It seemed obvious enough at the time: After breaking out with his first lead role in F. Gary Gray’s 2015 biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” earning acclaim and awards for his note-perfect portrayal of rap royalty Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, actor Jason Mitchell was about to become a huge star. Usually, that sort of attention means that actors can cherry pick roles from bountiful offers.
That’s not what happened. Instead, Mitchell landed a handful of small roles in mostly underseen indies like “Barry” and “Vincent N Roxxy,” and started to worry that “Straight Outta Compton” was a one-time thing.
Two years later, the tide has turned again, with Mitchell garnering accolades for his turn in Dee Rees’ hard-hitting historical drama “Mudbound.” Ironically, he still has “Straight Outta Compton” to thank for a part that seems poised to earn him even more awards.
“To be honest, nothing big had ever been offered to me before,” Mitchell said in an interview. “At the time, my career just was not there at all. I didn’t have very much to lean on, to say, ‘oh, you should give me the part.’ For all everybody knows, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ could have been a complete fluke. I just could have been a guy who was lucky enough to be able to imitate Eazy-E really good.”
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Mitchell stayed busy auditioning for parts and looking for further chances to prove himself, but Rees had seen plenty inside his work on “Straight Outta Compton” that went beyond his ability to embody Eazy-E. The filmmaker recently told IndieWire that she wanted Mitchell for the role after she saw him in the film, crying and holding another man as he was dying of AIDS.
“You don’t see men loving each other,” she said. It was reflective of what she hoped to build between the key characters of Ronsel and Jamie as two men returning from the war and sharing an experience few others could identify with. “I didn’t want that friendship to go too saccharin,” she said. “You had to believe it. They started not looking at each other, and gradually moving together in harmony.”
Based on Hillary Jordan’s book of the same name, Rees’ period drama follows two families striving for more in post-WWII Mississippi. Mitchell is the eldest son of the Jackson family, a hard-working clan of sharecroppers who hope to eventually own their own land, though circumstances and chance continually keep them from achieving their dream. One of those circumstances: the McAllen family, who take over the farm on which the Jacksons work, with little regard for the toll their continual demands place on them.
In the film’s first act, Ronsel heads off to war, and brutal scenes of his fighting time in Europe punctuate what is already a film that doesn’t skate over the tough stuff. Returning to Mississippi is hard for Ronsel, but his reentry is slightly eased by the formation of a very unexpected friendship with fellow soldier Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), the younger brother of farm owner Henry McAllen, (Jason Clarke). It’s an often heartbreaking film, but the bond that Ronsel and Jamie manage to forge in the face of racism — both systematic and familial — offers much-needed hope and tenderness.
“One day I get this call from Dee saying, ‘you got to be a part of this film, I really want you,'” Mitchell said. “I was totally down, but I also sort of heard through my agents, and through Dee later, that I was at the top of her wish list. It was a big deal for me. I couldn’t believe that with such heavy material, that somebody was like, ‘He’s the guy that’s going to carry it.'” Mitchell ended up being the first actor they cast for the film.
“She knew that I was a guy who wasn’t afraid to get in my feelings, I wasn’t afraid to go there when it was time to go there,” Mitchell said. “That’s what she needed. Sometimes you need those guy who aren’t afraid to bring the tears out, who aren’t afraid to hug each other.”
Those tears flow early. When “Mudbound” audiences first meet the entire Jackson family, they’re preparing to send Ronsel off to war, but it’s not just his parents Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan) who are readying to say goodbye, it’s also his siblings and other members of their community. Ronsel’s absence is going to leave a hole for a lot of people, and the emotional impact is immediately telegraphed through the minimum of words. The scene was added during production because Rees believed it was important to “show that he’s not just this son of Florence and Hap, but he’s the son of the community.”
Mitchell said he thought about his bond with his own mother — whom he calls his “rock” — while filming the scene, which eventually sees Blige’s steadfast Florence turn away from him, believing it’s bad luck to see him actually depart. The sentiment is understandable, but the actual moment is wrenching.
“Part of me wanted Florence to smile, or to say something great or give me something, and that just wasn’t the case,” Mitchell said. “She actually had to ultimately turn her back, just to give herself some sort of relief. When you put yourself in that situation, and think, ‘What if I was really going to war? And my mom couldn’t even look at me in my face before I left?’ It’s tough. I went there, I went there early.”
Mitchell said nothing about “Mudbound” has changed his diverse ambitions as an actor. “I want to keep continuously going through all the pages in the book of being an actor,” he said. “I’ve done history, I’ve done biopics, I’ve done a little bit of comedy. I just want to keep going and show people that you can’t typecast me, you can’t pigeonhole me.”
His other roles in recent months have spoken to that desire, including turns in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ monster movie “Kong: Skull Island,” Kathryn Bigelow’s historical drama “Detroit,” and James Franco’s upcoming Hollywood sendup “The Disaster Artist.”
None of the success has resonated on a personal level for the actor more than “Mudbound,” particularly as it relates to his family history.
“My grandfather fought in the Korean War, he went through basically what Ronsel went through, and right now, as we speak, he’s still trying to grasp that his grandson is a ‘movie star,'” Mitchell said. “That was not possible to them. My grandfather, he’s impressed with my cursive handwriting. When I was 13, I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t want to fill out your bills, I want to go outside and ride my bike!’ I didn’t know that the only thing he could write was his name. I just look over some of these blessings that I have now, and it’s crazy. It’s crazy.“
“Mudbound” debuts on Netflix and in select theaters on Friday, November 17.