Jason Mitchell is holding court in the back of Nick’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, one of the city’s last great greasy spoon diners, not far from where he filmed Straight Outta Compton. It’s the kind of joint with headshots on the walls and scrambles named after famous customers, like veteran actor Richard Gant, who played George Washington Duke in Rocky V. One day, during a Compton shooting break, Mitchell peeped inside and DJ Battlecat was eating at Nick’s — “He was literally sitting right here at this table!” — so for today, this corner is unofficially called the DJ Battlecat Booth. Maybe someday it will be the Jason Mitchell Booth. His new movie, Superfly, out last week, might help with that.
Currently, Mitchell appears to be going unrecognized. Still, he draws people into his radius. The waitstaff stopping by to chitchat about Netflix documentaries and make sure his coffee stays hot aren’t doing it because this loud, funny guy is famous. He’s just a delight to be around. Every topic gets a smile from him, and the same four words: “Crazy story about that!” His crazy stories about 7-Eleven hot dogs and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles translate to: Here is a subject that I love. Sometimes, the phrase glosses over things that seem more complex than crazy. Like this aside about The Matrix and Superfly producer Joel Silver, who called him up personally to ask if they could rush Superfly into production as a summer blockbuster.
“Crazy story about that,” says Mitchell. “My dad killed himself when I was 15 — tragic shit, okay, right — but the last film that me and him saw together was The Matrix.”
Mitchell muscles past the darkness of that statement to get to the light: “So this is like a great smiling-down moment for my dad right now,” he concludes. In the three years since his breakout role as Eazy-E in Compton, the 31-year-old actor has starred in studio comedies (Keanu), action juggernauts (Kong: Skull Island), festival indies (Barry and the upcoming Tyrel), and serious awards contenders (Mudbound, Detroit). He’s good in every genre. His characters feel real, like they were just going through their lives and suddenly there’s a camera and — oh God — there’s a 100-foot ape. When Jason Mitchell is in a movie, that movie is better. That a former oyster-shucker and electrician from New Orleans can be so talented, he makes Hollywood function like a meritocracy — well, it gives you hope that sometimes the planet plays fair.
“The people’s champ,” he jokes, as he digs into a plate of spam and eggs. “If I could have wrote my story, it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Mitchell’s not being immodest when he admits he’s always had a glow. In his first year of high school, he was elected Mister Freshman — a title he did not run for, he stresses. At Alcée Fortier, the fourth-worst school in the country, where kids weren’t even allowed to have lockers (“our garbage cans were chained down”), running for homecoming court was Not Cool. Winning anyway was, and Mitchell, a class clown, football jock, track runner, and battle rapper, reigned over a dynasty that extended to Mister Sophomore, Mister Junior, and Homecoming King without ever designing a campaign poster or even paying the $700 his school wanted for his parade suit. For Jason Mitchell, they waived the fee.
Hurricane Katrina happened three months after he graduated. Mitchell’s high school closed permanently. His throne was never usurped. He bounced around earning “street money,” his eye-roll-shrug implying an income at once illegal and too boring to brag about, and eventually left his destroyed city to enroll at a brand-new DeVry University in Austin, taking night classes in Visual Design. The second week, he walked onto campus and was surprised to see a candid shot of him smiling during a lecture printed on a floor-to-ceiling poster. He’d been singled out again.
“I’m a short guy, never thought I’d be a model, but I looked good!” says Mitchell. “That was the first time I viewed myself in that light. I never thought I was ugly, but I didn’t think I was TV pretty.” Still, when he wound up quitting school soon after, he didn’t head to Hollywood — he went back to New Orleans to help his grandfather, a barber, repair the storm damage to his house.
Time started to slip by. One year, then two. He did construction, sweated over restaurant grills. A friend was murdered. The cops questioned him at work. Mitchell began to wonder, “What am I doing, where is my life at?” Then he got yet another sign that he was meant to entertain: Mitchell was cruising around with his buddy, Chris, when an ad for an acting school came on the radio. “He’s like, ‘That’s all you, dog — you should do that shit,’” recalls Mitchell. He was driving, so he didn’t write down the information. Yet a week later, Chris, the dude who “smokes a lot of weed, hardly ever remembers shit,” nagged him about enrolling and recited the phone number.
“I took it as a sign from God,” says Mitchell. He called, put on his best suit, and auditioned. “First off, you’re terrible,” the teacher, Jaqueline Fleming, said. “Second off, you have something about you that is so brilliant that this could be your lane.”
Jaq’s Acting Studio gave Mitchell purpose. For three hours a day, three days a week, he could be somebody different. He’d always liked instant gratification, tactile stuff, like when he’d finish wiring a house and flip on the lights. “You’re like, ‘I just fucking did this,’” says Mitchell. Performing gave him that same jolt. He’d do a monologue and people were in tears. Five weeks into school, an agent came to observe. Some people goofed off. He took it seriously. Halfway through, the agent ordered everyone to be quiet. She pointed at Mitchell and said, “This young man right here, his life is about to change.”
