NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Biggie is coming to the big screen. Fox Searchlight has hired Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn-based rapper, to play late rap icon Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., in its upcoming biopic "Notorious."
Derek Luke, Angela Bassett and Anthony Mackie also have been cast in the movie, the art-house studio said. Directed by George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food"), it goes into production this month and is set for release in January.
Luke ("Catch a Fire") will play Biggie record producer Sean "Diddy" Combs, who off-screen is an executive producer on the film. Mackie ("Brother to Brother") will play rival rapper Tupac Shakur, while Bassett ("Akeelah and the Bee") will play Biggie's mother Voletta Wallace.
The production held an open casting call last fall in the hope of finding the next Notorious B.I.G., ne Christopher Wallace, the generously built East Coast rapper who was killed in an unsolved Los Angeles drive-by in 1997.
The idea, executives said, was that as with casting for sports movies like "Miracle," the production would be better served with a non-actor who can rap and imitate Biggie than with a pro actor who might need to be taught how to rap.
More than 100 Biggie wannabes, many of them non-pros and all with the requisite size, turned out to show off their rapping and impersonation skills.
Woolard, who also is known as Gravy, is not a total unknown. He has released a number of albums, though he's perhaps best known for being shot before a radio appearance outside the New York hip-hop station Hot 97 two years ago, after which he proceeded with the interview and became a part of hip-hop lore.
Like Biggie, Woolard was a drug dealer before he became a rapper. He had released a number of albums on indie labels in the 1990s before being signed by Warner Bros.
Voletta Wallace cited "Jamal's charming personality, warm spirit, wonderful sense of humor and beautiful smile" as reasons for the casting. "He is a talented and charismatic actor, and I am excited that he will bring Christopher's character to life," she said.
Biggie, who drew on his experiences as a drug dealer in his rapping, is considered a seminal figure in the hip-hop world; his posthumously released "Life After Death" was a top seller and is considered one of the most influential hip-hop records of the modern era. "Notorious" is expected to examine his troubled life, his music and his impact.