Jharrel Jerome (‘When They See Us’) on the ‘responsibility’ of playing Korey Wise [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jharrel Jerome is earning rave reviews for his performance as Korey Wise, one of the Central Park Five in Netflix’s limited series “When They See Us.” Unlike the other four, Jerome played both the young and older versions of his character. Jerome was previously in the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.”

Jerome recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Rob Licuria about being part of such a major series, his process of playing the younger and older versions of Wise and the response he has received from viewers. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jharrel, Korey’s story is so difficult to watch because of the circumstances of how he became involved in this and what he went through. What did it mean to you to bring his story to life?

Jharrel Jerome: It meant the world to me. It made me realize that this was more than acting. This was more than just a performance. For me, it was more than me. This entire story is way bigger than me, way bigger than anybody who created it, way bigger than my career. The responsibility and the pressure was so heavy and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice, especially after meeting Korey Wise himself. I knew that it was important to tell his story and if I was going to be the one person on his planet to tell his story, I had to make sure that I did it right. It’s definitely so important and I’m truly blessed to be a part of this.

GD: What did you know about the case beforehand and what did you then need to do to prepare for the role?

JJ: I didn’t know the story in-depth too well. I grew up in the Bronx so I grew up very close to Harlem and I grew up around the same sort of environment and the same sort of pressure that those boys also had. Growing up, for me, I want to say that the story was told in my household at some point, maybe when I was a young kid, almost as a lesson, a story among other stories where my family was teaching a simple lesson to kids like, “Be polite to the police officers and nod and don’t reach for your wallet aggressively or anything like that.” I’d like to say I did hear of it growing up but no, It wasn’t in my head too well until Ava brought it to the surface and Ava brought it to life. That’s where I learned everything about it in detail.

GD: I hear a lot from people who have watched the show or tried to watch the show that a lot of people have found it very difficult to even get into, especially if you’re from an African American background because it’s something that you have to live with day in, day out. It’s a reminder of the systemic issues that you face daily. I’m wondering if that’s the feedback that you’ve been getting from colleagues, family and friends that it was just a devastating thing to watch.

JJ: Absolutely. My mom, for example, probably can’t watch it again. She saw it once and she called me right away and she was crying for the first 10 minutes of the phone call. She said, “Can I just cry for a while?” That kind of impact that was left on her especially because I’m her son and seeing her own child go through that experience, she would never want me to go through any of the pain that she saw me go through onscreen. I’m sure that correlates to families and mothers all over the world, fathers all over the world who just fear the idea that their kid’s life may be taken away in a second just by a simple police stop, just by a stop and frisk. That’s what they call it. I definitely think that it’s a heavy burden to watch this show and to know that it’s still going on today. That’s the terrifying part. This was 1989. It’s 2019 and I like to call it the Central Park Million sometimes ‘cause this is for countless men and women, black, Latino, who go through this every day. It’s a story for them as well as the five and of course, we focus on the five but they are proud to also tell their own story for those men and women.

GD: Yeah, you touched on this but with events like Charlottesville and the almost daily police shootings that we hear about, the series seems to be more relevant against the backdrop of those events even more so than perhaps what it was in the late ‘80s. How do you feel about how the series is about a moment in time but it’s absolutely an eye-opener about what is absolutely happening now?

JJ: I think that’s the beauty in why we did the project and why Ava got this project together. Art imitates life. Art can be medicine if we allow it to be. We can allow our talent and the skills that we have to become something more than just talent and skill. We can turn it into a voice that can spark change. Doing projects like “When They See Us” and other projects that Ava has done in the past like “13th” and “Selma,” bringing that realization, it’s like, “Wow, wait. This is actually today. This was then. This will probably be in 30 years as well unless we start to really do something and change it.” I don’t think there’s been a time in history where you would see so many films back to back all the time speaking on these issues and finally talking about it. It’s like we’ve been afraid to in terms of the industry. Now that we are, maybe viewers and audiences members who are in love with movies, who are in love with music, who are in love with all these different outlets that we as artists can have a voice to speak on, maybe we can start to collectively get together and start to do things. That’s why art is so much more important than, to me, anything.

