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Marianne Jean-Baptiste on Bringing Heart to Homecoming’s Cerebral Head Trip

Marianne Jean-Baptiste.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Photo: Getty Images

Amazon’s new series Homecoming is a chilly, intricately plotted conspiracy thriller for the modern age. The slippery new series has no shortage of twists, but the biggest surprise might just be Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s fiercely warm performance as Gloria Cruz, a dedicated mother who turns her cunning toward the Homecoming facility when she suspects her son, Walter (Stephan James), is caught in the web of a larger conspiracy.

Over the course of the ten-episode season, Gloria becomes integral to illuminating the human weight of this conspiracy. She’s the rare black mother figure in a supporting role who isn’t merely a satellite for someone else’s more interesting story. Gloria carries a story of her own, one that’s granted dimension and warmth by Jean-Baptiste, an actress of stage and screen who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the 1996 Mike Leigh film Secrets & Lies. Vulture spoke with Jean-Baptiste about mastering the accent for her Haitian-American character and why Homecoming’s Sam Esmail is an actor’s director.

Gloria in many ways feels like the beating heart of a series that veers more toward the cerebral. How did you prepare for this role, particularly when it comes to that aspect of Gloria?
Well, basically, a lot of the preparation was around the accent and having her as authentic as possible being this immigrant parent who’s raised her son, their only child, and the protectiveness of that. Understanding who she is as a teacher, and balancing being there for her boy and wanting the best for him, not particularly enamored by the fact that he’s joined the military.

Did you listen to the podcast for any research?
I did not. You know, I was going to listen to the podcast, and they said, “No don’t listen to the podcast.” So, “Okay then, I won’t.” Maybe afterward I’ll listen because I do like podcasts, and it’s quite a tradition in England to have radio plays, but it isn’t so much here.

What is the casting process like with Homecoming?
I’m not really party to that. I just got an offer to play this role. What was wonderful about it was that all of the episodes were already written, so there wasn’t this sort of “Oh, in episode four you’ll be doing more of whatever; you never actually see the finished work.” It was nice to just sit down and do it all and really get an arc of the character and where the character goes so that you can really plot the journey. And it was a page-turner.

One of the touches I particularly liked was hearing Gloria and Walter speak Haitian patois — I grew up in Miami and recognized it immediately. Did you know any Haitian Creole before this? And how did you prepare the accent for the character?
Basically, it was like, “Oh, you speak some French, so you should be able to; this should be good.” And then you look at it on paper and you think, This is so different, you know what I mean? Obviously, it was built around the French language, but it was crazy trying to get my mouth around some of the sounds. But I love accents, so it was a joy to sort of study — and then of course when you’re doing the performance, they want you to pare it back, because for people not familiar, it’s hard to understand some of it.

But I worked with a really good coach. He sent me recordings of a woman that he’d interviewed that lived in Florida, and just listening to the voice over and over again. I did some YouTube tutorials, University of YouTube as you call it. [Laughs.] And just doing basic Creole sounds and stuff like that. And I do have a couple of Haitian friends. So that was fun, playing with that tweak.

The Haitian Creole helps to anchor the show in a sense of place — before then, you’re never really sure if they’re actually in Florida — but it also shows the strength of the bond your character has with Walter. Can you talk a little bit about crafting the mother-son dynamic with Stephan James?
Oh, well, he’s just a beauty. He’s such a joy. What’s interesting was our first [scene] together was a Skype conversation, so we’re actually doing Skype in two separate parts of the studio. It was really lovely to just work like that. There was just a warmth between us immediately, even though it was a bit of a difficult conversation to have. We also bonded over things we liked to eat and music. He was easy to impose that mother-son relationship on.

My editor interviewed Stephan recently, and she told me that both you and Stephan speak Jamaican patois, is that correct?
Yes. It was really funny because there was all this stuff about Haitian Creole and speaking Haitian. So what’s weird is that Stephan speaks Jamaican patois, I speak Jamaican patois, and the actor that plays my sister [Michael Hyatt] speaks Jamaican patois, so we could’ve quite easily just [done that]. When time allowed, I would make Stephan laugh by doing it in Jamaican patois, the whole thing, all the lines and stuff, and he’d be killing himself, and we’d be going back and forth, and then we’d have to switch.

