Sometimes talent rises to the top quicker than you might expect. Consider Jharrel Jerome. The 21-year-old actor’s first feature role was in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” where he played the teenage version of Kevin. That film just went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and will likely earn a mark in the top 10 on most best of the decade lists. Now, after two seasons on the Audience network series “Mr. Mercedes,” Jerome finds himself in the Emmy spotlight for his incredible performance in Ava DuVernay‘s landmark mini-series, “When They See Us.”
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Chronicling the incredible story of the Central Park Five, Jerome portrays Korey Wise, one of the accused teenagers who spent 12 years in jail for a crime he had no part of. Jerome not only plays Wise as a teenager but throughout the entire series until he’s over 30-years-old. That was not part of the original plan.
Jerome, who is currently in production on the third season of “Mercedes,” jumped on the phone yesterday to discuss his surprise at landing both Korey roles, his relationship with Wise and his reaction to the adulation for his performance from critics and viewers alike.
The Playlist: How did you first even just get called in to audition for the younger role?
Jharrel Jerome: It’s funny actually. I went out for the younger role only and I put myself on tape while I was down in South Carolina. And I had a full beard. So when I put it out, Ava couldn’t see it. She couldn’t cast me as the young Korey, because I just looked way too old. So months went by, actually, and it took months for her to cast, thank God. And so I wrapped the show [at the end of that month]. I was able to shave the beard as soon as I could and I went to New York where I went in front of her personally. I only auditioned for it twice. It was [on tape] and in person. So, when I was in front of her I was completely shaven. And I look like I’m 30 with a beard and 10 without. So she was very shocked and very stunned. After I did the part, she actually gave me the older Korey’s lines. And so that’s how it all came about.
When you went in for the in-person audition, did you have any idea she was considering you for the older Korey Wise?
No idea. I don’t think she had any idea either. I think her seeing me shaven and look so young was a shock to her. I think she still thought I was going to come in looking a little old, so she was shocked. Even when she gave me the other part, I didn’t think it was an idea of her casting me as both. I thought she had just changed her mind and I shaved my face for no reason and she wanted me to kind of play the older instead. It wasn’t until the moment she called me personally the next night and she said, ‘Am I speaking to Jharrel?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ she goes, ‘This is Ava DuVernay.’ I actually dropped my phone. You know like in the movies where the guy just drops his phone? I really dropped my phone and I had to pick it up. And yeah, know, she offered me parts on that phone call. And it wasn’t until where it all just was real life to me. And it just was insane.
When she said you were playing both parts did you drop your phone again?
Initially, it was excitement. It was pure joy. It was ecstasy. It was like being on cloud nine. It was like, damn, I gotta call my mom the second she hangs up. This is insane. It was nuts. But the realization of the challenge, and the work, it came a couple of minutes after. It started to settle in that this was not going to just be another project where I’d go onset, have fun and do what I love to do. This is going to be mentally taxing, emotionally taxing and it’s going to be a lot of work. Almost in the same hour, those emotions hit me, but they hit me very strongly. Both of them.
How much time from when you found out about the role to the beginning of filming did you have to prep?
The date was June 22nd when Ava called and I started to shoot August 1st. So, I had the rest of June and all of July, pretty much, to prep.
How soon were you able to talk to Korey? Or was that something that happened closer to filming?
Yeah, that actually happened closer to filming. For me, the month of July really was a lot of vocal lessons. I got on the phone with a vocal coach every day, to study his patterns and to study who he was. It was a lot of looking at the documents that Ava sent. It was the real courtroom testimonies and things like that. Ava provided us with all this material that was from the real-life event. And so for me, it was just weeks of rereading those, studying those. I re-watched the documentary a couple of times, but it wasn’t until I did meet Korey where Korey Wise sunk into me. And who he is as a person. He’s definitely a man that you have to meet to understand. And then I learned that the media coverage, I mean it shows two percent of who he really is. You know you don’t really get to know who he is through looking online or through looking at those manuscripts of him sitting behind a desk lying to police officers. You don’t get to know who his true character is.
