Asante Blackk was one of many actors nominated for their performance in “When They See Us,” but he is the only one to say he got a nomination on his first performance. The young actor plays young Kevin Richardson in the Netflix limited series, his onscreen debut.
Blackk recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about playing Richardson in “When They See Us,” his reaction to getting nominated for an Emmy and Ava DuVernay‘s direction. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: First of all, Asante, what was going through your head when not only you got that nomination but when also seven of your co-stars were nominated alongside you?
Asante Blackk: First of all, I was so so happy for my co-stars. They’re so amazing and they’re so powerful in the series. They completely deserve it times 1,000. But for me, I was just in disbelief, complete shock, complete and utter shock and disbelief. I expected a couple of nominations. I expected that we would get nominated in Limited Series and I expected that Jharrel [Jerome] would get nominated for Lead Actor in a Limited Series but me, I had no expectation that I would get nominated. It was just an honor to be considered for a nomination but the fact that I actually got nominated, I just had no intention of waking up and saying, “I’m an Emmy nominee.” It was just complete shock but I was so grateful and so happy that my work was recognized and considered Emmy nominee-worthy.
GD: This is also your first major television role and to tackle this kind of story and this kind of character, was that intimidating going into making this project in the first place?
AB: Oh yeah. Definitely. When you’re dealing with a project that has such an intense subject matter and that has such an important subject matter, there’s definitely that sense that you really just wanna get it right and you really wanna do these men justice and you really wanna make sure the world sees their perspective rather than the perspective of the media that was shown 30 years ago. There’s immense pressure in wanting to make sure that every little thing is right, that you don’t do anything that make the audience say, “That doesn’t seem like it actually happened,” or, “They could’ve been a little bit better.” I really just went into the project being very nervous, for one, because of the subject matter, but also because I was working alongside legends, these people that are in this cast, they’re seasoned veterans and they know what they’re doing. And me, I am a newcomer and that was my first-ever project and I kind of said, “What do I have to give up against these seasoned veterans?” But I really kept telling myself that it’s not about me. This is not the Asante Blackk story. This is about getting these men justice and really showing the world the truth. I really kept telling myself, “This is about the truth. Don’t worry about you. Just put your best out there and everything else will unfold as it’s supposed to.”
GD: Starring in this particular project as this real-life character who, of course, is still living, he lived this, how much did you work with the real Kevin Richardson while preparing for this role, while working on this project?
AB: Kevin Richardson, first of all, he’s one of the most amazing, most sweetest people that you’ll ever meet. I really do consider him like a brother now. That’s the homie. But yeah, when I first met with him, we weren’t really talking much about how to copy his mannerisms or how he was when he was 14 or really much about the incident itself at all. We kind of just talked about his life, what he had for breakfast yesterday or how his kids are, how his wife is, what he’s doing after this. From that conversation, I felt that it was very necessary and very needed for me to see what kind of person Kevin is. Like I said, he’s one of the sweetest people and the kindest people that you’ll ever meet. I really, really tried my absolute best to take that sweet Kevin after he’s been through everything that he’s been through and transform it and put it into 14-year-old Kevin, because if he’s this amazing person that he is today after everything that he went through, just imagine how sweet and how kind and how innocent he was when he was 14. It wasn’t much work on the character himself but really just the aspects of his character that I tried to put into the performance.
GD: This project is unique in that not only are you playing Kevin Richardson, you’re also sharing the role because Justin Cunningham plays the character as an adult. Of course, you’re playing the character at different time periods but did you get a chance to work with Justin Cunningham at all to discuss the role you were both sharing and playing?
AB: It’s so funny because I actually didn’t meet Justin until after we wrapped. So no, not at all. I knew him and I knew of him but we hadn’t talked at all before. It’s interesting because so many people have told us that our performances matched up perfectly and it lined up and you could really see, they really believed that that’s the same person. That’s just a testament to who the real Kevin Richardson is because it’s so easy to take apart who he is and mold it into this character and bring him to life. I think that’s why it seemed like we had done some talking before but I actually had not met him at all.
