Jason Mitchell has had one hell of a year. At this point in 2017, he was at the Sundance Film Festival, promoting his fest fave Mudbound, his first major performance after his breakthrough turn as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Since then, he made his studio blockbuster debut in Kong: Skull Island, played a small but key role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, and saw his best notices to date when Mudbound hit Netflix (and select theaters) in November.
He’s back at Sundance this year with a starring role in the U.S. Dramatic Competition entry Tyrel, from writer/director Sebastián Silva (Nasty Baby). Mitchell stars as Tyler, a New York everyman who tags along with his best friend (played by Christopher Abbott) for a birthday weekend and an isolated house in the Catskills. But when he arrives, he realizes he’s the only black person in the crew of drunken revelers (who also includes Michael Cera, Caleb Landry Jones, and Michael Zegan), and isn’t quite sure how he to feel about that.
I caught up with Mitchell the morning after Tyrel’s Sundance premiere to talk a bit about the film’s themes, his personal connection to his character, and where he’s heading after a big 2017.
How are you?
I’m good, man.
Did you get some sleep?
That becomes the question at Sundance, not “How are you doing,” but…
“How’s your body holding up?”
Right. Was Mudbound your first time here?
Ok. So what do you think of this little festival of madness?
I love it. I love it because it’s one of those festivals, the only one that I’ve actually experienced, where people get to let their hair down, and be, like, weird art nerds, you know what I mean?
It’s not a fashion show, it’s not any of that.
It can’t be, in this kind of weather.
Right! It’s like being locked in a ski resort with a bunch of art nerds and everybody’s like just big-uppin’ each other. It’s so dope. I love it.
When you’re here as an actor with a film, do you get to experience the festival and go see things? Or is it all just, go to your movie, go to your Q&A, go to your interviews, go to your party?
My experience, I think, is different from a lot of people. It was kind of unique, because Mudbound ended up being a really, really dope movie. So we did have a lot of press, more than average press. But we weren’t in the competition, you get me? But this year, we were in competition, so we had time to do things, you know, we crashed a few parties, as well as caught a few other films. It was dope.
I would imagine, as a young actor coming up, you want to see some of the other films so you know, like, “That’s somebody I want to work with. These are some of the people I want to collaborate with.”
My mind is so weird with things like that, though. Because I’m a guy who works strictly off vibes; I honestly believe that if the director did a bad movie, I don’t expect him or her to make the same mistakes. I might help you make a better movie next time! [Laughs.] Not to toot my own horn. But I don’t wanna judge people’s work, and be like, “Oh, you’ll never do better than that.” Because every performance I have, even the ones that people love, I’m like, “Ahh, I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that, why didn’t I think of this?” Just little small things like would have been great.
So I think it’s good to support, more than anything. I think support means everything. Because everybody does their art for people to see it, y’know, you don’t spend three months out of your life shooting a movie for nobody to see it! So I watch for moral support, more than anything.
Nice. So let’s talk about Tyrel, which you’re great in.
How did you get hooked in with this weird little crew of malcontents?
Right? It is quite the ragtag gang. Basically, what happened was, Sebastián Silva was a total renegade when it came to protocol. He’s with UTA and all, and we’re repped by the same people, but he was afraid that if he sent that material, my people would just skip over it – because he knew it was more of a guide, more than an actual screenplay. So he flies all the way to New Orleans, and hangs out with me at my house for a few days, and we looked at the script together. And his passion just made me think, “Yo, this is gonna be dope.” So going into it, I realized that I was going to have a chance to be a filmmaker, as opposed to just being an actor. So it was really cool.
When he was in the Q&A last night, he talked about how it was cast with a lot of these actors that he knew, or worked with, or hung out with – and then they brought in Jason.
Did you have a moment when you were first coming in where you sort of felt the way the character did?
Absolutely! I think there was a moment of sort of… immediate alienation, when you are the only black dude. Because that was the thing! [Laughs.] It wasn’t just that I was new to the friendship, but I really was the only black dude around! So you watch what you do, you watch what you say, all these different things. But it was dope because it was something that constantly kept my mind on this film. You know what I mean? Being able to sort of stay this box, and be like yeah, at any given time I could just shoot this jump shot, and it’ll go in. Because I’m just so locked in this life that Tyler’s dealing with.
Now me, a lot of the time we spent in the Catskills was spent in front of the fire, with the guitar, making up songs, cracking jokes, and I’m sort of the exact opposite of Tyler in that way. I’m a very outspoken person and we had a great time. But it was interesting, too, because I think he’s sort of the everyday kind of guy. And he deals with everyday struggle of just trying to get by without causing any ruckus.
So I think it’s a very interesting take on the black man in America today, you know what I mean? I could reference what I was actually living.
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s probably a stupid question, the industry being what it is, but do you find yourself the Tyler in the room often?
