'When They See Us' Star Jharrel Jerome Reflects on His Time Portraying Korey Wise

Jharrel Jerome talks his enlightening experience playing Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries on the Central Park Five, 'When They See Us.'

Jharrel Jerome attends the Netflix FYSEE Scene Stealer Panel

Image via Getty/Emma McIntyre

Jharrel Jerome attends the Netflix FYSEE Scene Stealer Panel

While I hope everyone has gotten a chance to watch Ava DuVernay's powerful miniseries on the Central Park Five, When They See Us, I can understand if you haven't. In the week since it's dropped, many have tried to watch and found it to be too intense to take in one sitting. The fact that this story, which found five black and brown teens being wrongly accused for the brutal assault and rape of a jogger running through Central Park in April of 1989, actually happened is startling to many. Real life can indeed be stranger, and more heartbreaking, than fiction.

Those who made it through the four-part Netflix series were rewarded with a powerful performance from Jharrel Jerome, the 21-year-old Bronx native who was brought to the lives of many through Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning Moonlight. Jerome's performance as Korey Wise (both as a teen and through his early adult years) was so intense, so raw, and so emotional that it only made sense to set aside some time to speak to the actor about embodying the role of Korey Wise, the toll it took on his psyche, and his plans post-When They See Us.

Jharrel Jerome in 'When They See Us'

After watching Part Four [of When They See Us], I was like "I need to talk to this man." It was already intense. Just talking to people in the last week about the series, a lot of people are like, "I watched Part One, and I had to take a break," and I'm like I get it, but I'm like "wait until you get to Part Four." It's been a week; what's the response been to you about it after the public's getting to see it?
My God. It's been unreal. It's been insane. I'm having a hard time talking about it right now because I still haven't even fully understood it or grasped it. The fact that a year ago I was hopping on the train in the Bronx, and now today I feel like the next time I'm on that train some people might be looking at me. It's a really weird feeling.

Is that what those IG posts about your lifechanging have been about?
That's exactly what I'm talking about. The best way I could describe it is me being on this rollercoaster, man. You know that feeling when you're on a rollercoaster and you're going up, and it's going up so slow, but that you're looking around and everything gets smaller, and you're just going higher and higher, and your stomach is getting those butterflies because you don't know what that drop going to be like, and you don't know what after the drop is going to be like. Whether the corkscrew's going to come or that loop is going to come. That's that feeling I'm in right now. I feel like I'm at the top of that rollercoaster, and I'm about to drop, or maybe I have dropped. I don't even know.

I feel like you're still up there right now.
I'm the man who passed out on the ride and woke up at the end. You know what I'm saying? I'm just trying to hold on tight, man. I'm just trying to count my blessings. Stay grounded. I come from a very humbled mother, very independent mother, and a very strong father who gave me a very strong family foundation. If it wasn't for them, I think I'd be going crazy right now. But I'm just looking at it, and breathing it in, and receiving it, and accepting it. I'm not taking it and turning it into an ego trip. I'm not trying to turn it into anything to boast about. For me, I'm just trying to receive these compliments, man, and I'm trying to just hold onto them because they could be gone in a second. All this luck could be gone in a second. I'm just trying to hold on to the love. I'm just trying to turn it into something bigger.

I've been excited for what I've been doing ever since Moonlight. Ever since I did that, I've known that what I'm doing is really cool and really exciting, but this is the first time I'm feeling extremely proud and extremely comfortable in who I'm becoming.

Coming up in the Bronx, were you familiar with this case growing up?
I didn't know the case in depth, no. It wasn't until Ava sort of brought it to the world's attention where it was brought to my attention. I had seen her post a screenshot a ton of months before she even [began casting], where she posted an article of the Central Park Five and said that she was bringing it to light. That day I immediately went to Google and searched it, and I couldn't get my eyes off the computer. I was watching the documentary. I was looking at the Wikipedia pages and all that and I was shocked, man. To think that this is home to me. This is where I'm from. At a whole different time, 30 years ago, where this was real, and how it happens today. It was bone chilling for me.

It's crazy because I want to hop in a time machine and try to go back in time to when I was a child because I know that this story had to have been told in my household at some point, or may have been brought up, but I was just too young to understand. For me, I think it was probably a learning lesson. It was probably spoken about in the house to make sure the kids know that we can't go out late. We can't speak wrong to cops and be polite. Don't reach for your wallet. Don't make sudden movements because you can end up like so and so. You can end up like so and so. I always remember hearing, "You can end up like this," or, "You can end up like this, and you don't want to be this and you don't want to be that." I'm sure that these five men were among those men that my mom did not want me to end up being like or end up getting caught up in the situation that they got caught up in.

