Nicole Beharie Shows Us Beauty In The Little Things

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Sesali Bowen interview here.

Nicole Beharie’s performances are heartfelt. You can tell in the small decisions, the subtleties in the characters she plays. She cares about each of them.

When we talk on the phone, I mention that it feels like it’s her season, with back-to-back major film releases in which she plays supporting roles. In “Breaking,” released in theaters on Aug. 26, Beharie plays Estel, a bank employee held hostage by a disgruntled veteran whose life has been interrupted after the Department of Veterans Affairs shorted him of his monthly disability checks. The film is based on the true story of Brian Brown-Easley and stars John Boyega, Selenis Leyva and Michael K. Williams.

On Friday, “Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul” premieres in theaters and on Peacock. Beharie plays one-half of the husband-wife pastor duo positioned to lead the next megachurch after Lee-Curtis Childs and Trinitie Childs, played by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, respectively, struggle to bring their once-thriving congregation back to their church after a huge scandal.

Beharie warmly corrects me and reminds me that seasonal is temporary: “We’re going to keep doing this. This is what we do. This is not seasonal.” I know that’s right.

Most recently, she’s been cast for the upcoming season of “The Morning Show.” That announcement was further confirmation Beharie is here to stay.

The West Palm Beach, Florida-born actor, known for her roles in “Miss Juneteenth,” “42,” “Sleepy Hollow” and more has mastered the art of depicting the full richness of Black womanhood on screen. She shows the multiplicities of us with a tender, yet focused approach. None of the characters she plays on screen are the same, yet there’s this through line she’s been able to conjure with seemingly small decisions that have big consequences. Whether it be her gaze, her delivery, where and when she pauses in her lines, she embodies characters that feel so familiar to us in real life yet it feels like we’re meeting them for the first time on screen.

“It’s maybe a part of what I feel is my mission sometimes,” Beharie said. “I don’t want to say ‘giving voice to voiceless’ because I hate that saying but people who folks ignore. Or you may be sharing space in a room with, but you don’t necessarily give them all of your full attention. The people that people just walk by and don’t realize how rich their story is or why they are the way that they are.”

In a world where celebrity and grand moments are surrounded by fanfare and commotion, she sees the special importance of what gets ignored: nuance. Those granular details that we often ignore, she finds a way to put them on a pedestal and turn our attention to them. The ordinary becomes special. Her performances know that even though we rarely admit it, that’s what holds all of this together.

Beharie discusses how she chooses her characters and projects, the importance of community and the beauty in the gray area.

Beharie co-stars in the film "Breaking," based on the true story of a veteran let down by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Beharie co-stars in the film “Breaking,” based on the true story of a veteran let down by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Courtesy of BLEECKER ST

The characters and projects that you decide to take on are so rich and just full. Though you’re a supporting actor in “Breaking,” the role you play is major. What drew you to this film?

I read the script, and I really, really felt for the lead character, Brian. I felt for him being unheard. And then I actually have personal experience with a family member who served and who returned from service in the military and just wasn’t quite the same.

We have so many movies in Hollywood that glorify the fighting part, the grand gesture, war movies, but rarely are there films that are about what happens afterward and the ramifications of just one person’s life. And not just the service, Brian was obviously disturbed because of the service, but then also the way that the nation or the VA or we as citizens choose to treat our veterans. And that was something that I had to actually grapple with, if I’m being completely honest, because I know when my family member came back and was different, I was scared.

I don’t think I had the level of compassion I should have had. I think that this film helps to fill in some of those gaps. And without being heavy-handed, have a little bit of a discussion about what our responsibility is and what we do to veterans.

And then ultimately playing Estel, I just thought she was cool because it’s almost like she was in the military. She was like, “I got to get these people out.” And this is all based on a true story; this is based on a real woman. And I saw some of the footage and photographs and heard a little bit of her real police report testimony. And she was just kind of a hero. Look, I had even talked to my director, like why does she not escape?

She wanted to save her co-workers and save her peers and save the clients, and she also felt a connection with Brian. She’s a hero and I love that it’s an ensemble. So it reminds me of “Dog Day Afternoon.” It’s like, everyone’s in this one space. It’s simple. You’re having to rely on one another to bring the high stakes to life.

It’s such a rich story. When I saw it, I was just so taken aback and I dove immediately into Brian’s story. Were you familiar with Brian’s story before you read the script?

No, I wasn’t. I did the same thing you did after I read the script. I was like, let me look this up. Is this real?

What you’re saying about why Estel didn’t escape and that internal fight of knowing the system is clearly messed up while being held hostage. It’s a point where she wants him to win and she just wants everyone to go home safe. In a lot of roles you choose, there is this underlying tension of your characters asking themselves, what is the right choice? How do we make the best decision right here, even though it’s not going to look pretty regardless? Can you talk about some of that nuance and gray area in the characters you choose to play. What does that mean to you as an actor?

