Starz is adding an intriguing new series to an already-stacked summer 2021 TV lineup. On Sunday, June 13, the continuation of Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’ 2018 indie film Blindspotting premieres. The new project will pick up six months from where Miles (Casal) and Collin (Diggs) left off in the movie, shifting the focus from the two friends to Miles’ girlfriend, Ashley, played by Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Casal and Diggs had no interest in creating a spinoff of their buddy comedy unless the show centered around Ashley, a supporting character in the film who didn’t get as much of a story. Casal will reprise his role as the hot-tempered Miles, who gets arrested in the first episode, leaving his girlfriend Ashley behind to care for their young son, Sean (Atticus Woodward). Ashley is forced to move out of the apartment they shared and moves in with Miles’ unconventional mom Rainey (Helen Hunt) and his reckless and outspoken sister, Trish (Jaylen Barron). The show will explore the realities of people who are left behind when their loved ones are imprisoned, with the help of dance sequences and spoken word segments that give it a dreamlike feel. Casal is also serving as writer, producer, and showrunner for the new series, and having Cephas Jones as the lead was a non-negotiable for him.
The Hamilton alum took home the Emmy for best actress in a short-form comedy or drama series for her Quibi show #FreeRayshawn in September 2020, and Casal knew that was all the proof they needed to show networks that she was prepared to be the lead. “For us with Jasmine, it was a hard line. It was like, look, we believe that Jasmine Cephas Jones is one of the most talented actors around and she’s the center of our show. And it’s not really up for debate,” Casal told Complex in May. “Jasmine had just come off of winning an Emmy for the Quibi show that she was on. And we felt like that was enough for people to understand that she is exceptional and ready to lead a half-hour sitcom.”
And they were right. Cephas Jones carries the show with ease. The actress may have had a smaller role in the film, but she has been able to expand that into a character that can stand on her own, not just Miles’ ride-or-die high school sweetheart. She also has a phenomenal women-driven cast alongside her in the series, and together they created an eight-episode show that’s refreshing and a must-watch this summer. Complex caught up with Jasmine Cephas Jones ahead of the show’s premiere; she opened up about the challenges she faced while filming this show, exploring her musical talents and the responsibility she feels to accurately tell this Oakland story.
Watch an exclusive clip of Blindspotting ahead of its premiere above, and check out our conversation with Jones below.
How are you feeling now that the world’s about to see the show?
I’m so excited. We worked so hard on this show in the middle of a pandemic, and we were able to finish it and really create something beautiful, and funny, and gut-wrenching. I’m just really, really happy about it. It’s amazing to be a lead and to get to create a big part, and do research on backstories, and just evolve and get the space to breathe and really create something beautiful with my friends. It’s been a great opportunity to show so many different parts of me and so many different parts of Ashley as well, to be able to have that platform.
How is Ashley different in the show than in the movie?
I think the biggest is the heightened verse that she does. It’s kind of this raw and honest part of her that she gets to express and share with the audience, and it’s done in a way that I’ve never seen on TV or a film before. You get to see so many different colors and emotions from her, whether it’s her laughing with Miles in prison in this kind of traumatic setting, and you get to see those heartwarming and beautiful moments and the love that she has with her significant other, then kind of her anger and her trashing a hotel room. There are just so many sides to Ashley that you get to see, and that I really get to kind of dive into in a way that I’ve never been able to do with a character before.
Rafael said he wants people who have had to visit a loved one in prison to feel seen. How important was it for you to be able to represent those people?
In a lot of these settings, you kind of always see the family break or fall apart. It was so important for Rafael and I to show that love and show that support, and that this young couple will do anything to make the best life for their son and their family and to make it work. The system is built to break people. Even Ashley’s going through visitation in the waiting area in one of the episodes, and she never gets to see him. That is real life and it can break a person down so much where they don’t want the relationship to work or they can’t do it. Here, you see Ashley trying so hard and you see how strong she is as a woman and how persistent she is so her son can have his two parents.
Do you think that Ashley and Miles’ relationship will change because of this time apart?
I don’t know. We have to see. I think the reality of the situation is that they’re real people, and even in relationships, even when people live together, it goes through so many different situations. Relationships are like a roller coaster, so I think their relationship will go through so many different perspectives and different rollercoaster rides, but I think at the end of the day, we all know what they want and we all know that they want to make it work. The love that they have for each other is so strong, and they’ve been together for so long, since they were young, and they want to keep that. That is very, very special to them.
Can you walk us through the process of when Daveed and Rafael approached you to be in the show after the movie?
It was almost three years ago. I got a phone call from Diggs and Rafa, and they were like, “We want to continue to explore this world of Blindspotting but through Ashley’s eyes and through a lot of women in the show.” The movie was based on two guys and their friendship, and this time it’s a lot about how these women are navigating this one person that they all love that’s been taken away from them. To see these women go through their journeys and how they want to keep this whole entire family together, it’s just a beautiful thing to see. The funny moments, too, and kind of laughing through the trauma, which is also a real-life thing.
