Three years ago Jasmine Cephas Jones originated the character of Ashley in the feature “Blindspotting,” written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. It was a breakout screen role after she already took the stage by storm as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Now, after equally memorable work in everything from “Mrs. Fletcher” to “#Freerayshawn,” for which she won an Emmy last year, as well as releasing an EP, she is bringing Ashley back in the Starz continuation series of “Blindspotting,” bowing June 13. In the series, her boyfriend, Miles, has been incarcerated after events in the film, and she and her son move in with Miles’ mother and sister.
How did you feel when you first heard there was opportunity to return to the character of Ashley? Did you feel like you had unfinished business with her this whole time since the film came out?
Rafael and [Daveed] are very good friends of mine and they very specifically wanted to write something for me — something I could shine in — and when you have writers and friends who are really, really talented and want to create a world for you, but also know your talents and what you’re capable of, I knew they were going to write something for me that no one else was going to be able to write. [This includes] all of the heightened things I do and the emotional roller coaster that Ashley goes through. To look at Ashley in a brand-new light and what is her backstory; who was she before Sean, and what was that like, having all of those complications, it was almost like creating a new character because we’re now talking about circumstances and situations Ashley’s in that she wasn’t in the movie and you get to see all of these different sides to her that you didn’t get to see [then].
You must have imagined a lot of those sides to her while making the film, though, just to further flesh out who she was, so how different is what you’re exploring now from what was in your mind then?
I don’t think she’s very different from what I’ve always thought of her. I think, just emotionally, seeing how strong she is as a mother and a person, that opened my eyes more to who she is. She does everything she can do for her son, and sometimes it might not always be the best decision but you know deep down she’s doing everything she can under these circumstances. She’s a superhero in a way, like a lot of mothers are, or a lot of women whose other halves are in jail. You don’t usually get to see those stories — we usually see the story of the person that is incarcerated and their journey — but the women hold the family together.
Why was it important for you to be a producer as well, and how did you help shape her story?
I was literally a part of it since the idea was born, so I really got to see all of the different journeys that Ashley would go on [some of which didn’t make] it in the show and really see these characters get developed. I was able to have a say, creatively, that I’ve never really had before — down to what I was wearing. Being a part of a project so early on in that way and being able to just call up your friends who are executive producers of the show or writing the show and be like, “This would be cool” or “I think this would work for Ashley” and having it be taken into consideration or be used was great.
The show picks up six months after the events of the movie, so it’s still 2018 in that world, which isn’t so long ago that the issues the characters face have gone away but references can’t be ripped from today’s headlines. How topical do you feel it is?
The film was really about two best friends and the subject of police brutality, and how they look at their lives differently because their skin is different colors and so the way that they work in the world is different, and how that affects the relationship. And for TV, we’re focusing on Ashley, whose other half is in the prison system and it focuses on how the prison system affects the whole family. Ashley is trying to navigate her life without her partner, who has been her partner since she was a young teenager. It’s basically like having someone disappear, in how he’s been taken away from them and how the system is trying to break this family apart. But they solidly hold themselves together. We touch on a lot of stuff, like gentrification [but] the biggest one is the prison system and how they treat people. They make a lot of money off the prison system in America and our focus really is how that affects the family. So this constant strain on, is this family going to break; are Miles and Ashley going to break? That is the question throughout the whole entire series. These are all still issues that are very important and we are still dealing with now. All of the stuff we’re talking about, you definitely could see in the headlines right now.
There is a musical and poetic language to the show and you are also a singer, so what did you listen to, to get into character?
[For] Ashley’s emotional roller coaster, I needed to take a few minutes to relax and clear my mind before I would do a verse or before I would trash a hotel room or something like that. Before I have to do something intense, listening to Enya is getting my mind relaxed but also focused and concentrating. A scene like that takes a lot out of you, and I think for me to be completely present and for my body to be relaxed, then I can go in and completely trash the hotel room — and feel amazing after. If I get too hyped up before, it almost takes too much energy out of me. So it’s this meditative, concentrating state in order to be that bad-ass Ashley.
How different was your process for the moments where she speaks verses directly to camera?
Some of that was really challenging. Some of them rhyme, some of them don’t. They reminded me of Shakespeare monologues. At first when I got them, I thought, “I’m not a rapper, how am I going to do this?” And the more I dove into it, I realized it’s not me rapping, it’s this heightened verse that takes you out of this reality and represents Ashley’s most honest self. It’s almost like she’s telling a secret to the audience, it’s not interrupted by someone else’s opinion or how she’s supposed to act with another person, and I think it’s just a beautiful way of her expressing herself and her emotions.
Things you didn’t know about Jasmine Cephas Jones:
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cause she most cares about: Vital Voices, a non-profit shining a light on global female leaders
Historical figure she’d like to meet: Greta Thunberg
Last show she binged-watched: “Killing Eve”