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The Whole of Ourselves: Tim Blake Nelson and Karan Kendrick on Just Mercy

Just as the formidably accomplished lawyer Bryan Stevenson has a penchant for getting close to his clients, filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton and cinematographer Brett Pawlak keep their camera fixed on the expressions of their characters, allowing their faces to tell the story. The new screen adaptation of Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, marks the fourth consecutive feature-length collaboration between Cretton and Pawlak, and it contains numerous memorable instances of their signature visual approach, which was perhaps best epitomized by Lakeith Stanfield’s career-launching rap in 2013’s “Short Term 12.” Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian, the latest client represented by Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who is on death row after being wrongly convicted of murder, thanks to the ruling of Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr., in Monroeville, Alabama, the town that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. 

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Many of the film’s most powerful scenes revolve around McMillian’s interactions with another prisoner, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a war veteran battling untreated mental illness. When McMillian instructs the man to take a deep breath, the viewer is so intimately placed in the scene that we find ourselves doing the same. Even though their fate is largely at the mercy of a discriminatory system, the inmates vow to give each other strength, ensuring that none of them will die alone. Also featured among the film’s superb ensemble is Tim Blake Nelson, who undergoes a stunning transformation as Ralph Myers, a career criminal responsible for the false accusation that put McMillian behind bars. Karan Kendrick, an actress whose credits include “The Hunger Games” and “Hidden Figures,” tackles her role as McMillian’s wife with a fierce restraint evocative of both Stevenson’s Atticus Finch-esque composure and Cretton’s nuanced storytelling. 

During their visit this past October to the Chicago International Film Festival, where “Just Mercy” earned the Audience Award for Best Feature, Nelson and Kendrick took time to chat with RogerEbert.com about their fact-based awards contender. Our conversation occurred just two days after the premiere of HBO’s brilliant series “Watchmen,” featuring Nelson in a pivotal role, and fans may note that my final question could easily apply to arguably the show’s best episode to date—namely its sixth, “This Extraordinary Being,” which traces the surprising origins of a celebrated hero.

What freedom does this film’s use of close-ups provide for you, as actors?

Tim Blake Nelson (TBN): That’s an interesting question, and I think it differs actor to actor. I think an actor’s relationship with a camera—if I’m to use mine as an example—changes over the years. I think my first professional job was when I was around 25, so I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, and I just have a different relationship to the camera now. I went from being hyper-aware of it to trying to abrogate from the process any awareness of it and just exist. I let the camera be where it was going to be and do what it was going to do rather than watch my work and understand that I wasn’t exploiting the rhetoric of the process of filmmaking, because it is a rhetoric. 

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Storytelling is rhetoric, and so, of course when the camera is closer, if you are going to—it is a weird word to use—exploit the language of a movie, it’s going to allow for a different type of performance. I realized that ignoring the camera doesn’t really work. Then I went into a phase of awareness regarding the camera, and when I looked at my performances, they occasionally would be suffused with a kind of self-regard that I didn’t like, so I started pulling back from that. Lately, I’ve come to the realization that it is project to project, and it really does depend on the nature of what the story is and how it’s being told. In a movie by the Duplass brothers or the Safdie brothers that’s more improvisation-based, there’s a sort of grit to it that extends back probably to Cassavetes in which you actually do want to ignore the camera, and almost be unaware of it. 

A movie like “Just Mercy” has a formality to it, requiring a lot of sticks and dollies. There’s not much Steadicam and very little handheld camerawork, so it really does necessitate an awareness of the camera—where it is and what it’s up to. There’s a wonderful scene with Karan, which is one of my favorite of her’s in the movie, and it’s where Bryan has gone to Minnie’s house to meet her family. She’s in a medium close-up so that you feel the bodies around her, and somebody has just mentioned her husband’s infidelity. Minnie has to say, “It’s okay that you’ve brought that up,” and it’s not a tight close-up, it’s a medium close. It’s a perfectly sized image, and it just allows Karan to have one of my favorite moments in the movie. Were you aware of where the camera was when you did that scene?

(L-r) Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and (seated to Michael's left) Karan Kendrick as Minnie McMillian in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama “Just Mercy,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Jake Giles Netter © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Karan Kendrick (KK): I was not. I love the way that Brett and Daniel work together. As an actor, I particularly enjoyed how this role enabled me to really cultivate an inner life. I think that, as a person, Minnie is not someone who is going to say everything, so for me it was important for her to still have all of these things going on inside of her that she may not have even been able to give words to. When I saw the scene, I realized that the things I had just been thinking about or knew about somehow came through on the screen. I haven’t learned how to work the camera just yet. I’m more aware of it if we’re working in a location as small as Minnie’s house, since we were all close. The kitchen was probably not as big as this hotel room we’re in right now. But even in the courtroom scene, I didn’t know what the camera was looking at, so I was just trying to be very present and very aware of whatever was happening in that moment. 