As Mitchell tells his story, the back of Nick’s Coffee Shop feels like watching a one-man band. The spoons jangle as he slaps the table to make a point. When his Superfly co-star Trevor Jackson calls, he answers the phone in a Lennon-esque Liverpudlian accent. Leaning back and flinging his arms around the booth, his giant jewelry clinks against his sweatshirt zipper. He’s wearing a fist-sized, jewel-encrusted hockey mask necklace, a hat tip to Friday the 13th’s summer-camp killer. “I had to get the Jason mask,” he grins. “It’s kind of a little play on words — I’m Jason.”
Names are talismanic for Mitchell. Seven months into acting, he got his first movie part in 2011’s Texas Killing Fields, and at the table read, the nervous then-23-year-old introduced himself to a stranger, the actor Jason Clarke. “He’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Jason,’” Mitchell recalls. “I’m like, ‘You’re fucking kidding me, right?’ He’s like, ‘No, seriously, my name’s Jason.’ And I was like, ’My name’s Jason!’ It was this instant bond!”
The name Jason is as common as the cup of coffee in Mitchell’s hand, but to him, it was more than coincidence. It was fate anointing his Hollywood career.
Texas Killing Fields wasn’t much of a launch pad. Mitchell’s unnamed convenience store clerk has two lines: “$5.50,” when star Chloë Grace Moretz buys a bottle of milk of magnesia, and “$7.25,” when she tacks on a yellow rose. His face gets nine seconds of screen time, barely enough to register the skinny kid in glasses and a red polo shirt too big for his neck. But it got Mitchell on a movie set that was just a short drive from his home in New Orleans, and light years away from his daily life.
“Two lines?” says Mitchell. “I need more more more.” So he chased acting gigs harder, earned his second callback for Compton over Skype, after which he became enough of a name to help get Dee Rees’s Mudbound greenlit. When he headed back to the bayou to play sharecropper-turned-soldier Ronsel Jackson in that film, there was Jason Clarke again, playing the racist farmer who plows through the Jacksons’ financial stability.
“I was like: This is full circle,” says Mitchell. Not just seeing Jason No. 2 again, but seeing him there on that stretch of Louisiana dirt. “I went on field trips to see those plantations that we would shoot next to,” he said. His grandfather’s older brother worked those fields. “How big of a step just one family took on this land is incredible.”
He senses — not hopes, he’s more optimistic than hoping — that the business finally believes there’s money to be made betting on black films. “I don’t think a lot of older white people thought that so many white people would go see that movie,” says Mitchell of Compton. “People in Wisconsin are watching this? Straight out of Wisconsin? What?” Superfly has been different. Sony had enough faith in it as a summer heavy-hitter that the studio eagerly hustled it into preproduction just six months ago. “It was dope to see that motion behind a quote unquote black film,” says Mitchell.
His major priority right now is ditching Eazy-E. Many people still think of him as the Godfather of Gangsta Rap, not Jason Mitchell. Every movie since Compton, he’s slipped on a hoodie and snuck into the crowd on opening night. When the end credits rolled on Kong: Skull Island, Mitchell jumped up and said, “Hey guys! Thanks for watching my movie!” The crowd started to cheer: “Eazy-E! Eazy-E!”
“You just watched two and a half hours of me as someone else — are you kidding?” Mitchell groans. “I’m deeper than just this musician.” The eclectic roles he’s taken since Compton are trying to showcase that, and it’s a smart bet that one of his future roles will win him an Oscar. (That Compton and Mudbound didn’t already score him a nomination says more about the Academy than about him.) Meanwhile, he’s already trying his hand at writing a script, a two-hander comedy he hopes his Tyrel co-star Michael Cera will dig. (“Deep in my heart, it would really please me to write something that Michael Cera takes seriously,” says Mitchell. “We’re in perfect balance.”) He wants to direct, too, which, as he sees it, means learning everyone’s job on set. “If you break down a 100-yard dash in movie terms, as an actor, you’ve got 309 jobs between you and that finish line,” he explains.
You believe he can do it, the same way he called a number from the radio and ended up in Hollywood. “I can’t tell my story to actors,” he continues, laughing. “They’re like, ‘Seven months? Go fuck yourself.’” But though his acting adventure started at a sprint, he’s steeled for a marathon. “At this point in my career, it’s like when you come out the blocks when you’re running track. You keep your head down for a minute before you start looking at the finish line,” says Mitchell. “I’m still at that part of the race where my head is down. I’m not going to stop to pat myself on the back.”