It took me some time to watch When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s unflinching exploration of the nightmarish railroading and inhuman treatment of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. I’ve seen the equally heavy and laudable 2012 documentary (The Central Park Five) by Ken Burns, so I had a sense of the injustice and destructive media frenzy. I just didn’t want to feel the outrage and anger again, didn’t want to feel helpless in the fog that that generates, as we all often do when confronted by uncovered atrocities and the frequency with which they occur. Instead, I’d find something else to watch. Something light and fun. It’s a choice I make constantly, turning away from the news and muting certain words (and people) on social media. Because it’s all too heavy. Because I can. But when does escapism become evasion from a responsibility to be informed and when do you scorch your ability to feel empathy from too much exposure to these things? I do not know the answer to those questions.
I do know that I’m glad that I pushed through and watched When They See Us. If you feel like you’ve become numb, the depths of despair and the destruction of these five men will crack that shell, I promise you. It’s impossible to watch this and not only feel but quest to learn more about the history of the Central Park Five and other injustices. And in doing that, perhaps we learn a little bit more about the ways our justice system is broken. That’s what happened to Jharrel Jerome, one of the stars of the series who had the challenge of playing Korey Wise as both a naive teenager and a scarred adult (a task split between two actors for each of the other members of the five). Jerome went deep in his preparation to play Wise, whose story (powered by Jerome’s brilliant and multi-faceted performance) is laced throughout before anchoring the fourth and final episode. In the process of absorbing this story, Jerome went from cognizant to a state of hyper-awareness when it comes to the depths of the injustice that can occur in the shadows. But if nothing else, When They See Us is a form of light, and when we spoke to Jerome recently, we discussed the need to push past apprehension and fears about heaviness to watch this story and his own mission to continue shining a light on issues through his work.
When you learned about the story of the Central Park Five, what were your first thoughts about where the system was then to where it is now?
That nothing has changed. Not much has changed at all. I like to call this the Central Park Million sometimes, meaning this happens on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I’m sure somebody yesterday got picked up for looking like somebody else. So, it’s funny because before I did the project, I was very naive about these kinds of concepts and to the negative effects of the system. I knew the damage that police officers could do, I knew the damage that the government can do. I just had no idea of the actual pain that men and women go through in prison. I did not know that we were still in the midst of modern day slavery. It was working on this project that completely knocked that naïveté out of me and made me realize that there’s a lot to open our eyes to. A lot.
With that in mind, does it not surprise you, I guess, to see the push back against this narrative? I mean, recently, we saw President Trump commenting on it [he played a part in the public railroading of the Central Park Five in 1989] and trying to shut down the story. And we’ve seen other people that have pushed back and said that it’s a fabrication.
Yeah, unfortunately, no, that doesn’t surprise me. We’re always going to have this tear, 50/50. Once one thing is so beautiful and strong for one group of people, the other group of people will think it’s hateful and negative. I think that’s just human nature. And I think that’s just the way we work. Fortunately, we didn’t do this project for any of them. We didn’t do this project for Trump. We didn’t do this project for Linda Fairstein. We did this for the five men, for their story and their plight. So, those names that I just mentioned happened to be a pivotal part of the story. And however they are part of the story is how they are part of the story. It’s not something made up, it’s not something created to down anybody [or] put a negative light on anybody. It’s just a lot of shedding the truth.
So, however the world wants to receive it is how they’ll receive it. As for me, I did this for those five men. And the smile on their faces today? That’s all that keeps me complete. I haven’t read up on Linda Fairstein or Elizabeth Lederer. I did not read up on the Trump thing. It’s just not my interest and it’s not worth it for me. Especially after putting my heart and soul into this project for these men and nobody else. So, for me, that is the least of my worries. But it’s good to see that it’s a conversation and whether it’s a negative one or a positive one, the conversation was the point of this all. So as long as it’s being talked about, we think everything is positive in terms of that.
Like you said, this has opened your eyes to the ways of the system. You’re going through this process and now seeing the reaction, and focusing on the positive side where people are seeing this and having that awakening. What’s the next step for you with that? How do you want to use your voice and use that awareness?
