Nicole Beharie is earning some awards recognition for her performance as Turquoise Jones in the acclaimed indie film “Miss Juneteenth.” She won Best Actress at the Gotham Awards and she just earned her first Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Beharie recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about what appealed to her about “Miss Juneteenth,” working with director Channing Godfrey Peoples and what this new awards attention means to her. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: You are playing Turquoise, who is a former pageant queen who’s putting her daughter into the same pageant that she won. She’s a very complex character. What did you find the most interesting about Turquoise before you signed on for the role?
Nicole Beharie: Well, first, thank you for having me, Kevin. What did I find most interesting about her? I guess, like you said, she’s complicated. There are a bunch of contradictions in this character and although she has a pretty good moral compass, there’s some interesting value judgments and assessments that she makes that I thought was interesting. As a woman, especially playing a mom, in general, the women are like the upstanding, long-suffering, super positive, find-a-way kind of thing, and that’s still a theme here, but what she has to do to win for her daughter, there’s a little hustling, maybe some deception. I thought that that was interesting. And then also there is a kind of soft sensuality and history that I think a lot of women kind of put on the back-burner when they become mothers, especially mothers on camera. She’s not glamorous, but I liked that. I like that she’s not done up or anything but yet the guys can feel her magnetism and she’s able to flirt while she’s driving a pickup truck in the dead of the summer with her child beside her. So she still owns this kind of sexuality that’s interesting.
GD: There’s a real authenticity to your performance where she really does feel like a three-dimensional woman and I don’t think you can really define her as one thing. But can you talk about just the prep work that you put in to really embody this woman?
NB: Ooh, yeah. Honestly, it’s weird. Sometimes it’s tedious. In this case, because it was active, at home you do the script breaking down and all that kind of stuff, answering all these questions, but I went down to Fort Worth, Texas, where my director, Channing Godfrey Peoples lives and really is the land in the world in which these people thrive and just navigate their lives. I realized once I got there that it was a really specific version of the South. I’ve lived in the South, I’ve lived in Georgia and South Carolina, but I haven’t lived specifically in Fort Worth, Texas and she was like, “I want to see this community. I want to see these people. I want us to reflect this and this little slice of life, this one little summer.” I went down there and I started working on the dialect and I hung out with two or three women and a few men. I mean, of course, with any film, everything doesn’t make it onto the cutting room. Some of it just makes it to the floor, basically. But I learned dances, I learned how to cook different things, I actually did learn to barkeep. Some of the scenes where she’s working at the bar, I actually worked at the bar for a weekend or two and everyone else was local. So they kind of kept me honest. As you can see, I don’t speak and my mannerisms are a little bit different than hers are. So I just kind of observed and then would build the confidence to try things and got to the place where I was hoping that I could be under the radar in the community and just sort of blend in. One of the big tests was our first day of shooting was the parade, the big parade where they’re outside. That was my first day, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, my first day,” in a full look and we’re out there with the whole community so if I didn’t get it together, I was gonna stand out like a sore thumb. So yeah, just inundating myself and respecting everything that everyone had to say. People would stop me. Channing would be like, “No, you’re saying it wrong.” I just had a lot of respect for it.
GD: Yeah, well, I was going to ask about your collaboration with Channing, and this was her directorial debut for a feature film. She also wrote the screenplay. What was she like to collaborate with on this project that was clearly very special to her?
NB: She had actually just had a literal baby and was shooting with her daughter on her hip. Talk about Superwoman and just having a grassroots community there to support her. She would be like, “This is my other baby.” So if that ain’t pressure, I don’t know what is (laughs). I was like, “OK! Well…” And then you’re also surrounded by the community. So it just kind of felt like, I don’t want to say fading in, but it just felt right, like second nature to work with her and when she had a certain direction, I think sometimes when you’re doing things as the person of color on set or whatever, the people who are directing you may know less about what you’re trying to get across or what your character might be going through. In this case, she knew more about it than I did. So sometimes I would just be like, “OK, I’ll definitely give that a go.” It was a huge collaboration, but I feel like I also just respected it and just went with the flow on this one. So much of it, as well, was her giving me the permission to be in a way that I’ve never been able to be on camera, which is like a gift. The pace in general, you’re kind of a plot device, you’re trying to get someone’s attention or you’re moving the story along and this time I got to just really think and experience things in a way I never had. I’ve never had that experience as an actor on anything, so that was a huge gift.
