In Oh Jerome, No Mamoudou Athie plays a man struggling to both find love and get out of his own way. Different tactics are attempted — being tough and cold, being a dog guy — and different flaws are revealed — being too agreeable and prone to over-romanticization and jealousy. At his core, he’s a good guy, just a little lost; wrestling with society’s idea of what a man should be in a show that is happy to take on the flawed core elements of toxic masculinity. We root for Jerome when he steps wrong and makes us wince. Chalk it up to great writing, but more than anything, chalk it up to an amazing, vulnerable, and sneakily charming portrayal by Athie, who earned his first Emmy nomination for his work on the short-form series that aired on FX as a part of Cake.
Athie is blowing up right now. Uncorked was a critical fave about wine, craft, the bonds of family, the worth and fragility of dreams, and in Athie’s words, “a story about a black family that had nothing to do with trauma.” Which is, sadly, not the kind of film we see enough of. In Jurassic World: Domination, Athie is going to walk among the giants of the original film. In the upcoming Blumhouse release, Black Box, he’s playing a man whose mind and memories are being reassembled. And yet the rise in profile (following years of similarly interesting work) doesn’t seem to phase him.
When we spoke recently, he laughed loud and long at the “rising star” label, affirmed his primary commitment to and love for the act of acting (and doing things multiple times to see what he can withdraw from himself in a performance). He’s happy for people to get caught up on his back catalog (myself included). Happier still to stay within a process that’s yielded good results and fun opportunities. “The content comes first,” he tells me when I presume that this moment is going to lead to bigger and better things and directors, framing a career like a linear progression up Ambition Mountain. It’s a dumb preconceived notion that I need to shake. One Athie is happy to dismiss in terms of his own career, dropping the very real observation that genius filmmaking can come from anywhere, not merely the established few that have already done it.
In the following interview, we dive deeper into that thought and those roles, including Oh Jerome, No. Toxic masculinity and the social contract to evolve comes up, as does Athie’s desire to not be put in a box, the intensity of getting a first-hand education on being Grandmaster Flash for The Get Down, and how that show and Uncorked stay with him.
I hadn’t seen Uncorked. I heard all the buzz. To me, the best thing a movie can do for me is put me in a really good mood.
I really haven’t experienced that in a few months. [Laughs]
Shit. [Laughs] Who are you telling?
It just really put me in a good mood and it’s a tremendous performance, a tremendous story. But I suppose the question here is, that movie comes out, you’ve got this Emmy nomination for Oh Jerome, No and you’re in the new Jurassic World and the fast-approaching Blumhouse film Black Box. I see the words “up and coming” and “rising star” attached to your name a lot. Obviously, you’ve been doing this for a while, but there’s a trajectory happening. Take me through what this moment feels like for you.
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t care, man. It’s one of those things where it’s like, I’m just glad people are seeing some of the things I’m proud to be in. It’s just one of those things where you hear about it all the time with other actors. And if no one’s seen it, it’s like, well, all right, nothing to be done about that. If this is my introduction to them or to a larger audience, then fair enough. That’s fine with me. I’m glad some of these projects are being received well and the other side, it just doesn’t matter.
But obviously more notice begets more interesting projects, more interesting opportunities, the chance to work with… I don’t want to say bigger names. That’s a part of it too though. Isn’t it?
Well, I suppose so, but I have to be honest, I’ve been very fortunate. Most of the projects I’ve been on, they’re one’s I wanted desperately and I got them. So, I’ve gotten to work with young, new, up and coming directors and more seasoned directors. It’s one of those things where it’s like, even if some people haven’t seen some of those films, it doesn’t take away from my experience of them and what I’ve learned from them. You know? I’ve had a pretty varied career in terms of working with awesome directors with great material already. I mean, you never know. You just never know. I just recently saw this one movie by this young director named Cooper Raiff. He won the Grand Jury prize at South by Southwest this year for this movie called Shithouse and it was beautiful. Kid is 23-years-old.
I think you’re right and that is a really good point. You never really know where the next great filmmaker is going to come from.
Exactly. And honestly, the reason I’m an actor, yes, I want to work with (Guillermo) del Toro. I want to work with (Alfonso) Cuarón. But there are also new, young directors that I have no idea about, and I want to find out what they’re doing because I love the scrapping and stuff like shooting an independent film and creating that little tiny family. So I want to be able to do all that. I don’t want to put myself in a box. The content comes first.
