Jharrel Jerome made history Sunday night, becoming the first Afro-Latino to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for his role in the Netflix drama When They See Us.
A near unknown prior to his role in Moonlight (2018), the 21-year-old Jerome used his acceptance speech to pay tribute to the subjects of the series, the Central Park Five—the group of Black and Latino boys ages 14 to 16 who were forced by police to confess to the rape of Trisha Meili in New York's Central Park in 1989.
“I feel like I should be in the Bronx right now, chilling, waiting for my mom's cooking, but I'm here," he said as he thanked his fellow actors, director Ava DuVernay and his mother. "Most importantly, this is for the men we know as the exonerated five."
Jerome starred as Korey Wise, who was the oldest of the accused and served the longest sentence (14 years). It was later revealed that no physical or DNA evidence linked him to the crime. Jerome was the only actor to portray one of the accused’s journey from childhood to adulthood.
Two months ago, I had a chance to speak with Jerome who laid out his favourite Black actors, why he thinks it’s important to represent Black culture, and the mental cost of portraying Wise.
VICE: You humanized Korey Wise in a way that no documentary had been able to. As a Black man yourself, what did a project like When They See Us mean to you?
Jharrel Jerome: Aside from the fact that this is a true story, it's also so painful knowing what these men went through that reflects what some Black men go through today. I prefer to call it the Central Park Million at times, bro, just because this isn't just about these five men.
At times I look in the mirror and see Korey Wise. One of my good friends in real life looks like Raymond Santana, and another one of my homies resembles Yusef Salaam. It's crazy to think about the fact that it could have easily been one of us in that situation because not much has changed since 1989.
Every time I saw you on screen, I felt Korey's isolation and pain. If I felt what he felt, what's the cost on you personally?
Mentally, it's a huge cost. It's having to be able to dissect the idea that you're working and doing what you love. That become hard when the subject matter is so devastatingly traumatic. When it comes to When They See Us, I took that home every night. With a typical role, I can say ‘cut’ and follow it up with a joke. But with this one, there were a lot of moments when I'd go home and I couldn't sleep. I'd dream of being in the cell and physically I couldn't eat because I was busy thinking about the fact that Korey Wise never ate. I didn't see a point in eating, and that was hard.
Ava DuVernay had a hotline on set if you were feeling down or filled with anxiety. It was always an option, but I never took the time to use it even when I was tempted. This is real life, and we have a job to create these imaginary circumstances, and we need to pretend that it isn't all fake. This is real, and someone my age is sitting right now somewhere on his own island. I'm only living that life for a second.
I can't tell you the number of times I had to see Korey Wise personally and hit him up. Just seeing him smile and laugh helped. He never shared the specifics of what he experienced because it was all in the script, but instead, we'd talk music, girls, sneakers, and we'd have a great time. A lot of my therapy came from that, knowing that the next day, I'd be naked in a cell.
I've spoken to actors who had to explore feelings they wouldn't typically experience through their roles. I'm curious, how did you process your feelings playing Korey?
I learned the power of will, strength, and overcoming to the point of believing. Growing up in the Bronx, I grew up naive. I was surrounded by my community and rarely had altercations with police nor problems with local gangs. My understanding became, if you were surrounded by love, you'd be all good but that's not true. That naiveté was knocked out of me.
I still have to look over my shoulder to remain aware. All of this can be taken away in a second, and I have no control over my own justice in this country. That's a fear that I've now adopted. It's just funny that I've come out of a project with an added fear, but I'm still thankful for that.
Tell me how you feel as a relatively new artist getting to be a part of a project like _When They See Us_**.** It's a dream come true. Before I stepped into this industry, I had no idea what voice I would have. I didn't know if I'd spend time doing TV or be seen as mediocre. I'm just trying to stay true to who I am as I continue to move forward. If I can have a chance in this career to speak to people who don't get equal opportunities to be heard, then my job is done.
Given the demographics in Hollywood, do you feel like a lot of Black actors share this obligation to represent the culture?
My favourite Black actors who I've been inspired by are my age or slightly older, and speak on social justice. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield are among the list of Black actors who have attempted to break limits. We're being given roles that don't simply demand that we hold a gun, sag our pants, or curse. That's been a stereotype that Black actors have been regulated to for countless years in Hollywood.
I can't say that every Black actor has this mindset or view, but it's important because we've got one shot at finally having this opportunity. It only makes sense to me that I have to take full advantage of that. Yes, the paycheque is cool. Yes, the Instagram followers are cool. But when it's all gone, did you have something to say and did you do what you said? I tried to make sure that I did. So much of this industry controls racial tension and opinions. It exists in the center of how we feel about a lot of Americans and human beings. I have to be a positive version of that, and a stronger version of that.
You've had the benefit of working with two incredibly influential Black directors. Tell me what that was like.
Luckily, I haven't had a bad experience with a director, white, Black, male, or female. But working with Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins was about the common knowledge we shared. The same knowledge is common among Black, Spanish, Asian, and Indian people. If I'm in a room with another Black man and it's filled with white people, we already know; we don't even have to say it.
So for a director to be Black and allow you to act Black on set, that's a knowledge that can never be learned secondhand. We all know what it's like to grow up as a minority, and that sets an immediate tone. We may not have the same experiences, but overall, we experienced similar stuff. That's important, just as it's important for Black directors to tell their own stories with Black artists. We shouldn't have to change based on how it looks to Hollywood. Let's keep it real.
You're winning something, man, I see it. Or at least I hope you win that Emmy. [Editor's Note: He did.]
Thanks man. I appreciate the love.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
Correction, September 23, 2019: In a previous version of this story, Ava DuVernay's and Lakeith Stanfield's names were spelled incorrectly. VICE regrets the error.