This is going to sound so overly self-important or whatever, but I feel like that’s life. We’re always trying to figure out what is the choice, it’s all about choices. And I think interesting drama specifically is like when you see people grappling with options. And that there are downsides and that there are major benefits from the choices. But that it will also hurt, that there are ramifications. What I don’t see in life is black and white. I don’t see that. So I’m thinking like a “Juneteenth” or even a “Black Mirror,” if you’re talking about those things, you’re right. And I don’t even think that this is just with Black women.

I think that this is sometimes with female characters, period, they’re just good people. They’re just good or they’re bad. Or she’s funny or she’s sexy and beautiful or is either/or. And I don’t really meet those people in real life. I think real life doesn’t look like what has been depicted necessarily. And that there’s a lot of gray area and a lot of unexpected things. And that’s also what I love about Brian even in this piece. At first you’re like, oh, someone who comes in, who’s committing a violent act technically. But the level of need and the level of disrespect and disregard, it’s like, what does it take to be heard in society such as this or in places such as this where you’re so low on the totem pole?

I feel that’s the nature of life and that ultimately I’m more interested in characters and also playing opposite characters that I am surprised by, and that I get to learn things about. Because either way, he could have came in, bang, bang, bang. You know what I mean? Like, this is a bad dude. This is what happened in Atlanta. I feel like those were the movies that I watched growing up. But there’s all these other layers for everybody, including Selenis [Leyva], including the police officers, the news anchor, everyone. I have to shout out Abi Damaris Corbin because this is her first feature and she managed to allow for it, even in a fairly big ensemble cast. It’s John [Boyega’s] vehicle and he kills it. He’s so beautiful in this. So beautiful in this. But everyone else still gets a moment where you feel like I understand that character.

And that’s hard to do in little blips.

And time was a factor. How much time did you all have to shoot this?

I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. So it was pretty tight. It ended up being maybe a little under a month. Sometimes, because of COVID, we had to stop and start.

That’s intense.

Not that I want shoots to always be intense but if there’s ever going to be a situation that was, you could use it in this film, the circumstances require that kind of intensity as well. But it’s so funny. You got me thinking about this gray area thing. I’m like, it’s got some existential crises maybe. Even in the books that I love, though, the books and the films that I’ve always loved, music, I don’t like anybody telling me this is the right thing to do. And I like to see people grapple. Isn’t that why we show up to see movies and television and read books? It’s like, just to remember, I’m not the only one going through this.

Life wouldn’t be worth living if things were cookie cutter though, right?

I don’t think so. Even though a little piece of me would like it to be perfect all the same. It really wouldn’t. In the end, I think all the growth happens in those rough patches.

I was actually looking at your interview with Brandee Evans, who I’m so obsessed with and she mentioned something about pressure in the diamonds and things like that, like being a diamond and having to be tough. And I can relate to that. I was like, I see that and I’m happy to see her understand and give voice to that part of our experience too. And maybe that’s a part of the level of nuance because I feel like sometimes people will ask us to be strong and it’s like, yeah, but there’s some vulnerability, there’s some humor. There’s a little bit of other things or a lot of bit of other things, but maybe that’s all that’s allowed right now in this moment.

“I think that this is sometimes with female characters, period, they’re just good people. They’re just good or they’re bad. Or she’s funny or she’s sexy and beautiful or is either/or. And I don’t really meet those people in real life. I think real life doesn’t look like what has been depicted necessarily.”

How much time did you get to spend with Michael K. Williams on the set of “Breaking”?

We didn’t actually get a lot of time but there’s a scene where we do a phone call. This man was so graceful and brought in so much light every time he came to set. He always had on the cleanest, sharpest ensemble and just smelled like he walked off of a runway in Milan or something or like someplace in Morocco, like somebody had made perfumes specifically for his pheromones or something. He smelled like heaven.

Sometimes there were a lot of things going on on-set and he always grounded it and made it fun. This guy is a major star. He has been in every great television show, film. Everyone knows who he is and respects his crafts. And he showed up to do my off-camera lines on a day that he did not have to work. That’s like, if that’s your day off, that’s like your boss being like, can you come in and help a co-worker do their presentation. He also could have done it just over the phone or something, but he chose to show up and that’s so generous.

I think that speaks volumes for the beautiful work that he’s given us, but also to his character, his spirit, his generosity, and also to the kind of environment he creates on set and what he expects us to do. When you do that, then you’re creating that exchange with everybody else to be generous and to have that expectation. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I come from the theater. That’s how I work.

Other than that, we didn’t have a lot of time, just like a kiki here and there. I was in the bank with the other two almost the whole time. But we only had a moment or two. I am just like everybody else shocked and deeply saddened that … I don’t even know how to say it, that he’s no longer with us. I want to see more. He was creating, he was dancing. It’s just so many things coming from this beautiful person that I hope that we take some time to honor him in this process.

