As When They See Us, the limited series on The Central Park Jogger case from Ava DuVernay, bows on Netflix this week, the world will come to learn the true story about what happened that night and how the case impacted the young men that were wrongly accused of the crime. For the young actors who stepped into the shoes of the five, it was a daunting task, but something they were fully prepared for and exceeded at, which is something you’ll realize almost instantly once they appear on the screen.
Shadow And Act sat down with Asante Blackk (Kevin Richardson), Jharrel Jerome (Korey Wise), Ethan Herisse (Yusef Salaam), Caleel Harris (Antron McCray) and Marquis Rodriguez (Raymond Santana) ahead of the series premiere at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
As a New York City native, getting into the role wasn’t that hard for Jerome, who holds the distinction of being the only actor that portrays both the teen and adult versions of his character. The young actor got his start in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and, if all is right in the world, he’s poised for a breakout awards season and a potential Emmy win for When They See Us. “I’m from the Bronx, so I’ve been kind of doing research my whole life in a way — understanding you have to talk polite to the police, understanding that you have to stay away from the park at night, stay out of the streets at night. It was kind of this subconscious feeling of I kind of understand the intensity and the fear of the project, but it took watching the documentary a couple of times, they gave us transcripts, they gave us the actual documents, I got to watch Korey’s entire confession over and over. Ava opened up this world for us to get us into their minds.” Rodriguez, who has been cast in the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel pilot, agreed and added, “We had so much source material that was unbelievably helpful.”
For Blackk, a series standout as Richardson, he has one thing in particular that he wants viewers unfamiliar with the case to take away. “Humanity, for the most part,” he said. “These guys were painted as everything but human in 1989, painted as a wolfpack, as criminals. And just to take that step back and realize that these guys are human, they have entire lives outside of just this horrible one part of their life. They are real people, they have goals, dreams and aspirations. [I’d want them] to just see that in these men.”
With this material that hit so close to home, the young men all agreed that the story and content stayed with them long after the cameras were off and filming was over. Harris, who starred in the new Goosebumps film, as well as Hulu’s Castle Rock last year, explained that feeling. “Even still, those scenes..they stay a part of you. They never really leave you. When you truly put yourself in that situation, it’s hard to get out of it. It sticks with you and it just marinates. It really never leaves you. It stays a part of your soul, really,” he said. Herisse added, “After doing the verdict scene, I went back to my room and my dad was with me on set. He could see that I was clearly shaken up, and he was like, ‘It’s OK, the scene’s over,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not OK, it’s not over. This is still happening.”
Jerome added, “No matter what, we’re still people of color, so we leave set looking around, almost a little more scared now. That naivety that I had before the project is gone. I’m no longer naive to the brutality of a police officer or justice system. You kind of go around and you want to take this project as a lesson for you.”
“It’s one thing to have empathy for a story, but we were steeping in it for so long…that does something different to you,” Rodriguez said.
When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix.