Everything peaked for Tyrin Turner at the 9th Annual Independent Spirit Awards. Nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Menace II Society, a chill ran down Turner’s spine as his name was announced alongside the likes of Jeff Bridges, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Matthew Modine. Turner didn’t win the Spirit Award, but Roger Ebert pulled him aside that night and told him he should have been up for an Oscar. He belonged at “the Big Show,” Ebert said. Turner mesmerized in Menace as Caine, a crack dealer and a killer, an aspiring father figure and a confused teen. Turner’s quizzical expression conveyed all the awe and bewilderment of a teenager enraptured by South-Central gang life. His warm smile made him a heartthrob, and yet he burns with violence throughout the film.
Turner was in a rare and coveted position. By the time he was 22 years old, he’d starred in one of the most iconic films of the decade, befriended rising filmmakers, and been feted with nominations and acclaim. Janet Jackson even told him he had “some of the sexiest lips [she] ever saw.” Then, he disappeared from view.
In 2009, I asked Allen Hughes, the codirector of Menace II Society, about Turner.
“Tyrin Turner is like a street legend,” he said. “He’s like a ghetto celebrity, a ghetto rock star. He’s an enigma.”
Twenty years later, 41-year-old Tyrin Turner1 is wandering around a creaky house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood clutching a pair of prosthetic legs. He’s filming an untitled short film directed by his best friend, Jamie Foxx, for Canon’s Project Imaginat10n campaign. He’s playing a mad scientist and he could not be happier about it. It’s unlike anything he’s done before, especially Menace‘s Caine, the part that launched and in many ways cursed his career. Caine still consumes him.
Turner wears black, thick-framed glasses and sagging khaki pants. Shirtless for much of the film, he is short and compact, with the sculpted physique of a welterweight fighter. His face is youthful and his head full of hair, though it has begun to recede an inch or two. Once shooting begins, Turner steps through machine-churned fog.
“Get more heroic, T!” Foxx instructs from behind the camera.
Turner then raises the prosthetic limbs, presenting them to his bride, played by the actress Nichole Galicia.
“Cut!” Foxx shouts. “This nigga’s a superhero.”
Foxx is confident Turner’s second chance is coming. “I think Tyrin is blessed with a certain quality,” he tells me later. “When you see him on film, you are automatically drawn to him.”
During downtime on set, Turner wanders off, clutching his iPhone, while Foxx, friends, and Indiana Pacers forward David West — in town for a playoff game — gather on the stoop and swap NBA gossip.2 The towering elm trees thwart the late-afternoon sun, and from here the house looks like Michael Myers’s home from Halloween.
Later, Foxx tells West about a recent night at a New York nightclub. Foxx watched as Leonardo DiCaprio approached Turner and spent the next hour quoting Menace II Society back to him. Foxx also recalls a recent encounter with A$AP Rocky and his sister backstage at a Rihanna concert. The rapper posted a photo to Instagram; his sister was starstruck, though not for the movie star. Rocky’s sister was unimpressed with Foxx. Then she spotted Turner. “Oh my god! Caine! Caine!” she squealed.
Then Foxx turns serious and looks down at the lawn. “I’m telling him to get back out there,” he says. Turner is off somewhere, still fiddling with his phone.
A few days earlier, Turner sat in the Club Room of the Soho Grand to discuss comeback plans. For now, it consists of the short film, which will be released in October, and a starring role in Rick Ross’s “Box Chevy” video. Which is to say, he’s still figuring it all out. Within moments of arriving, a redhead taking our dinner order distracts him. “Are you a model, or are you just tall?” he says, flirting awkwardly. She smiles, then shies away. “It’s time to show the diversity of myself as an actor,” he says, scratching the mangy beard he’d grown for the short. “I’m taking it all the way from Caine.”
After spotting him as the wandering teen in Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video and an America’s Most Wanted reenactment in which he portrayed a gang member, the Hughes brothers quickly made Tyrin Turner their first choice for Caine. “His dialogue was so genuine,” Allen Hughes told me. “You just knew it.” Two years earlier, he auditioned for (and failed to secure) the lead in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. That part went to Cuba Gooding Jr., who went on to an Oscar-winning career. But when Turner met the Hugheses, the process was merely a formality. One night over dinner at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, the brothers offered Turner the part.