Absolutely. I’m wondering how you take care of yourself. You mentioned therapy, you mentioned reading and music. But so much has happened, so much loss has happened. The world is just on fire. So I’m curious as to how do you tend to Nicole?

Man, honestly, community is the thing. I didn’t really know that until the pandemic. The first year, everyone would be like, yo, I was enjoying my time alone. I was good. I don’t have to do anything. I’m growing vegetables. I’m dancing in the living room. That gets old, right? I’m like, wow, it’s really about my community. All the stuff didn’t matter, my clothes and all this stuff. I think the older I get, I realize it really is about kinship and community. So that’s a big part of taking the time to visit a friend, to send gifts. I will still hand-write a card and surprise somebody randomly in the mail because now that everything’s email and all that stuff or phone, you don’t get anything but bills in the mail really or anything. So it’s nice to get a card or a letter.

I have a dog. I have loved ones. The things that people do, I still dance, but not as much because I can’t really go to dance classes because I don’t want to get COVID and give it to my cast and crew. So there’s so many things: therapy, massage, energy work, reiki, books, photography. There’s so much at our disposal. Being in nature is big, and then when I get sick of nature, I’m like in New York on the street.

But I really think pruning unhelpful friendships and stagnant energy is the key, and it is one of the hardest things to do. And it doesn’t mean getting rid of everybody. But it means investing more time in the things that make you the happiest. And taking care of your body without beating it up. And sometimes we’ll put ourselves on the back burner, and be like, I’ll be all right. I’ll catch up on sleep. I’ll do this later. And it doesn’t always happen. And in the past, I’ve paid for not doing that. So I’ve gotten really good about making space for that, to the point where people are like, you’re not coming, are you? You’re going to bed. I’m like, you already know.

Listen, I used to be out in these streets. I’m in the bed these days. I want to talk a little bit about “Honk for Jesus,” too, because it is a lighter role. It’s a story that makes you laugh, but also makes you think. It kind of felt like “Boondocks” in a way. What drew you to that role? Are other comedic roles on the horizon for you?

Oh, absolutely. I love all genres of this medium. I’ve done some fantasy, I’ve done some sci-fi, some surreal stuff, some romance. If I get an opportunity in a piece that makes sense to me with the right people, then yes, amen.

And that’s exactly what this was. Adamma, she is an ahead-of-the-game thinker, brave. Adamma is the writer and director — she’s going to take over. I feel like Adamma and Adanne Ebo have a lot coming their way and we are going to have to definitely keep our eyes out for what’s coming next with them. But I read it and I was like, this reminds me of the Christopher Guest stuff of the “Best in Show” and those movies that we get to see that are like mockumentary vibes that I love.

There is something fascinating about seeing the behind the scenes or when people also feel like they’re controlling a narrative and they’re allowing people to follow them around, whether it’s like, come on tour with me or whatever. And there was something really beautiful about that. But then you have these incredible comedic actors and straight actors in Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown.

And when I say they are doing work that is hilarious and deep at the same time, stuff that will make you scream and be like, oh no, oh no. … And even some of the stuff that we did, some of the stuff didn’t make the cutting-room floor because it’s probably too problematic, but it was fun. There were some risky choices that we made in those rehearsals. I had a lot of fun and I was only there for a few days. When they called, I was like, absolutely. I’m a fan of everyone involved. I read it and was just like, this is the thing that again, it’s not necessarily for the faint at heart, but that’s not always why you go to the movies. And I think it’s really brave to have this conversation because these are conversations that we have in our communities.

It’s a risky movie. I’m just really interested to see the audience reaction to this.

Even as we were doing that, I was like, what are people going to say? Oh dear.

And part of it too, I think we do veer away from making risky choices sometimes because of that. And when you go back to what now is status quo, it is funny. I was watching the news. And one of the anchors said, “It’s all good.” I remember growing up and that was so slang, where that was so off-center, that was so left. And you realize that things continue to move and shift. So what now seems risque, is the things that are status quo now, the reason why people are saying things are dead because we’re doing things that people have been doing since the ’80s and not taking new risks and not making new material, or using the same formula.

And so when someone comes in and is like, hey, we’re going to go headfirst or we’re going to jump in with two feet with this particular topic and we know it’s sensitive, I think that’s the way to go. And it’s interesting, if nothing else. I don’t think anyone is harmed hopefully.

Beharie stars as Shakura Sumpter in "Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul."
Beharie stars as Shakura Sumpter in “Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul.”
Steve Swisher

What is the greatest career risk that you’ve taken that’s paid off for you?

I don’t know. I think actually this question is landing at a good moment because I want to take more risks. I feel like I’ve made a few risks, but I want to take more risks. That may be why I’m popping into this movie and doing this and that, meeting different creators. I think there’s more risk to be had.