GD: And with so many of your scenes also having to be with Alexis Chikaeze, who plays Kai, your daughter, how did the two of you develop that kind of dynamic? Because it feels very lived-in and like the two of you almost have a history there.
NB: She came in, I was already in Texas, and we read and it was a nice read, but I could tell she was nervous. But you could feel, “Oh, she’s good, though.” You know what I mean? You’re seeing someone audition and you’re like, “She’s good, though. Let’s warm her up and make her comfy.” And then once she got the part, it was sort of like the mother, Turquoise, wants to see her daughter thrive, and then the actress, Nicole, wants to see Alexis thrive. So it was almost like taking care, like you joined this wild sisterhood and I want this to be a good experience and I want you to do your best. So that was the most visceral, easy explanation of it. And then, singing Beyoncé in the background. I’m really goofy so I was probably more like a big sister than a mom. There’s lots of dancing off-camera and push-up championships and things like that to make her feel comfortable. But yeah, she was just ready and she would watch me. I also had to not be stingy about her watching me. She would watch me and I could tell she was like, “Oh, that’s what you do.” And I was like, “Yeah, go ahead,” this back and forth. But then she’ll start to come up with her own stuff. So I was cool with that. It was really lovely working with her, though. She’s so open and I’m excited that people are getting to meet her with us and I’m pretty sure we’ll see her do a gazillion things.
GD: I agree. And Turquoise is just so insistent on her daughter competing in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, even when it’s pretty clear that her daughter is just really not into it for the most part, for most of the film. She mentions at one point that she just wants her daughter to be on the path to a better life. But I’m curious how much of a balance you think there is between Turquoise kind of wanting what’s best for her daughter but also trying to recapture a little bit of that magic from when she was a teenager.
NB: Look, I think it’s a little bit of both, right? Because like you said, her identity is linked into that and you even see on the sidelines of basketball and football games, the fathers that are screaming and coaching. That was their thing. They were once that quarterback or whatever. So I feel like that’s a big part of it. But it’s also the access that she’s been given. This is the path. This is the only path she knows. She trusts it and she’s like, “This is the way I can provide for my daughter.” I think that’s something in the story that people are relating to in how we can be so narrow-minded about how we get somewhere and not see that there are actually all these other doors that we’re not walking through, that we’re not even imagining for ourselves. What’s cool about this is by the end of it, she walks through a few other doors, tests one or two, doesn’t work out, tests another one, and is like, “Yeah, OK, this is what I’m really after.” And it’s through her daughter that she discovers that, so in the end, it’s a great thing that she forced her daughter into doing it, but yeah, maybe we could have done it in a different way (laughs).
GD: Well, another interesting dimension of this is that Turquoise also has a fraught relationship with her own mother. Do you have any thoughts on just what got them to the point of when we see them in the film and whether any of that relationship actually maybe had an effect on how she’s raising her own daughter?
NB: Yeah, I mean, her mother, she says this line that’s like, “All a woman needs is her beauty, and just knows how to use it and then you can find the right guy.” And at the end of the story, Turquoise chooses to go against the grain of our usual Hollywood fantasy, which is you get literally the knight in shining armor on a horse, shows up on a horse and she’s like, “Nah, I’m good. Actually, I’m going to do my own thing.” (Laughs.) Her mother’s way and her generation’s way was that way, and then Turquoise is trying to create her way for her daughter. I think that you’re seeing every generation rebel, but hopefully, they’re stepping into finding themselves in a better place than the previous generation. I also think because her mother saw the world that way and didn’t see that she had any agency in her own life, that affected Turquoise. So it took the process of this story for her to finally be like, “Wow, I bring a lot to the table. I’m running this business! I want to own this business!” But you can’t see that if no one’s ever said that that part of me was valuable, if it’s just your beauty. I mean, I don’t care what anybody says. So many women, we have these multibillion-dollar companies that are based on lack, women wanting to be more beautiful or whatever. It’s a huge part of our psyche and our conditioning. So yeah, that’s my answer for that. I’m not going to go too far into that because I’ll get in trouble (laughs).
