There’s no shortage of extraordinary performances in When They See Us, writer-director Ava DuVernay’s stirring dramatization of the story of the “Central Park Five” — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McRay, and Korey Wise, five teens who were convicted of raping and assaulting a 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili in 1989. The four-episode, four-plus-hour series, which began streaming on Netflix on Friday, begins by recounting the boys’ disparate paths to the park on that April evening and follows their arcs all the way to 2002, when their convictions were vacated after an upstate New York prisoner named Matias Reyes confessed to the crimes. (Meili and members of the NYPD have maintained that Reyes could not have acted alone.)
Actor Jharrel Jerome, famous for his turn as young Kevin in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, plays Korey Wise, the only boy who wasn’t remanded to a juvenile-detention facility upon initial sentencing. Over the course of the series, we watch in horror and sadness as he transforms from a girl-crazy 16-year-old with a learning disability that makes him achingly vulnerable to a grown man wounded and weary from more than a decade of brutalization in several federal prisons and solitary confinement. (Jerome plays both young and old Wise, while the other real-life When They See Us characters are portrayed by different actors throughout their lives.) Hours before When They See Us appeared in Netflix queues, the 21-year-old Bronx native spoke to Vulture about impressing Ava DuVernay, the playlists that helped him get in character, and what he expects our “lovely president” will say about his film.
Moonlight’s unexpected success was one thing. But you anchor a good portion of this highly anticipated series. Did anyone prepare you for the attention you’ll be receiving?
I don’t think I’ve gotten any lessons yet, but I could use a class probably. It’s so rare when you know the project you’re in is going to be so impactful. Moonlight was my very first time on set, so I had no idea what that impact was gonna be. It was all a shock to me. As I progressed and did [David E. Kelley’s series] Mr. Mercedes, I knew it was all solid work, but it wasn’t until When They See Us where I was trying to teach myself that this is so much bigger than any of us who worked on it. I guess I’m doing the best to prep myself here. I come from the Bronx, where none of this was even thought of about three years ago. You know, my mom’s not helping me. [Laughs.] She’s worse than me. She’s freaking out.
I’ve read that acting wasn’t on your radar at all until just before high school. [Jerome is a graduate of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the inspiration for Fame.] But I also saw that you did local children’s theater in the Bronx. What was the real germ of your performing bug?
I actually only joined the kids’-theater group to get better at the audition process for the high schools. While I was in eighth grade, I hadn’t even stepped on a stage or done a play. I just knew I was a dramatic person in general and loved telling stories. It came down to my mom saying, “Why don’t you try out for some performing-arts schools in the city?” It was about four months where I was figuring out what a monologue even was. Me and my mom were going to different drama bookshops looking at plays and sitting night after night, working on a script. Imagine two people who don’t know what acting is in general working on a script? [Laughs.] It’s pretty hilarious.
It sounds like between your mom and Ava DuVernay you’ve had plenty of supportive women along the way.
You have no idea. It took at least ten strong, independent women to make this happen for me. My entire team is women — my two managers, my publicist, my mom. My teachers were women.
Did they also help encourage you to take roles that require such sensitivity and vulnerability?
They’ve driven me to push myself to the extreme and stretch myself. To me, that’s what art is. It’s fun to show up on set, do a fluffy movie, get a paycheck, and go home, but it’s about so much more than that — especially as a young black actor. I don’t have all the opportunities in front of me. I don’t have the chance to pick whatever I want. So for me, I want to make sure I’m going to have a voice, a strong and powerful one. I’m inspired by Denzel and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who are so fearless. If I can acquire some of that fearlessness, that’s the reason I started this in the first place.
Denzel’s someone who’s played parts that arced across several stages of a man’s life, as you do in When They See Us. Did you campaign to play younger and older Korey, or was that thrust on you?
It was thrust upon me. I just went out for young Korey. He’s a man who’s trying to figure out who he is in a world that will not let him. I had a lot of facial hair [at the time, for Mr. Mercedes]. That was the issue. Ava was begging to shave my face. After I wrapped [Mr. Mercedes], I went right home, shaved, got on a flight to New York, and was able to meet her at her office. She was stunned. She was like, “What the hell? With your facial hair you’re at least 35, and without you’re at least 5.”
I read young Korey, and she gave me this long glare, and she just goes, “Can you read older Korey’s sides?” She gave me the scene where Korey finds out that Norman passes away, and so it was very heavy, but I felt very connected to Korey because of how much I tried to study him. A day later, Ava said she was very impressed I could play young and old and make it blend well, and changed her idea of who Korey Wise was, and she decided to give me all of Korey Wise.
The real intense stuff was arguably when older Korey was in solitary. You’re a musical person. Did you use that to help you find a rhythm or way to enter that headspace of being in isolation?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. Usually, when I get my roles, I like to create a playlist for them and create what they would listen to. When I did an independent film called Selah and the Spades, I played country music and soulful music, because I felt like that’s the type of kid he was. So for Korey, I did create a playlist, and it was all old-school hip-hop. I allowed myself to go to work listening to it, and all day when I was on the set, all I could do was play it in my head.
But I would say this time around, the music did less to help me, because I embodied Korey a lot through his silence and what solitary must feel like — silence for years. I spent a lot of time on set staring at a blank wall. I remember finding this piece of gum in the corner of the cell one time. I grabbed it and started picking it apart. The P.A. said, “We’re ready for you,” and it turned out only 45 minutes had passed, but it felt like 45 days. Something like that puts into perspective that if I can spend 45 minutes here picking this piece of gum and feeling like this was the only entertainment I could get, imagine 12 years.
I know Korey doest’t dwell on his trauma, so did he give you his blessing to creatively convey it?
Absolutely. I think there was this unspoken trust between me and him. I really did learn Korey solely by learning who he is today, not by hearing him go on about tragic experiences. All the experiences I needed to know were in the script, and Ava got it straight from him, so I didn’t have to worry about getting it from him myself. Speaking with him was always light, it was always love. He would always look at me and go, “You Korey Wise, you the king.”
On the flip side, Ava doesn’t pull punches about portraying other real-life figures — prosecutors, police personnel, Donald Trump, etc. — as villains. Was any potentially hostile response to the series from those individuals a cause of anxiety?
That is always in the back of the mind, but this is When They See Us. This is the show about these five men, so that fills my entire psyche. I don’t have room to think about anybody’s negativity, whatever our lovely president is going to say. I did this for these five men, and it would not be fair to them if I allowed myself to think about anything else besides their justice and what they deserve. I’m sure backlash will happen. I’m sure there’ll be controversy. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of questions, but I’m looking into the eyes of these five men and talking to them only. Ava even said it best. Somebody asked her, “What do you think when Trump sees it?” And she said that’s the last thing on her mind. She didn’t create this for him. He just happens to be a part of the story, and that’s his own doing. It’s about bringing these black men up, not taking this white man down.