“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,” reveals Jharrel Jerome about his role on Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed Netflix limited series “When They See Us.” “Quote.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Jerome above.
“When They See Us” is the devastating true story of the notorious Central Park Five case, in which five teenagers were falsely accused of raping a female jogger in 1989. The boys were interrogated by police for hours alone and were coerced into making false confessions, in what is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in recent US history. Eventually exonerated in 2002 after years of incarceration, they were finally awarded a $41 million payout in 2014. The series shines a light on the infamous case and how it impacted the lives of these boys, their families and their communities, in particular Korey Wise, played by Jerome, who was 16 years old when he was brought to trial and convicted of sexual abuse, assault and riot in the attack. Because of his age, he spent years in adult prison, including long periods in solitary confinement.
For Jerome, the role was particularly challenging because he was the only actor in the cast to play one of the accused as a young teenager and also as an adult. It allowed the actor to completely transform on screen over the course of the series, culminating in a devastating performance in the final fourth episode.
“The most challenging thing I have ever had to do was play Korey Wise and to portray him was to go back to the acting class, back to the fundamentals and the technique,” Jerome explains. “I had to find the difference between who he was as a young person, before incarceration, and who he was after. The hardest part was finding who he was before; the young part,” he says. “Then playing older Korey was an extreme challenge,” he adds. “Simple things like not opening my eyes as wide as I did as young Korey. Those bright eyes show naiveté, and they show youth and fear and worry,” he reveals. “Over time those eyes got lower and lower. Less shock, less confusion. This is who I am, and they’re tired now. Those eyes are extremely tired.”
The series has become a sensation since it premiered on May 31. Among all the deafening feedback from fans and critics, Jerome shares how deeply personal some of the responses have been, some that are really close to home. “My mom 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,” he says. “It’s a heavy burden to watch this show and to know it is still going on today, that’s the terrifying part. This was 1989, and it’s 2019. I like to call it the Central Park Million sometimes, because this is for countless men and women, black, Latino, who go through this every day, so it’s a story for them as well as the five.”
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