Jharrel Jerome is a star, there’s no denying that. The 22-year-old Emmy Award-winning actor arrived at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival looking fly as heck in a maroon suit to accept his Breakout Award — and he knew it too. After his captivating role as Korey Wise — one of the Central Park Five that was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1989 — in Netflix’s When They See Us, Jerome has captured the heart of many.
The Bronx-native made history in late September as the first Afro-Latino to win an Emmy and gained even more praise for bringing attention to his historic win backstage. “It’s an honor,” Jerome said that night. “It’s a blessing, and I hope this is a step forward for Dominicans, for Latinos, for Afro-Latinos. It’s about time we are here.”
That role is what got him his Breakout Award and why students at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia were eager to hear from him about his career so far and the challenges he has faced.
Jerome shared the harsh realities of getting into character for When They See Us, primarily because he was portraying a real person that’s still alive today. And not just any person at that, but a man who was in jail for 14 years, paying for a crime he did not commit.
“What is fun about acting is that you can build your character,” Jerome said to a crowded room on Oct. 30 alongside fellow actors Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), Camila Morrone (Mickey and the Bear), and Mena Massoud (Aladdin). “But playing a real-life character, you have to ignore all of that. You have a responsibility. You have justice to bring to a story about injustice. This man’s story is so powerful, so strong and painful.”
Jerome added that playing Wise was intense on a lot of emotional levels, and it was a character that he couldn’t just break free from after the director Ava DuVernay yelled, “cut.”
“I took my work home with me every night,” he said. “Usually, I am able to have fun on the set and go home and do whatever I want to, like go see my friends, and chill, and have a good time. But with When They See Us, I had a lot of lonely nights where I didn’t want to speak to anybody…not being able to eat, not being able to sleep because I would bring the pain that I was not myself back into the set. There’s a beauty and curse to that.”
He added that at times, he felt like he wouldn’t be able to complete the project, thinking it was “too much.” Jerome said it was virtually impossible to separate himself from his role. “You stay in it, you live in it, and that’s what brings the truth out in the performance.”
Jerome also shared with students that getting rejected from projects can turn out to be a blessing. He got used to getting rejections, which made it easier for him not to get consumed with the audition process and focus on his acting.
“You want to be that one out of millions,” he said, “But it’s always hard, it’s always tough. I looked at my auditions like they were practice…and practice at getting better at auditioning. I got a lot of no’s before I got my first, yes.”
Jerome is currently filming his next project, Concrete Cowboys, alongside Idris Elba.