With Uncorked and Oh Jerome, No, these are different kinds of roles and a chance to see… You’ve alluded to this [here and here], but these aren’t necessarily the kinds of projects where a Black actor often has the opportunity to play the lead role (which is an interesting way to actually be able to tell that story and connect with a broader audience). Like, you said you don’t want to be put in a box. Do you look to find roles where it expands out what people’s perception is of what you can do? Is that not a factor?
No, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to either test myself or just show another facet of myself. That’s also a joy of acting and also just putting that up. You do a ton of different things in school and it’s like, okay, but it’s not a real audience in school. You’re working on yourself and that’s what you’re there for… to work on yourself. You’re not there to impress anybody. You’re there to work on yourself.
So when you go out in the world, there are so many things that you’ve learned and you want to just experiment with them in the real world and see how it goes. The Get Down is probably going to be the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life… [laughs] In terms of acting. I mean, working with Grandmaster Flash, playing him on a Baz Luhrman set was exhilarating and terrifying because it was just… and it was my first major project. So, it’s one of those things where it’s like, you want to test yourself, you want to get better. And I believe I have a lot of tools and I do believe in my ability and it’s just like, well, okay. Well, let’s see what I can do because that’s how you get better.
Speaking of The Get Down and playing Grandmaster Flash, I’m curious about the process. From everything I’ve read, it seems like he was rather involved in that. How closely are you tied to him in the pre-production process where you’re trying to learn the rhythms of playing him in that role?
Oh my God. So there are so many people that I really have to thank for just helping me with that, and of course Flash, really. The DJs over at Scratch Academy. But also, Flash really tutored me privately and he really put me through the paces. And I was the worst one in that cast at DJ-ing. Number one worst. And it was kind of ironic because I was playing Flash. And he really put me through it. And then I also enlisted the help of Rich and Tone, the dance captains of the show just to help me get a sense of rhythm behind the decks. And then also just by watching him on the decks and learning from him and just learning the basic rhythms, I got to pick up a lot of things from him and get a little understanding of who he is… just through everyday conversation. Not even digging about his past, just seeing how he responds to things and this and that.
What do you take away from something like that in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of music and DJ-ing? Or even with Uncorked and wine? Are those things that are now permanent interests?
Absolutely. I mean, the history of hip-hop… I really learned so much about the pioneers of the genre and these geniuses that just made this happen in the streets of the South Bronx and just seeing how… They were kids! They were kids. And what Flash did, he was kind of like a technical genius, just to come up with the idea of cutting through from two turntables to the next and splicing the sound over. He was a kid. He’s a brilliant man. And I didn’t know that before then. I mean, it gives you a deeper appreciation of the music that I enjoy now. Once you’ve learned the history of the thing, how can it not just enrich your love for it? And particularly wine, I knew nothing about wine. Nothing at all about wine and just the amount of sacrifice and work it takes to become a sommelier. Not to mention it’s cool just to know about wine and develop a sense of taste for it. It’s just awesome.
It is! It just sounds so good. It just sounds like it’s cool to know about it but mostly it just sounds delicious and fantastic.
Yeah. It definitely inspired me to look a little bit deeper. So, what’s the reaction when you get an Emmy nomination [outstanding actor in a short-form comedy or drama] for Oh Jerome, No?
Oh, it’s a huge honor. I mean, people always say this kind of shit, but it’s true. It really hasn’t set in. It’s a real honor and the company is wonderful and I feel really fortunate in a really scary, wild, time in history. It’s a little surreal, to be honest with you. Like, oh, this the thing that I’ve hoped and dreamed for all my life has happened, and what the fuck is happening with the world?
Via Zoom, probably. Yeah. That’s the other aspect, I’m sure.
Is this something you’d want to pick up again down the road to see where this character is?
Oh, we’re talking. We’re talking. The wonderful thing about the character in the world is that there are so many ways to go. There are so many avenues that we can take and the options feel limitless. I was just talking to [series writer and director] Teddy [Banks] and Alex [Karpovsky] yesterday.
So with Oh Jerome, No, I took it as an in your 20s kind of thing where you’re trying on different personalities. Is that something you have any personal experience with? Besides being an actor, of course.
