The season finale of USA’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. makes a case for who was responsible for the the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls while still raising plenty of question marks. That’s entirely by design.
As Unsolved creator Kyle Long explains it, he wanted to let viewers draw their own conclusions about the murders, while also laying out the theory developed by Greg Kading, a former LAPD detective and executive producer of the series who, as portrayed by Josh Duhamel, led a 2006 task force charged with looking into the death of Smalls in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the rapper’s mother, Voletta Wallace. The ambitious series also retraces the friendship and falling out between Tupac (Marcc Rose), who was shot and killed in Las Vegas, and Biggie (Wavyy Jonez); as well as the initial investigation into their homicides, as pushed forward by single-minded cop Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson). Long spoke with Vulture about capturing the details of such a complicated narrative, whether there could still be any developments in the Shakur case, his attempts to reach out to Voletta Wallace, and how he worked around the fact that Unsolved couldn’t use any of the music recorded by these two legendary artists.
I want to start with a very obvious question: Who do you think killed Tupac and who do you think killed Biggie?
I’ll answer, but I’m curious because you just watched it — what do you think the takeaway is supposed to be?
Well, my takeaway was that Orlando Anderson, a member of the South Side Crips, shot Tupac, and that Poochie shot Biggie as retaliation for Tupac’s murder at the behest of Suge Knight.
But at the very end, Russell Poole says something about Suge being the real target on the night Tupac was killed, which adds another question mark.
I really wanted to lay it all out there and let the audience decide, but to me, the Tupac of it all is really quite simple. It was Orlando Anderson.
What has happened since we made the show, which is fascinating to me, is that Keffe D went on a documentary called the Death Row Chronicles and confessed again. He doesn’t have immunity in that confession. He tried to get cute and says, “Oh, I handed the gun into the back seat, but I don’t know who pulled the trigger.” You watch it, and it’s like, He just confessed without immunity to being an accessory to murder. They should go arrest him.
Now, there are details that will never be 100 percent clear. But Keffe D and the South Side Crips killed Tupac, and everyone in that car except Keffe D is dead. If he doesn’t get arrested, I’ll have a hard time swallowing that one.
What do you think the likelihood is of that happening?
I mean, I would love to hear an answer from [the Las Vegas Police] if they don’t do anything. We’ll see what happens.
The Biggie of it all, that’s more complicated. I have more questions about Poochie and all that. There are more questions in that one.
So, you can’t say with certainty who killed Biggie?
Obviously Greg Kading has a strong take. I know he feels very strongly about it, I know the task force feels very strongly about it, but I understand how hard it would be to make that case in court. At the same time, that doesn’t mean [the police department] shouldn’t have tried.
In terms of the LAPD, do you think there was a cover-up? The series strongly implies that there was something else happening.
Once the task force was able to basically prove there was no way Voletta Wallace and her lawyers were ever going to prove some kind of connection to the LAPD, that meant that the LAPD would never lose this lawsuit. That was a big sigh of relief for the LAPD. They had been working it for three years — it’s a tremendous amount of money, it’s a tremendous amount of resource — so they just kind of disbanded it. But the question is, did they disband it because their job was done? They had proved cops didn’t do it. Maybe the LAPD thought they never were going to be able to see it all the way through in a way that was provable in court.
My take on Poole is that his heart was really in the right place, but by the end, it just became sad. He was such a tragic figure. He really believed all this stuff, but it became his identity at the end. Kading says it in the finale, “I don’t even know what to make of his theory at this point.” Every time someone poked at his theory and said, “There’s no way,” it just became something else. I really have a lot of respect for Russell Poole, and I really thought his intentions were good, but by the end, it was heartbreaking to me. How he died is just so sad.
When I was watching that scene where he has the heart attack, I didn’t know he actually died while he was talking to the sheriffs.
I kept saying in the writers’ room that our currency is the truth. There’s so many crazy things that happened that, if you made them up, you wouldn’t believe it. So that happened. He died still pursuing his theory. When he says, “I want someone to do something,” that’s the anger we all felt in the show. Like, “I just want this [investigation] to keep going. I want there to be a final answer.”
I’ll give Greg Kading a lot of credit. When I got involved with Greg on this project — and if you read his book, Russell Poole is not a big part at all — I told him, “Listen, I want people to be all in on Russell Poole when they’re watching him and be very objective about it.” I think that was tough for Greg at first because he had such a strong opinion of his own, and he didn’t believe in what Russell Poole was doing, but he really was wonderful about it. By the end, he really did see that there were some parallels between them.
Did you have an opportunity to talk to Voletta Wallace?
No. I’ll give you the whole story with Voletta. I always assumed there was no universe where they’d want to cooperate with a project like this, so I wrote her a letter and never heard back. I just assumed that she would be very anti this show. That kept me up at night. But I’ve heard since that she is very much a fan, which, I don’t really know what to take from that. If true, that’s amazing. It’s the best review I could ever hope for. She’s the heart and soul of this project. I get very emotional when I think about her.
What was it like for Aisha Hinds to play the part? I assume she didn’t get an opportunity to talk—
She did! I had reached out and never heard anything, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to pester this woman. That’s the worst thing in the world I could do.” I know Aisha had somehow gotten in contact with her and they had a nice conversation. I don’t really know anything more than that. You’d have to ask Aisha. But, you know, I can’t imagine a better actress playing her. I certainly feel we wrote Voletta with such respect, but the fact that she’s watching it is interesting to me. It’s a fascinating story, but is it fascinating if you actually lived it? It’s very humbling to think about that. I would love to someday meet her, but I’m trying to be so respectful about it. We all are.