That’s the beautiful part of the job. I think, for me, it goes way beyond just acting. It goes way beyond the idea of getting a paycheck or getting fame or any of that. For me, it’s the art. It’s the passion that is the meat that keeps me going and that keeps me motivated. So to do projects like Moonlight or When They See Us… projects that really speak to a group of people that don’t often get spoken on. That is my dream and that is my goal as an artist.
Art imitates life and I think art is medicine for a lot of issues today. I think if it weren’t for a lot of the films and TV shows that have come out in the past few years, I think there would still be a lot of racial boundaries and racial tensions that go on, especially in the industry. But today, it isn’t too much of a problem to be young, black, and an actor, because there are so many stories and so many projects coming out that are finally shedding light on our wars and our battles. So as long as I can keep telling the story of our plight and the story of our battles as human beings and as minorities, especially, then my job is done.
What about activism? Is that something that interests you? Going a step beyond just the art and speaking out on issues?
Yes, that definitely interests me. I just got word of The Innocence Project after we started shooting When They See Us. I started to study up on what they do, and their message. Their goal is exactly what I would like to be a part of. Today, I think I’m more focused on the projects that speak on it and to start to make those happen. But hopefully, there will be a time in my life where there’s good money in my life and the ability to give back to all the things that I’m speaking about.
You spoke with Korey Wise ahead of the series. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience and what kind of advice he gave you? What he conveyed about the strain of being in jail and how it helped you form the character?
It was incredible getting to know him and I’m very grateful that Ava [DuVernay] connected us with the real men. For me, hanging with Korey, it became way more than just an actor and the guy he’s playing, it was brotherhood. It was a mentorship, almost. He inspired me every time he spoke. He pretty much put me under his wing in terms of courage, in terms of will power. And he taught me how to channel that courage and that willpower.
I didn’t have many conversations with him about his time in prison. So that is the difference between, I think, me and the other actors. I think the other guys were a little more comfortable with sharing their experiences, but Korey was never the one to be vocal about his experiences, especially the worst parts of it. I got a couple of things about some friends he had met. I did learn about Roberts, the CO, and some things that he had in his mind, but in terms of the assaults and in terms of any of those true painful moments you see in part four, he could never really open up about himself.
For me to get into who he was, was just simply being around him multiple hours of the day and just paying attention and listening. And Korey, if you are ever blessed with the chance to meet Korey live, you would see that he’s the type of person that you’ll need to hang with every word because he’ll take a while to get what he needs out. And so if you’re willing to be patient with him, you can learn a lot from the man. And so it was that, it was going to a pizza shop, going to buy sneakers at Foot Locker, and this and that. It was just moments like that that helped me channel who he was and especially channel this younger side. Because I still believe that teenage Korey is somewhere in there trapped, trying to get out. Just studying that and being aware of how bright and full of life and joy and confidence he is now, I can’t even imagine the kind of guy he was before the system tried to strip them of that.
Can you take me through the process of filming those scenes where Korey is assaulted by the guards and the other inmates?
It was handled with extreme care and caution for us all. On the one hand, trying to make sure that what we are doing is right and not fuck up by… We didn’t want to put any Hollywood into it and didn’t want to include any movie effects. We wanted to make sure that it was as raw and real as it could be, specifically for these men, so that their stories can be clearly understood, not just movie understood. I think that’s a big difference. And so, there was that pressure, and then just the weight of the material that’s so painful, knowing that this actually happened to these men, knowing that this actually happens to men and women every day. It really weighs on you, as opposed to you jumping off a building and flying into the air like a superhero. You don’t often think about what other people are doing that.
So just that alone, it was so heavy. We were shooting in real prisons. These were active prisons where we were shooting on one floor and right above us there were men sleeping in their cells. Ava made sure that we were handled with care. It was material that I took home with me every day. Usually, when I’m on set I can say cut, and I can smile and laugh and make a joke. But this time around it’d be cut and I’d have to figure out a way to realize that I am just performing and that this is all over now, and these men are still here today. Think about it as the audience, as the viewer who’s watching this, that pain you feel, that natural gut-wrenching feeling where it’s like, “wow, I want to cry for these people.” It’s that times a million when you’re actually inside of this cell trying to step into Korey’s shoes themselves.