He made the most of his break at first. Though Larenz Tate had the one-liners and the flashy scenes as blithe killer O-Dog, it’s ultimately a supporting role. Caine, who’s in nearly every scene, is the film’s heartbeat. By its May 1993 release, Menace II Society was positioned for unlikely success. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King incident, the subsequent L.A. riots, and the gang truce between the Bloods and the Crips, South-Central and Compton had become the locus of a national discourse on race, poverty, and violence. The city was also a pop culture nexus, with Ice-T, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg emerging as the most popular and controversial rappers in the world. They’d set trends — Chevy Impalas, Locs, Chuck Taylors, and bandannas — that became ubiquitous. L.A.-based films from the time period, such as Colors, Boyz n the Hood, Deep Cover, and South Central infiltrated theaters. And along with their New York and Midwest counterparts (New Jack City, Juice, Above the Rim, and Trespass), they ushered in a new subgenre of African American cinema revolving around family, friendship, and crime. They were dubbed “hood movies.”
“These movies opened eyes to how people can get caught up [in violence],” says Vonte Sweet, an actor who appeared in Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. “The people that do that still have love and they are still good people like you or anybody else who does bad things.” Boyz n the Hood, released in 1991, was the most successful of the bunch, grossing $57 million. Singleton became the first African American Best Director Oscar nominee in history, and the film was praised for its dramatic realism and depth. In retrospect, it looks restrained next to Menace II Society. Boyz showed audiences how to apply to college; Menace featured a primer on cooking crack cocaine.
Menace was a critical hit and earned $28 million at the box office, extraordinary for an independent release with no stars and an all-black cast in 1993. On the night of the premiere, Turner realized his life would never be the same again. “I never seen beautiful women like that,” says Turner, who brought his high school sweetheart as a date. “I seen all those other girls and I said, ‘Well, this is the last night we’re going to be together. I’m with the wrong girl.’”
Fame had its drawbacks, of course. He was mobbed on routine trips to the grocery store. Playing basketball in the park was out of the question. Fans hovered near his grandmother’s house looking for an autograph, a picture, something. “Where we grew up,” says Turner’s younger brother Little, “he was like a Beatle.”
Turner was raised in a small house on 51st Street and Hoover in South-Central Los Angeles with his mother, his grandmother, Little, and a rotating cast of family, friends, and neighbors who’d shack up when times got tough. His mother was 15 when he was born, and she was often out of the house by 7 a.m. for her job at the post office (his father reappeared when Turner was a teenager). At 5, he was taking public transportation unaccompanied. Around this time, he began hanging around dice games. The older kids in the neighborhood gravitated toward him, and when he was 12 years old, he lost his virginity to a 16-year-old girl.
“It happened in a weird way,” he remembers. “One of my homeboys called me and said, ‘There is something popping around the corner on 50th.’ I had a white BMX bike. I jumped on the handlebars, my homeboy drove me over there, and we went through the window and went in there and, you know. I went with my friend. The first time I had sex, it was a train.”
Life moved fast for Turner, but unlike the character that defines him, he managed to duck gang life. One day, he was caught stealing a pair of Vans from a department store and sent home, where his mother tossed him in the bathtub, ran the water, and pelted him with an extension cord. “After I gave him that one whupping, I didn’t have any problems with him,” says Turner’s mother, Delores Richmond. “He didn’t hang out with no one but family and turned out to be a very good kid.”
His uncle Rock Richmond, a former defensive back for the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL, told him never to drink or smoke, and he joined the baseball team after befriending future major leaguer Garret Anderson. But what Turner truly loved was performing, and despite receiving a D in drama class, he decided to become an actor.
“There was a big desire and a strong determination that that’s what he wanted to do,” says his first agent, Shirley Wilson. “He wanted it, and he was a natural.”
It’s not hard to see why Turner turned to acting — he has a certain live-wire charm, and that ineffable energy that often emanates from famous people. He’s animated throughout dinner at the hotel, acting out stories and gesticulating wildly. He’s dressed casually in a fitted gray Polo shirt, baggy gray sweatpants, black Nike slippers, black socks, and a black skullcap. He draws stares not for his slippers, but for singing along, loudly, to “Bette Davis Eyes.”
“You don’t know about this,” he tells me. “Kim Carnes sings this. I’m a little bit diverse.”
There’s that word again. Turner’s been promulgating his diversity for some time now. It may have been his undoing. After Menace II Society, his agent Chuck James pushed for mainstream gigs. He was up for the role of Robin in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, but lost out to Chris O’Donnell. Roles like that came up, but never came through. He could never lock down that crucial next role. The best he and James could book was a four-episode run on Chicago Hope. It didn’t help that Turner hated to audition.
