Jeremy Pope doesn’t break into a new medium quietly. The actor not only earned a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut in 2018’s “Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, he also became one of only six actors in history to earn two acting nominations in different categories in the same year, also scoring a nom for the musical “Ain’t Too Proud.” His television debut, as the lead in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood,” landed him his first Emmy nomination. And now his first leading role in a movie, “The Inspection,” has earned Pope rave reviews and nominations from both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Golden Globes.
While Pope’s charisma and talent has been evident from his work on stage and television, it’s never a guarantee on the big screen. But from the opening moments of “The Inspection,” it becomes clear that Pope is not just a great actor, but a star. Every frame of the film, beautifully shot by Lachlan Milne, adores Pope. And for someone capable of playing larger than life, the actor also proves he can convey so much through stillness, using only his eyes and fleeting expressions.
Currently Pope is back on Broadway playing Jean-Michel Basquiat opposite Paul Bettany’s Andy Warhol in “The Collaboration.” He’s actually back in the same dressing room at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre where he made his Broadway debut. “It was my first Broadway dressing room so I did it up. I got pillows and artwork and curtains — most of it is all still here,” Pope says. “It’s a very full circle moment for me.” The play is set to be made into a film with both actors reprising their roles and Pope is also slated to play Sammy Davis Jr. in an upcoming film directed and co-written by Janet Mock.
For those familiar with his stage work, it’s always been a matter of “when” — not “if” — Pope would breakthrough into film stardom. As he reveals in his chat with Variety, there had been other opportunities prior to “The Inspection” but the actor knew not only the value of the right project, but his own worth.
“The Inspection” is your first lead role in a movie and it seems like the kind of movie that people really want to talk about and share their own stories. What’s the reaction you’ve been experiencing to it?
Jeremy Pope: It’s been really great. It’s also new for me because “Hollywood” was out during the pandemic and I was doing my promotion in my living room in my boxers, so none of it felt real. Having our indie film go into the festivals, you get to do these Q&As and have conversations with your audience and hear how it affects them. And I think our film lives with people after watching it. I’ve received a lot of emails from friends and some from people I respect in the business, people that don’t know me at all. Marines have spoke to me about what the story means. I’m so happy and proud of the film and what it means and how it turned out. So it’s just a gift.
Lots of people have directors or actors they want to work with, but you’ve said you actually wanted to work with the studio, A24.
Pope: I set a vision board every year manifesting things. And A24 was on my vision board, I’ve been wanting to work with them for a long time. Then I fell in love with this script. I met with Elegance [Bratton, the director] and he was great, but it took nine months for me to hear anything in regards to the project, and that was hard. Because as I’m sure artists will tell you, sometimes you get an instinct about something — a feeling like, this is supposed to be mine. But you also have to tell yourself not to want it so much because it’s devastating when you don’t get it. And the simple fact is, you don’t get most things.
How do you process that rejection?
Pope: You just have to know it takes many years of trying and getting told no and no and no and no. And then you get one yes and you don’t know what that yes means or how it will change your life. And I’ve been so fortunate that the handful of yesses I’ve had were from people like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Janet Mock and Elegance Bratton.
When did you finally get word?
Pope: Well it’s interesting, because I was doing another film. And I took a leap of faith and left that job, a job that wasn’t serving me. And hours after that, I heard “The Inspection” was happening.
That’s incredible. Was it hard to walk away?
Pope: The short version is: I’d been given an opportunity to lead a studio film. And even though I didn’t love the script, it meant something. But it was one of those things that would get me in the conversations, get me in front of directors and people at studios. As people know, that is currency and helps where the comma on your check goes and the opportunities you’re given.
But I got into an interesting conversation with the director where he basically said I didn’t have the ability to connect with a female character because I was gay. In the moment, I was negotiating how to defend myself. But at the end of the day, that spoke so much more to where he was at and his journey in life versus who I am or what I know I bring to a project. So it was the first time where I go, “Am I going to say no? Am I going to leave this?” And I had to choose myself and serve myself and say I can’t be in an environment that doesn’t support and pour into me the way I’m going to support and pour into it. I’ve spent many years doing a lot of really great projects, usually that don’t pay you much, but it’s because people are honest and open and vulnerable and they’re there to take care of the art.
So I had to say “eff that energy” because it’s going to take too much from me. And literally in that same breath of knowing that don’t serve me is when the phone rang and it was “A24 wants to have this conversation about ‘The Inspection.’” It was like I had to be tested to really know my worth and affirm myself. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. So it was just I had to go through that and understand my worth and my existence and how I want to show up in this business and what I’m willing to tolerate and not tolerate. So I think, like I said, life has to do life’s thing.
So had you committed to that other movie? Or were you just in discussions for it?
Pope: Oh, we were filming in three days! It was a tricky one. I never want to be perceived as hard to work with. You know how this business works. Especially when you’re part of a marginalized group, you get an opportunity, you don’t want to fuck this up. But it wasn’t serving me. Again, I know what I bring to the table. I show up for my scene partners, the story, the craft. I come from the theater so I’m about that work life. For someone to make me feel otherwise… I was just tired of negotiating my worth.
Actors want to please their directors, but this must be particularly special because the story is so personal to Elegance.
Pope: It’s his story. His experiences. And it’s his directorial debut. And it means everything to me to know I was his first choice. That trust I felt from him was so important. We shot this movie in 19 days, in the middle of a pandemic, in Jackson, Miss. at 117 degree weather. So it was hard and challenging and demanding but his trust in me and my trust in him as a storyteller was so special and I will always be grateful to him for that opportunity.
Where did you even begin with your physical and mental preparation?
Pope: We had real bootcamp, we’d wake up so early — 3:30, 4:30 a.m. I was like: “Y’all, we are actors. Why are we doing this?” But it helped build the bond with the guys, all of us having to shave our heads and show up. Octaya Jones was the Marines supervisor and military consultant, she actually served with Elegance. And she was there to make sure we looked sharp, that we looked like Marines.
I think I was more prepared emotionally than physically. I knew the space I would have to create specifically for Elegance. I don’t know if people know, but this story was an attempt for him to reach out to his mother. It was greenlit and then a couple days later, his mom was killed. So I knew it was going to a very vulnerable and sensitive space for me to be part of. But he was so gracious in recognizing that I had to craft my own version of French.
Now you’re back doing theater, which can be unpredictable. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you onstage?
Pope: I’ve told this before, but probably my opening night of “Choir Boy,” my Broadway debut, my mom passing out. I think she just got so nervous and anxious for me, watching her son on stage, and how I started to blend with the character. It was an emotional roller coaster.
Actually, when “The Inspection” premiered at TIFF, she had a similar experience. I thought it would be different because it’s not live theater, but she started to have a bit of a panic when the film started. She told me, “It’s hard to separate the work that you do in these characters from you, and it feels so vulnerable and honest and real.” She wants to try to go on the journey with your character, but somehow feels motherly instincts and wants to protect me.
Well, for her sake, I’m going to need you to do a nice rom-com next.
Pope: Right? Maybe something a little bit lighter.