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Nicole Beharie on Healing from Sleepy Hollow and the Simple Beauty of Miss Juneteenth

Photo: Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images

Miss Juneteenth, the debut feature of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, is a film of simple beauty. The work is defined by its sincere exploration of Black life in Fort Worth, Texas, charting the careful arc of Turquoise Jones, a single mother funneling her dreams into her daughter, hoping she wins the Miss Juneteenth pageant crown whilst dealing with financial hardship and romantic entanglements. I was struck by the film’s indelible images, stunningly encased in an amber glow, and the knotted emotional terrain its characters deftly chart. By far, the reason to watch the film is Nicole Beharie’s anchoring performance as Turquoise.

Beharie has proven herself over the last few years to be a tremendous actress, making a meal of moments defined by quietude. Memorable is her grace in films like 42 and TV episodes like Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers.” But Miss Juneteenth is perhaps the best showcase of her skills, as she carefully imbues the film with a twang of vulnerability and an undercurrent of yearning. We spoke with Beharie about the making of this modest movie, her approach to specific scenes, and the mother/daughter relationship at its heart. She also opened up about her experience making Sleepy Hollow and navigating Hollywood as a Black actress.

Hi, Nicole. How are you managing?
I’m doing all right. How are you today?

I’m good. You know, every day is a different story under quarantine and with everything going on in the world.
Yeah. I’m definitely feeling the mood swings and the energy shifts for sure.

It’s a surreal time to be living.
I’m nodding. You can’t hear it.

Can you talk to me a little bit about what attracted you to the role of Turquoise Jones?
I’m always looking for parts that feel like it’s not just one note, and in reading the script, I definitely felt like you get to see a little bit of everyone’s heart. You get to see the bad parts and the good parts. You get to see the longing and the desire — whether it’s for a better life or validation or whatever. I just really appreciated that nobody was a throwaway. They were 3D people and that doesn’t always happen. And it’s hard to do in such a short amount of time — to give everyone a moment. Even though they make mistakes, everyone in the movie, they’re all flawed but they’re all beautiful.

And then, also knowing that there was a Black female writer director and the depth of story meant so much to her. It was about her hometown. I worked for a lot of different directors and companies, but no one that has such a clear vision and a personal relationship with the material and the community that we were shooting in. So I thought that would be fun. It would be kind of like an immersion process and it was.

Can you talk a little bit more about that immersion process and what it was like to shoot the film?
It was a little, itty bitty production, and I knew that before getting down. [Writer/Director] Channing [Godfrey Peoples], was like, “Just warning, you it’s going to be tiny.” I was like, “Okay, I got it.” We got down there and, you know, a lot of the cast was local. A lot of the people in the bar scenes and in some of the church scenes and at the pageant, they’re all local. They’re all people that actually exist in those spaces.

I got there a few weeks early to work on my dialect and also to work at the bar. I spent time with the waitresses there and they shook some of the icicles of Brooklyn off my shoulders and brought me into this Texas energy.
It was really special. There are some things that we shot that didn’t make it into the film — like there’s some dancing, a two-step that they do in Texas. It’s kind of like in Baltimore, how they got their own music; they have their own two-step in Texas that I didn’t know about, that we had to learn.

The community really was so supportive of the picture that they were in, and also supportive of me. I felt I got to receive and feel that kind of love of a tight-knit environment. It was special. But it was a small production. A floorboard broke in one of the houses we were working in and I sprained my ankle.

Oh my God. Oh no!
It’s funny, things like that happen and it affects your approach. I feel like Turquoise has a slower pace moving around than I would, but sometimes there were little gifts in the things that happen. You work with what your reality is.

That’s really beautifully put. You touched on this before, but I wanted to talk a little bit more about how you found Turquoise’s voice.
You know what else I have to add, though? I was not fully aware of Juneteenth. I had heard of it, but I wasn’t fully aware of it, nor had I ever really celebrated it, to be honest — like really celebrated it. So when I went to Texas, being that they have a pageant and a parade and a museum and all this history and that people really commemorate and celebrate and take the time to honor their history — the collective history of their complex parts of American history. That was a big, big part in the immersion, realizing, wow. I feel like I’m super aware and woke and all that stuff. And here I am also not giving this a day it’s due, and then realizing that we don’t have a collective sort of national remembrance of slavery or it’s end.

That’s a good point. I definitely liked that moment in the movie where Kai and the other girls up for Miss Juneteenth visit the small museum and get a history lesson in a way. I thought it was a beautiful moment that really kind of showed the importance of this. To go back to my previous question, I’m just curious, how did you find Turquoise’s voice and adapt to the dialect?
Oh, I just listened to it. I’ve lived in the South. I had heard recordings from some people, and I asked Channing if she could record different dialects before I got down there. Once I got down there, I picked a few people and put bits of the way that they spoke together.

I really loved the music of it. I went with a lighter choice than initially expected. I wanted to go a little huskier and have like a rounder sound originally, but I went a little bit lighter and I think — I think it’s okay. It’s funny making movies, because you make a choice and then it’s there forever. And you’re like, Oh, that’s interesting how that plays or how that affects the entire thing. Like, I can talk to you like right here [her voice relaxes] or I can talk to you here [her voice goes up an octave] and it kind of changes how people react to you.

