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.