Jharrel Jerome on I’m a Virgo, Physical and Emotional Toll of Character

Jharrel Jerome didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he received a somewhat cryptic email from filmmaker Boots Riley early one morning during the 2020 pandemic with the subject line “13-Foot-Tall Black Man in Oakland,” but it was enough to make him jump out of bed.

“For any actor to get a personal message from a director whom you admire saying, ‘I want you for a role,’ it’s a dream,” says Jerome, who plays Cootie in Riley’s fantastical series I’m a Virgo.

The actor was then two years removed from production on his Emmy Award-winning role as Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Central Park Five miniseries When They See Us, and carefully weighing his options for his next part.

“I’m always looking. I’m just very selective, having been so blessed early on in my career and spoiled in a way with Moonlight and When They See Us,” he explains. “I’m a bit more specific and cautious with what I choose, which is a risk because it could take some time.”

Jerome was more curious than worried about how Riley would pull off the series, with his commitment to using practical effects like forced perspective to tell the story of a literal 13-foot-tall, 19-year-old Black kid in Oakland who, after being sheltered by his adoptive parents, LaFrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Martisse (Mike Epps), ventures out to experience the world for himself. So strong was his interest that jumping headfirst into the mythical odyssey as the series lead and an executive producer didn’t feel like a risk at all for him but, rather, an opportunity for conversations around issues like capitalism and the very specific experience of young Black men in America. Jerome hopes that I’m a Virgo, which has yet to be renewed for a second season, will have the opportunity to delve further into these themes.

“If, for some reason, we can’t do another season, I love the little nugget of life we got from Cootie and this world,” says Jerome. “It keeps you questioning certain ideas.”

Jerome chatted with THR about those ideas and his physical and emotional commitment to playing Cootie.

When Boots showed up to your first meeting with figurines to demonstrate his vision, was any part of you intimidated?

All of me was intimidated. I was terrified. I think that’s what excited me and pulled me in. More than being like, “Yeah, Boots, let’s do it,” it was like, “Boots, how the hell are you going to do it?” For any actor, when you get a role, the bigger the challenge, the more exciting the role is. If it’s a role that feels really close to you, it’ll be cool. You’re going to get on set and do what you’ve got to do, but when it’s something Daniel Day-Lewis-like, where you’ve got to really bend and stretch and work your brain, that alone will get you there. Even though I was scared at the time, you can’t help but trust this man. His confidence, his perseverance, the fact that he had everything set up to put his vision across. He kept that energy along the way. I was on board before Amazon, before Media Res — he got everybody else on board just like he got me. That’s the power of what he was doing.

This is your first time as an executive producer. What did it mean to you to have that title for this series?

Not only did Boots respect me enough to lead it, but he gave me the trust to do a lot of the backend work with him as well. I was only 23 or 24, so I was in the meetings kind of quiet in the back, just soaking up all this information. I got to see the entire world that Boots was building, and as an actor, that’s a dream. He let me have a lot of say in casting, and for anybody to give you that respect and that autonomy is an honor. Now I feel like I have more of an understanding of the industry.

How did the experience on set compare with other projects you’ve worked on?

It was a big patience game, but then sometimes there wasn’t any downtime at all. Usually on set, an actor has a stand-in. We’ll do a scene and then as they’re shifting the cameras and working the lights, someone else stands in who’s usually your height, similar skin tone, etc. They didn’t have that for me because they needed my exact body measurements for everything to line up with the 13-foot-tall dummy of me. There was a scene where I’m in the kitchen with Carmen and Mike and I’m sitting on the counter. The camera is to the left of me, and a couple of feet from me to the right are my huge doll legs. Based off of where the camera was angled, if I sat a certain way and you hit the bottom half of my body, and you put the top half of me on the legs, I look like a giant. But the thing is, I had to sit a specific way to make that work, and I couldn’t move. It probably took an hour and a half to set that shot up, so I’m just hunched over in one position all that time and then we got to the action and had to run a couple of takes. So that’s what I mean by I knew it’d be a challenge, but you don’t know just how much until you’re there. That goes for everybody. Boots, the puppeteers, the makeup team, costuming, it really required all of us to be at 100 the whole time, especially creatively, to make it work.

Has your body recovered yet? 

