“I know my way around a kitchen, man,” Mitchell told IndieWire. “While being a starving actor, I was a cook — for six years.”
As Brandon Johnson, a chef and family man in the Showtime drama, Mitchell has a number of moments when he’s chopping a fine slice of meat or tossing ingredients together in his character’s restaurant.
“I’m originally from New Orleans, so we take our food very seriously,” he said. “Brandon has so much of me in him. It was really cool to be able to take that skill, something that I love so much, and be able to put it on the screen. It was dope.”
Despite the titular Chicago setting, Mitchell said so much of “The Chi” was about where he grew up.
“New Orleans is the same thing,” he said. “Like any city that’s considered violent, I would say, we all have this vibe about us that’s very family-oriented. [“The Chi”] being a family story made me really, really want to do it.”
That being said, Mitchell committed to enveloping himself in all things Chicago. He said he “didn’t know what to expect” from the Windy City, but after shooting the pilot there, he stayed for six more weeks — before Showtime ordered the first season. He was that confident in the show’s future, and his uncle (who grew up in Chicago) set him up with a few friends in town. Mitchell said he “basically built a life there,” and he even had Easter dinner with a “random” local family.
“I wanted to experience the streets of Chicago,” he said. “I wanted to feel it, I wanted to smell it, I wanted to be accepted by it. […] I want people to take away that it’s not just senseless things happening out here.”
Mitchell noticed a divide during his time there, calling it “the most segregated city I’ve ever been to in my life; beautiful on both sides, but just very segregated, and sort of upfront about it.”
“I’ll never forget, when I first got to Chicago, walking right off of Michigan Avenue, and there was an interactive billboard on the Walgreens and it said ’46 people shot this weekend.’ To think about 46 families in one weekend […] something just being ripped from them — 46 people, are you kidding me?”
Violence is a major part of Brandon’s arc. The brother of a teen slain in the opening episode, Mitchell is required to shift quickly from a happy-go-lucky fellow to a devastated wreck. There’s a scene early on that exemplifies Mitchell’s talents — being in the moment, honestly reacting to each beat, and refusing to overplay the drama — where Brandon gets a phone call with the tragic news.
Mitchell said he was grateful to have veteran actors and an experienced crew to create a safe atmosphere for that scene and others like it, but he wanted to convey a specific trait he’s noticed in men with Brandon’s reaction.
“As a guy, we don’t really [cry] when it’s time for it,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we might have wished we would have cried. Like, my dad committed suicide when I was 15, and my sister was so torn up about it that I never shed a tear. I never cried, just because I was like, ‘Enough is going on right now, I don’t need somebody to baby me.'”
But then those repressed emotions still come out later, often unpredictably.
“It can be from the smallest things,” Mitchell said. “Maybe the lights go out. Your car breaks down. All the way to losing a brother. All of these things bring on emotions that, as guys in regular life, we don’t tap into, and we choose not to entertain it because, no matter what, the show must go on — life must go on. You can’t just stop and be like, ‘I just want to cry today.’ Even though that’s how you feel.”
Mitchell said moments like this in “The Chi” are “therapeutic” for him. He often taps into the raw emotions for the scene and comes out the other end feeling good.
“Everybody’s crying on the set like, ‘Jason, oh my God, you did such a good job,'” and I’m bouncing around, like, ‘Guys, why’s everybody crying? This is a great moment! We’re living the dream!'” Mitchell said, with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘You are a psychopath.'”
That may be, but whatever he’s tapping into for “The Chi” does wonders for Season 1. Mitchell’s raw performance stood out among an exceptional cast, and his work in recent films like “Mudbound” and “Detroit” have consistently kept him in the awards race. Next, he’ll be seen in the feature film “Superfly” (out June 15) and the Sundance hit, “Tyrel,” expected later this year. “The Chi” Season 2 has been picked up at Showtime.
[Editor’s Note: IndieWire’s Consider This series is meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]