There’s a moment at the beginning of a roller coaster ride when a chain is slowly pulling the cars up the track to the first big slope. A continuous, loud clanking noise fills the air as passengers begin to tense up with a mix of excitement and anticipation, somehow not exactly knowing what’s going to happen once the train gets to the top of the track. And then, for a brief second or two, everyone holds their breath as the first car begins to drop.
That’s exactly how Jharrel Jerome feels while talking to ET by phone just a week before the Netflix debut of Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated Central Park Five miniseries, When They See Us, in which he portrays Korey Wise, one of five teens of color wrongfully convicted of brutally raping a female jogger in 1989 after being coerced by police into making false confessions. It’s a moment that’s about to set his career into overdrive as the breakout star among an ensemble of veteran actors whose director told The Hollywood Reporter she hopes he gets opportunities “in the ways that they come for Ansel Elgort.”
“You’re just kind of hanging on for the ride,” Jerome says. “That’s the best way I can describe it because I’m just trying to hold on tight to everything I know, to everything I’ve come from.”
Raised in the Bronx, New York, it wasn’t too long ago that the 21-year-old actor -- whose short list of credits include the Oscar-winning Moonlight, for which he shares the MTV Movie & TV Awards’ Best Kiss prize with Ashton Sanders, and the Audience Network series Mr. Mercedes -- was a sophomore at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, when John Leguizamo came to speak at his class. “I remember exactly what he said because I was one of the few Spanish, black, Latino actors in my class,” he recalls, thinking, “Wow, if I can just meet him one day without anybody around and just speak to him. That would be a dream.”
Just a few short years later, Jerome was hanging out in a trailer on the set of When They See Us when Leguizamo, who portrays the father of Raymond Santana, sat down next to him. “I got to tell him the story and he actually remembered it, so it was very full circle for me,” Jerome says of feeling blessed to be able to share in that moment and then work alongside an actor he considers a “landmark in the Latino culture.”
Aside from the opportunity to work with the likes of Leguizamo, Michael K. Williams and Niecy Nash, who co-stars as Wise’s mother, Delores, portraying Wise was a transformative and rewarding experience for Jerome. “It was definitely the hardest thing I had to do in my life, personally, to get into that headspace even though I knew that no matter what, I would never fully get there the way Korey was,” he says, mindful of the fact that only Wise truly knows what was going on in his head while he served out a prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Helping his performance, however, was the fact that Wise and other men were on set. “If you’re in the presence of a man who has been through what he’s been through, it’s very easy to feel somber, it’s very easy to feel heartbreak with them.”
In the series, Jerome is the only actor to portray one of the five men from beginning to end. In his case, playing Wise from 16 years old, at the time he was arrested, to 28, after serving 12 years in prison. While featured throughout, it’s the fourth episode -- and final chapter of the miniseries -- that lets the actor dig into the psyche of Wise as he deals with violence and isolation in prison.
“You really see how Korey grows in the prison system,” Jerome says. “So rather than have one scene with one actor and the next scene with a different actor, you keep the same one and you keep that same emotion there.” Living in that world for so long, he adds, was “extremely painful.”
While DuVernay helped reassure the actor that he was on the right path, embodying the spirit of this real-life person he was portraying, Jerome remembers most when Wise came up to him after filming a particular prison scene. “He put his hands on my shoulders and just gave me a nod and a look that was everything to me,” Jerome recalls. “It was a look of satisfaction. It was a look of pride. It was a look of pain. There were so many emotions in his face. But he looked at me and he said, ‘You did it.’” It was a moment of approval that the actor says was all he needed to stay on track.
Now streaming on Netflix, Jerome’s gut-wrenching performance is earning critical praise and Emmy buzz that could potentially see him in the same category as a number of celebrated, veteran actors like Jared Harris, Ian McShane, Sam Rockwell or even his former Moonlight co-star, Mahershala Ali. Fans will no doubt be Googling his name after watching him on the series and Moonlight, which also started streaming on the platform this month. And his work is certainly opening doors to new projects like Selah and the Spades, which recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and one he’s currently filming but couldn’t disclose any specific details about at the time of our call.
The newfound attention and praise also mean his name may now end up on a casting producer’s shortlist alongside Elgort, whom he actually knows from school. “When Ava said that, that blew my mind,” Jerome says of her comparison to the Baby Driver star. “For her to look at me and see that potential completely motivates me and completely drives me to make her proud.” The fact that he’s working his way up Hollywood is no small feat and says a lot about his talent and character.
Ultimately, being a part of When They See Us and the project he’s currently filming excites Jerome, knowing that he now has this voice he never knew he had growing up in the Bronx as a minority. And like Moonlight, they’re bigger than him. These projects give a voice to those not normally heard; both projects give visibility to communities not always seen on screen. “This is my time to have a voice and I want to make sure that it’s important,” he says.
“As I look for my next project, it doesn’t matter about the scale of it and who gets to see it, I just hope that there’s one person who sees it and can reach out to me and say, ‘Thank you for being this person,’” Jerome concludes. “Hopefully you’ll continue to see my career going in that direction because that’s where my heart is.”