JEremi Pope is in great spirits for a man who has been flying back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. The actor released the press for his new film, The inspection— a semi-autobiographical film based on the life of writer-director Elegance Bratton and his relationship with his homophobic mother, played by Gabrielle Union– and rehearsing in New York for his comeback Broadway later this month in Cooperationwhich starts screenings on November 29 and opens on December 20. The stage production delves into the relationship between artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, played by Pope, and Andy Warhol, played by Paul Bettany.
But Pope is no stranger to being busy. In the past few years, he’s barely caught a break between roles in movies, TV shows and Broadway productions, let alone releasing his own music. The 30-year-old actor made his Broadway debut in 2018 Chorus boywritten by Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, and then joined the cast of Not too proud— a jukebox musical based on The Temptations. At the 2019 Tony Awards, he became the sixth actor in the awards show’s history to be nominated for two performances in the same season, picking up a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Chorus boy and Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for Not too proud.
Pope has also had roles in two high-profile Ryan Murphy projects: pose and Hollywoodas well as playing Jackie Wilson in Regina King’s directorial debut One night in Miami…with an upcoming role of Sammy Davis Jr. in To Janet Mock Scandalous!.
In an interview with TIME, Pope talked about what it was like to be a judge for Bratton’s story in the The inspectionhis return to Broadway and be sure to attend for his moments of continued success.
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
TIME: When did you know you wanted to be a performer? Is it everything you expected it to be?
Pope: I think it was really in high school when I was choosing between performing in track or the school musical, which was Cats that year — an interesting choice for a high school play — but it was the first time I felt the power of storytelling and what a gift it can be to an audience. I moved to New York and went to college for acting and the pieces just started falling into place. I think it’s everything I dreamed it would be.
In the new movie The inspection, your character, Ellis French, is inspired by writer-director Elegance Bratton’s life as a young, gay, black man who joins the Marines. What was that?
I was a sort of vessel for him. We said at the beginning that for this to work, we have to trust each other. Indeed, I asked him to trust that the version of French I was creating would be the correct version of French. You have to let me create with you. It is an accumulation of us finding our truth and our harmony together. In a film that centers on a black, queer man, I could use that experience to bring out some of my own pain and abandonment and then bring it to the surface of healing and love and self-discovery. We were able to shoot the film in just 19 days during the summer in Mississippi in 117 degree weather. So the elements were very, very, very real. It was the most emotionally and physically demanding role, but very satisfying.
There are some gruesome scenes. Did you and Bratton have conversations about the advantages and possible disadvantages of portraying such violence on screen?
There were many conversations. Specifically for the shower scene, and I think that was because it happened to me, in a variant. I didn’t want to take a picture of it. I do not want [French] to be beaten I understood what this meant for the story. We have to be brutally honest with our experience. I think if we’re going to bring people in, they have to be all the way.
Jeremy Pope (left) and Raul Castillo (right)
Credit: Patti Perret/A24 Films
Was it difficult, physically or emotionally, to shoot those scenes?
I remember there was a time years ago in New York. I was walking home wearing a blue denim button up shirt and someone just walked up and punched me in the face. I remember people who witnessed it saying, “Just go home, just go home,” wanting to protect me.
With this scene in the shower, as complicated as it is for the French to exist in this hyper-masculine institution, [Bratton] and I didn’t have to talk about what it feels like as a queer man to walk into a space where there are other men walking around naked. It was mostly about the feeling of “I just don’t want anyone to do it [notice I’m looking] because then my safety is at risk. It was a tough day to shoot. [Bratton] has been through some traumatic and difficult things, but that’s not all he is. He makes his feature film debut with A24, healing and delivering something palpable for Black, a quirky performance. That’s the bottom line.
I have a question about the parts of the character that are fictional. Was the war paint scene – where he uses war paint as makeup – real?
ha! No, that was not his truth. But it was one of those moments where it was like, “Oh, if only I had done this at that moment!” It was a brilliant moment, and I was like, “French has to have Marilyn Monroe and it has to have a full contour.” I’ve never been doing drag, but this should be drag’s moment. It gives people that hooray moment they need in the movie.
Many of your roles struggle with masculinity. Did you search for this on purpose?
You never know what work is around the corner. I just tried to focus in those stories by working with unique contributors who approach the business differently. I didn’t grow up watching black queer artists. I didn’t grow up watching a black gay movie star. I grew up in the church. My father is a professional bodybuilder. So I’m always in spaces that challenge this idea of what a man is, what masculinity is.
I feel stronger than ever. I’m doing therapy. I feel like I have the emotional bandwidth that goes so high, so low. I have the ability to empathize and understand people who don’t want the same life as me, and it’s through storytelling.
Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope
Courtesy of A24
You’ve played many historical figures: Jackie Wilson (One night in Miami…), Temptations member Eddie Kendrick (Ain’t Too Proud) and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Cooperation. How do you approach a role based on a historical figure versus a fictional one?
The boring answer is that you read books and google. But to me it’s about trying to get as close as you can to someone’s heart and soul. I’m definitely in a Basquiat mood right now and his art is my way into his mind. We see that reflected in the words and the drawings that are on his canvas, so I try to use that to mark where he was emotionally, intellectually, creatively at that time. You can do all the research, but there has to be a person inside. I think that’s what draws people in and that makes the presentation or the connection undeniable.
You have also acted in various media: on stage, on the small screen, on the big screen. Where do you feel most at home or do you always hope to move between them?
I think the movement between all of them is fun and exciting because it keeps it new. The theater gave me the best foundation as an actor. I think of theater and Broadway as being like military and marine practice because we’re doing shows eight times a week while trying to stay sane in the New York winter, and it’s just hard. But it taught me to be consistent. He taught me how to appear in my company of actors and tell the story over and over again.
My reach is much more in the medium of TV and serial films [on streamers] like Netflix. There are people all over the world who have been affected and changed by this visual thing that you have created that is beautiful. The gift within the target will be able to simply find stories in all of them.
In just a few years in the industry, you’ve received Emmy, Grammy, and Tony nominations in addition to Oscar buzz for The inspection. What’s it like to see your success snowball so quickly?
There were many highs and many lows. My family is everything to me – blood family and chosen family – to keep me grounded and keep my perspective in check, so I feel so grounded. I feel very cared for by my people so I can continue to handle the highs and lows. Embracing that and knowing that life isn’t meant to always be high and it’s not meant to always be low – that’s just a part of life that’s part of being an artist and a creator.
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