Most know her as Rachel Robinson in “42,” opposite the late, great Chadwick Boseman, and Abbie Mills on “Sleepy Hollow,” but Nicole Beharie is ready to take center stage with her turn as Turquoise Jones in Channing Godfrey People‘s “Miss Juneteenth.” Thanks to this film, Beharie, a graduate of Julliard, gets a chance to inject some life into a career that faced some hurdles after she spoke out about her working conditions during “Sleepy Hollow.” In “Miss Juneteenth,” Beharie plays Turquoise Jones. This former beauty queen is a single mother trying to steer Ronnie, her rebellious teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze), away from making the mistakes that she made in her youth and the baggage she inherited from her mother. More specifically, this mom has to prepare her daughter for the Miss Juneteenth pageant and all the difficulties that pageants entail. 

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“Miss Juneteenth” is a celebration of an important holiday and small, Black Southern culture. It’s also based on its director Peoples’ personal experiences and her upbringing in Texas, where the Miss Juneteenth pageant is an annual event.

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Beharie’s character is more than a struggling single mother; she’s a real woman with flaws and intelligence. The actress proved with her Best Actress win at the Gotham Awards that she may be the underdog in this awards race, but she’s more than belongs in that conversation. We had the pleasure of speaking with her about building Turquoise and how her collaboration with Peoples has made her a better artist.

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I have had the chance to speak with Channing and Neil about this film and their perspective. So, I want to take a little bit of time and talk about you. How did you come across the role of Turquoise?
Channing made me audition too many times! [laughs] I read the script, and then I did an audition, and I think they liked the tape, but they weren’t sure about my take on it. And then I was like, ‘give me some notes! What do you want me to say?” And I took the direction. We had a conversation, and we decided to move forward. I just loved the people that were on the page. I feel like when I read the script, I saw people that I’ve seen in my life or in passing reflected that I hadn’t seen in a particular way, with a gentler cut, if that makes sense. I wanted to be a part of that. That’s how it happened.

“Miss Juneteenth” is particular in terms of geography. Was there anything about being in Texas, especially a small town, that made you say, you know what, this feels like home?
I had to get my ego checked on that one because I’ve lived in South Carolina. I’ve lived in Georgia for a fair amount of time; I still have many families there. And I felt like when I read it, of course, I read it with the lens of my experience of living in the South. But Texas is enormous. It’s a huge state, and they have many different enclaves and almost like cultures within, cultures. Even if you go to Georgia, there are different parts that people speak differently. So, once I got there a bit early, because I wanted to grasp the specificity, Channing talked to me about the dialect and how people carry themselves. I felt like I knew what that was, but there was much more specific than I thought when I got there.  I liked that kind of challenge.  I’m not too fond of it when people of color are generalized. Not everyone has a Southern accent.

The same southern accent
Yeah, some people were living in the North. Some people were educated in different ways. Some people were aspiring to a certain socioeconomic status. So, they had even better diction than you would expect. There are so many different versions of Texas, and I got to dive in deep with this particular one. I spent a few weeks down there with a few people that Channing knew, that felt like, or were close to Turquoise, or that she had gotten some inspiration from. And I just spent time with them, working at the bar. I realized that I’m doing this for this community. And I wanted to blend in. I wanted to feel like I belonged there. I hope it worked. There are moments, as an actor, you’re your own worst critic, but there are moments I’m like, “ok, Nicole.” 

What was it like shooting in that town because, for Channing, that’s her community?
Not necessarily Hollywood folk, but when movie people come into your town like that, it’s like you said, it’s the culture that gets exploited for entertainment reasons. So, I had to earn their trust. Tell them that you were going to be good stewards in that particular space. You had to be like, you know what, I’m not just here trying to make nonsense and get my low kicks, but I want to do right by you folks.

One of the things I enjoyed about this film is it showed the complexity of being a mom. Especially in that type of situation where you have a daughter that doesn’t have a good relationship with her mother trying to steer her daughter from making their mistakes?
Right. I mean, she’s seen real red flags in her daughter or what she perceives as red flags because of how it played out in her life. But, if your parents let that sparkle, creativity breathe, it could turn into, for example, creativity or doing it their own way. She didn’t give her child the benefit of the doubt, or even herself as a parent had the benefit of the doubt. She had instilled certain values and freedom into her. What I love about this generational arc, if you see Turquoise’s mother, we’re seeing her in the story, she isn’t, at her height of beauty or sobriety or anything like that, but we get an understanding of what her point of entry is. 

She forced Turquoise to believe that you have to be beautiful and you have to marry well.  In turn, Turquoise goes through her life experience and her hardships. She teaches Kai about the pageant, and you must go to college, and you have to do it this way. You must do it the way I did it.  Her daughter rebelled. So, it’s funny that through that generational trio, there’s like some healing that happens. If it weren’t for Chi pushing up against her mother’s narrow and rigid way of thinking things, Turquoise wouldn’t have realized, well, I have some gifts here that have been undervalued. I’ve been running this business. Do you know what I mean? Like the whole time I have the agency, I have the capacity to do other things.  I love that so much. It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie where she says, “I just want something on my own.”

 We got to talk about Ronnie because as we’re watching the movie, we’re rooting for Turquoise, and just as a woman, you’re like, just let go of him. They know that they’re not growing together. Do you know what I mean?
She was me. The whole thing is about them choosing themselves by coming into that, especially Turquoise. I want to mention that, yes, Ronnie is questionable, but one of the things I do like about the way that the script is written and the way that it’s depicted, he’s not a monster. Everyone makes choices, the way that human beings make them, he feels like she has this pipe dream, and I’m investing in a business. 

He feels like the choice that he’s making is more sound, and somebody else could take that and argue, is that true?  But we understand that there’s a betrayal there. Right.  So it ends up being so complicated. It’s more living in the gray than in a black and white wrong or right. You know, the storytelling.  

My final question to you is, what do you want this film to say? Because to me, it’s like, on the one hand, you have Channing becoming a mother and her writing about her experience and her love for her town, and this is very much a love letter to black women for all the black women that aren’t “quote-unquote,” perfect. To say, there’s value in you.
I mean, so two things, one of them is let’s make Juneteenth a national holiday. That’s one, let’s make it a national holiday. It’s a part of our history collectively, but one, we can’t move forward, until we understand what’s behind.  So that’s number one. Number two, it ties into what you said last. How do I say that? Many people are given second, third, whatever chances, because they’re deemed good people or valuable or deserving of as much. Still, historically that doesn’t necessarily happen with us. So, we have to give it to ourselves, and we have to start having the grace to give it to one another. Imagine somebody is right here right now, and your road can go in a different direction than what statistics say. Or you have all the skills.

“Miss Juneteenth” is available for rent or purchase on all digital platforms via Vertical Entertainment.