I’ve heard a lot of people say they started watching the series and they had to turn it off. It was too heavy, or they just don’t want to watch it because it looks so heavy. What’s your reaction to people saying that? After watching it myself (after initially feeling like that), I think it’s very important that people push through and watch.
It’s absolutely important to push through it. I hope that the people who have stopped it because they can’t watch it will try their hardest to continue on because it is so important. But to me, those kinds of responses, I think those are extremely, extremely meaningful responses. I think those say a lot about the character of the story and to the meaning of the story. It’s hard to open your eyes to this, but this is what we’ve got to do. This is what those five men had to do. They had to open their eyes to that brutality. They had to adjust to that form of pain, and that depression and that confusion at 14 to 16 years old. These young boys had to go through it. So if we can try our best to watch some of those things for four hours… to sit on a couch, in a nice home, and watch it on a nice TV, it’s a blessing to be able to do that.
But it’s understood that it’s not easy to get through it. I had a hard time getting through it and I read word for word what the script was gonna be. It’s not an easy project to handle, because you just don’t want to go through it yourself. You don’t want your kids to go through it, you don’t want your friends to go through it. You don’t want that kid that you know down the block to go through it. You just don’t want it to happen. But it’s happening. So to watch it through is the most important thing you can do because there’s an extra lesson here that you can carry forward and hopefully, all together, it will just create a mass change, you know?
Korey quiets down a bit as a person as time goes on in the story. From the effects of what he goes through and the impact. What are you holding onto as you’re playing him from a teenager to an adult? What part is kind of a constant there?
If we’re talking physicality, my eyes. My eyes were big. It’s a big actor’s trick for me. I think there was a lot of vulnerability, a lot of confusion, a lot of naïveté that was in the wide eyes, the eyes that are so bright and open and looking around and trying to understand everything. And then as those years go by where he’s being pummeled and being forced to change and forced to man up, I think his eyes get lower. That confusion kind of goes away, that naïveté goes away, and it just becomes a hard force. It becomes almost animalistic. It becomes survival mode. And so those bright eyes just got lower and lower over the time I was shooting. I remember trying to focus on “where are his eyes at in this moment?” Are they wider again to make him look younger, are they lower to make them look intimidating in front of Matias Reyes?
Things like that. It’s the physicality that I kept in me with Korey. I think there’s a huge difference between how he carried himself before and how he carried himself after. So for example, if you see him today, he walks with his chest in his shoulders. When I play him as a kid, he led with his chin instead. He led with that cocky sort of “yeah, you know, I’m cool, I’m cool. I’m going to lead with my chin up.”. Now he leads with his chest, and so, to me, that’s a huge difference in the type of person you are. Finding those quirks and the physicality between [playing] a boy and a man, that’s what I spent my time studying more than anything. And then to channel who Korey was, that kept me grounded in the work. His pain, his story kept me grounded. The way he spoke, such a unique voice. The second I found that and I was able to manipulate his voice, it just led into my feet and led into my body into the chest and shoulders. And from then on, I was trying my best.
Working with Ava as a collaborator, is she the kind of director who lets you run with that idea when you find those notes after meeting with Korey?
She is a trusting director. I think that once she casts, that is her letting up all her trust to the actor. She definitely is a leader of a ship. So her directorial notes you take with full attention and fulfillment. But she is definitely the type of director to let the actor play. There were a lot of moments where she asked me what I think, considering I was the one who analyzed Korey. I was the one who broke him down and studied him. She didn’t get the chance to do that. So she trusted me to find: “What would Korey do here? How would he sound here? What would he look like here?” And a lot of it came from my mind and her kind of tweaking at the end to see if we can go somewhere else with it. But a lot of it was my decision and my choices.
When They See Us is streaming on Netflix.