Interview by Justin Tipping
Images by Just Loomis
Styling by Alyx Cohen
Grooming by Heather Rae
“People get stabbed and killed over materialistic things.
I hope that this movie opens up some eyes.
It’s really, really happening. People don’t just get beat up;
they get killed. I hope this saves a life.”
— Jahking Guillory
Raised in Long Beach, California, actor Jahking Guillory makes his feature film debut in Kicks as its protagonist, Brandon. The fifteen-year-old is also a rapper and a championship athlete in football and track. Guillory played running back on Snoop Dogg’s junior football team, winning five championships, and won gold during the Junior Olympics in two events: the 800 and 1500 meter dash. His forthcoming work includes musical releases as well as the film Smartass (2016).
Hailing from El Cerrito, California, writer-director Justin Tipping is a graduate of the AFI Film Institute. He premiered his debut feature Kicks at Tribeca Film Festival 2016, garnering a nomination for Jury Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. The film is based in his formative experience of being robbed for his sneakers and grapples with the pressure for social status, sneaker fetishization and the violence that often ensures. Tipping’s upcoming work includes the screenplay for Lowriders, which looks at low-riding culture in Southern California.
The debut feature film of writer-director Justin Tipping, Kicks stars newcomer Jahking Guillory as he pursues his stolen sneakers through Oakland. The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2016, where it won the Jury Award for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature for Michael Ragen (Faults) and was nominated for the Jury Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. Supporting actors include Notorious B.I.G.’s son Christopher Jordan Wallace, Christopher Meyer (General Hospital, Wayward Pines), Kofi Siriboe (Straight Outta Compton, Whiplash), and Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Hunger Games).
In his powerful on-screen debut, Jahking Guillory plays Brandon, a small 15-year-old who sets out through Oakland to reclaim his Air Jordans from thieves on the street. The aptly-named Kicks is director Justin Tipping’s feature debut, and tells a story very close to him and his East Bay upbringing, when he was jumped for his sneakers. In homage, Kicks was shot on location in Tipping’s hometown, just across the bay from San Francisco, and most of its cast hails from the area.
The narrative of Kicks is personal to Guillory as well: growing up in Long Beach, he saw petty, theft-driven violence, once leading to the death of a friend. He talks with Tipping about how he quickly learned how to keep to himself, which in part has driven him to an already prodigious career: At 15, Guillory is an actor, musical artist, former member of Snoop Dogg’s football team and Junior Olympic sprinter, winning two gold medals. The two discuss Guillory’s first on-screen kiss alongside the film’s more serious concerns, including cultural ideas of manliness, material objects as status symbols and how both drive violence in the streets.
Justin Tipping: Jah, how are you doing?
Jahking Guillory: It’s all great man.
JT: You were 12 when we met and 13 when we shot. Now you’re how old?
JT: Let’s go back in time: Can you tell me about when you first found out you got the role?
JG: I was excited, like, “Dang, all that hard work paid off.”
JT: Where were you when you found out?
JG: I was at my house. My mom texted me.
JT: Did you jump for joy?
JG: No, I was like, “For real? Let’s get it. I’m going to kill it.”
JT: I also remember when we first met, you were playing football for Snoop Dogg’s team. How did that happen?
JG: I was actually playing on this team called the Inland Empire Ducks, and Snoop Dogg heard about us playing, like, “Oh, these boys are real good.” He reached out to my coach, who happened to be his cousin, so everything just clicked. I went straight to Pomona, started playing and won the Super Bowl there.
JT: Were you upset that you had to miss a season because you had to film?
JG: No, I was just happy to be a part of this film.
JT: On the football team did you ever think you were the underdog?
JG: Yeah, just my size, my hair. People were always like, “He’s gonna play like a little girl since he has girl hair.” But once I got on the field I wasn’t a little girl, man. I was the big dog.
“People were always like, ‘He’s gonna
play like a little girl since he has girl hair.’
But once I got on the field I
wasn’t a little girl, man. I was the big dog.”
— Jahking Guillory
JT: Have you always been teased for the hair?
JG: Yeah, that’s what kind of made me who I am today. I don’t even worry about that.
JT: So in the film your character says in voiceover that you’ve never been in a real fight because you’ve always been fast. Do you consider yourself fast?
JG: Yeah. I’ve never been in a fight because I’ve always been quick to walk away, run away or tell somebody, “Such-and-such wants to fight me. You guys should get him suspended.”