No, actually. I never thought of it like that, because I think the only thing that I really share with Jerome… I think I’m a relatively sensitive person, but I think we can’t help but be who we are. I’ve been the same guy… I mean, I’ve also grown. But my best friends are from first grade and 10th grade and I’m the most predictable man you’ll ever meet. [Laughs] You know how I’m going to react. You’re going to know if I’m going to like that or if I’m not going to like it or like what you said. Everyone knows what I’m thinking pretty much a lot of time. But I kind of like that. No need for pretense. It’s great.
I’m sure it’s fun to also just play someone who is adrift or just trying to latch on to any island they can in terms of their personality.
It’s interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way because yeah, he’s just trying to… Yeah. I mean, he’s trying his best.
There’s some commentary on the idea that being sensitive is a bad thing, which I thought was interesting. The effort to make a societal comment about the idea of hyper-masculinity.
It’s just exhausting. Don’t those guys just get exhausted of being them? It’s fucking just tragic. We never explicitly had that conversation, but we’re all of the same mind — Teddy, Alex, and I. It’s called toxic masculinity for a reason. It’s toxic to everyone, just everyone: man, woman. It sucks and it’s really pathetic when you think about it. It’s like what? You have to be a man and not have feelings? Go to a therapist.
I mean, to me, culture is an ever-moving thing, and we all have the ability within ourselves to refuse to grow if we want to be that kind of person. But there is a social contract where we’re supposed to keep trying to be better and master the swell of chemicals that live within us. I think the show is interesting because of how it relates to that and reflects on the fact that there are people who try to just be posers and continue to reject the notion that you should have emotions or be sensitive.
Yeah. It’s like the incels. Goddamn. Anyway. Yeah. It’s really tragic. I really do think it’s a tragedy. And when you look back on history, it’s like what good has that done for anyone? I can’t find it. I do think there’s an actual cost to it. And I think what that really comes from is a lot of fear. A lot of fear. Just the ownership of like, “Oh, I don’t want to be… I don’t want to take ownership for the things I’ve done wrong in my past. So, you know what? You’re wrong. You’re the person who is being weak.” And it’s like well, no. Does it really cost you that much just to admit your faults and try to change? Is it really that important for you to keep saying that slur when you know the damage it does to another person? It’s like, really? Are you that weak-willed?
Yeah. And it’s a funny thing because everyone deals with fear. It’s just how you deal with it. In all actuality to go through life and confront your failings and to deal with fear in a way that is more productive, that’s actually the braver thing, I think.
I agree. I agree.
With regard to Black Box. I’m curious about the interest in something where it’s a character that’s really mining their past within a psychological horror. Can you tell me a little about the appeal of that to you, just as a performer to be able to play that? And to present that out into the world.
How do I say it without giving anything away? Well, I think the fascinating thing for me upon the first couple pages, it’s like playing someone who doesn’t know who they are and everyone’s telling them who they are.
It’s an interesting parallel to Jerome, to an extent.
Oh, sure. Yeah. Wow. Look at you. [Laughs] Yeah, man. That’s funny. It’s just one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, what’s that like?” I just didn’t know. I was like, “This is another fun and interesting challenge that I don’t get to see very often this kind of script.” And that’s to Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr’s credit. I love that guy. Really had a good time working with him. He’s a really special director.
You’re in your 30s, so you’re of the age where Jurassic Park I’m sure had a bit of meaning to you.
What is it like to be able to jump into something like that? Especially with this one where, “Oh, now I’m going to potentially be working with the people who were actually in the original Jurassic Park.”
They’re the kindest. They really are so kind, but it was the first day on set with them, I was like, “What?” Sam Neill, man. Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum.
Do you challenge yourself with that to not be starstruck? Or do you just let whatever’s going to happen, happen?
Oh, typically, I don’t care at all. I’ve been to the dance before. I don’t care. We’re actors. Let’s work. But when something has such an indelible mark on your childhood, it’s hard to forget when you’re doing it with them. You know what I mean? It’s just like, I have to be a little patient with myself. It was like, “What? What? What?” It’s bananas.
‘Uncorked’ is streaming on Netflix, ‘Oh Jerome, No’ is streaming on FX on Hulu, and ‘Black Box’ is coming soon to Amazon.