GD: You’re telling this true story also about these events that took place well before you were born in terms of when they were arrested and they were tried and convicted. How much did you know about the Central Park Five story, about their case before going into this project and what was that process of living it in terms of reinterpreting it for the screen like?
AB: Man, I had no idea about what had happened in 1989. It was really when I first got wind of the script that I actually got wind of the true story, not even the script but the audition sides because my agent, she was in New York at that time and told me, “I kind of remember what happened in this time. We really need to look at what the media and what the news was saying about these boys and how it divided the city in half, because this was huge,” and I had never heard of it. I did as much research as I possibly could. I looked into the news clippings and tried to find any videos of what the news had put out at that time and ultimately I think that the best thing I used for research was Ken Burns’ documentary, “Central Park Five.” That documentary really told a story in such an amazing way from the fact-based side. So from that fact-based side, I realized, “Okay, this documentary is what the facts are but our limited series is going to tell the men’s story, how they perceived it, what their emotions were, how it was for them personally.” I really just tried my best to take as much of the facts and speaking with Kevin and speaking with all five of the men and tried to mesh it into a performance that really told the truth in the best way possible.
GD: The story is really front-loaded for the young actors, yourself included, because that first episode of the series is all about the arrest and that intense interrogation process. How long did it take to shoot those scenes? What was going through your mind while shooting those scenes? It seemed like those must have been especially difficult to channel and get through.
AB: Yeah, those scenes were definitely very emotionally taxing. I think that all of my interrogation scenes were done in about three days. Of course, not three days back to back but it took us three days to film those. The entire crew did such a great job of really putting us in the environment that those boys were actually in in 1989. I was sitting behind that desk and it really felt like some cops were about to come in there and interrogate me for something that I knew I didn’t do. So it was very easy… not easy but the environment and the writing, the circumstances, really facilitated the process of getting into that headspace of, “Okay, I’m about to be interrogated and people are about to say that I did something that I didn’t do.” But overall, the actors that I was working with, William Sadler and every single detective did such a good job or making me feel like I was actually trapped in that space of knowing that I’m innocent but having all these people question my innocence. Not even questioning it but really saying, “No, you’re not innocent. We know the truth,” when in reality, those detectives in real life had no idea what the truth was. Being put into that emotional space, of course it was so challenging, so emotionally taxing but everybody, the crew, the cast, Ava herself, did such a great job of submersing us into that environment so that the energy was just right, everything down to the T. They had a fake cigarette that they were smoking, that you could smell the fake cigarette smoke, just as they would’ve probably had in 1989, the posters on the wall, the chairs, the handcuff to the chair, every little thing was down to the T. It was perfect to get us into that headspace. It was definitely taxing but it was all worth it because we knew that this was bigger than us. This was for the Exonerated Five.
GD: How do you balance the intensity of that scene and really going all-in on it, and also a self-care decompressing afterwards? I know Ava had counselors on-set. Did you take advantage of those? What was it like coming down from those intense feelings?
AB: No, I didn’t take advantage of the counselors on-set but I think that the real counselors were the cast and Ava herself. Jharrel, Ethan [Herisse], Marquis [Rodriguez], Caleel [Harris], we all helped each other through these scenes and through these very emotional scenes. It was like a brotherhood. We had each other to lean on and we knew what we were doing, like I said before, was for a common goal, for a common purpose, so it made it a lot easier to decompress and remove ourselves from the work because we had each other, and also Ava. Ava is one of the most loving… she’s just so so full of love. She’s an amazing person. You really felt that on-set because of the way that she treated everybody else. The entire set was just so full of love. It was such a loving set where no one was judgmental, there was no competition, no ego, it was all about this story and telling the truth. I think that Ava’s lovingness and all of the younger five of my castmates, all of their support, we really helped each other through it. That sense of community is what really helped us through it.
GD: It’s such a powerful story to watch, let alone to make and to shoot. Have you watched the whole thing since it premiered or since the whole project was finished? If so, how did the experience of watching it compare to the intensity of making it?
