I’ve interviewed my fair share of leading men, and I know how often that conversation turns into a war of attrition. Can I convince these famous, fortified actors to drop their walls before our time is up? Some of them are so skittish about introspection that it’s a challenge to even earn their eye contact.
Jeremy Pope is not that kind of leading man. When we met one Sunday evening in October to discuss his starring role in the new military drama “The Inspection,” the 30-year-old actor sped right past the small talk to speak without reservations about his emotional inner life. And when I went to sit on a couch, expecting Pope to perch a few feet away for our interview, he instead lay down next to me, his head beside my lap, and spent the next 90 minutes gazing upward with an expression so open and tender that I found my walls dropping, too.
That beguiling mix of vulnerability and bravado is Pope’s primary asset as a performer. On Broadway, where his roles in “Choir Boy” and “Ain’t Too Proud” made him the first Black actor to earn two Tony nominations in the same year, and on the TV mini-series “Hollywood,” in which he played an ambitious, romantic screenwriter, Pope hoped to share something unguarded about himself with as much boldness as he could muster. It’s a mission statement that motivates him in real life, too.
“We live in a world where it’s harder for people to be vulnerable and honest than to just give you a version of themselves,” he told me, lying supine in an oversized Bianca Saunders suit that he picked because its patterns reminded him of the military fatigues he wore during filming. “I think the outfit informed my energy today,” he said, “like, ‘You’re going to be strong, you’re going to be swag, you’re going to be sexy, and it’s OK for you to be that version of yourself today.’”
Based on the writer-director Elegance Bratton’s life story, “The Inspection” casts Pope as Ellis French, a young gay man who’s been kicked out of the house by his mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), a flinty prison guard who won’t accept his sexuality. With few options left, French enlists in the Marine Corps, but he is hazed so mercilessly by his drill sergeant (Bokeem Woodbine) and fellow recruits that boot camp becomes a struggle to simply survive.
Pope is sensitive and gripping in his first major film role; even now, he can hardly believe he’s leading a movie distributed by A24, the hot specialty studio he’d long hoped to work with. (It was in their Los Angeles offices we were speaking.) When Pope first moved from Orlando, Fla., to New York to pursue acting, he feared he would never be given this sort of opportunity.
Pope said the tan suit informed his energy, “like, ‘You’re going to be strong, you’re going to be swag, you’re going to be sexy, and it’s OK for you to be that version of yourself today.’”Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times
“I feel so blessed that I’m able to do this fully in my Blackness and in my queerness,” Pope said. “I spent so many years shameful of that, thinking that because I am those things that I wouldn’t be able to have maximum success, that there would always be a ceiling, like, ‘Ooh, can’t go that far. Can’t be a movie star.’”
In the week that I met Pope, he was busy celebrating “The Inspection” at the New York Film Festival, participating in a “10 Actors to Watch” panel for Variety, and shooting his next film, “The Collaboration,” which casts him as Jean-Michel Basquiat opposite Paul Bettany’s Andy Warhol. (The two actors performed “The Collaboration” as a play in London earlier this year and will bring that production to Broadway this winter.) But Pope doesn’t take any of this whirlwind success for granted: He remembers the lean years when work was so hard to come by that he wondered if he would have to hide his sexuality to succeed.
“There was so many times where I wasn’t eating, when I was scared to go home and have my parents see I’m struggling,” he said. “I was like, I’ve got to keep trying, because I don’t want to believe the ‘no.’ I can’t go home, because I feel a fire within me; I’ve got to be a ‘yes.’”
Though his career began to take off when he was cast as a queer teenager in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “Choir Boy,” the most important change came from within as Pope began to accept himself and live without apology, he told me. That’s a lesson his conflicted character in “The Inspection” must learn, too: French enlists hoping to win his estranged mother’s love, but he eventually realizes that his own self-worth is the only prize that matters.
“What I’ve learned over the years is you just have to start telling yourself ‘yes,’ and creating that ‘yes’ for yourself,” Pope said.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
“The Inspection” is your first major film, and a lot of its themes line up with things you’ve gone through in your own life. Did it feel like destiny?
This was a story and a project I was supposed to be a part of, but a lot of months went by after I met with Elegance. With so many artists, we want something so bad and it feels like all the things line up, but I just wasn’t hearing anything. Realistically, what I think was happening was I wasn’t a movie star yet. Elegance has told me I was always his first choice, and that he had to fight for me. He had to remind people what the story was about and why it was imperative to have an openly queer Black man play this role.
I knew this job was going to be healing for him, and I was like, “I want to protect that. Choose me to go on the journey, and I can probably carry some of this with you.” And then in that, I found my own healing with things I hadn’t dealt with, things that had rubbed me the wrong way for many years that I pushed down to the side.