“I think he was naive to the process,” James says. “He became famous very quickly from [Menace], and so it’s like, ‘There’s supposed to be an offer. I don’t want to have to go read on that,’ or, ‘I don’t want to read on that. I’m going to be offered it.’ He thought everything would be offered to him and that he was a star now and he didn’t have to work for it. Unfortunately, it still took work to get him parts.”
There was another problem: Returning to the “hood movies” that made him, Turner says, wasn’t an option. African American directors wouldn’t hire him; his close ties to the Hughes brothers and the baggage that came with an iconic character like Caine stifled his career.
Then, Turner tried to pivot. After he shot a cameo in the video for rapper Scarface’s 1997 hit “Mary Jane,” an idea struck. So many rappers had crossed over into acting; why not pull a reverse and try rapping?3 He signed with the historic Houston-based independent label Rap-A-Lot for “50 or 75 thousand” dollars. He adopted Caine as his rap moniker. Why Caine and not Tyrin Turner? “Why not? It was a recognizable name,” he says. “I felt, let’s capitalize off of Caine.” Rap-A-Lot CEO J. Prince and Scarface mentored him, while producers Marcus “7 Aurelius” Vest and Mike Dean handled production.
Although he’d never rapped before, relied on ghostwriters,4 and hardly considered himself a hip-hop aficionado, Turner took the career change seriously. “He was about music 24/7,” says 7 Aurelius. “It was surprising for people to see how talented Tyrin really was, from instruments to the melodies in his head. I encouraged him to write because his ear was crazy.”
Still, Turner’s rapping on the Geto Boys’ “Dawn 2 Dusk” and Scarface’s “Menace Niggas Never Die” was nothing like his acting. It was artificial, inauthentic, and rhythmless. His voice was too chirpy and his delivery stilted. Caine sounds as if he’s reading someone else’s words from a sheet of paper. He never gained a foothold with rap fans, and the album was soon shelved. By the time Turner returned to Los Angeles, his agent James had dropped him.
Turner spreads around the blame for his career struggles. It was self-inflicted: “I was irresponsible. I just let it happen instead of making it happen.” And it was the product of bad representation: “I just had a wack team.” He also holds the Hughes brothers culpable. The trouble, Turner says, started when he wasn’t cast in Dead Presidents, the Hugheses’ follow-up to Menace II Society. He says he should have been the lead, which went to Larenz Tate. He wasn’t asked to read, though he says he had no intention of auditioning.
“Why not use the same cast? We was hot,” Turner says, nearly shouting above the din in the Club Room. “I was new to it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like they should have had my back. I felt like we all should have made it after Menace — that was our sacrifice.” He then jumps from his seat, quoting Drake to hammer his point home: “Started from the bottom, now we here. Started from the bottom, now my whole team is popping, right?” Through his lawyer, Allen Hughes declined comment.
Almost two decades after they first worked together, Turner nearly reunited with Allen Hughes this year for the pilot for Gang Related, a drama series Hughes is executive producing for Fox. Then Turner learned he was cast as a gangster, which perhaps should not have come as a surprise — the show is called Gang Related, after all. Then he discovered that the part was closer to extra work than a speaking role. He called Hughes, who sold Turner on the possibility of making him a recurring character if the show was picked up. Turner agreed. Then, after deliberating, he changed his mind and decided to pass.
“I’m hurt,” Hughes later told him. “I really needed you.”
Turner says he texted him back, “I don’t know who the fuck you think I am. But I’m not that dude. I’m not a Crip. I’m not a gangbanger. I’m not going to come up there for $300 as an extra. It’s disrespectful. Our relationship is not repairable.”
“I’m still in a regular fight right now with my life. An extra? You want Tyrin Turner to be an extra?” He slinks in his seat, dejected. Turner has a flickering barometer: One minute he is all insouciant aimlessness, wandering through life; the next he is raging, aggrieved about the missed opportunities few have a shot at in the first place. He’s notorious in some circles for his fighting, taking on four guys at once, knocking out anyone who wants to take a shot at “Caine.” Hughes once described him as “the hood Roy Jones.”5
When we move upstairs to his room to watch the second half of a Miami Heat playoff game, his mood has swung again. He seems wounded over the incident with Hughes. “I’m mad at Allen now but I’m going to forgive him. I was wrong. I still love the dude. He made my career. I felt like I made him have a career — it was both ways. I feel like I should have been a star earlier and I feel like they didn’t care about me [enough] to be a star,” he says. Earlier in the day, after learning Gang Related had been picked up for Fox’s 2013-14 schedule, Turner congratulated Hughes over Twitter. “I’m going to have to call him and apologize. It’s scary to be an extra. It made me feel like I’m going backward. If he had a line, I would have did it. There was no line.”