GD: Agreed. Maybe to that mind, we may even see stories about Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Ferguson. Those stories are just as valid.

JJ: And those stories are like the Central Park Five where we kind of know what happened. We know based on the media coverage what happened but until somebody digs deep and finds that true story and finds the heart in the story, because there’s always heart in those stories, hopefully a person like Ava, hopefully Ava has inspired the next writer, the next director, to put those stories together and make them happen so the world can not only see what happened to Trayvon Martin through the brief media coverage he had for about a year and we can see everything and start to feel that way towards every story we see. Every time we see something in the media and every time we see something on the news, we should be curious as to who they are more than what these news reporters are speaking on them and we’re quick to judge. I’m quick to judge. I am a victim of that and I want to get better at not quickly saying, “Oh yeah, no. for sure. He did that or she did that,” and think, “Who are they? Where did they come from?”

GD: What really struck me, especially from Episode 1 was how the show is so brave. It doesn’t shy away from, for example, showing real footage of Donald Trump and the awful things he was saying in the media at the time which, unfortunately, he’s still saying. He’s now the President of the United States. It’s so bizarre to see that progression. What are your thoughts on the political climate these days and how it’s probably not helping the situation at all?

JJ: In terms of Trump and all, for us, the story and the reason we made the project was not at all about him or for him. Ava stresses that to the maximum, to where it wasn’t a stab or it wasn’t an attack. It’s simply factual. It’s simply what is there and what has happened and it’s part of the story. It’s not an element of the story you can gloss over. Yes, especially in today’s world where he is president, but however the world is going to react to it is how they will react to it. It isn’t because someone attacked him or someone threw shade at him. It’s because there was a time in history that hasn’t been known in terms of Trump. We didn’t know that he said that in 1989. We didn’t know that he was involved in 1989. Now we know. However the world will receive that is how they will receive it.

GD: Let’s drill down into the episodes themselves. You’re playing a real-life character and whenever I speak to actors who are doing that, especially a person who is still alive, they always explain about how there’s extra challenges there to bring an authenticity to somebody that we can just see in the media. What was it like for you to play Korey given that he is still alive and a known figure?

JJ: A known figure now, especially. As an actor, the fun in it, almost, is that you’re creating a character. You’re building this false world. You’re building this imaginary world for the audience to where they can relate, to where they can feel like, “Oh yeah, I can be in that situation.” It’s all created and it’s all false and it all comes from your imagination, pretty much. When you’re playing somebody in real life, it’s not your imagination. It’s real life and you’re starting to dive into a real person. It’s not a character. That comes with a lot of responsibility more than anything. That comes with, I don’t want to say pressure because pressure sounds negative, but it comes with a lot of responsibility and it comes with the fact that you have to work extra hard to tell the story, that you’re not creating it by yourself, that you have to coming up with your own ideas, that you have to do justice for whoever you’re playing, whether they are deceased or alive. When he’s right in front of me and I’m looking at Korey and I’m talking to him and walking in Harlem and we’re hanging out, I’m just building so much love for him and so much love for who he is. He’s inspiring me every day so I owe it to him. I owe it to him to show the world that he can inspire people and that his story is about strength and power and might over all that brutality, over all the sadness and the anger and resentment that we feel. It was a story of his battle that he won. It was a story of his journey. That’s exactly how he describes it. He describes the show as the celebration of his life. That’s what he calls it. It’s not the pain. It’s celebrating his life and celebrating how far he has come.

GD: It’s really interesting. For people who don’t know, you play the younger Korey and the older Korey whereas all the other actors, they play different versions of them. That’s because Korey was slightly older and the production was able to pull that off. What’s really quite interesting is that a lot of people don’t realize that at first. I didn’t. I kept thinking, “Who’s the guy playing the older Korey? Great casting! They look so similar!” It just goes to show how transformative you are in this role. You are so transformative. You swing back and forth between younger Korey and older Korey. They’re so different as people. How difficult is that to play the two versions?

