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Jeremy Pope is a newly recognized Independent Spirit Award Lead Performance nominee for “The Inspection,” but the lack of buzz regarding an Oscar nomination is somewhat disconcerting. In a year with a dearth of truly deserving nominees, the 30-year-old actor should be a shoo-in for his incredible performance in writer and director Elegance Bratton‘s autobiographical feature. But, perhaps like Bratton’s own underdog story, talent will persevere in the end.
Set in the early ’00s, “The Inspection” follows Ellis (Pope) as he embarks on a quest to join the Marine Corps not only to give his life an economic purpose but to prove to his mother (Gabrielle Union) that he can make something of himself. At boot camp and despite his attempts to hide it, Ellis is hazed for his sexual orientation but finds compassion in the form of a closeted officer (Raul Castillo).
Pope, who is an out gay actor, found a connection with Bratton that had often been lacking on other projects.
“We talked about the script. We talked about what it means to be Black, queer artists in this business, the type of art we want to make, the type of music we listen to, and the food we like,” Pope says. “All of the things were very much aligned and I didn’t feel like I had to overexplain myself in the sense that I’ve been in rooms where I’ve been the one Black person, so I have to go, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t say this.’ Or ‘I would say it this way.’ Or ‘I think we should approach it this way.’ ‘Hey, let’s be sensitive to this.’ ‘Hey, flagging things that aren’t serving you.’ Where in this script everything was serving me and it was just about finding more things and him telling me more stories to further inform the emotionality of the character.”
Over the course of our conversation, Pope discusses the challenge of shooting a majority of the film in just 19 days (and 117-degree heat), the loss Bratton experienced right before filming began, and, much, much more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Playlist: How did “The Inspection” come your way?
Jeremy Pope: The project came through my agent, I read the script. They wanted me to love it as much as they did for me. But ultimately they were like, “We believe Elegance speaks to the same creative mind that you do. So, whether it’s this project or whatever is to come, we think you guys should meet.” And this was kind of in the time of the pandemic. Everyone’s doing Zooms and connecting in ways that they can. So, I thought, “Sure, I’ll read the script.” And it was one of those, I kept reading the script and I didn’t want it to end. But then also it was one of those things that is tricky as an actor where you read something, you’re like, “F**k, I really want this.” And I’m setting myself up to really want this and be really heartbroken if I don’t get it. So, we talked, we connected. He knew a lot of mutual collaborators that I had worked with. So it kind of felt like meeting a third cousin that you didn’t know you had because they were married to a cousin or something. It’s just like, “Oh, actually we were going to meet at a party sooner or later.” And I was like, “I want to do this with you.” And he was like, “I want to do this with you.” And I was like, “Great.” And the Zoom ended and nine months passed. I was like, “Well, what happened? What happened to that project?” I really felt instinctually in my heart that I was supposed to be a part of it. And life had to life and do what it did. And ultimately when it became go time for the movie to get made, he says that I was always his first choice. And when the timing aligned, it happened, and off to the races we went.
How much time did you even have to prep once the movie was greenlit? Or had you been given a heads up that “Hey, this actually is happening now”?
I mean it was pretty tight. I think this whole experience has been kind of like you just move when it happens. We shot this movie in 19 days and in 117-degree weather in the summer, in the middle of a pandemic. So, it’s just like you’re already doing a lot. This role was emotionally demanding and physically demanding in ways I just couldn’t have imagined. So, the prep work for me was having conversations with Elegance for sure and understanding just where he was at. But also it was about him going, “Hey, we don’t have a lot of time here. And not that we’re leaning into that, but this relationship only works if you trust me.” And I needed him to trust me because it can only be tough looking across the room and knowing that my writer, my director, and the person who’s this truth is looking at me going “Uh-uh” or “Yes.” Or trying to micromanage the things [you’re] trying to bring to the surface. But he didn’t fight me one bit. He was so freeing and open and “Find the things. If you need me, let me be the ultimate resource.” And I think for this movie a lot of the most impactful moments are things that weren’t in the script. It was about me finding the emotionality and the undertone of what’s happening, what this character’s perspective is outside of what’s being said to him or what he’s saying. And I also think just kind of throwing us in Mississippi, making it happen, those elements become real and that is the beauty of filmmaking. You kind of stumble into things that are very real and of the time of this film that you’re making.
In many ways though, you are playing Elegance. This story is based on his own life experience. Were there things he wanted to emphasize because of personal significance or did he let you run with it completely?
I mean I think the sensitivity with playing anyone that is real, especially living, especially in the room with you, is as an artist, if you’re bringing me into the collaboration, into the creative process, you have to hope you cast me because what you’ve seen is correct. We had an understanding. We talked about the script. We talked about what it means to be Black, queer artists in this business, the type of art we want to make, the type of music we listen to, and the food we like. All of the things were very much aligned and I didn’t feel like I had to overexplain myself in the sense that I’ve been in rooms where I’ve been the one Black person, so I have to go, “Hey, I wouldn’t say this.” Or “I would say it this way.” Or “I think we should approach it this way.” “Hey, let’s be sensitive to this.” “Hey, flagging things that aren’t serving you.” Where in this script everything was serving me and it was just about finding more things and him telling me more stories to further inform the emotionality of the character. Because the things are there. We see him go to boot camp, we understand structurally what’s happening from beginning to end. But it was about understanding the relationship between him and his mother and that he didn’t hate [her].
