'You Hate Me Because I’m Great': Trevante Rhodes Talks 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' and His Future

'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' star Trevante Rhodes talks his 2018 triptych of films, the importance of this story, and his plans for the future.

Trevante Rhodes at 'Bird Box' New York screening

Image via Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Trevante Rhodes at 'Bird Box' New York screening

I wanna keep it a buck for a second: Putting together these pieces on the site during this time in America can be interesting. You always need fresh cover image, but most of the individuals we speak on haven’t been out in public for almost a year, so we’re left with red carpet images of The United States vs. Billie Holiday star Trevante Rhodes from 2018’s Bird Box. Finding that image made me realize that we hadn’t seen the star of Moonlight and 12 Strong since 2018! It’s wild to realize those kinds of things, but Rhodes hasn’t spent that time sitting on his hands.

“The past couple of years,” Rhodes shared during a recent chat over Zoom ahead of The United States vs. Billie Holiday’s Feb. 26 release on Hulu, “I’ve been learning how to produce, and I adapted three books. Working with Lee was a kind of culminating experience to walk into being a filmmaker.” During our conversation, we tried to figure out the best way for Rhodes to keep his name out there while exploring his own creativity, the importance of this film during this time in America, and Rhodes shares how Bird BoxThe Predator, and 12 Strong are all related.

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I was surprised when I realized that it’s been a minute since we’ve been able to see you in new material.
Yeah, man. I’ll tell you what it was. After Moonlight, it was, “How do you find that experience again?” How do you do something cool? And so with 2018, it was for me, personally, a cool, creative way to do this kind of triptych thing. I like to get my films painted. I have a painting of Black [Rhodes’ character in Moonlight], and I have a three-piece painting now of all my films in 2018.

If you take a Bird Box, and you put it in between 12 Strong and The Predator, you have a character who, in 12 Strong, he’s in the war, he comes back. In Bird Box, he technically just came back from the war. That’s why he’s always wearing green, he was a soldier. He just came back from the war, and I have a monologue in there—I riff a monologue where I implemented the plot and the character plot from 12 Strong into Bird Box. My monologue in there is a homage to the character in that one. In Bird Box, they encounter this alien invasion, and at the end of the movie he presumably shoots himself in the head. And Predator, the final one, my character has a hole in his head, and he defeats said alien invasion. It was kind of personal… And it’s hard, you know what I mean?

The past couple of years, I’ve been learning how to produce, and I adapted three books. Working with Lee was a kind of culminating experience to walk into being a filmmaker. The next step, we’re looking to do an action film, and then after that, hopefully jump into some personal stuff. We were just trying to get our foot in, trying to figure out what it is, what the industry is, what it is to make a film and just what it is to be in this space. I’m somebody, I like to walk slow so I see where I’m going. When you’re in this industry, they like to keep you moving.

They really put you on some “out of sight, out of mind” type stuff; they want you to keep working.

Behind the scenes on 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

I’m glad you laid that out about your 2018 films, but I have to ask, is that why Jimmy Fletcher’s got the suit on in The United States vs. Billie Holiday?
My grandfather served in the Vietnam War. Every time I do a movie, I do my research for the character and everything, but I try more to [make it more] personal. That aesthetic of his demeanor was all kind of in homage to my grandfather. I grew up in the Jim Crow South, and so this film as an aesthetic is really just… It’s my heart.

Having that connection to the Jim Crow South is important for a film like this, where the government is trying to silence Billie over the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” It’s interesting to see films like this drop now, especially after the 2020 we have had as a people, with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Talk about the importance of this film right now.
It’s always important. I want to say, “Sadly to say,” but it’s also a good thing to say that it’s always important that we have to continue to push narratives forward. Sometimes, I won’t lie, I get kind of discouraged that it’s clearly going to be a continuation of this. That’s just what the situation is, that’s the American experience. Sometimes I really do get discouraged by that, but then on the other side of that, it’s so empowering to know that, to be honest, it’s like, “Yo, you hate me because I’m great.” So I’m just going to have to be great, so you can keep hating me, fam.

You’ve got to kill them with your legacy.
That’s what it is, man.

I saw the trailer and then tuned into the panel you did with Lee Daniels and Andra Day. During that panel, you mentioned that when you got the script initially, you worked with Lee to flesh out the role of Jimmy Fletcher. Talk about crafting this role.
After I shot Bird Box, Lee and I sat and we talked about a few projects, and Billie was one of them. At the time, and it wasn’t fully there. I had the opportunity to read a few books, and Lee and I talked about a few things. I may have sent him a few excerpts from some of the books, and he’s such a beautiful collaborative creator. We were able to really cultivate what looked to be like a nuanced person that was someone who was a good assistance to Billie’s story.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

As complex of a person as Billie was, I think Jimmy going into this situation with one thought about what he was doing, then realizing that that’s not what’s really going on, and making that switch is a powerful thing. It was also amazing just to see Andra’s performance as Billie. Was she Billie once she hit that set?
It was before walking on the set, man. It was when we got out to Montreal for the first time, I guess everybody has a story where they got dinner with Andra. Whenever I had dinner with her, she walks in, she has Billie’s coat on, she has the walk down. She has her demeanor, and we’re in a restaurant.

As a performer, as an artist, as someone who I try to lead with intention, it was just cool, more than cool. You fall in love with the artist and the work ethic of somebody who puts themselves in that position. So as a teammate, as a friend, as a human, you’re willing to just go to war with that person because they’re that into what they’re doing. And that was beautiful, man. That’s the only way to describe the whole experience.

Beautiful is one word to describe a lot of it; the shots, the clothing. It’s dope that she’s already getting that Golden Globe love. Do you play into that game at all?

With Moonlight, I was so green, and the Moonlight experience was just everything to me, man. I don’t want to say I don’t care about that stuff, but now, it’s more just really trying to enjoy my life, and trying to help be a part of cool stories that people are going to care about. How I get to do this with you, have this conversation, to have like a real conversation with a brother who just loves art, loves movies, and loves talking about stuff. This is what I love to do, man. It’s just to have the opportunity to do that and to do this, it’s a big blessing, man.

Trevante Rhodes in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

What’s coming up for you after Billie Holiday?
I kind of prefer the idea of just, “I want to go make it, and then drop it, and then y’all be like, ‘Wait, what the?’” You know what I mean? I like that idea. We [always] see 50 things on everybody’s schedule, but then that’s the game they’re telling me. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with all that stuff. As far as the next acting thing, it’s definitely time to jump into action.

I don’t want to be giving Trevante Rhodes advice, but maybe there’s two lanes. Maybe there’s one lane where it’s like, “OK, here’s what I’m going to do every year or two to keep my name out there,” and then on the other side, it’s, “The stuff that drives me.”
That’s what my mom tells me, man. I’ll do that. I’m getting into that, I’m getting into that. I’ll do that.

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