AB: The experience of watching it was completely different than the experience of making it. This is my first-ever project but I’ve heard so many actors say, “I can’t watch myself onscreen. All I’m gonna do is criticize, criticize, criticize.” I found that I couldn’t do that when watching this, ‘cause like I said before, this is not the Asante Blackk show. This is not about me. This is not about any of the actors. This is about a body of work that is meant to inspire and is meant to tell the truth that wasn’t told before. I really felt a life-changing experience getting to see this work that we made. It’s one thing to be shooting it but when you see it all come together, it was kind of like I was being made aware of the story for the first time, even though I had read the script and I had acted out those scenes. I was completely sucked in. Like, “Wow, I can’t believe that happened.” even in the courtroom scenes. We know what the outcome is gonna be but the way that this is so masterfully told, when we those little slivers of hope in the courtroom and we have a small victory on the defense’s side, we say, “Okay, maybe they’re gonna get off.” But we know what the outcome is gonna be. I think it’s a completely different experience watching it than it is making it. That’s just a testament to how amazing of a storyteller that Ava and how amazing everybody involved in this project is.
GD: To be a teenage actor in the industry and to get your big break with a project of this magnitude, what first made you interested in acting and inspired you into this sort of art form and profession?
AB: When I was in second grade, that’s when I did my first-ever play and my best friend, his mom was the math teacher at the school but she also did plays and she was not a drama teacher, but she was a drama teacher (laughs). We did these plays after school so the first-ever play that I did was “The Jungle Book” where I played Mowgli and I just instantly fell in love with acting at that moment. Even if I didn’t know it in second grade, now looking back at it, I can see how I was completely sucked in and I was completely mesmerized by the art form. It wasn’t until I think maybe about four years ago when I really, really decided that, “Okay, this is what I wanna do for the rest of my life.” I did as much studying as I can of acting. I didn’t go to a performing arts school but the theater program at my school, North Point High School, is absolutely amazing. Along with that, I bought as many acting books as I could, I watched as many clips on YouTube of actors talking about acting, of directors talking about acting, screenwriters talking about acting. I watched as many movies with the greats in them, great acting performances, and tried to study as much as I could and tried to really study everything about acting that makes acting good and that creates great performances. Like I was saying, four years ago is definitely when I really started taking this serious and taking acting not just as a hobby but the craft of acting, ‘cause it really is a craft. A lot of people think that acting is just, “Oh, anybody can do that,” but it really is a craft trying to put these emotions together in a way that is going to speak to an audience and try to really convey certain things that somebody in that audience had never, ever thought of their entire life. Within this art form, you’re trying to make people feel something that they hadn’t felt before. It’s definitely a difficult thing to do but I’d say definitely four years ago was when I decided, “Okay, this is what I’m meant to do.”
GD: Between the miniseries being released and the Emmy nominations to now, it’s just been a couple of months so I imagine it’s been a real rollercoaster ride just over the last several weeks. Has it already started opening doors or opening opportunities? Where do you hope that this will take you in your next step in your career?
AB: One thing that I thought only happened for legendary actors is when you haven’t booked anything yet and you don’t have any acclaim to you or any name recognition, when you’re auditioning you get sent sides but my aunt’s an actress so I had known that bigger actors, they get sent the whole script. Most big actors say, “Oh, that’s an everyday thing,” but to me, I was like, “I just wanna be sent the whole script,” and now people are sending me whole scripts. That’s pretty cool. I get to see the whole project before agreeing to it. This has opened so many doors for me in such a short period of time that I never could have imagined. Like you said, it’s a huge rollercoaster ride. I’m currently working on another TV show that’s pretty big. The next season is getting ready to come out this fall and I’m super excited to share what that is. I’ve been having meetings with people that I never thought I’d have meetings with, people I’ve looked up to for my entire life. I just signed with a new agency, UTA, which is huge. All of the opportunities that have been coming my way have not been taken for granted whatsoever. I feel completely blessed. I just really wanna keep this up for the rest of my career, not doing any old project but really doing projects like “When They See Us.” I was so blessed for my first project to be so impactful and so important as “When They See Us.” It’s a blessing and it’s amazing just to be a working actor, just to be working because it’s such a hard industry to get into, but for my first thing ever to be something of this size, there’s absolutely no words for it. I just wanna keep on continuing to do things that have such an impact on the world and that makes the voiceless feel like they have a voice.