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‘When They See Us’: Jharrel Jerome Walked Through Fire to Bring Korey Wise’s Story to the Screen

Earning his first Emmy nomination, the 21-year-old actor reflects on the physical and psychological toll his transformation took on him.

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in "When They See Us"

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in “When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

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At only 21 years old, and in just the third year of a fledgling career, Jharrel Jerome has accomplished something that not many at his age and experience have done: He’s been nominated for a lead acting Emmy for his critically-acclaimed performance as Korey Wise in Netflix’s series on the story of the Central Park Five, “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay.

Since the four-part series premiered on May 31, Jerome, the only actor in the main cast to carry an entire episode (and also play both younger and older versions of his character), has seen his star rise rapidly. Suddenly thrust into a spotlight he wasn’t at all ready for, he isn’t adjusting to it very well.

“I’m just very numb to everything that’s going on, to be honest,” he said. “Everything is happening so quickly, and you don’t really get a tutorial on how this all works, so I’m just trying to keep my head on straight. Jerome, who started acting at 13 years old, credits his family (his mother especially, who he said he’s very close to) and his management team for keeping him grounded and focused.

And should he win in his category — Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie — it would make him only the third black actor to do so in the entire history of the Emmys. It would be a well-earned honor, given the physical and psychological toll that embodying Wise took on him. While all Five stories are tragic, Wise’s was especially so.

Storm Reid as Lisa and Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise

Storm Reid and Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

At 16, Wise was the oldest of the Five. He struggled with hearing problems and a learning disability from an early age, making him especially vulnerable to a coerced false confession. And unlike the other four teens who were tried as minors and sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility, Wise was sentenced to five to 15 years in an adult prison, where he was routinely subject to violence and abuse. He also spent several extended periods of his incarceration in solitary confinement, serving a total of 12 years, the longest of the Five. And, as the series shows, they were an absolutely devastating dozen years.

“It was definitely the most challenging shoot that I’ve ever done, and will probably do for a very long time,” Jerome said, describing the average day on set as “a lot of crying and hugging.” His task was to strike a balance between feeling distressed over what Wise endured in the past, while recognizing the miracle that is the life Wise is living today.

But the solitary confinement scenes — some of the most heart-wrenching scenes depicted in the series — were especially difficult for the actor. On the toughest shooting days, he would request the real Wise’s presence on set to help him work through those rough patches, and Wise would always oblige.

CENTRAL PARK FIVE

Jharell Jerome in “When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

In addition to the emotional toll, there was also a physical one. Jerome is the only actor in the series’ leading cast that had to assume both the young and older versions of the characters they play. Jerome as Wise appears in three of the four parts of the series (parts one, two and four). He filmed his scenes as the younger Wise for parts one and two, and had just three weeks to physically transform into the aging and older Wise, for part four.

The most difficult part of his physical transformation was having to gain muscle weight in keeping with the realities of the character. “Ava really wanted older Korey Wise’s physique to look like he had really experienced prison,” Jerome said. “But I’m not one to hit the gym at all. You really have to kind of pay me to work out. But I had to do it.”

He was put on a rigorous physical routine that included working with six different trainers, six days a week, twice a day, and consuming 3,500 very healthy calories per meal. He recalled sometimes vomiting because of the intense combination of diet and training.

“One thing that kept me going was that, I would continue telling myself that the real Korey Wise spent 12 years falsely imprisoned, so I can spend three weeks going through this process, no matter how hard it is,” Jerome said.

The work paid off and he gained eight pounds in that period, much of it pure muscle. And it shows.

WHEN THEY SEE US

Niecy Nash, Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

“The beauty of acting is that you’re able to bring to life fictional characters in imaginary worlds, but this time, the characters on the page were very real people,” said the actor. “And what Korey went through was unmatched, so I knew that I had to put my heart and soul into the role to do it justice. I felt like I was on a mission.”

And throughout the process, both Jerome and Wise became very close, the former referring to the latter as family and a real life inspiration.

Michael B. Jordan admitted that he sought therapy in order to work through the emotional toll that playing the harrowing role of Killmonger in “Black Panther” took on him. For Jerome, his therapy was a trip to Aruba three weeks after filming wrapped — what he said was his first real vacation ever. The experience of filming, however, is still very much a part of him now. “This type of work doesn’t really leave you, ever,” he said. “It teaches you and molds you into a different person and I can honestly admit that I’m not who I was before we started filming.”

After dense dramatic roles in films like the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and now in “When They See Us,” Jerome would love to star in some comedies, describing himself as a natural comedian in real life. Although, ultimately, regardless of the genre, he just wants to do good work that especially highlights stories about society’s marginalized. “Art imitates life, and if I can imitate life and be a beacon for people who recognize themselves in the characters I play, then my goal is accomplished,” he said. “I just want to be a part of the kinds of projects that I watched when I was a kid, that made me realize the importance of representation on screen. I also want longevity and to build a legacy for myself and the people I represent.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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