Jeremy Pope did break through a new one quietly. Not only did actor Tarell Alvin McCraney earn a Tony nomination for his 2018 Broadway debut in “Courage Boy,” he became one of only six actors in history to earn two acting nominations in different categories in the same year, as well as a nom. “Not too proud” for the musical. Her television debut, starring in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood,” earned her her first Emmy nomination. And now her first major role in a movie, “The Inspection,” has earned Pope rave reviews and nominations from both the Independent Spirit Awards and Golden Globes.
While Pope’s charisma and talent have been evident from his work on stage and television, it’s never a guarantee on the big screen. But from the opening moments of “The Inspection,” it becomes clear that Pope is not just a great actor, but a star. Every frame of the picture, beautifully shot by Lachlan Milne, loves Pope. And for someone capable of larger-than-life performances, the actor proves that he can convey so much through the stillness of just using his eyes and fleeting expressions.
Pope is currently back on Broadway playing Jean-Michel Basquiat opposite Paul Bettany’s Andy Warhol in “The Collaboration.” He actually returned to the same dressing room at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater where he made his Broadway debut. “It was my first Broadway dressing room so I did that. I got the pillows and the artwork and the curtains — most of it is still here,” Pope said. “It’s a very full circle moment for me.” The play is going to be made into a movie where both The actors will reprise their roles and play Pope Sammy Davis Jr. in an upcoming film directed and co-written by Janet Mock.
For those familiar with his stage work, it was always a matter of “when” — not “if” — Pope would break through to film stardom. As he reveals in a chat with him diversityThere were other opportunities before “Visit” but the actor knew not only the value of the right project, but also his own value.
“The Inspection” is your first lead role in a movie and it seems like a movie that people really want to tell and share their own stories about. What reactions have you encountered to it?
Jeremy Pope: It has been really great. It was also new to me because “Hollywood” was out during the pandemic and I was promoting mine in my living room in my boxers, so none of it felt real. After our indie film goes to festivals, you can do these Q&As and have conversations with your audience and hear how it affects them. And I think our film lives on with people after watching it. I get a lot of emails from friends and some people I respect in the business, who don’t know me at all. The Marines talked to me about the meaning of the story. I am very happy and proud of the film and what it stands for and how it turned out. So it’s just a gift.
A lot of people have directors or actors they want to work with, but you said you actually want to work with the studio, A24.
Priest: Every year I set up a vision board that reveals something. And A24 was on my vision board, I’ve been wanting to work with them for a long time. Then I fell in love with this script. I meet with elegance [Bratton, the director] And he was great, but it took nine months for me to hear anything about the project and it was difficult. Because as I’m sure artists will tell you, sometimes you get an instinct about something — that feeling, it’s supposed to be mine. But you have to tell yourself not to want it so much because it’s devastating if you don’t get it. And the simple truth is, you don’t get most things.
How do you process that rejection?
Priest: You just need to know that it’s been years of trying and being told no and no and no and no. And then you get a yes and you don’t know what the yes means or how it will change your life. And I’ve been so fortunate that the handful of yeses I’ve gotten have come from people like Terrell Alvin McCraney and Janet Mock and Elegance Bratton.
When did you finally get the word out?
Priest: Well it’s interesting, because I was doing another film. And I took a leap of faith and quit that job, a job that didn’t serve me. And a few hours after that, I heard the “inspection” was happening.
It’s unbelievable. Was it hard to walk away?
Priest: The short version is: I was offered the lead in a studio film. And even though I didn’t like the script, it meant something. But it’s one of those things that gets me in conversations, gets me in front of directors and people at the studio. As people know, it helps where the coins and commas of your checks go and the opportunities you are given
But I had an interesting conversation with the director where he basically said I didn’t have the ability to connect with a female character because I was gay. At this point, I was debating how to protect myself. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot more about where she’s been and her life journey versus who I am or what I know I come up with a project. So the first time I go, “Am I going to say no? Am I going to give it up?” And I had to choose myself and serve myself and say I can’t be in an environment that doesn’t support and pour into me the way I’m going to support. I’ve spent many years really. To do great projects, usually ones that don’t pay you a lot, but that’s because people are honest and open and vulnerable and they’re there to take care of the art.
So I had to say “if that energy” because it would take too much from me. And literally in that same breath knowing that don’t serve me when the phone rang and it was “A24 wants to have this conversation about ‘The Inspection’. Convince yourself. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. So it’s just me going through it. And I had to understand my value and my existence and how I want to show up in this business and what I want to tolerate and not tolerate. So I think, like I said, life has to be the thing of life.
So you were committed to that other movie? Or were you just negotiating for it?
Priest: Oh, we were shooting in three days! It was a tricky one. I never want work to be difficult. You know how this business works. Especially when you’re part of a marginalized group, you get an opportunity, you don’t want to screw it up. But it was not at my service. Again, I know what I bring to the table. I show up for my scene partners, stories, craft. I come from theater so I’m all about that work life. For someone to make me feel otherwise… I was tired of negotiating my worth.
Actors want to please their directors, but it must be special because the story is personal to Elegance.
Priest: This is his story. His experience. And this is his directorial debut. And it meant everything to me that I was his first choice. The trust I felt from him was very important. We shot this movie in 19 days, in the middle of the pandemic, in 117 degree weather in Jackson, Miss. So it was difficult and challenging and demanding but his belief in me and my belief in him as a storyteller was very special and I will always be grateful to him for that opportunity.
Have you even started with your physical and mental preparation?
Priest: We had a real bootcamp, we used to wake up so early — 3:30, 4:30 a.m. I was like: “We’re actors after all. Why are we doing this?” But it helped bond with the guys, we all got to shave our heads. Octavia Jones was a Marine supervisor and military consultant, she actually worked with Elegance. And she was there to make sure we saw that. Sharp, that we look like Marines.
I think I was more mentally prepared than physically. I knew the space I had to create specifically for elegance. I don’t know if people know, but this story was an attempt to reach out to his mother. It was greenlit and then a few days later, his mother was killed. So I knew this was going to be a very vulnerable and sensitive place for me to be a part of. But he was kind enough to admit that I had to make my own French version.
Now you’re doing theater, which can be unexpected. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you on stage?
Priest: I’ve said this before, but probably on the opening night of my “Choir Boy,” my Broadway debut, my mom was leaving. I think she got so nervous and anxious for me, watching her son on stage and how I started to blend into the character. It was an emotional roller coaster.
In fact, when “The Inspection” premiered at TIFF, he had a similar experience. I thought it would be different because it’s not live theater, but when the film started he started to panic a bit. “The work you do on these characters is hard to separate from yourself, and it feels so vulnerable and honest and real,” she told me. She wants to try to go on a journey with your character, but feels kind of maternal and wants to protect me.
Well, for that, I want you to make a nice rom-com next.
Priest: right? Maybe something a little lighter.