Oh, definitely.
Yeah. We all know that, the code switch.

I know that very well. One thing I really loved about the movie was the mother and daughter relationship between Turquoise and Kai. Can you talk about crafting that relationship on screen?
I think a lot of parents put their dreams into their progeny, right? And to the future, especially if their dreams were deferred in some way. People don’t want to admit to that, but I think it happens. And I just imagined there was so much that she didn’t get to experience, and she was so close that she was going to do everything in her power. I just kind of stepped into that. I was raised by a single mom who worked nights and did as much hustling to keep me and my siblings in good standing. So, I used that.

But then, there was also the blessing of being able to work with such a lovely, talented young actress and it’s my natural instinct as a parent to protect her. It’s her [Alexis Chikaeze’s] first movie. I’m just like a character trying to navigate how much you do and don’t do to protect your child. Turquoise is really trying to reconcile and figure it out in the moment. Because, she didn’t necessarily get the best example, but it was fun. Like right now …. well, sorry, I was about to go off on a tangent.

No. If you want to go on a tangent, I think some of the most beautiful conversations can come from a tangent. Never feel that you need to stop yourself.
What’s interesting is like, every day I’ve been doing these interviews and thinking about it. And every day something new happens. Right now we’re saying Black lives matter, but does every Black life matter? Like, just as a Black woman, it feels like Turquoise is disregarded. We’re reading all these reports about people missing or being killed that are trans black women or [cis] black women. It’s striking another nerve with me, where I’m realizing that it speaks to a whole other conversation. Turquoise is faced with these two men that are offering her some kind of happily ever after. And, she gets a different happily ever after, right?

She does.
It feels empowering. It feels like she figured out who she is, or that there’s more potential. I don’t know. I’m just — I’m really thinking about women today. And I’m proud to be a part of a conversation that has so many elements. Miss Juneteenth is a very simple story, but there’s so many things happening. I’m proud to be a part of that, but I’m still reconciling what it means to be Black and a woman and an artist. And the stories that should be told in the way that they should be told, and how not to traumatize our audiences and how to inspire them. It’s just a lot right now.

It is. And it behooves people in the arts to also really think about the stories that are told. I think that sort of consideration is really important right now. There’s some interesting conversations going on about racism in Hollywood, especially anti-Black racism. I just saw this Los Angeles Times piece where two dozen black writers, filmmakers, producers, and so forth were interviewed about navigating these dynamics in the industry. What has it been like for you as a black woman and an actress and an artist to navigate Hollywood as an industry?
I want to start by saying it’s a privilege to get to do the thing that I love to do and make a living doing it. I’ve had some amazing experiences. I’ve worked with some tremendous actors and directors and producers, but there definitely have been challenges —and some moments where I knew that speaking up would not benefit me, or I thought that I was there to collaborate and work and discover that that’s not in fact the arrangement. That there was sort of an unspoken agreement that I was just supposed to tokenize a little bit and just be happy to be there.

You navigate that with as much grace as you can. I had some interesting things happen to me specifically on a TV show I was on that without saying much, the fan base of the show picked up on a great deal of what was going on for all the people of color — not just the Black people on the show. But I have, in the last few years, really kind of put myself together. I got really sick on the show [Nicole Beharie starred in Sleepy Hollow from 2013 -2017 and has previously stated that she left the show in part over an autoimmune disease] and had to take a hiatus. And that was a big part of coming into a different consciousness about my life, you know what I mean? But there would definitely times when like, I’m just the Black person here. But you do your negotiations, you show up, you’re on time. You just do everything you can to keep the boat above water.

[After the show] I had a lot of time and thank God, because of the job, resources to heal myself and change my perspective about what working should be like. So, I feel like people are now having that conversation. I’ve been having that conversation with myself internally for a while, and I’ve been fortunate in the last few years to only work with people where it didn’t feel like you had to leave a piece of yourself out or shrink to sort of be in relationship to work. Again, I feel like my character on that show was killed off, discarded, just the way Turquoise was discarded. I was discarded, but I’m still here.

You are. You are still here. And, you’re doing great work.
I don’t want to overshadow the film by talking about that, because that’s the tip of the iceberg. I feel like I could write a book about it, there’s so many specifics. It’s just enough to say yes, it’s real. Let’s do something about it.

I get you. I totally get you. It’s definitely the kind of conversation that deserves more time than a brief interview. But thank you for sharing that with me. I wanted to ask about a very specific moment in the film. One of the most indelible moments in the film to me is when Turquoise is just simply sitting on the porch steps of her home in a red dress, wearing her Miss Juneteenth crown, smoking a cigarette, and that became the image for the poster. There feels like an ocean of emotion in that moment. And it’s just a small moment, but it just feels very powerful. Can you talk to me a little bit about crafting that moment and what was going through your head when shooting it?
Man, it was a hot night in Texas. [Laughs] That wasn’t even a scene. That was like an improvised bit, I think. I feel like I can’t put words to it. Sometimes you’re a dancer, right? What I was working with, and what I was trying to figure out as an artist, I think can only be expressed in a way that it was — if that makes sense.

I understand. 
I don’t know if that’s a good answer. I hope people can see it, and just feel it, because some thing’s words just can’t do.

Nicole Beharie on the Simple Beauty of Miss Juneteenth