I know you’re writing now. How’s that going?

It’s going well. These things take time. I’ve been speaking with filmmakers who have had popular films in the last year or two or three. And they’re like seven years, five years, 10 years. I’m like, what? I can’t take this long. So it’s a process. But it’s good to start homing in on my voice and the vision and also creating opportunities for other people, that I love and I want to see more of. And I’m so excited. There’s so many interesting voices out there right now. And I don’t feel like that means it needs to stop. People are like, there’s too much content. I’m like, I don’t actually agree.

I feel like there’s so many people on the planet, there’s enough, there’s an abundance. And the cool thing is everyone can find their thing now. I didn’t feel that way growing up. I didn’t feel that way in my early adulthood really. But now I’m like, depending on what mood I’m in and what circle I want to be in, you can find it and that’s exciting. So yeah, the writing’s going well. It’s one of those things that takes time and hopefully, not hopefully, but you will definitely be seeing some work coming up the pike for me.

I’m excited for that.

I appreciate that. I really do. And I think people will be surprised by how crazy it is inside here. Well, I don’t even know if it’s crazy. It’s just different than what you would expect. Every time I pitch or have conversations with people, they’re like, oh, interesting. Didn’t see that coming. I’m like, yeah. But that’s the fun of it.

And again, it’s the gift of working with Ab, working with Adamma, working with John, working with Regina and Sterling. I’m getting to have these beautiful moments with people that I’ve always admired. And then, more to come.

After your “Sleepy Hollow” exit, there was an area where we started to see you in smaller roles until things picked back up, especially with “Miss Juneteenth.” I’m wondering what changed in the past couple of years for you as far as where you are in your career? What did that exit teach you that you’re carrying right now in the immediate future?

That would be a whole ’nother interview or a book. To be completely honest, that’s like you and me, we need to go on a cruise to Aruba and talk every night.

To sum it up, it’s such a gift to be able to do this as my career, as a vocation, and to be able to share yourself with people and to be in certain environments. It’s very powerful who you also do that with. So I think the biggest thing is really honoring everyone’s gift to everyone’s vision, and your own, and your person as well, like your body. And being like, do I fit here? Is this the best use of myself? And am I aligned with not even just material, but the way that things are run?

Working with these people and working on “Juneteenth” and working on “Black Mirror,” working on “Monsters and Men,” or “Monsterland,” or just all the little things like you said, have been about environment and just saying like, OK, this feels good. That feels right. Can we all flourish here?

And I also think that the industry has shifted a great deal, if that makes sense. There’s been a lot more awareness just in so many ways, so many ways. So much more inclusion and conversations around race, sex, pay, just so many things that just make it a nicer place to be. Without going on and on and on, but I think that’s the thing, really there’s space for everybody and every space is not for everybody.

I know you’re a lover of quotes and words. Whose words are you leaning on right now at this time in your life?

The first thing that came to mind, just the people who will keep it all the way real. Like I was saying the whole community thing lately, even them being like, you’re getting anxious or you’re overthinking something. I think for so long.

I have in my cells the words of so many writers and actors like Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson and also of Wangari Maathai, who was a West African woman who planted trees and started reforesting and getting rights for women. So, yeah, I have all of that with me. And through the years, those things have created a family. I don’t know them, but I know them. And I get strength from them and direction from them.

But I think now that I have some of that with me, so it’s really woven into my person. Now I can just let the little things and the things that are really here, like the biggest thing lately has been to want what I have, to really want and honor what I actually have here now. And that’s been the people that are in my life right now. So that’s the thing that pops right now. My grandmother at my sister’s bridal shower, saying what’s going on with your hair and me like, you’re right, everyone’s laughing. Not everyone will do that and do it from a loving place and that it’s like, it’s family. There’s nothing else like that.

What do you want your legacy to be when this is all said and done?

This is like the interview I do when I’m 75. Oh, my goodness. What do I want my legacy to be? Honestly … I think the complexities of the diaspora is a fascination of mine. Not just the diaspora of humanity as a whole, but, like, I’m a melanated person. I’m a Black person. I’m in a Black female body. And whenever I show up, that’s what people are going to see. So never leaving the complexity, the gray, the nuance out of the situation.

You know how you can be in a conversation and you hear, but you have to ignore for business sake or whatever or your marriage or whatever, the different levels going on. You know what I mean? The undertones, the undercurrent. I’m fascinated by all of that. And the history of some of those things where it comes from, why people are carrying those things.

So I think my legacy is the investigation of that in some capacity. And I think that’ll be clearer with the work that I’m creating. But I think based on what you even said, it may be a little bit of a through line in what I’ve been doing. And there are no spaces that we don’t exist in. We exist in fantasy and sci-fi and music and romance and sensuality and religion and just everything. With complexity.

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