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Blindspotting’s Jasmine Cephas Jones on Holding It Together and Letting It Go

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Spoilers ahead for “The Racquet,” episode two of season one of Blindspotting.

In the new Starz series Blindspotting, Hamilton alum Jasmine Cephas Jones brings poise, passion, and gravity to the lead role of Ashley, whose life in Oakland is upended when longtime love Miles (Rafael Casal) is arrested for drug possession. On her own for the first time in over a decade, Ashley grapples with her grief while parenting their 6-year-old son (Atticus Woodward). Ultimately, she shacks up with Miles’s mother (Helen Hunt) and sister (Jaylen Barron), as all of them adjust to a painful new normal.

Continuing the story of 2018 feature Blindspotting, which explored police brutality, race relations, and gentrification through the lens of Miles’s friendship with Collin (Daveed Diggs, another Hamilton veteran), the series shifts focus to Ashley, who had a small but memorable role in the film, while preserving its predecessor’s energized lyrical style. Casal and Diggs had written, produced, and starred in the original Blindspotting, which employed poetic verse to allow them to deliver blistering inner monologues directly to the camera, but when Lionsgate approached them about expanding the film into a series, they weren’t interested — until the idea of centering Ashley reinvigorated their view of what Blindspotting could be. An Emmy winner (for Quibi’s #FreeRayshawn), who also released her first EP last year, Cephas Jones had all the dramatic, theatrical, and musical range Casal and Diggs wanted in a series lead. They gave her a call, and she immediately agreed to do the series.

In episode two of Blindspotting, “The Racquet,” Ashley watches as Miles is sentenced to five years in San Quentin. Though projecting strength, Ashley is devastated, especially because she’s found an engagement ring among Miles’s things. The episode builds to an explosion, as Ashley reports for work as a concierge at a luxury hotel and is mistreated by two married guests. After the rich-lawyer husband propositions Ashley, and his Karen-esque wife asks for drugs then verbally abuses her, she grabs a tennis racquet and heads up to their suite. In the jaw-dropping sequence that follows, Cephas Jones delivers an incensed, virtuosic freestyle — “Why y’all get to live so free? Why shit only happen to me?” — while laying the hotel room to waste.

“In brainstorming the show, there were a few moments that are, like, The Moment,” says Cephas Jones. “This was one of them. But it also showed right at the beginning of what Ashley is capable of. Deep down, the anger and pain and sadness that she has, that’s where she’s at. She’s hiding a lot of it, but this is truly how she is.”

Jasmine Cephas Jones spoke to Vulture about what went into making the hotel-room scene into “The Moment,” and what centering Ashley’s narrative has brought to Blindspotting’s story.

What was it like to smash up a hotel room while delivering dialogue in heightened verse? 
It was my first verse. [Laughs.] It was day two of filming. It was a really long day, maybe 16 or 17 hours, and we were running out of light. In each room, I only did two takes of the entire sequence. There’s one section [in the bathroom,] then it cuts to the dining room area, where I’m breaking everything on the table. People forget that so many things happen during filming; it’s not just the actor. We have to get the light right, get the angle right, make sure I’m hitting the glass on the right side and not the left side. We did a lot of rehearsals of me not breaking anything, because when you break something like that, it takes a while for them to clean it up and build it back up again.

I remember [episode director] Seith Mann saying we should do one more rehearsal, but we had no light. The light was leaving us. I remember sitting in the bathroom as he was calling for one more rehearsal, and I looked at him and said, “We’re not going to do a rehearsal. Let’s shoot right now.” And that’s when we shot it. Then, we shot the dance [in the hotel corridor] leading up to the trashing of the room right after that. That was an emotional day for me.

That verse was really hard because, outside of being very emotional, the choreography of it required me making sure I was hitting so many things in the right place then turning around to the camera at the right moments. Thank God I’d prepared it so well. I knew that verse so well in the back of my head. But when your adrenaline is pumping, you’re in the room and doing it and know you don’t have a lot of takes. It was very challenging in that way. Even though I was fully supported, I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. In those moments, you think of everything — and then you just throw it out the window, because that’s all you can do.

How do you prepare for an emotionally intense scene like that?
I had my own little room. We stayed in the hotel the whole day, up on one of the floors. I had a lot of time to myself. Usually, when I do something that’s very emotional or takes a lot out of me, I’m very quiet before. I know a lot of people like to listen to music and get pumped up. I’m the opposite. I like to be very calm and collected before I do something insane. [Laughs.] I’m almost in a meditative emotional state that allows me to go where I want to go.