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Ava brought the real men out to the table read. So, the first time I read Korey Wise’s words and used his voice out loud in public, I was sitting right next to him. That was a lot of gravity and a lot of pressure. But just after meeting him, his presence, he’s such a powerful presence. He’s become way more than just a man I’m playing on a TV show. He became a mentor to me, an inspiration, a big brother to me. And pretty much the day we met, we went right to Harlem. He bought me pizza and a pair of sneakers and everything. [Laughs.] He was so full of love and he was so full of gratitude for the fact that I was about to do this for him. But at the same time, he was guarded. He was restricted. It took a couple of weeks for me to really get to know him, know him. But that was the beauty of working on him.
Did he say anything before filming began, that was most important for him or that you specifically remember?
I don’t think it was anything specifically what he said, but it was who he is as a person now, today. We didn’t speak often about his experiences. He wasn’t open about the pain, about those darker parts. But for me, that was O.K. It wasn’t like I had to sit there and interview him and ask him, ‘What was this like? What was that like?’ For me, Ava put that in the script beautifully. She painted it all there. She painted the pain and the horror, just through the words of the script. So, if I needed to know what his pain was, I looked at the script. I need to know who he was. And so for me, I think that 16-year-old Korey Wise is still living inside of him. Still beating and strong, still trying to get out and be young and free. And I can get him. It was a lot of watching him laugh, and watching him say hi to people and watching him be, that helped me form who he was and get grounded in who is. Because if he could be this smooth and charismatic and loving to people today, I can’t imagine what he was like at 16 years old before the system tried to strip him of it. I had incorporated a lot of who he is today into that young performance and it was just about working backward. It was just about taking it off and, one by one, stripping those layers. The naivete, the curiousness, the excitement, the joy, the youth. And pulling it back over time in those prison scenes.
When he’s in solitary confinement, there’s a lot of scenes where, you know Korey is, I don’t want to say having a mental breakdown, but he’s reacting to his experience. How did you guys shoot that? How did Ava want that? Like how did that even sort of just happen on set?
Everything was just guided by the idea that we wanted to do this justice. You know, we had a major responsibility to these men. As artists, it’s our job to create a false world, to create an imaginary circumstance that people relate to. But this isn’t imaginary. This isn’t false. This is real life, so even having those men on set on days where it was dark and heavy, it was so important for us to remember that this was real life. So Ava made sure to shoot everything, to direct everything, with caution and care. I think that she treated this project like it was her baby. I think this was her most important piece so far because she was doing these men a service. And she was making sure that if she’s going to be the one to bring this to life, as well as me if I’m going to be the one to bring this to the world and to make people aware of the story, we want to make sure that we get every detail. We get every moment and we get every feeling and emotion that isn’t given, you know, when you watch the documentary or when you look at media pieces on them. You don’t see that heart and that raw emotion that they went through. So that was the basis of how we got together to make sure that we told this story, that we were going to be truthful and as real as possible, you know?
I especially remember over the first weekend when it was released on Netflix that people were specifically praising your performance. I couldn’t stop going through my stream and seeing people praise you. Can you talk about what that experience has been like and just the reaction overall to your work?
I’m stunned. Speechless, in a way. Like, I don’t even know how to … I think I’ve gotten that question three times today, and I start off the same way every time. Just because I’m still trying to figure out how it feels. It’s beautiful. It’s a blessing. It’s an honor. When I did the project, I was focused on doing it for those five men and I put my heart and soul into it. I don’t think that I’ve worked on one thing with more concentration, more focus and dedication than I ever have in my life. So for me to see it pays off means the world to me and reminds me that it does take hard work and it does take that focus to really make sure it’s done right. I don’t feel like I’m often proud of myself with projects. Not because I doubt my work or anything, but simply because I feel like there’s always more to go. There’s always that next step. But for this project, I can sit back and say that I’m very proud of doing this work, because of the heart that I put into it, and as well as the heart that the whole cast and crew put into it. I’m so proud and everyone got together to do something like this.
“When They See Us” is available on Netflix.