'When They See Us' Star Jharrel Jerome Reflects on His Time Portraying Korey Wise


Jharrel Jerome talks about embodying the role of Korey Wise, the toll it took on his psyche, and his plans post-When They See Us with Complex.

+ On the reaction to his performance in 'When They See Us': My God. It's been unreal. It's been insane. I'm having a hard time talking about it right now because I still haven't even fully understood it or grasped it. The fact that a year ago I was hopping on the train in the Bronx, and now today I feel like the next time I'm on that train some people might be looking at me. It's a really weird feeling. [...] I've been excited for what I've been doing ever since Moonlight. Ever since I did that, I've known that what I'm doing is really cool and really exciting, but this is the first time I'm feeling extremely proud and extremely comfortable in who I'm becoming.

+ On spending time with Korey Wise: Spending time with him today, that was where all of that research came from. I think that 16-year-old boy is still inside Korey today, man. He's still back in the '90s, man. He's still out here rocking the newest Jordans. Trying to match it with the cap. You know when you used to do head-to-toe color schemes. He's all about that, and that's who he is today. For me, that was the research. For me, knowing who he was today proved to me who he had to be before because if he could be this confident today, this funny, this joyful, this bright, this Harlem, then I can't even imagine how much of that he was before the present system tried to knock that out of him.

+ On going method for the role: Whenever they were switching cameras, whenever they went off to lunch and taking a break, I just tried my best to either stay in the cafeteria or stay in the cell, and figure out what it's like to really be in a cell. We always talk about we don't want to go to jail, we don't want to be in jail. That's the given, but we don't know what it's like in there and that's the problem. We're not educated on what it is like or that mental deterioration that can happen. I just wanted to test it out, and I tested it out one of the very first few days, and it ended up being so painful and heartbreaking for me that I decided to keep doing it. I decided to continue to do it because I needed that pain and that heartbreak because that pain and heartbreak is just a fraction—not even a fraction—of what Korey went through. I needed to at least have that there because if I can't have all of Korey's pain, which I could never wish on anybody, then I got to at least feel a little bit of it. [...] There were days I was still talking like him, man. I was going home and I couldn't shake his vocal cadences and the way he was speaking, and I remember my mom kind of looking at me like why do you sound like that? Because she hadn't heard my version of Korey yet, so she was like, "Are you okay? Are you sick? What's wrong with your voice?" Then, I realized I was getting caught up in it, and I said, "Oh, shoot. Sorry." Go back to my little Dominican accent.

+ On rapping and music: I rap. It's a thing that people don't know. They will know in a couple weeks, a couple months maybe. But I've been rapping before I was acting, bro. I'm from the Bronx, so yeah. [...] It's all conscious, it's all lyrical. It's all Kendrick, Cole, Nas, JAY-Z-inspired as opposed to trap-inspired. I think it's a sound that will allow me to elevate my voice. I've got so many things to say, and I want to really inspire. I'm going to try to do it through music.

+ On his future projects: I wish I knew how much I could say, but I am going to be shooting...hopefully. It should be set, but I should be going out to shoot something in August that will be another story that for me is extremely important, and for the culture, and for black communities all over the country, and Latino communities all over the country. I'm very excited. It's going to be an independent film, and it's almost like jumping between TV series, film, TV series. [...] To me, it's not about that paycheck. It's not about that status or the followers. To me, it's about the fact that when I'm 80 years old, I want to look at the catalog of my work and say "yeah, I led with purpose and I did my thing, and I did it for my family, I didn't it for me, and I made who I love proud." That's my bottom line, you know?