Bottom line is Ava pretty much brought [it] to my attention. I'm so grateful for it because there were a lot of kids like me, my age especially, on my block, my homies themselves who if I'd mentioned Central Park Five, they'll kind of be like, "Yeah, I think I heard of that." It's time for us to not think we heard of it, finally hear it, and know it because it's very important. This is every day, man. This is every day and it hasn't changed since 1989.

I'd been reading about you talking about spending time with Korey, but I was surprised to read that you didn't really get a lot of first-hand word from Korey about his time in incarceration. Is that something he just doesn't talk about?
If anybody ever gets the chance to meet Korey, you will learn that he is specific in the way he speaks. He's specific in his speech pattern, and because of that he'll be specific in what he talks about. You will not find him speaking too much about his experience. It's not that if he does he will automatically break down or feel pain, but he doesn't know how to articulate those years as well as he knows how to articulate other things. When you're speaking to Korey, you have to have your ears wide open the whole time and you have to listen.

For me, I couldn't find the courage or I didn't know how to say "what happened during this year" or "how did this feel," especially because his story is so different from the others. His story is so tragic and so painful. Ava put it all into the script. She masterfully gave us that pain and that heartbreak. If I needed to know what he went through, I'm just going to read that script. I'm going to read the words. The lines in the script are exactly what he went through in his emotions because the lines in the script are from his words himself. Ava transformed them.

Ava DuVernay and Jharrel Jerome on the set of 'When They See Us'

If I wanted to think about what he went through in the prison cell, I went through the script. I went through the endless, endless hours of media coverage where they're calling them animals and monsters. I went through the footage of his sitting behind that desk and lying to the police. All of that, that pain, that hurt is all there. It's all out in the world. We just don't know the good side. We ain't see the good side yet. You can't Google Korey Wise and see him macking with girls before he was put in, or you can't see him hanging out on the block or anything.

Spending time with him today, that was where all of that research came from. I think that 16-year-old boy is still inside Korey today, man. He's still back in the '90s, man. He's still out here rocking the newest Jordans. Trying to match it with the cap. You know when you used to do head-to-toe color schemes. He's all about that, and that's who he is today. For me, that was the research. For me, knowing who he was today proved to me who he had to be before because if he could be this confident today, this funny, this joyful, this bright, this Harlem, then I can't even imagine how much of that he was before the present system tried to knock that out of him.

Portraying Korey, you're going to some really low places in those cells. I'd read that, on set, you kind of just stayed in the cell, even when you weren't filming. Can you talk about that process?
Yeah. In high school, we studied a ton of different types of forms of acting. I went to an incredible performing arts school that taught you everything you needed to know to throw you into a career at such a young age. I learned all these different types of acting, and one of them is method acting. I always thought it was an interesting technique. It's not something that I want to dive into entirely, especially because it can cause some danger, and in the past it has caused danger. It's not something I want to entirely do, but if I can try my best to stay in that emotional state or in that feeling of Korey Wise, it helped me the most. Because even when you are playing this part, I'll never be Korey Wise. I'll never be in those shoes for real. No matter what, it's still a camera in my face. It's still a Netflix budget. It's still a whole team of people with cameras and lights around you in this world. No matter what, I am safe. I am healthy. I am okay, and I'm not in this situation.

Jharrel Jerome in 'When They See Us'

So, if I could ignore those cameras and ignore the fact that I am here on a set, and just stay immersed in the environment, then I try my best to do that. Whenever they were switching cameras, whenever they went off to lunch and taking a break, I just tried my best to either stay in the cafeteria or stay in the cell, and figure out what it's like to really be in a cell. We always talk about we don't want to go to jail, we don't want to be in jail. That's the given, but we don't know what it's like in there and that's the problem. We're not educated on what it is like or that mental deterioration that can happen. I just wanted to test it out, and I tested it out one of the very first few days, and it ended up being so painful and heartbreaking for me that I decided to keep doing it. I decided to continue to do it because I needed that pain and that heartbreak because that pain and heartbreak is just a fraction—not even a fraction—of what Korey went through. I needed to at least have that there because if I can't have all of Korey's pain, which I could never wish on anybody, then I got to at least feel a little bit of it. Being in that cell just twiddling my thumbs and looking at trying to find things to do. All this time is going by, I swear to God hours are passing, and it's minutes not hours.