You have a very intense exchange with Julia Roberts’s character, Heidi, when Gloria goes down to the Homecoming facility for the first time. Can you talk a little bit about filming at the Homecoming facility?
Well, firstly, it’s such an imposing building. I mean, it’s full of corners and edges and that all works, and there are these corridors that you have to go down. And then meeting the Heidi character — she’s very driven; Gloria, she’s gonna see her son and if anything take him home because she just has that gut feeling that something is off. And then the Heidi character comes in, and of course Gloria — “I really don’t wanna see you. I don’t wanna hear what you’ve got to say. I need to get my boy.” The uncomfortable energy, but also wanting to do the right thing. We had a really good time, I think.

You’ve worked on television before. How did getting the entirety of your character’s arc for a season change your approach to the role, knowing where she was going to end up?
It’s great because you can plot it, you can pace yourself, you can pace the character in their journey, do you know what I mean? Look, I’ve had things given to me a few days before, and you make it work, ‘cause that’s your job. But it’s great to just be able to play with certain nuances and build something, knowing what is going to happen next.

I come from a theater background, so for me it doesn’t spoil a performance or anything organic happening if you know the entire play. You have to know the entire play to perform it. But you forget about those things and you create obstacles, you create conflict, you create all sorts of things along the way so that you can really flesh it out with some authenticity.

With Homecoming, did you have a long rehearsal time?
Not particularly, no. But we did discuss. We would sit and talk about stuff and then we would shoot. Nobody was saying, “I’m gonna do this or that.” It was basically setting the tone, remembering where you were previously, or if you were on your way somewhere and doing that.

But [Sam Esmail] is an actor’s director, I would say. He’s constantly tweaking and refining, and asking questions of you as an actor. It was really good. Often, you don’t get that level of attention from directors — they’re supposed to handle everything, shoot; they’re on a time limit — but he really took his time to mind the directives in the scene.

With regards to shooting, one thing I was curious about was your scene with Shea Whigham, who plays a Department of Defense bureaucrat who’s slowly figuring things out and is imploring you for more information about Walter, but ends up tripping and falling. It’s a surprising show of simple human error. Can you talk a bit about the things you shared with Shea, and his dynamic with Gloria?
Gloria is wary of bureaucracy and Establishment, even though she works in an institution of sorts. Whereas she sees the other conventional institutions of government as something that wants to close people’s eyes and blinds them to the reality of what’s really going on. So when she encounters Shea’s character, it’s with complete suspicion, and she doesn’t even want to give him the time of day. I love the fact that he trips because it is a very human thing, and when we see things like that in film, normally it’s a comical moment.

Gloria is such a fascinating character because she has so much dimension. I find it especially interesting for both Gloria and Walter to be Haitian-American, since as black people we have a different, very wary relationship toward government thanks to a very tangled history. And just hearing you talk about the role, I can feel your excitement, so I’m curious, what do you look for when you take on a project?
It’s really funny because one of my agents actually said, “Oh, there’s an offer for this thing, and the character’s Haitian.” I went, “That’s a challenge.” I didn’t know anything else about it, so I said, “Just send it to me and I will have a look.” And it turned out to be a lot more than just her being Haitian. Because I’ve played a lot of cops, a lot of lawyers, judge-type characters, and for me, I wanna explore other things. I know that sounds really vague, but even if something doesn’t work, or it’s not successful, just things that take me on a journey outside of myself. That’s what my process is.

I’m wondering if you think Gloria is right about Walter at the end of the season, that he’s returned to being who he was before the military. Do you agree with that assessment, or do you think she was being truthful in that moment?
I think that she actually believed that. I don’t think that she thought that any of his experience in the military or after was worth having, to be quite honest with you. She felt that it was damaging and dangerous. So for her, I think she absolutely means it, and she absolutely thinks that this woman needs to leave her son alone and stay away from him because it was just taking him back down a dark road.

I think we’re going to see some really interesting conversations about the emotional side of this show, and Gloria specifically. What do you hope audiences take from your performance and the character and where she sits in the show?
Well, I should hope they find it to be authentic and it resonates with them. As a mother, I wouldn’t have stopped short of burning the facility to the ground if it meant getting my kids out of there. But then there’s this difficult thing that your children grow and they become their own people and they may go off and do something like join the military. You still worry and want to protect, and that sort of justifies mistrust of the Establishment. I hope that people are able to pick up on all those little details that Gloria has. It’s not on the nose. It’s interesting that they’re a Haitian-American family because as you said, there is a mistrust of Establishment and government.

Can we expect a larger role for Gloria in season two?
I don’t know, in all honesty. We know that there’s a season two, but where that goes, nobody knows just yet I dare say. Maybe a couple people know. [Laughs.]

Marianne Jean-Baptiste on Bringing Heart to Homecoming