JJ: First of all, thank you very much. Very difficult. The most challenging thing I probably have ever had to do was play Korey Wise. It was a multi-step process. It took going back into the acting class, back to the fundamentals and the technique. Sometimes I feel like the issue I have or the issue I worry I might have is I get to use to it and I’m just doing the same tricks and the same things. I never wanna fall into that. I wanna fall into the process of building a character so for Korey, it was a multiple step process. It started with the voice. I did vocal lessons for two months and it was just getting that voice. If you hear it, if you listen to his voice, it’s very unique. You’ve never heard a voice like it. I think mastering that and figuring that out was the start for me in terms of embodying him. That naturally led down into my body and how he walked and how he moved. I think a lot of his voice is his power. A lot of his voice is what’s the strongest part about him. Once that came about, it just fell into the body. I had to find a difference between who he was as a young person before incarceration and who he was after. I think the hardest part was finding who he was before, the young part, because you can look online, all over YouTube, anywhere, and you won’t find him hanging out with his friends. You won’t find him being cool at 16 or 15 or laughing or any of that. You just see him behind a desk, timid and scared, answering questions to police officers. It was about finding that youth in him and who he was. I channeled some of who I was. I channeled some of my friends. I’m from the Bronx so I know that there’s people who I grew up with that were just like Korey, Raymond, Kevin, all of them. I channeled some of that but it was mainly actually about spending time with him today. I really think that 16-year-old boy is still inside him beating his drum and living his youth. He’s so full of life and so full of youth. He’s always talking about the latest hip-hop song or he’s talking about ‘90s music or things that he missed. He’s talking about the things that he missed while he was in there. That makes me believe that he still has that kid in him. Spending that time with him today is how I found that youth and I how I found that swag and that charm that he does still have. If he still has it now, I can’t even imagine how it must have been before the system tried to strip him of it. Playing older Korey was an extreme challenge. I was extremely blessed to be cast as older Korey and Ava saw something in me to where I could do both. She pushed me very hard to make sure that I did transform and it wasn’t just in terms of the acting. It was physically. I worked out for a long time. It was six days a week, twice a day, I was eating 3,500 calories a day and stuff like that. I’m not a person who works out. I’m really not. So you really have to start paying me or something, I guess. I ended up really focusing and working with trainers and working out. There was no way I could’ve gotten to a massive amount the way that Korey looks now, especially 12 years against four weeks of working out. I gained eight and a half pounds of muscle and I ended up coming back with just a slightly different physique. Korey doesn’t appear in Part 3, so while they shot Part 3, I was in the gym every day all day. I pushed myself mainly by thinking about Korey. If Korey can go through 12 years in false imprisonment, I can go through four weeks of lifting. I channeled that Korey Wise spirit and I pushed through. By the time we came back to shoot the older parts, I looked bigger, I had my beard grown in ‘cause I looked way different. I’m like however old you think I am now but if I shave I’m like 12, 13 years old. Major difference. We just used that to our advantage. Playing older Korey, it also took lowering the resonance in the voice and simple things like not opening my eyes as wide as I did as young Korey. Those bright eyes, to me, they show naïveté. They show youth. They show fear and worry. When your eyes are wide I feel like it’s more shock and over time I know those eyes got lower and lower, less shock, less confusion and more, “I’m settling into this and this is my life now. This is who I am.” And they’re tired now. Those eyes are extremely tired. I wanted to make sure that over time, as we were shooting older Korey, I felt that exhaustion. There’s no way I could ever, ever be Korey Wise. I may have played him and I may have embodied him but I will never be him. I will never fill his shoes. No one ever will. I kept that in mind and I made sure that I did my best.