Turner’s demands may seem strange after perusing his filmography. Supporting turns as a Texas cop in 1998′s obscure Little Boy Blue and as the banana-eating creep Rico in Hype Williams’s 1998 cult crime flick Belly hinted at his versatility. He logged a small part in the Redman–Method Man stoner comedy How High, but Turner’s recent credits are mostly marked by bargain-DVD bin-filler like Crime Partners,6 Nite Tales: The Movie, and Ghetto Stories. He spent some time writing for In the Flow With Affion Crockett, a short-lived 2011 sketch comedy. I ask Turner, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and is the father of 14-year-old twins, if these jobs and residuals7 from Menace amount to a decent living.
“When you do a lot of independent joints like Crime Partners, people pay you. It’s just different — paper bags,” he says. “I’ve done videos where you get 10, 15 thousand in a paper bag. ‘Hey, do my movie.’ Thirty thousand in a paper bag. I always knew how to hustle and get money. I been working in acting since I was 14 years old.”
Two weeks later, I meet Turner, Foxx, their friend “Smiley,” and four women at the Soho brasserie Balthazar. Turner is withdrawn during lunch, talking quietly to a towering blonde with magnificent bone structure seated next to him. Foxx, meanwhile, owns the room. After an hour of reeling off anecdotes about the famous people he’s hobnobbed with, Foxx poses for a picture with a pair of British tourists, pays the bill (leaving a $100 tip on a $300 tab), and leads the way in the drizzling rain to his downtown apartment. Turner lags behind, his hands deep in his pockets, dragging his black Puma sneakers on the wet concrete.
Foxx and Turner’s friendship runs long. They met in the early ’90s on In Living Color — Foxx was a regular, Turner was the kid who spiked the punch during a Mr. MacAfee sketch. They grew close over the years, eventually collaborating as writing partners. “I did stand-up comedy about three, four years ago and had to perform in like a week,” Foxx says. “We just rode around in my car in L.A. and wrote it out freehand. He wrote like 45 minutes of the hour and a half that I had to do. I didn’t have the jokes memorized. I was in the front of the stage. The curtain was drawn behind me. He’s in the back with a sheet of paper yelling out my next joke.” They’ve formed a company together called No Brainer; Turner is bullish on a Twilight Zone–inspired series they’ve pitched the Syfy network.
Foxx’s apartment is a massive, wide-open duplex with an inlet for a TV room. Near the stairs leading to the library, there’s a pull-up and dip station where Turner effortlessly knocks out 10 wide-grip chin-ups. He became serious about fitness five years ago. He wanted to appear “camera-ready,” and also send a message. “Hollywood could make you bitter or go on drugs,” Turner says. “I wanted to show that Hollywood didn’t make me stray. It didn’t break me, because I knew I was coming back.”
Through the lean years, Turner never considered a Plan B. He says he looks to comebacks by established stars like John Travolta and Mickey Rourke for inspiration. He was great once, he tells himself; he will be great again.
“T! T!” Foxx calls from the living room. Turner, Foxx, and the women gather around a MacBook to watch dailies from the short. Turner and Galicia rotate on a platform in front of a green screen. “Look,” Foxx says, beaming. “Look, nigga.” He jabs Turner’s arm. “It’s so beautiful,” one of the women says. “You’re going to be in an Armani ad after everyone sees this.” Turner walks from the table, grinning that widemouthed grin.
Tyrin Turner knows that he’s going to need help if he wants to make it back to that feeling at the Spirit Awards so many years ago. Travolta had Tarantino. Rourke had Aronofsky. Tyrin Turner has Jamie Foxx?
“It’s not what you know,” Foxx says, parroting an old axiom, “but who you know.” And so Turner will stick close to his best friend and write and create and network. He won’t let it happen. He’ll make it happen. It’s like that thing Denzel Washington once told him.
“I forgot what he told me,” Turner says. “He gave me some kind of advice about the industry. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was saying. Whatever it was, I think I’d get it now.”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, Wired, the New York Observer, and Spin. Previously for Grantland, he wrote about the secret history of Kobe Bryant’s rap career.