In terms of Russell Poole, were you able to speak to any family members or colleagues?
Well, that’s a tricky one. It’s crazy how this works, but they were making a movie called LAbyrinth, where Johnny Depp plays Russell Poole. I don’t know anything about it, though I think it just tells the story of Russell Poole, which to me is just like, I don’t know how you can tell the story of these investigations without telling what happened ten years later.
This is a long way of saying the Poole family was involved in that and had strong feelings about Greg Kading that probably weren’t great, so I kept my distance. Based on Twitter and things like that, I know they have been surprised by the show. They probably thought I was going to do some character-assassination piece on their father. I look at it as very much a tribute to Russell Poole. They probably disagree with my take on the case or Greg Kading’s take on the case, but I would be willing to bet that it’s not the show they thought it was going to be.
Did you ever make any contact with Keffe D?
I did not reach out to Keffe D, but everything we have is based off interviews and transcripts, and I didn’t really feel a need to talk to him. One of the things that people don’t realize about making a show like this is the amount of legal vetting that has to go into these shows. I’d say for every script, there was an 80- to 100-page document generated by legal saying, “This is where we got everything. This is where this came from.” It’s a job on top of a job for everybody.
Was there anything that you fictionalized or dramatized a bit?
Yeah, there’s things that I did for dramatic license. Probably the biggest one is Kading and Poole never met.
The scene where they have that meeting with [Det. Daryn] Dupree?
I had to compress time. Kading had left the task force already, but Dupree did meet him, and [Poole] was the exact same. To do nine episodes and then not have them across from each other, I wrestled with it, but it didn’t take me long to be like, “I’m going to take one big cheat. That’s going to be it.” If it just had been Daryn and Russell Poole, it wouldn’t have landed as much for the audience.
What about Theresa Swann? The series doesn’t touch on what happened to her.
Well, that’s a delicate one. To make a show like this, if you don’t put it all out there, in this day and age of Google and Reddit and all those things, people are going to say, “Hey, why didn’t they tell that story?” Yeah, she’s out there, and I feel like the show does a fair job of pointing out the ruse they pull on her. When Greg gets kicked off the task force, you have the brass saying, “We don’t even know if what she told you was the truth. Maybe she’s just telling you what you want to hear.” I was very careful with that scene because they did kind of jam her up, but she also willingly said all these things in her own words — and has never taken them back, by the way.
Is all of this in Greg’s book?
It is all in Greg’s book, yes.
Does it identify her by name?
Theresa Swann is an alias, so we stuck to the alias. Legally, we had to be so, so careful with how we were putting this information out there — what she said exactly, how the police did it. You have to be very careful about it that way.
Were you paying attention to this when it was all unfolding 20 years ago? Not to minimize the seriousness of what happened, but it was like a tragic soap opera.
It was all really great television, right? But beneath it all is unbelievable violence. I moved to L.A. right around the time Biggie was shot, and I remember being right where it happened and thinking, “It’s just ridiculous. It’s a public intersection.” And then Russell Poole’s first series of articles came out, and the Biggie and Tupac documentary, and there was a big Rolling Stone article, just all this stuff. If you are a true crime guy like I am, you just were like, “Oh my God.” I was always reading and reading about it. Once you dug beneath the surface a bit, you’d say, “Oh, that’s an interesting theory, but there’s nothing really there.”
There are so many books, documentaries, and movies about Biggie and Tupac. How do you find a new way to tell the story?
Well, I knew we weren’t telling a biopic. We don’t have the music, and I knew we weren’t going to get the music because they’re notoriously restrictive when it has anything to do with the actual events. If you want to put a Biggie song in a movie that has nothing to do with Biggie, you’re fine. But even for the Tupac movie, they had to go to tremendous lengths to get that music. With a project like this, you know, they didn’t know who I was. They didn’t know what our intentions were. I was like, “We’re never going to get it, and I completely respect it.”
How much did that affect what you wanted to do?
I was like, “We’re not making All Eyez On Me. We’re not making Notorious. So what can we do that’s different?” Of course, you have to tell some of the key events, just to tell the story of their friendship. But we were always looking for different kinds of scenes. Like in the pilot, they run around the backyard with guns, and that’s a true story. Now, were there sprinklers going on? Probably not. That was [director] Anthony Hemingway doing his thing. We were constantly looking for stories like that. I’m sure some people think we didn’t tell enough of the Biggie and Tupac story. Everyone’s gonna have a point of view on it, and that’s fine.
How difficult was it to find other songs that worked?
We had a tremendous music supervisor, Lyah LeFlore. She is a fascinating woman. She worked at Bad Boy Records. She knew everyone. She just nailed it. There was a lot of just wonderful R&B music. Then we found Don McLean’s “Vincent,” which is in the episode where Tupac dies.
Yeah, I was wondering about that song specifically.
It is a little odd. But it’s literally one of his favorite songs. It’s what they played in the hospital when he was dying.
To me it says so much about him. He’s not what you think. He didn’t just like rap music. This is a guy that had so many interests. When I heard that, I said, “We’re putting that song in there.” It’s a beautiful song, and it really shows who he is in a lot of ways.
Is there going to be another Unsolved season that deals with another case?
I’m hopeful. I can’t tell you much more than that. They know what I want to do, and I’m hopeful that they do it. One of the things that’s so interesting about season one is to me, yes, it takes place in the ‘90s and all the way through 2015, but it feels very relevant. You want something that feels contemporary and speaks to a lot of things that are still going on today. So, that’s the stuff we’ve been batting around.