GD: A lot of that wouldn’t occur to the audience. We are just so swept up in the moment and it’s so interesting to hear your process. It all makes sense when you explain it. This is so typical of Ava DuVernay’s work. Every single thing she brings out, I just think, “Wow, she’s just done it again.” She just keeps getting better and better. She’s gonna be a legend when she’s a really, really old lady. For now, she’s just killing it. What do you think about working with her? Is she as good as she appears onscreen?

JJ: Yes, absolutely. She is everything you would imagine and more. To me, she’s more than a director. She was a mentor. She was a teacher. That was my biggest fear. I say this all the time. I stepped out of school to jump into the career and get as blessed as I did and continue to work out. My biggest fear is that I would just lose the fundamentals and lose the professor knowledge and lose that one-on-one teaching, working with a scene partner and doing things. That’s exactly what it was working with Ava. She was a professor in a masterclass. She was so insightful. She teaches you while she does. I had a very hard time shaking off a lot of the scenes after “Cut.” They’d call “Cut” and I would be crying uncontrollably, shaking sometimes, not understanding how I even feel. That’s what it was. It was me being in shock with feeling so hurt for Korey but hurt for myself ‘cause I’m in this situation, even though I know I wasn’t. It was a lot in my mind and all I could do was really cry about it towards the end of the takes. Ava would do one simple thing and that’s just put her hand on my shoulder. She wouldn’t say a word and she wouldn’t say anything besides just be there to comfort me. She would hold onto me and after a couple minutes of me breathing, she’d say, “Whenever you’re ready, we’ll go again.” That’s how we worked for a long time, especially for the solitary confinement scenes, especially for the scenes where I was yelling by myself and slamming on the door and banging on the door. I needed those moments and I never asked for them. I never, ever asked for them. She just knew when and when not to. That’s the kind of person she is. It becomes more than her job. It becomes more than her work. She cares for people. She had a crisis hotline on-set. I don’t know if you knew that and I’ve never experienced that but she had somebody you could call if you felt like you couldn’t handle it or you felt like the weight was too heavy. This is a true story. These aren’t made-up words or made-up events. It really hits hard for those on-set, for those trying to embody these characters. She had a line you can call and things like that. That, to me, proves the exact type of leader she is. She’s fearless and she knows exactly what she wants. I pray to God I work with her again, or if it’s not, I pray to God our relationship remains as strong as it is now and that it’s fruitful and very long.

GD: It’s so interesting that you explain the personal toll that shooting this series took on you because even as a viewer and so far removed, especially after Episode 4, it did take a little while for that to settle because it was so difficult to watch and so moving. People are now talking about Episode 4 and your performance and there’s a lot of talk about awards, which is really lovely. You go on Twitter and you see that you’re trending and people are obsessed with how wonderful you were. How does that feel to get that kind of feedback?

JJ: I don’t know. It’s unreal. It makes me speechless all the time. It feels like it happened overnight even though I know it was a process and it was a lot of hard work. In the snap of a finger, I suddenly was an inspiration to many people. That is a gift. That is the biggest award I can receive for this, no matter what happens in the future, no matter what will come. I won all the awards in my book. I really did. Every time I look in my messages, wherever it is, Instagram, my texts, anything, I smile so big. It’s people who are not only saying, “Great job,” or “It was a great show,” but, “You have inspired me. You have changed me and you have made me feel something.” I saw a DM the other day. A guy was like, “You reminded of what acting feels like and what acting is.” That hit me at so many levels. Those messages and those responses, they’re hard to grasp. They’re hard to understand that it’s me they’re talking about. Sometimes I’m looking behind me like, “The guy behind me?” But yeah, it’s happening and I’m just trying to hold on tight and keep my feet on the ground, remember who I am and who my family is, remain focused and keep it all here (points at heart) and not here (points at head). That’s my biggest goal and I’m gonna fight as hard as I can to keep it like that.

GD: That’s a pretty good idea. Jharrel, I really appreciate you making the time on Sunday afternoon for us and good luck at all the awards and thank you for your performance.

JJ: Thank you so much, Rob. I appreciate the time.

More News from GoldDerby