I do. But I think it’s important to be proud. Pride is such a layered feeling, or layered gesture, to a person. It’s not just something that you’re willing to fight for, but it’s something that you also don’t mind being cocky about. It’s something that you’re really very happy about on a day-to-day. When you’re proud of something, you can show it in a non-violent, protestive, angry black man kind of way. So I think that, not only in this film, but my notion of myself and the trajectory of my career represents that.
Sure. Well, I don’t want to get too heavy on it, but the fact that he sets it during that inauguration weekend – a year ago this weekend!
I know, it’s crazy!
After that election I felt like I heard a lot of white people were shocked that an openly racist candidate achieved that office. And I heard from a lot of people of color who were not shocked. And I feel like the guys who you’re with in that house are the kind of people who would have been shocked but who are not aware of that away of their own little, casual biases–
Their own little microaggressions, because it’s not open racism like Trump. Do you think this election has turned into a kind of a wake-up call for people like that? Or do you think they’re going to remain sort of oblivious?
I think it definitely did, because in my opinion… I think privileged people have a hard time empathizing. At times, they have a hard time just understanding, you know what I mean? And it’s sort of a level of ignorance that’s involved with different classes, different races, different things that people don’t understand. But I think this collectively threw all of us into a bowl… Like, if you don’t govern yourselves, and you don’t have your act together, things like this will happen. You’ll be in a situation where… I just hope this guy doesn’t push the button! I mean, nobody has felt like a very long time, at least not in my lifetime.
I think… I mean, Trump is a first orange president. So he could bring us together, he is a president of color. [Laughs.] But it is a wake-up call for people, because a lot of times, people want the best. Y’know, this is the home of the free. We’re not a racist country. And then you see the president get up there, like, “We’re gonna build a wall to keep all the Mexicans out,” you’re like, whoa. Wait a minute.
On a happier topic: it’s been a wild year for you. I was here last year for Mudbound, and I didn’t see a better film last year. It was my number one of the year. And I’ve seen a lot of critics put it up like that too, but hasn’t made the kind of waves in the early awards that I had anticipated. And a lot of people have theorized that that’s because the industry has this weird resistance to the Netflix model, to how they distribute.
In retrospect, do you wonder how the film would’ve been received if it had come out in a more conventional way, or are you glad they came out the way it did?
No, I’m glad it came out the way it did. Because for one, pirating is always going to be a big problem. And I think if you’re going to take the route of watching it at home, at least watch it the way that we want you to receive it! Y’know what I mean? You don’t want half the movie to be dark, the sound’s all messed up. So as an artist, it’s good to just be able to have that fully accessible, good quality… I think it’s really dope to have that.
But I also think it’s cool to have Netflix’s backing for films like that. Because it really makes you reevaluate what cinema is. A lot of people, they want that really big experience, watching the silver screen. And I dig it. I can get it, because that’s what made me love movies. But at the same time I feel like, if you watch Mudbound on the big screen versus at home, the cinematography it doesn’t change. It’s still cinema. It’s still really good cinema.
Like most moviegoers, I first became aware of you through Straight Outta Compton.
And you so fully embodied and brought back to life this beloved… I mean, I was in junior high when Eazy-Duz-It came out, and you became that guy. But you so fully became somebody who we had this impression of… I don’t know if it’s right to compare Eazy-E to Superman…
[Laughs.] In the black community it is!
But after Superman, people had a hard time seeing Christopher Reeve as anything but Superman. “He’s not an English aristocrat, he’s Superman!”
Yet you have very quickly shown a wide range of talent.
Did you have a specific strategy, as offers start coming in after that movie came out, of how you were going to make sure you didn’t get put in a box?
I did. And my thing was to just constantly show a different layer. If I did it already, respect the fact that I did it already, don’t use it as a crutch. Like, I’ve had maybe two or three movies call me that literally wanted me to be Eazy-E in another movie, you know what I mean?
Because of course they wanna make more rap biopics.
Exactly! Which is incredible to even think about. Like, it’s an honor for people to feel like that. But, c’mon. So I’ll just continue to try and show each layer of my cake. I’m a 17-layer cake, and I gotta get this done!
I was always afraid that I would get pigeonholed. It looks like the biggest issue has been like crossing over from Eazy-E to Jason Mitchell. So I’m going to constantly try to do things that are quote-unquote out of my wheelhouse. I’m at the point now, with the scripts that I look at… Well, for the most part, because I’m shooting Super Fly right now, which is sort of a black nostalgic movie, but how could you not be in that? But I’m at the point now where I look at scripts, and as soon as I see a character breakdown… if it’s labeled black, I don’t really want that script. I want it to be somebody who could be black or white. Me or Chris Abbott could play it. You know what I mean? Those are the kind of scripts I’m looking at now. Things that just defy Jason Mitchell.