8 Mile | When Eminem learned how to act

The 2002 film 8 Mile saw Eminem hit box office gold – but it took a lot of work to get there. Simon Brew unpacks the journey Marshall Mathers undertook to pull off the acting performance nobody expected.


The 2002 film 8 Mile saw Eminem hit box office gold – but it took a lot of work to get there. Simon Brew unpacks the journey Marshall Mathers undertook to pull off the acting performance nobody expected.

Eminem as Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr.

In July of 2001, a few eyebrows were raised when an announcement of a new film project crossed the Hollywood trade press publications’ desks. It was, at the time, going by the name of ‘Untitled Detroit Project’, and was set to mark the movie acting debut of Marshall Mathers III, better known as the rapper Eminem.

It was, on paper at least, a logical crossover. Rappers moving into the movie business had been a thing ever since Vanilla Ice’s ill-fated vehicle Cool As Ice (look it up, you’ll only partly regret it), and across the 1990s stars such as Ice Cube, the late DMX, LL Cool J and Tupac had made the jump to acting, with various degrees of success. Then, of course, there was Will Smith, one of the flat-out box office champions of that particular decade. This was a well-trodden road.


What’s more it was, for Eminem, if anything a bit of an expected next step. After all, at the end of the 1990s, The Slim Shady LP had gone triple platinum, and 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP would smash records to become the fastest-selling solo album of all time when originally released. The hit records were coming, but also Mathers’ own life story was ripe for Hollywood interest. Certainly screenwriter Scott Silver thought so, drawing on Mathers’ own life for a film project.

It was in 2000 that the movie plan thus originally bubbled up up. It’d been developed in part by Imagine Films, that in turn had a production deal with Universal Pictures. The approach was to tell a fictional story, albeit one that leant heavily on Mathers’ earlier years. A character like him, but crucially, not him.


What was of surprise when that 2001 announcement popped up was who was behind the camera. Director Curtis Hanson had certainly enjoyed commercial success with two 90s movies – The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and The River Wild both enjoying different levels of box office stature – but he’d turned towards more serious fare since then. The terrific Oscar-winner L.A. Confidential remains a modern classic, whilst the Michael Douglas-headlined Wonder Boys deserved more than it got. 

What would he do next? Well, few saw an Eminem movie heading to his slate.

Bottom line: Hanson was a surprising choice for a film of this ilk, and he knew it. It’s unclear if he was even first choice, as the rumour mill suggests not – Quentin Tarantino was said to have turned the film down, due to his commitment to Kill Bill Vol 1 – but he nonetheless got the job. 

There was work to do, and no shortage of it. He hinted as such in an interview with The Guardian from back in 2002 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/nov/16/features, Hanson reflected that “Eminem being in it was potentially a liability from my point of view” when he was first approached about the movie. He wouldn’t hold back on this view either: in a meeting with Mathers over the project, he pretty much told him as such. As it turned out, it was a crucial turning point for the film and for the relationship between the pair. Hanson’s candour had won Eminem over, with the director saying “rather than insulting him, it was a great comfort to him”.

The pair wanted the same thing. A genuine film, not a two hour showcase for its star. “He wanted to play a part in a really good movie”, Hanson said.

B-Rabbit battling Mike (played by Xzibit)


That, though, was going to be a challenge. As much as Mathers had presented a controversial persona in his music (he was rarely out of the headlines at the turn of the millennium), he’d never had to deliver a character on screen in the way the movie was going to demand. More than that, he wasn’t an actor – and he needed to be. The script that had been developed – penned by Silver – ultimately required him to be in every scene of the movie. Few films have such an intense requirement of their leads, with the focus already likely to be on its star given this was his high profile film debut. 

There was no hiding place if this went wrong.

Furthermore, Hanson was very wary that whilst Eminem had projected the character of Slim Shady in his work, that was an about turn from what was actually for the lead character of Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith on film. He said to Rolling Stone around the time of the film’s release that “when you adopt a characterisation, that’s artificial. You hide behind that”.

As such, Hanson explained that “what I needed in this story was the appearance of a complete lack of artifice. I needed the appearance of one more or less exposing himself emotionally”.

For Eminem, this meant a huge commitment before cameras even began to roll. It meant putting his hugely lucrative music career on temporary hold, and utterly throwing himself into the project. Which is exactly what he did. Working in close conjunction with Hanson, the pair built his performance. Hanson would tell the BBC that it “was a real challenge for him and for me”, but added “he gave me respect, complete dedication and a real commitment to the story we were trying to tell”. The collaboration was working.

Furthermore, Mathers underwent a physical transformation too, changing his hair and losing weight in preparation for the role. As much as the film was based on a character akin to him, it still couldn’t be him, and that was reflected in the look he put on film.

Eminem and 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson


Mathers didn’t find making the film, by this time called 8 Mile, easy at all. In fact, when shooting finally wrapped up on the movie, which extensively shot on location in Detroit, Mathers had found the process so tough he vowed never go through it again. And in fairness to him, he’s very much kept to his word there. 8 Mile marks his only venture into acting, save for a couple of cameo appearances in movies as himself. He dabbled with possible roles a few times, turning down the opportunity to star in Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction film Elysium, for instance. That, and boxing drama Southpaw, that was originally envisaged as a sort-of sequel (a movie he began to make, but had to step away).

It’s unsurprising that he’d continue to be in demand on the big screen. When 8 Mile was release in cinemas, it’d be a triumph after all. Eminem got strong reviews, the film was strongly received, and Curtis Hanson had one of the biggest commercial hits of his career. It landed in American cinemas in November 2002, and would go on to gross $240m worldwide, off a modest budget of $41m. The DVD would be one of the fastest sellers of all time. Plus, just to ice this particular cake, for his music in the film – that he had to squeeze in during production – Eminem would also win an Academy Award. 

The story didn’t have an entirely happy ending, though. The brilliant Hanson sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of 71 after an illness, having had to pass over the making of his final film – Chasing Mavericks – to another director mid-production. Still, Eminem’s tribute demonstrates just how much the process had stuck with him. “Curtis Hanson believed in me and our crazy idea to make a rap battle movie set in Detroit. He basically made me into an actor for 8 Mile. I’m lucky I got to know him”.

The legacy of their collaboration certainly lives on too, with Billboard listing it as the second-best hip-hop movie of all time back in 2012. Nearly 20 years on, it’s hard to argue with that…

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