A late-night spliff is passed between an adolescent Chiron and his only apparent friend Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome), as the two engage in a dreamy exchange at the beach. By the time their high sets in – halfway reeling from the hard realities of living in the ghetto – Kevin pulls in for the kind of embrace Chiron has always yearned for but knew wasn’t culturally accepted. It’s the second stage of Barry Jenkins’ brilliantly tender film Moonlight, and Kevin – outwardly machista and cis hetero – is presented for the first time as someone queer or bisexual. In this space, neither one struggles with identity and both slip into more liberated versions of themselves—however fleeting. Kevin later emerges a complicated character, one who ultimately betrays Chiron to keep from being treated an outcast.
Jerome, who was raised in the Bronx and is of Dominican descent, initially grappled with connecting to his character. As someone not from Miami, and more, who identifies as “straight,” Jerome was tasked with finding other portals to Kevin’s heart. The nuance and duplicity of his on-screen persona, it turns out, is something the 19-year-old is far too acquainted with as a black Latino from the inner-city, coming up in a less familiar world of performing arts.
“I was that Latino kid in school. I grew up as the kid wearing the baggy pants and the hoodies. I was from the Bronx, you know, but speaking that Spanish dialect, and these people from Manhattan—they’ve never heard that before,” says Jerome, whose arrival at LaGuardia High School in the Upper West Side was initially met with a sense of displacement.
Ahead of the Oscars (Moonlight has earned eight nominations), Jerome talks about life before and after his first film, working opposite of Ashton Sanders, and his own unforgettable performance—a “coming out” of sorts.
VIBE Viva: What was it like growing up in your household?
Jharrel Jerome: I grew up with a smaller family. It was very intimate. But I grew up with a lot of love, and I think that’s one thing that I’m probably forever grateful for. I grew up with a loving mother, with a loving father, and loving grandparents. It was pretty much my mom, my dad, my grandparents, my two cousins, my sister, and my aunt. That’s pretty much how we grew up, we were a very close family. And since we were a small circle, everything was shared. There were never any secrets, and it was really all love. But growing up wasn’t always easy, you know? Growing up in the Bronx is never easy. You’re always dealt with the craziest situations and meet the craziest people that can guide you in the wrong direction. Luckily, I had a family that would never allow me to do that.
Would you say that your creative impulses were nurtured at home?
Most definitely. I was pushed to do what I loved—whatever it was going to be. And it’s crazy because growing up, it wasn’t always going to be acting. That wasn’t the first thing on my mind. I actually wanted to be one of the first in the family to go to college and finish.
Exactly. It was more I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a doctor, I want to make money. I want to go all the way through with it. So I was never growing up in musicals and doing all of these [thespian] things. It really wasn’t until high school where I started to fall in love with acting. Of course, I was seven years old when I said I might want to be an actor, but I said it like, “Okay, cool, maybe one day.” It was never something where I was like, “Put me in these classes. Let’s do it. I’m going to be an actor.” It was never like that. I was always focused on school. I was always trying to get good grades. I played sports when I had to and things like that.
What was your experience like in high school?
LaGuardia I think was everything I needed. It’s really where I found my real passions for everything, for acting, for music, just for people in general because LaGuardia is so culturally diverse. You have kids from all kinds of places and I think that’s so necessary, especially growing up in New York City, just diving into the heart of Manhattan and studying there, I really couldn’t have asked for anything better. I met a bunch of amazing people who taught me so many different things. LaGuardia definitely shaped me into who I am today. So if anybody ever asks how was LaGuardia, I’d say it’s probably one of the greatest experiences I’ll ever have. I loved it.
What were some of the struggles you encountered in your coming-of-age?
The biggest one would be friends. You have friends who want to grow up quick and who want to grow up dangerous, and who just want to grow up without really thinking about their future, and it really is all about the people you surround yourself with. So I used to have friends who would try to get me to fight and get involved in these things that I just wasn’t grown up on.
Would you say LaGuardia was a saving grace?
That was the biggest reason why I went to LaGuardia! I wanted to get out the Bronx and go to a place where people had dreams. I didn’t have a lot of dreamer friends growing up in my opinion, especially around my way. But like I said, I really had a mom who kept me in check, who kept me grounded, and who kept me realizing that there’s something worth it at the end. So, [school] definitely steered me away from those bad influences that could have really… you know, it’s not hard to grow up in a life of crime coming from the Bronx.