What can you say in regards to the writing? When you read the script were you like, “Okay, this feels real”?
It does because the show is a comedy and it tackles real traumatic issues through comedy. I feel like that’s real life. There are situations where you’re at a funeral, and then there’s comedy that happens because people have to laugh sometimes through the trauma. I feel like the show does that perfectly. There are so many times where I’ve had the script and I was bursting out laughing, even before we shot it, and I was so excited. Even the scenes that I wasn’t in, I just wanted to watch and see how it played out because the show really does go there with the comedic beats, but also handles the trauma and the drama really, really, really well.
After the trailer, one person said the best part of this is how women-focused this cast is. There are women from different races, different backgrounds, different ages. What was that like on set?
It’s amazing, it’s empowering. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air. There haven’t been many opportunities like this, and all of these women are so good at what they do and are so hilarious and funny. Candace [Nicholas-Lippman] and Jaylen [Barron] really hold those comedy beats so, so well, and it was just so much fun playing with them. In Episode 5, we go through this whole rollercoaster ride and journey on a drug trip, which is hilarious, and you just kind of see their bond and also the love that they all have for each other and the support, even though it can be hard sometimes with our characters. We need to see it more often, honestly.
Rafael said that it was very important to him to have the show on a network that supported Black women and women of color. How do you feel about being part of the Starz family?
I feel honored and I feel grateful. I feel like the industry still has a long way to go, but we have to start with women of color in the writing room, women of color that are also directors and producers. We have that in the show, not only just on-screen but behind the screen, which was also very important to Rafael and Diggs as well. The show has everything kind of embedded in it that we want to see moving forward in this industry, and I’m really, really proud of it.
Music is such an important part of the show also, and you’re a musician yourself.
Rafa and Diggs, they’re poets and they’re rappers, and I’m a singer. So it’s all naturally embedded in the show and it’s not forced. Even though we’re doing a lot of stuff through this heightened dream-like reality, it just works really well. A lot of us have backgrounds in theater, and I think a lot of theater shines through the show in a way that I’ve never seen before. Music is a big part of the show. Even the way we speak, a lot of people from Oakland, there’s like this musical way in the way they speak, and the swag and their accent. Music is a big part of Oakland and you can see it through the show.
I know you mentioned Oakland and the city is really at the heart of the show. What does it mean for the show to represent that community?
I’m from Brooklyn, so I feel honored, and I felt like, “I hope people believe that I’m from Oakland,” because it’s such an Oakland show. I had Rafa and Diggs around me, Benny who’s also from Oakland as well, and it was just a great supportive system. I feel like a lot of people from Oakland feel like their town isn’t represented enough, and so this show is particularly for them. There’s a lot of jokes in there, and a lot of the soundtrack in there, and artists in the show that make some cameos that are from Oakland, too. It really is a love letter to Oakland in a way that is beautifully done that everybody from around the world can relate to. It’s like the underdog. You want the underdog to win, and [Oakland] definitely shines and is winning in this show, for sure.
The past year has been so tough for the entertainment industry and for people in general, can you talk about what it was like to work in this time for you, and what have you learned as an artist?
I think the biggest challenge during this pandemic and shooting the show was not being able to really kind of connect with the cast outside. We were very, very strict and very, very careful. We were getting tested every day, and we took the pandemic very seriously. So because of that, we didn’t get to really chill a lot and really connect, but it just goes to show you how talented this cast is because as soon as I got on set, I felt like I’ve known Candace [Nicholas Lippman] for such a long time and that we really played that we were best friends and that I’ve known Helen Hunt my whole life and she was kind of like this mother figure in my life. We really wanted to make these characters’ relationships believable.
I think through this pandemic I’ve really learned that us, as humans, we need people. I’ve missed so many people, and it’s been so hard not being able to see my loved ones for a really long time, and that support system and that tribe are so important. I think in the show, we really show that too, that Ashley really does feel like she’s alone at the beginning of the show. I think at the end of it, she realizes she has a support system and a tribe. Even though things aren’t perfect and there’s tension, but at the end of the day, these people want to make the situation work, and that we need each other and we don’t have to do this life alone.
I think that’s something minorities do a lot. We rely on each other.
I think when you look at family, immediately it’s just like the blood family, your blood mom, or your sister or your brother, or your cousins, but it pushes that. We meet Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner) and he’s a new character. At the end of the show, he becomes part of the family. That’s what we do. We constantly create family even if you’re not originally part of the family. We welcome friends and we welcome that tribe. I think you really see that in the show, and that support system, and that love that is showered on all of these characters.
Blindspotting premieres June 13 on Starz.