GD: Yeah, well, the film ends on, I saw it as a very hopeful note where Turquoise is about to enter a new phase in her life as a businesswoman. Have you put any thought into just where she goes from there, how her relationships might evolve or things like that? I don’t know if you think about that for your characters once you’re done with them.
NB: No, I’m done. They’re like, “Cut,” I’m like, “OK.” (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s funny because I almost feel like the end of our story is the beginning, right? It’s kind of a beginning and I would be curious to see what happens with Kai and Turquoise after that. Who are they once she’s owning her own business and has a place in the community that’s not about her beauty? It’s about what she’s been providing anyway but just with a little bit more agency and dignity. I don’t know. Maybe she’d open a few more of those little spots, and those spots, man, it was really fun working in there. There’s so much history in those little barbecue juke joint kind of places that we got to work in. That spot was so authentic and so real and really is like a touchstone in the community and in a way that I hadn’t recognized because it’s not something I’ve ever had in my life. So yeah, maybe she’ll become the mayor (laughs).
GD: I would like to see it. Well, the movie dropped in theaters and digitally on Juneteenth last year and I think it certainly had a special resonance because at that time we were really in the heart of the Black Lives Matter reckoning. What kind of response were you getting at that time once more of a general audience was able to see it and really connect with the story?
NB: Honestly, this is probably not the best answer, but the truth is I couldn’t really even think about the film at the time because I was so engaged with what was really happening. There are themes like Ronnie ends up in jail, the prison industrial complex, and obviously their socio-economic status that’s being reflected but not harped on in the movie. But I guess one of my hopes is that the holiday itself, Juneteenth, which is June 19th, when it was released, as you said, 1865, which was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the enslaved in Galveston, Texas, had just found out, because union soldiers came down to inform them that they had, in fact, been freed two and a half years ago. So, freedom come late, which is also a theme in our film. My hope is that it can become a national holiday, that we acknowledge the complexity and the breadth of this country. And once we do that, once we look back at the past and we’re like, “Oh, this is the real history. This is the truth, this is who we’ve been, this is who we are, who do we want to be?” We can’t create a great future. And again, that kind of goes in line with what you were saying, the generations of these women. This is the past. This is who we are. Who do we want to be? You can’t create the “who do you want to be” if your foundation is wonky and you’re not willing to look at what the truth is. So I think commemorating Juneteenth as a national holiday would be amazing. So if we could have any little part in that, just getting that word on the tips of more people’s tongues, I think that that would be a job well done.
GD: Absolutely. Well, on a bit of a lighter note, you’re gaining some accolades, most notably from the Gotham Awards. What has it meant for you to get this kind of recognition, especially for a role like this in particular?
NB: I don’t know, man. It’s so shocking, honestly! This is shocking even talking to you right now because it was a tiny script and we went down there, I did it for, like, nothing. I did it for love. Also, Juneteenth, people weren’t really talking about it in 2019 when we shot this, so I was like, “I’m gonna do this movie, who knows who’s gonna see it. I love it. We’ll see.” And so now to have people acknowledging our work, it feels good. I don’t have any expectations. I’m just kind of excited that people are seeing it and I hope in this crazy time that they get something good out of it, our shared humanity maybe. Yeah, I don’t know. Awards, never been a part of that before.
GD: It’s a whole new world.
NB: (singing) I can show you the world! One of my favorite songs. A whole new world, but there’s like a dark side to a whole new world.
GD: Yeah, you’ve got to be careful.
NB: Well not with the awards, but like the actual world that we’re living in is a whole new world, too (laughs).
GD: That is very true. Well, thank you so much, Nicole, and congrats on this performance and for your nominations and thank you so much for talking to me today.
NB: Thank you for your time. Sorry about the tangents. Are you going to edit this a little?
GD: I think it was good. You’re good.