He said, “I don’t hate my mom. I never hated my mom.” And this film was actually an attempt to reach out and to connect with her. She died, I think the movie was greenlit on the 14th, and she died on the 18th. He hadn’t talked to her in 18 years. This was a film to go, “If I’m making a movie about my truth and Gabrielle Union is playing you, somewhere you’ll find out and you’ll have to see me. You might have to call me and you might have to go, I see you, son, I understand you, son. I want to work to understand you, son.” This film is about self-love, is about self-acceptance is about there is a way out and that your life does have meaning. And here we are looking at Elegance making his feature film debut with A24 on a story that only he could have brought us to. And I think there is power and there’s love and intention in that. And for me to be a Black, queer man and to be in a film that is so affirming for myself but will be a tool and a resource for someone out there that I think is going to change someone’s life.
I had no idea that his mother had died right before the film was greenlit. I haven’t spoken to him yet. Did you feel like it affected him during the filming at all?
The weird thing with grief that I’m understanding and learning is it’s just something that happens and it continues to evolve and there’s like, never enough time with loss. Because we’re not really prepared for loss. So, people go, “Well, it’s been two weeks.” You’re like, “Yeah, but it feels like heartbreak.” So yeah, there was a lot of space I had to make emotionally for him to have conversations that would be teary and that would be hard. But it was about us moving through it and finding what we could use in the space to leave it in the space. So the scenes that were tough were the scenes where Gabrielle Union is bringing his mother back to life at this moment.
These things that are being said to my character are things that had been said directly to [Bratton] and were some of the last conversations he ever had with his mother. As I’m [right now] looking around a room that has baby photos of me and me connecting my own kind of journey of self-love and self-acceptance with family members and abandoned men and being Black and being queer, it’s like we’re all kind of going through our own journey, but at a certain time being each other’s lifeline and being the shoulder that we need and going, “This film is going to be bigger than us. It has to be bigger than us.” While I’m being the vessel to tell Elegance’s story, Elegance is being used for something bigger than himself and he won’t know if his story and how his story will land on someone that doesn’t reach out on a DM or a tweet but is changed forever by seeing themselves or going, “I can be O.K.”
He was homeless for so many years, he was deemed to not be successful, but he found a way out by centering himself with communities of people that were there to build him and affirm him in his truth and in his worthiness. And I think he has gifted me that with this project. And we have A24 backing us and were able to be in the conversation at TIFF, at the New York Film Festival, which are all things that you never can guarantee when you’re making indie films or you’re making anything. That can be a hope and a goal but when we’re making something that isn’t conventional or doesn’t feel commercial because we’re not seeing it in abundance, you don’t know. We’re on the journey together and it’s so special to see him being received with love.
Have you spoken with people who have been touched by the film?
Literally every screening. Every screening there’s been a person that’s come up to me, people that have served that were living through this Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era, had to conform and change the way that they identify and show up in a space out of safety in protection in regards to having resources to things. So, that’s been beautiful and I think that the beautiful thing about going to festivals is there’s time for Q&As. There’s time to connect with people and there’s space made for that. So you really do get to feel outside of Instagram likes and Twitter re-shares what people’s real human connection experience to this film was and how it landed. And then some people, it’ll be days after and they’re like, “I’m still thinking about the film and the impact it had on me.” So that part’s been a gift because you don’t always get that. I was in a show called “Hollywood” on Netflix, that came out during the pandemic. So my gauge was kind of off. It was like I was still at home in my pajamas. I was doing Zooms [interviews with awards outlets]. It’s like I don’t really know what’s going on. I think we’re doing a thing but we’re also home and no one knows the state of the world. But it doesn’t feel real because I couldn’t connect it to a solo or heart. So to be in a space where energetically you can’t manufacture an experience. It’s been a gift and I’m trying to stay grounded and present and it’s so much going on. But I’ve been able to have my family come and see the screening and that was everything, my grandma to be there and just full of tears, but happiness to yes, witness the story, but to witness her grandson, “He made it out all right. He’s doing the thing that he told us he was going to do at 17 where we were like, how does that happen?” Affirming in that way. And my family is everything. So it’s just been a beautiful ride.
You said you shot the film in 19 days and I don’t know if that’s counting the days in New York.
Yes. A couple days in New York. We got shut down in the middle for COVID cases. That was tough because then we all got separated and it became like, “We’ll see when we finish the movie because everyone had other availability and other things.”
It was just a bit of a “What’s happening?” Mind you, my hair’s growing back out and now I got to get it shaved again. I’m like, “F**k that.” Everything was just crazy but got it done, yeah.
During that short period of time in Mississippi you’ve got some very intense and emotional moments that happen there. You’re not doing 40 takes on a shot. There is no time. How do you prepare yourself as an actor when in an hour you know you’ve got this scene and you don’t have the time to prepare for it?
I think for me because each actor is different and everyone gets to wherever they get, sometimes the mystery is how you get there. I come from the theater. The theater is like Military Marines of acting, doing shows eight times a week, sometimes in a black box without the costumes, without the set, without the heat, without the elements that make it real. Having that training has just guided me in how do I make what’s on the page really come to life if I don’t know what’s going to happen around me. You can trust in movies that there’s a budget for a set and there will be background talent and it’ll make it feel like you’re in Marine Bootcamp because people are doing pushups to your left and your right. But it’s the emotional part, like you said, “How do you connect?” So it is a lot of that work at home and conversations with whomever or me coming to myself and finding the ways that I identify and how I can open up myself to be used for this character. It was physically demanding, yes, but also very emotionally demanding. But I had Elegance right there too after a take. And honestly, it would happen most times in one or two takes. And it was because we’d have the conversation. Let’s technically figure out all the beats and sometimes people want to go just throw you in it and see what happens. And I do believe in the movie magic of stumbling into things.
“The Inspection” is in limited release. It arrives on PVOD on December 22.