Did you have any trouble preparing for the role that you played in Moonlight?
Tell me about it.
Kevin was probably – up to date – the toughest character I have ever played, because he has so much baggage in him. There was a time, especially in the beginning, when I was first reading the script, when I first got cast, when I was first trying to get into his mind—there was a time where I felt like I couldn’t do it. I felt like I was way too disconnected from him.
Considering I identify as straight. And I’m not from Miami. I didn’t really grow up around the types of people Kevin was around. So I felt like I was going to be disconnected, but then I realized that Kevin is really all of us; he really is a lot of us. He really is a person that hides in a shell, and I think everybody at least at one point in their lives, hides in a shell. And I realized that in high school – I even said it in the speech the other day – I was that Latino kid in school. I grew up as the kid wearing the baggy pants and the hoodies. I was from the Bronx, you know, but speaking that Spanish dialect, and these people from Manhattan—they’ve never heard that before.
Were you treated differently?
I got these looks like, “Hmmm—this kid is different, this kid is interesting.” That sort of disconnection, even if it’s much smaller than what Chiron or Kevin might have felt, it’s still a disconnection and it’s still a feeling of being displaced or not belonging. And that’s what I put into Kevin. I realized that Kevin is somebody who really is hiding in a shell, almost as Chiron. Maybe more. He’s a million different personas for different people, and a character like that, I don’t think will ever be easy to play because how do you allow yourself to be so extravagant or cool on the outside, but you know you have all these issues on the inside? How do you play both sides of it and how do you try to grasp both parts?
How was it working alongside Ashton Sanders?
I got comfortable with Ashton and really started working with him, even off set. We would work on these scenes in our hotel—just be grinding on these scenes. And, as you start to understand the dialogue and really own Barry’s words, get them into your head, you start to realize what these characters are really saying and not what you’re hearing. It’s just not what you’re hearing. They have all these different thoughts. It took really understanding those underlying feelings that [Kevin] was experiencing—because he’s such an inner person.
Were there any moments where you felt nervous or apprehensive about your character?
For sure. The subject is very heavy, and this really was my first film. So it’s really coming out, for me. It’s coming into the scene already with such a specific role, like my character has so much to him. The whole story, the whole film is such a strong film. There’s so many messages in there. There’s so many things that can really go one way or the other.
What do you mean?
It can really be like either this is too much, or this is not enough. And so that was definitely nerve-racking, but at the end of the day, it’s really my job to bring life to any character, and I think all characters deserve to have a life in them and deserve to be given my fullest effort. Once I realized that this is no longer me in high school performing a scene in front of friends, I realized that it was my job to fill Kevin’s shoes. I realized that I’m out here to tell a story for people who need to hear this story. Once I realized that, all those nerves got thrown out the window and I realized that this is a job, and this is the job I love right now, and I’m going to do it however I have to do it.
Since the film’s release and the great reviews, have you gotten any negative reactions concerning you role?
Most definitely not from my family members. Like I said, I grew up with so much love, and they have so much love for me. They know who I am. If anything, it entertained them to the fullest. [Laughs] They loved it. They loved seeing me just embody someone so different, all the way down from the first scene where I’m cursing my ass off and all of that, to all these scenes where I’m doing all this wild… It wasn’t more like, “Yo, Jharrel, what are you doing?” It was more, “This is incredible. I can see that you’re acting here.” And as for everyone else, I mean even so the same. I haven’t gotten a lot of hate, and I haven’t gotten a lot of, “What the hell were you thinking.” I’ve gotten a few, “I was surprised.” But I think at the end of the day, people were so much more accepting, people were more understanding. I’ve gotten a lot of love on my performance. A lot of people are saying, “You did the job so well. You filled the character so well. You portrayed it so well.” And I’ve been checking for all that. That overpowers anything else.
Ahead of the Oscars, how different would you say your life is today compared to a year ago?
[Laughs] One hundred percent different. Moonlight was a true blessing. When I was doing it, I didn’t know it would escalate to this. I knew the project was beautiful. I knew the script was amazing. But I did not know it’d get me here. And the fact that I am here—I’m just really counting my blessings.
What’s your biggest takeaway from all this?
I realize that love is being spread and people are willing to accept films like this more and more. So now that they are, it’s really benefiting everybody who was part of the production. And I think we can all look back at it and say this was one of the best things that we could have come together for.
‘Moonlight’ is in theaters now, and will be available on blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 28.