played by Will Smith in the movie adaptation, and he must be seductive and repellent, worldly and naive, and, at one point, he must deliver a remarkable, showstopping speech about Catcher in the Rye that is any young actor's dream monologue. That he pulled it off against stage veterans like Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey would have been reward enough, but Hawkins ended up nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. Here, for our Royals portfolio, he recalls his hesitation about playing Dr. Dre, his acting idols, and why he's always crushed on Halle Berry.
Did you always wanna be an actor?
When I was growing up, I started singing first in the church with my grandmother, and I would sit on the front pew while all the other kids were playing outside, but I had to be her tape recorder. And the songs would get stuck in my head, and there was something about the theatricality of a preacher and an audience that was magical. That's always stuck with me, so singing sort of led acting.
So you've always been singing? What's your karaoke song?
My karaoke song is "Proud Mary" but I always sing the Ike Turner part, and, and my friend, Joaquina Kalukango, who's also an actress—she went to Juilliard with me—we would always do it in school, in college, and so she would be Tina, and I would be Ike, and we would just [hums], so that was that.
And what did you audition with to get into the Juilliard School?
I can remember it now. I remember when I auditioned I completely blanked on the monologue. I auditioned with James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," a monologue for David, and I worked on that monologue forever. Like, I knew it. It was my go to, and then I flew up to San Francisco and I got in front of the head of voice and speech and the head of acting at Juilliard and completely blanked. I was like, 'This is it. I'm gonna kill it,' and, I forgot it. They started laughing. I was laughing at myself because I'm a little goofy, so we were all kind of in the room laughing at the fact that I forgot this monologue, and I was just like, 'Sorry,' and they asked me if I knew something else. I did this monologue from YouTube that I saw.
That you had memorized?
I memorized it because it was Shakespeare and I had watched him do it, and I loved it. I didn't know what it was about. I didn't know what he was saying, but it just stuck with me, and at that moment, I pulled that out and I, and I did that monologue, and they thanked me. Then I walked around San Francisco and came back, and I was one of three names on the list. to come back in and audition again.
Oh my God. And did you remember this time, or you did something different?
Well, when I when I went back in they asked me if I remembered the monologue. I said, 'Yes, yes, I know it.' I did it. Then they asked me if I could sing, and I sang "His Eye's on the Sparrow" and that was it. They fly 40 people back, 40 children, kids back from all over the world to take classes, and I did that, and then they cut that down to 18, and I got in.
You seem very lighthearted about it. Was it nerve-racking at the time?
[Laughs] Yes, i's that moment where—and I have this sometimes on stage, on Broadway. You're standing in front of an audience of and everything just goes and you're sitting there like, 'Well,' and you look to your other—I remember we were doing Six Degrees of Separation and I'm in the middle of this huge Catcher in the Rye speech, and usually, when I look over to Allison Janney and something goes wrong, she's always there to catch me or John Benjamin Hickey's always there to catch me. But I remember looking over in the middle of this monologue, and I blanked on it in front of all these people, and she was just like [laughs], 'Sorry, can't help you. You're on your own, buddy.' But it was cool. You just move on, but your life flashes before your eyes. Everything goes still. It's like that moment just gets stretched out forever, and you're just sitting there like, 'Wow.'
So at Juilliard, they don't encourage you to go out for movies. Did you move to L.A. after school, or did Straight Outta Compton happen while you were still in New York?
Straight Outta Compton happened when everybody was like, 'Go to L.A., go to L.A.," and I didn't. I'm a city guy. I grew up on the East Coast. So I didn't wanna go to Los Angeles and they asked me if I could audition for it, and I remember telling no because I didn't want to be the one to mess it up. [Laughs] I didn't think I could play Dr. Dre and the reason I didn't think I could do it was because Dre doesn't rap too much in the movie, he mostly produces, and I had to learn how to DJ and do all that stuff. But the hard thing was getting him and figuring that out. I was nervous because it's Dr. Dre. If I walk down the street, you're not gonna go, 'Is that Dr. Dre?' Like, nobody did that before Compton. Now, everybody does it. [Laughs]
And he was there, because he was one of the producers, right?
Yeah, Dre was there every single day. His family was there every single day. Ice Cube was there every single day, and that's the quality control. They were invested in us doing this right. So every day before we would go on set, we would sit there with F. Gary Gray, me, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr. and go through the script and go through it with Dre and Cube and talk about how to make it better. And they and he, F. Gary Gray, taught us how to be leading men.
So you're in the Royals issue because I consider you a royal. Who to you, in theater or in movies, would you call a Royal?
I just have so many idols in this industry, from, from people like Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis all the way to Viola [Davisand] Denzel[Washingtonand] the young generation of filmmakers likeJordan Vogt-Roberts. I will say Mark Rylance. He's one of my favorite actors. I've seen him do small sort of Chekhovian adaptation by my friend, Christian Camargo, a small film called Days and Nights. I've seen him work with some of the biggest directors, but throughout it all there's an integrity in his work, and there's an honesty and a duty that he brings to it, and that to me is royal. And then when I say Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis, it's not just their work, but it's what they were up against while they were working.
Growing up or now or whenever, do you have a cinematic crush?
My cinematic crush was always Halle Berry. I know everybody says it, but it was and it is. My favorite performance of hers was when she was Dorothy Dandridge. I mean, I just remember the pool scene. She's beautiful inside and out, you know? And she also has fought through a lot to get to where she is, and she still maintains that grace and that regality and I love that about her.
We shot her last year for Royals in and her cinematic crush was...
Corey Hawkins? Her cinematic crush was me?
[Laughs] She hadn't met you yet. The movie hadn't come out, but there you were.
There I was, at the top of her mind
Watch: Halle Berry's Crushes Range from Michael B. Jordan to Jodie Foster