Editor's Note: TYREL is now available on demand and in select theaters as of December 5, 2018. The below interview was conducted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018.
It’s freezing in Park City, Utah, but Jason Mitchell is unphased by the brisk windchill and unending slow flurries. The 31-year-old's career is continually rising, and it shows in his upbeat attitude. His performance on the Lena Waithe helmed The Chi is garnering rave reviews, but Mitchell is at Sundance for another project entirely. In TYREL, the New Orleans native stars as Tyler, a young man who takes a trip to upstate New York with one of his friends. He soon finds himself trying to navigate blinding whiteness as the only Black person in the group. When Mitchell read the script which was penned by the film’s director Sebastian Silva, he jumped at the chance to be involved. “It was the most unorthodox thing I think I'd ever seen,” he explained. “(Sebastian) let me know that he wanted me to have the role, but he also wanted me to make sure all the nuances were right because he’s not Black.”
As Black folks, we’ve all experienced that sense of unease that comes with being the only Black person in a room. It’s a feeling Jordan Peele captured perfectly in his stellar Oscar-nominated film Get Out. It's a feeling that Mitchell further emphasizes in TYREL — sans the horror elements. “I feel like it's important to let people know how we feel, meaning Black people, especially Black men in this situation,” Mitchell expressed. I think it's important to do that in a non-violent manner. I thought this was the perfect way to show that everyday struggle. A lot of times my characters go to extremes, like Ronsel in Mudbound — he was very extreme.”
From his breakout role in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton as the legendary Easy-E to his more recent roles in The Chi and Amazon’s Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Tyler is Mitchell's closest role to an every day Black man, and he wanted to be sure that the screenplay reflected as such. "(Sebastian) really wanted to know if you were Black, how would you feel in this situation," he said, "A lot of the ways I moved reflected that. That's what makes TYREL such a beautiful movie. They have things in there that only black people can get.”
It wasn’t too hard for Mitchell to tap into his character. After all, TYREL was shot in less than two weeks in the Catskills, and aside from one crew member, he was the only Black person on set. “We shot in eleven days, no breaks, no days off," he recalled. “And we stayed in the same houses together. I was the only Black dude, so all I had to do was take that and sort of rechannel it. We did spend a lot of time in front of that fire with those guitars, creating songs, and just laughing, and talking shit, and making jokes."
Those feelings of isolation aren’t confined in the film, as we chat in a busy festival hub at Sundance, Mitchell and I are the only Black people around. However, things are changing in Hollywood and Mitchell has seen that first hand. "I tell Black people all the time, ‘Dreams are for sleepers’," he said thoughtfully. “ I think this new wave of Black people, there's not just millennials, but there are a lot of millennials who I think are beginning to sort of piggyback on what we've fought so hard for. For instance, with Moonlight, I'm working with little Alex Hibbert right now. I can't imagine how many kids he must be influencing. He’s still a kid and being Black is only (about) being beautiful for him right now. It's a lot of things that he won't have to experience in a negative light, just because of the type of good energy that he's accepting. I feel like the more people see that, the more people see young Black kids on camera, the less fear that they have. I think the more we influence each other not to have fear, the more we can start to plan things out as a people and start to tackle some of these things that have us so far behind.”
With such a wide variety of roles in the past year alone, I asked Mitchell about his process when deciding which projects to be involved in. “I just try to do something completely different than what I've ever done,” he explained. “I don't want people to pigeonhole me. I've gotten three or four calls to be Easy-E in something else. And I'm like 'Guys, come on!' I think if I just continue to unpeel my onion and show people all these different layers of me it will make me feel better. Checks are good, but it just bothered me that nobody took the time to even acknowledge the fact that I was acting. It was like, ‘Oh, you're from California, right?’ ‘No.’ 'Oh, you're Easy's kid, right?' 'No.' What are you guys talking about? I've never been to California a day in my life. I booked (Compton) over Skype. I put so much work into that character, and then it's like, I do it so well that people are like, "Oh, yeah. It must have been you." I'm at the point now if the script specifically says, 'Black man between the ages of 20 and 30,' I don't want it.”
In the coming years, Mitchell only hopes to keep learning and building his resume, and at some point, he wants to step behind the camera. “After doing TYREL, I left feeling like a filmmaker and not just an actor," he explained. "I want to start doing my own thing. I have things written, I have things I want to direct. I don't have a problem with being a trailblazer. It sucks when you're the first person that has to run through the woods, and you get all the scratches all over you, and you're exhausted. But then, you turn around and realize that you've created a road for other people to walk down."
TYREL premiered Saturday, January 20 at Sundance Film Festival.
The Chi airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.
Mudbound is currently streaming on Netflix.