JT: You were in track too. What did you run?
JG: I ran the 200, 100, 1500, 800. All that. I made it to the Junior Olympics twice, and I won.
JT: Okay so you were literally fast, like Brandon the character.
JG: Second in the nation at one point in time.
JT: So now that you’re fifteen, who would win in a race between you and Kofi [Siriboe]? He chases you in the film and almost caught you. We had to yell cut. Do you think you could take him now?
JG: He is pretty fast, but I think I could beat him now.
JT: Was that [kissing scene for Kicks] your first kiss on the camera?
JG: Yeah. That was my first kiss ever, so it was kind of weird.
JT: Were you super nervous?
JG: I was nervous. I was like, “Mom, how should I kiss her? Should I kiss her like sideways? Slow? Should I give her like that [makes kissing noise] kiss and just leave? Just one little quick kiss like to the cheek or to the side of her lip? Not her full lip, because what if she gets her saliva on me? That’s nasty.”
JT: Well it was also supposed to be the character, Brandon’s, first kiss.
JG: Yeah everything worked out.
JT: Have you kissed anybody since?
JG: A lot of people.
JT: Do you think you got better?
JG: Yeah, yeah.
JT: So I’ll get this one out of the way right now because I have to ask. What is your favorite pair of shoes?
JG: Right now? The red [Air Jordans], you know the originals, because it’s Michael Jordan’s first shoe. Not because it’s in the movie or anything. Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time. I wouldn’t put Kobe in front of Michael Jordan. And then also some of Lebron’s MVPs. Those shoes are tight. Also everything Nike puts out is tight. The Kyrie Irvings. I love those, man.
JT: If you had to live with either Nike or Adidas?
JT: That was easy.
JG: Sorry, Kanye.
JT: Yeezy’s doing fine. He’s eating very well.
When I auditioned you, I asked you to recite “Party and Bullshit” by Biggie Smalls. Did you already know that verse going in?
JG: I knew of the song. I didn’t really know the words.
JT: You basically just came in and spit it, and it was very strange that you were twelve years old and were spitting entire Biggie verses.
JG: It was fun because I like to rap. I’m a rapper. Or, not necessarily a rapper. I would consider myself an artist. I make art. But it just came naturally… When I got to set, I was like, “Dang we’re using Biggie Smalls’ song, and Biggie’s son is right here. And we’re just chilling.” It was kind of crazy. I was starstruck at first, but everything’s worked out.
JT: So being on set in the Bay Area, what would you say was your favorite place while you were there?
JG: Just being in the Bay was my favorite. It was so far away from Long Beach, my house. I like going on vacation. But I love the Bay in general. The vibes and people out there. Everybody’s happy. Nobody’s rushing. Even when we were filming on set, people were standing by us. They were so excited to see a movie come to the Bay.
JT: Do you think your co-stars helped you take up that Bay slang or know what the soil was all about?
JG: Oh yeah, they showed me. When I got there, I searched Oakland slang like “yadidimean?” and all that. But they gave it to me in a more explanatory way.
“I just stick to myself. I always know
what I’m going to do, and I don’t get led
into anything. I’m my own director.”
— Jahking Guillory
JT: In the movie, sometimes you had to be big and bragadocious and sometimes you had to be really introverted and rap inside your head or get to an emotional place. How did you work on that. What were the differences?
JG: Being excited and all jumped up was pretty easy. But as far as getting to that emotional place, before the scenes you sat me down and said, “Remember stuff about your grandma.” You helped me get there. So I brought back all those memories and channeled all that into Brandon and the scene.
JT: Because you had a great relationship with your grandmother.
JG: Best friend. Passed away. Don’t want to get emotional, but yeah.
JT: It takes a lot of guts for a thirteen year old. That’s impressive.
JG: Thank you.
JT: Is there any other way for you [to channel that introversion]? Have you seen a kid ever get beat up over shoes or anything like that?
JG: Not even beat up, man. My friend got killed over his backpack. He was walking home from school to go pick up his sister. That was his daily thing, his walk way. People would say, “Where you gonna go? Kishan’s way?” And somebody came up to him, like, “Hey, give me your backpack.” My friend didn’t want to do it. He got stabbed 17 times. His sister was there [waiting], and I was sad for her. She stopped going to school. It was an emotional time for that school and for my friends. But yeah, people get stabbed and killed over materialistic things. I hope that this movie opens up some eyes. It’s really, really happening. People don’t just get beat up; they get killed. I hope this saves a life.