In today's world, when we don't have our phone we don't even realize...What do we do? We ain't got nothing to do. Turning off my phone and just keeping it away from me for all that time, and just being in that cell, I can't even imagine there. 30 minutes felt like three hours. What did 12 years feel like for Korey?

Were you stuck in that mind state when you were off-set as well?
That was definitely the biggest challenge. I was getting better at it over time, and then I started shooting all the solitary scenes. That kind of put me back to square one. But yeah, you take that work home. It's impossible not to. It's impossible to just get off-set and smile. I try my best for sure. Luckily, I was shooting in New York, and I'm from there so I got to see family, I got to see friends, and I definitely tried to invite people over to the prison as much as I could just to keep me company. Just to keep me with a bright mindset.

There were days I couldn't sleep. There were days I couldn't eat just thinking about the fact that Korey must've not been able to eat. There were days I was still talking like him, man. I was going home and I couldn't shake his vocal cadences and the way he was speaking, and I remember my mom kind of looking at me like why do you sound like that? Because she hadn't heard my version of Korey yet, so she was like, "Are you okay? Are you sick? What's wrong with your voice?" Then, I realized I was getting caught up in it, and I said, "Oh, shoot. Sorry." Go back to my little Dominican accent.

Are you still in contact with Korey?
Most definitely. I try to keep in contact with him a lot. We shoot texts to each other. His texts are very limited, but yeah, I try to text him as much as I can. We'll hop on the phone a couple of times. I'm going back to New York soon, so as soon as I land I'm trying to go over to his spot because he just moved into a new place in Harlem. He wants me to come over, have dinner, and have a nice little housewarming thing. That should be cool.

Storm Reid and Jharrel Jerome in 'When They See Us'

I'd read somewhere that one time he took you to Foot Locker to cop some beige Huaraches. Are you a sneaker guy, or is that more Korey's world?
I'm in the middle. I'm not a sneaker guy to where it's like I got the name of the shoe, I've got the date it's coming out, I'm on that line in the cold. I'm into clothes and I'm into fashion. I'm into hip-hop especially, and I make music, too, bro.

Yeah, yeah. I rap. It's a thing that people don't know. They will know in a couple weeks, a couple months maybe. But I've been rapping before I was acting, bro. I'm from the Bronx, so yeah. This is Complex so I got to bring it up (laughs). I've been spitting since I was 11. I was in the park freestyling, trying to battle people. I was on the lunch table tapping, making a beat, and rapping. Then, it wasn't until this acting platform started to build where I realized that my passion for music can be turned into a career if I did it right.

In today's world, I feel like there's no limit to an artist. You can express your creativity in so many different platforms. But at the same time, hip-hop is such a risky game. It's such a win-or-lose game as opposed to acting, where you kind of have your chance to redeem yourself more as an artist, and you're doing projects that you didn't write yourself. You're jumping into someone else's idea. With music, that's all your own idea. That's all who you are, so there's that risk factor.

I love rapping, man. It's all conscious, it's all lyrical. It's all Kendrick, Cole, Nas, JAY-Z-inspired as opposed to trap-inspired. I think it's a sound that will allow me to elevate my voice. I've got so many things to say, and I want to really inspire. I'm going to try to do it through music. At the same time, just put out bars, and show people that I could be witty and I could flow.

Are there any film or TV projects that you have coming up that people can be looking out for?
I wish I knew how much I could say, but I am going to be shooting...hopefully. It should be set, but I should be going out to shoot something in August that will be another story that for me is extremely important, and for the culture, and for black communities all over the country, and Latino communities all over the country. I'm very excited. It's going to be an independent film, and it's almost like jumping between TV series, film, TV series.

I just want to continue to get my feet in all the waters, and just continue to work on projects that mean something, bro. There are so many actors. Everyone can act. There are so many shows, there are so many movies. But if I can get the chance to be in those rare ones, those powerful ones, then I'm going to try my best to stay in that category and stay on that path, and not let any idea of a paycheck or any extra fame get in the way of the work. You know what I'm saying?

To me, it's not about that paycheck. It's not about that status or the followers. To me, it's about the fact that when I'm 80 years old, I want to look at the catalog of my work and say "yeah, I led with purpose and I did my thing, and I did it for my family, I didn't it for me, and I made who I love proud." That's my bottom line, you know?

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