Midway through, they actually had to get a masseuse for me. I was acting bougie, like, “I’m hurt, my back, my back” (laughs), but it got to a point where it wasn’t easy, for sure, especially the Big Bang Burger restaurant scenes. I’m really hunched over then, so doing that for a few hours, days on end, it got a little crazy. But everything that I was doing fed into the performance. Cootie isn’t comfortable, either; every space he was in, he was uncomfortable. So for me, it was about leaning into it as much as I could until the point that it wasn’t safe for me. 

What was the process like getting into the mind of a teenage boy who’s different in a way that he can’t hide?

The way I tried to approach Cootie at first was entirely wrong. I was so worried about how tall this guy is. I’m over here, 5-foot-8 strong, so I’m thinking, “Well, do I go talk to someone 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, say, ‘What’s up? How’s it living up there?’ ” And I actually had this conversation with Boots, and he looked at me, and was like, “No, that’s not it. Cootie wakes up every day 13 feet tall just like you wake up every day with your curls. You know what you are, you know what you look like.” That’s the cleverness in the title. It wasn’t called “I’m a Giant.” It’s not called “I’m 13 Feet Tall.” It’s called I’m a Virgo. So once Boots fed me that piece of information, it all changed for me. It was less about how physical I could be and more about the nuance in my face and how emotional I could be. 

Cootie’s confined in his house his whole life, and normally when you think of that, there’s torture or abuse. But it was the opposite for him. He was well fed, well read. He’s kind of living good. So I had to toe the line between being intelligent in a way that was taught, and being completely far behind socially. That’s where the 13-year-old side came in. Nineteen-year-old him is saying what he thinks is true, but you see it on his face that he’s really 13 socially. So I tried to play with my facial expressions a lot. I brightened my eyes up because that’s what a child does when they don’t know how to use their words yet.

Jerome as Cootie with onscreen friends (from left) Scat (Allius Barnes), Felix (Brett Gray) and Jones (Kara Young).

When Cootie starts to explore, he immediately makes friends and isn’t othered the way his parents feared he would be. The story sort of escapes the outcast narrative that’s often seen in a lot of coming-of-age stories and series centering Black experiences.

That’s a good point. The cliché would’ve been, he goes out and everyone hates him, and he has a hard time finding his people, but right away he finds his clique, which I thought was beautiful. Boots has a way of writing the beauty within the ugly and the madness. There’s this common stigma that we as Black people are always trying to harm each other and we’re divided, so to see Cootie immediately get along with Scat (Allius Barnes), it’s like that’s how we are. That camaraderie is there. For Boots to write that in so early on gave you faith in where Cootie was going to go before things started to go the wrong way. 

The series explores this idea of Black boys constantly being under surveillance and how they’re seen as older than they are and, consequently, a threat. How much do you relate to that as a Black man?

Growing up in New York, that’s all I felt. It’s almost like you’re in this bubble that’s sanctioned. When I was a kid, I had a family emergency one morning, so I was late to school. I went to LaGuardia High School in the middle of the city, so I had to take two trains to get there, and I got to the city around 10:30 a.m., hauling ass, and when I got off the train a truancy cop saw me, and he grabbed my book bag from the back. I was rushing, and all I felt was me automatically being stopped from moving. He asked, “Why aren’t you in school yet?” and I explained what happened and it took him a second to believe me. Luckily, it didn’t escalate any further. I don’t know if it was something in my eyes, but eventually he let go of my bag and told me, “Get to school,” which is the best scenario you can hope for as a Black man in this country. But the fact that this was just a casual happening, and I was only 15, 16. There was a fully completed essay in my bag and another paper that had either a B+ or an A on it, and he would’ve never known. 

It’s been five years since you won the Emmy for When They See Us. How does it feel to be in the conversation again as a potential nominee this year?

I’m so happy to be here. The show came out a few weeks into the writers strike, so we couldn’t promote it like we wanted to. The actors could talk at first, but it’s never the same if you don’t get it from the guy who literally birthed the idea. We were all worried, because we care so much and put endless hours into it, that it might have just gotten swept under the rug. So to go through this awards circuit is an honor for all of us and a big sigh of relief. The recognition is always nice, but it’s never what you want to do the work for. 

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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