JT: That’s crazy. When did that happen?
JG: It was when I had come back from filming. I think it was two months after, so September. I was in eighth grade. But I knew who it was [when I heard about it]. Sometimes you just know. Same with my grandma. I just knew. Somebody said, “loved one” and I just knew. I just have that sense of feeling.
JT: But you’ve somehow managed to avoid the violence or be apart from it.
JG: I just stick to myself. Even at school, I would still hang with my friends and all that, but when they go somewhere else I’m like, “Nah, man. I’m going to stay here and wait for my mom to pick me up.” That’s it. I always know what I’m going to do, and I don’t get led into anything. I’m my own director.
JT: So what advice would you give to teenagers your age who are surrounded by that kind of violence? Or going through things like Brandon in the movie, where he feels like he has to go spend money he doesn’t have to get new shoes.
JG: Stay to yourself. When somebody who has that kind of that material stuff teases somebody else, they have to know you can really drive somebody crazy. So I think the person getting teased and bullied everyday, they should keep to themselves and not mess with anybody. It’s all about education. Once you get your education and somebody else isn’t getting theirs, you’re just shining on them. Education can lead you a long way. Those shoes and that stuff, they can’t get you a job.
JT: It’s temporary.
JG: It’s temporary. It could go like that. It’s like a napkin. You wipe your face with it then you throw it away.
JT: That’s a good answer. So Brandon is an outsider and an underdog—how are you the same?
JG: I relate to that 100 percent. In my neighborhood, I was always a small kid. In school, I was always a small kid. In football, I was always the underdog. So I related to Brandon because in his neighborhood, he’s the underdog. In his school, he’s the smallest kid. And Brandon proves the people calling him an underdog or sissy wrong. What I did in football, they would call me names and stuff, and I would prove them wrong. It was a time when I had to struggle. I’ve always had a roof over my head, but that was always that time when I wanted something and couldn’t get it. Brandon went out and got it, and it gets taken from him. But I wouldn’t necessarily go to that extreme of getting it back. I would probably go tell the dude’s mama he stole my stuff, and I need it back.
JT: But by not doing it, you’re probably making the more mature decision. Brandon probably did not make the mature decision in the movie.
JG: When you’re getting picked on and teased, it comes to the point when you are gonna flip. You’re eventually going to tell people to stop picking on you. So I think Brandon changed that. It wouldn’t necessarily be the mature decision, but I would say it’s the right decision from my view.
“It’s all about education. Once
you get your education and somebody
else isn’t getting theirs, you’re
just shining on them… Those shoes and
that stuff can’t get you a job.”
— Jahking Guillory
JT: So what’s next? Have you been working on other stuff?
JG: Right now I’ve just been holding out on stuff because Kicks is so special. I don’t want to do anything just for the sake of it being something. I want to do something that’s special, that has that connection to Kicks, to my heart or whatever. Right now, I’ve been in the studio doing a whole bunch of songs. It’s not even been rapping, just songs. You’ll hear it. That’s why I don’t consider myself a rapper. I’m a artist.
JT: Well, in the film your character is too afraid to rap out loud. And now here you are rapping.
JT: Can you spit anything on the spot?
JG: No, man. I’m just like Brandon. I’m scared.
JT: Okay, it’s good to know you’re still humble. How tall are you now?
JG: Probably like 5’8”.
JT: So you grew almost a foot.
JG: Yeah, I was pretty small when we were filming Kicks. When we were doing the re-shoots and I stood next to CJ and Chris I was like, “Dang, man, I’m growing.” I was to their stomachs.
JT: Is it weird to like see the trailer and see a younger version of yourself?
JG: No, I was just excited. It wasn’t weird at all. Once I saw the trailer, I was like, “It’s really happening.” I was praying. I’m very spiritual. Even before that, I was praying [about] this movie. Hopefully people like it. I was that kind of kid. I’m not necessarily like that anymore, but if it happens, it happens.
JT: You got any shout outs to wrap this up?
JG: Shout out to my mama. That’s pretty much it. Thank you everybody who worked on the film and who was on the film, from casting to the cast to the director, everything. Thank you. It was a blast, being my first film. It was a great experience.