What sort of things?
Just that thing of, “Am I enough?”
Enough to who?
To the world, to people, to love, to success, to happiness. When you’re running from a flight to an event and people are praising you, you’re so high, so happy. But who’s calling when you don’t have a show on Netflix, or when you don’t have a premiere? Who’s sending flowers just because?
Before you came on board this movie, what did Gabrielle Union mean to you as an actress?
Gab is royalty to Black people — she’s like Michelle Obama. She’s been in the business for so many years and has navigated so much, so the community of Black actors has so much respect for her. And over the years, we’ve been able to have an insight into what she does for her family and protecting her trans daughter: She’s really doing the work in the streets, it’s not just for clout. She has to take hits from people that see the world through a different lens and can’t find the space to love their kids and would rather abandon them, which is very aligned with Inez, this character she’s playing.
It must have been fraught to act out those arguments between French and Inez in front of Elegance, who really lived them.
Elegance made a lot of space for those scenes because the hurtful things that were said to French are things that were said to him. Those days would be very emotional for him and he would direct and give us as much as he could, but me and Gab definitely stepped up and tried to unpack this complex relationship. There’s this longing on both sides, but his mom has this conditional love: “I can love you so much, under these conditions.”
Have you gone through anything like that, where you worried how your family would react to your sexuality?
My version of that is my relationship with my dad, who was a pastor. I didn’t want to lose this person in my life who was happy for me, loved on me, bought me Barbies when I was a kid, was there at my track meets. My parents were separated, and my dad would drive hours to see me — he wanted to be a good Black father — but it’s hard to hear your dad preaching in the pulpit about gay people and what happens to them, and not feel like he’s talking at me and to me.
So what was it like when you started working as an actor in New York but you still weren’t out to him?
It was hard. There were times where I wouldn’t invite my dad to a certain show in New York because it had a gay theme. But I had to go, “You’ve got to be fully free, J.” I knew that it might take some time for my dad to come around and adjust, but very similar to French, it was like, “When you’re ready, I’ll be here.” And I feel like now we get each other in such a real, vulnerable, honest way. This man is a work in progress. This man is in therapy. This man is open to transformation, to evolution, to being loved. And now I feel like I’m a free man.
When do you feel the most free?
I’ve been in this space of moving so freely that when I don’t feel free, I can almost identify those moments more. Sometimes industry things can trigger those things. Someone came up to me at the Variety event and was like, “Devotion”? She thought I was Jonathan Majors. I’m sure this white woman meant no harm, but listen, all Black people are not the same. And she was near these people that felt like industry bigwigs, and you start to do this dance for them. I didn’t feel free. I felt like I was on their time and having to move in a way that didn’t feel real to my soul and my heart.
Then I’m sure you could relate to the boot camp in “The Inspection,” and the way it tries to flatten French and make him conform to a certain idea.
When I first started [in drama school, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy], I was hearing from teachers, “If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to look like this, you’ve got to speak like this.” I spent so many years trying to be some version of what I thought people wanted, and because I wasn’t out, it was also, “Don’t be effeminate, don’t let people see that piece of you. Make women desire you.”
So for young Jeremy at 17, skinny and scrawny in New York, I wasn’t seeing myself represented. A lot of the time, people are asking you to abandon your truth and the things that make you unique, and if I’m coming out of a vulnerable place where I don’t even know who I am, you’re not giving me a chance to develop. I have a love-hate relationship with [drama] school because it does give you a lot of tools and teach you about the business, but I think sometimes it beats out these imperfections that make you so special.
How did you feel when you wrapped “The Inspection”?
Relieved that I made it out alive, literally. I almost drowned on set. That’s not something I want to talk about — that’s not my campaign, that it was “so rigorous and hard.” But I fought for my life on this film at times, and I was in a dark place personally because I was giving so much of myself to this project. So when I finished, it was definitely a feeling of relief, and I needed to start to build Jeremy back up again, emotionally and physically.
At one point in your life, you didn’t see a career path that would represent the real you. But now, in theater, TV and film, you’ve found projects so suited to you that they almost feel bespoke.
Right, and when I’m talking to other artists, I want them to know: Don’t abandon the things that make you unique, because the more you love those things and lead with them in your truth, the more you’ll find yourself in art where they’re catering to that. I get to lead, I get to trust, I get to show, I get to tell. And that goes back to little Jeremy, who was so scared to share out of this idea of, “Will it be good enough?” The stuff that I’ve been doing is good enough for an Elegance to want me to portray him in a film. There’s people out there who will love you for who you are.