Whether it's portraying rap legend Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton or playing a PTSD-riddled war veteran in Mudbound, Jason Mitchell knows how to dive headfirst into a role, no matter how heavy the material. With every character, Mitchell alters his body language, his vocal cadence, his strut and his behavior. However, perhaps his most notable trait is his ability to turn off the darkness as soon as the cameras stop rolling and keep the vibrant vibes reverberating on set. A simple conversation will reveal that the New Orleans native exudes warmth and positivity, two admirable traits in an industry where cynicism seems to change everyone.
Shadow And Act had a chance to sit down with the versatile actor as he gears up for the second season of the acclaimed Showtime drama The Chi. Mitchell also discussed the award snubs surrounding Mudbound and The Chi and what to expect from the Zola Twitter movie.
S&A: Congrats on Season 2 of The Chi. How are you feeling?
JM: I'm feeling like a million bucks right now. I really am, because this TV show is already a super blessing. I'm so grateful to be working with friends and people I now consider family in telling this story that I feel we put together beautifully and worked so hard on.
S&A: Last season, Brandon and Jerrika's relationship hit a rough patch when it was revealed she cheated on him. What is the state of their relationship going into Season 2?
Well, they definitely both want to work on it. They want to fix it. They want things to be proper. But, they're still from two different worlds, and that's their newest challenge. Being successful in their own world and still keeping themselves first in their own lives. But, it's Brandon and Jerrika!! They look so good together (ˆaughs). It's a rollercoaster ride.
S&A: From Straight Outta Compton to Mudbound, what is your process for tapping into a character? Do you keep a journal or craft a biography?
JM: Sort of, but the trick is everybody remembers their past. You have to inject that into the opinion of a character. Let's take Eazy-E, for example. If you take somebody whose primary issue is money, and you ask this person's opinion on money, they've lost their family, and they were a drug dealer. So, if my opinion of money dates all the way back when I was 6 years old, you may say he had an uncle who was on drugs. It makes you have a chip on your shoulder when you have a 17-year-old who says he did it without me. The reality of it is you couldn't have done it without any money. It kind of made Eazy-E have this nonchalant attitude toward what Ice Cube thinks because there was no money. He was just a kid. I do that with everything. There's something very prominent in the character where I start at the core. I go back all the way to the beginning of their life. Somebody should be able to ask me why I don't like something, and I should be able to tell them. The script is just a tear-out or a piece of that person's life. It's very rare that a person's life begins and ends in a script. I try not to scare people and go-all Daniel Day-Lewis.
S&A: Tragedy and trauma have been a recurring time in most of your work. How do you wash that off of you after the cameras stop rolling?
JM: I have this blessing to be able to turn it off. When I shot Mudbound, everyone asked me if I needed any prep for the scene where Ronsel gets his tongue cut out. I told them I simply have to go to set. All the Black people on set understood. Some of the white guys were super skeptical. A couple of them cried that day. They weren't proud of themselves at all. They weren't proud of the roots at that time. With that type of support around me, it felt good. To walk in there and realize what's happening, it was one of those moments where I didn't really have to act. It struck me immediately. I didn't have to think about something in order to cry. The reality of it was they were about to string me up and potentially cut my balls off all because I love somebody from another country. The reality of that put me in an instant mind frame. That was all Dee Rees. She put us in this beautiful dark world that made us turn it on immediately.
S&A: How do you feel about the award snubs surrounding The Chi and Mudbound? Do you place a lot of validation on awards?
JM: I'm not gonna lie to you. Hardware is great. Hardware is a beautiful thing to have. Having that stripe where everyone considers me the best actor at this moment. But on the other hand, it's so political, and so many things go into it. I feel sometimes the work has been just enough. The fans let the work live. They make it just about the work. They stop me every day and say “I'm dope” or “I'm the next Denzel Washington.” At the end of the day, a lot of the guys who I'm in categories with I don't even deserve to be in. They're classically trained, and they've been doing it for years. It's a blessing I'm even mentioned with these cats on my first or second time at bat. Straight Outta Compton came out in 2015. Look at my career now. How much more can I ask for? I'm in such a good place. I would love to win awards, but I've got until I'm old and gray to do that.
S&A: What was your experience working on the Zola movie?
JM: It was refreshing. I've worked with some legends. On one hand, you have these independent films where people are super passionate, and then you have the opposite extreme with people who are old movie stars who say you're gonna hate this within three more years. It was just really refreshing to work with a group of people who were going on the big screen but still had that passionate attitude. Everyone was happy to be here. We aren't tripping on no trailers. It wasn't a super huge production, but everyone was super happy to be there. You got no complaints out of anybody. It was just really good. Janicza Bravo [the director of Zola] had this very lit spirit. Her light is just always on. It's always shining, and she's always smiling. She always got jokes. It was just a beautiful thing to be around people who I felt were super vibrant like me.
Do you think Twitter is the future of storytelling?
JM: I just think our reel is captivating. Now that our reel involves so much technology, you see a lot of films go back some years before all this. So many times when you might have an idea but your idea might fall apart real quick because you're thinking what about Twitter or the internet. It's something you have to make a thing, make it fit, and it has to work. You see a lot of movies that do the "what if?" scenarios. However, you have these films like Zola where it feels like it's a modern-day story for everybody, and it fits all the criteria. Twitter is a huge part of that. I could only imagine the closer people get to among more real films we can use more of modern-day technology to make that happen.
Season 2 of The Chi premieres on Showtime on April 7.
Photo: Tyler Mitchell/HBO