Ashley often has to hold in her anguish to support the other characters. What was it like to let it out?
Ashley’s dealing with a bit of depression. She’s having all this rage and sadness. She found the ring early in the premiere, Miles tells her not to look in the shoebox, but she does. She finds out he’s away for five years. She’s at her job where she gets mistreated. A white woman asks her if she knows of any drugs, because she’s Black, then a man asks her to come up to his room. And I think she’s just had enough.

My cousin used to work at a hotel, and she saw this episode then looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand, Jasmine, that this is normal. The amount of times I’ve heard this working at my hotel, in so many shapes and forms and ways, that I’ve been mistreated. Just working at the hotel, this is real. It’s not safe.” So many times I’ve heard my sister at her job talk about how people talk to her. I’ve been through it before. This was just a moment of rage for so many women that have wanted to [let it out] but couldn’t. I definitely channeled that, for them.

What was it like to use heightened verse to express Ashley’s innermost thoughts?
I think it’s just really fucking cool. [Laughs.] We’ve all done theater. It’s a very theatrical way of storytelling. Even the choreography resembles choruses in a Greek play. I tackled verse by looking at it as a Shakespearean monologue. You have to break down the thoughts, the beats, everything, so you can see Ashley have thoughts in the moment, as you’re watching her. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want these verses to feel like this grand performance and take you out of the show. I wanted it to seem like this seamless, honest, purest moment of expression. I think it’s such a beautiful way to express one’s feeling. When we’re talking about serious issues, to be able to see it expressed in these heightened emotions, sometimes I think it hits harder because it’s not so right on the nose. It pushes your mind to put the thoughts together.

Blindspotting explores the shock waves of Miles’s sentencing, as well as the trauma his incarceration inflicts on Ashley and those around her. What do you make of this direction for the series?
It was important to show what happens to the families outside, not only the prisoners inside the system but those left behind. This is a system that reaches many, many people, and it starts to affect people mentally: how they interact with people, how they live their life every day. I had a relative, a loved one, who was in Rikers Island, and I had to visit them. The visitation process was agonizing and terrible. Sometimes, you’d be in the visitation room and wait for four hours then not be able to see them, even just to tell them you love them.

It was important for us to talk about it as a love story. The system tries so hard to break people, and there are all these stereotypes of families breaking because someone is in prison. We wanted to show a family that tries everything in the world to stay together, to nip in the bud a lot of these stereotypes, to talk about issues affecting real people, and to show how emotionally you can connect to all of us, even within a system that works so hard to dehumanize us.

Ashley and Rainey are both struggling with the shock of Miles’s sentence. There’s a camaraderie, but these are two women under one roof, coming at a situation from different directions and learning to coexist.
It’s that tough love, you know? Rainey is still looking at Ashley as the younger woman, and there’s a generational gap between them. Ashley is such a strong, opinionated woman who takes pride in the fact that she left the hood and started her own family, that she’s doing this on her own. Now, she’s under this roof that is not hers, and there are these two mothers who aren’t even tiptoeing around each other. They’re going at it. But just like family, there’s so much love there. Helen and I had to establish those moments. We were in constant conversation, because it constantly goes back and forth. Is this the moment where we’re going at it, or is this the moment where we breathe?

We’re learning so much more about Ashley now that she’s centered in Blindspotting’s narrative. How has your view of her evolved?
Ashley comes from an abusive household, and her mother has passed away. She’s been with Miles since she was a teenager, and Miles has helped her through a lot of that. So has Rainey. And now, this partner she’s done everything with, that she’s known since she was a teenager, is gone. That’s why she still sees him even though he’s not really there. Miles pops up every time there’s a big decision she has to make, because she’s always made these big decisions with him. I didn’t want to make her very angry at the beginning. I wanted people to see many sides of her. What I like about her and what she does — and it’s this survival mechanism but also really smart — is that she releases all these emotions not in front of her son. She gets them out some other way, whether it’s sharing [them with] the audience or smashing a hotel room. [Laughs.] She manages to keep it all together and projects the best self she can in the moment for her son. And that’s such a strong, admirable thing to do. It’s what makes her a great mother.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Blindspotting’s Jasmine Cephas Jones on Ashley’s Explosion