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TBN: A close camera certainly keeps you honest, that I can tell you.

You’re both wonderful singers, as evidenced by Karan’s “Goddess” performance which I came across on YouTube, and by Tim most recently in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Is there a musicality to acting for either of you?

KK: Yes, it certainly helps me to hear people’s rhythms and cadences. Sometimes you can hear things in a way that helps to define where you’re going or how you’ll approach something.

TBN: I absolutely think in terms of music, probably now moreso than ever because my oldest son is a composer in a conservatory, and music just dominates our house with all three of my sons. We’re constantly talking about music and listening to music and sharing music with one another. Then in my actor training during graduate school, which was four years after college—I was in school until I was 26 studying this stuff—I took singing constantly because I believed it was a part of the training for the reasons your question implies. I really do look at either a play script or a film script as a musical score. I’m a player and the director is the conductor—or the producer if it’s more of a rock ’n’ roll movie—and then, inside of that, you find truth through improvisation. 

This is oxymoronic, and anybody listening to this who has a musical background will say, “What the fuck is he talking about?”, but I think improvisation, or maybe a better word would be latitude, can appear in a classical score. I would call this script a classical score because the words were the words, and a lot of them were from a transcript. I don’t think I changed a single word of the text on the page in playing Ralph, but there’s a lot of latitude, just like if you’re playing first or second violin in a Rachmaninoff concerto. There’s latitude in terms of the playing of it and how the piece is conducted. That’s where you, as an actor, are a player of somebody else’s score, but you’re finding your version of it. Hopefully you’ve been selected to do that and that’s why the director wanted you. 

KK: I actually did change words in the script because of the rhythm, but I did that during the audition. I read it and was like, ‘We wouldn’t say it like this, we’d say it like this,’ because there’s a rhythm, a flow and a musicality to the speech. Making those changes helped me settle into Minnie a little more and not perform her, so I decided to take a risk in the audition. That was one of the ways in for me. I wanted to be true to that experience, that world, that time, that person, that social class, all of those things.

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What does To Kill a Mockingbird really mean to a community like Monroeville circa 1987, since this true story demonstrates they haven’t learned much at all from the literary work that they supposedly revere?

KK: Something that Bryan does so beautifully in his work, and that has translated in this film through Ralph Myers, is that he introduces us to the whole of ourselves. He doesn’t allow us to be one side or the other, black or white, right or wrong. He forces us to embrace the whole of who we are, and I think that, as a nation, he introduces us to the wholeness of our identities—the glitz and the glamor, but also the parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge. 

In the context of what you’re speaking about, there is an irony there, but it’s also a common practice. You can acknowledge the book’s subject matter but not really acknowledge the details of it. It’s just enough to say that it happened, without painting anyone as a bad guy. There’s a level of romanticism in how we embrace these sorts of narratives. You handle the story without telling the truth. I think that what Bryan does is he forces us to look at ourselves, warts and all, and figure out how we are going to engage with this truth. What are we going to do next, now that we’re in this thing together? We don’t hate Ralph, we understand him.

(L-r) Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “Just Mercy,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Jake Giles Netter © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

TBN: I think there’s an aspect to works of art when they become cultural phenomena that is akin to the Heisenberg principle, which means that something changes by being watched. If you think about a song like “Seven Nation Army,” which Jack White wrote about in defense of a woman—warning that if you insult her, then hell is going to come down on you—well, now it’s this sports anthem that’s always played at football games. It’s no longer really understood in the spirit in which it was written. It’s something completely different now, and incredibly impactful, probably in a salutary way for sports fans who chant it. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is as important a literary phenomenon as you can name in American literature. It’s up there with Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea and Beloved. That town, without blinking, understands it as this cultural phenomenon without turning it back on themselves and understanding the irony of their behavior, how it literally is the opposite of what’s being promoted in the book, because that’s what we do. We take stuff over and in doing that, it becomes something so large that we forget why it was written in the first place, and in many cases, we no longer even understand it or have it inside of us because it is too big. It is outside of us, and it is there for another purpose—in this case, as a tourist attraction in the town, and something that brings in revenue. People are just saying automatically, “Did you go over to the museum? You can stand right here where she stood,” without any understanding of how the behavior—going on right there—contradicts everything going on in the book.

KK: But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s ‘yes, and…’ Yes it’s a revenue stream, but it’s also the act of turning a blind eye to someone else’s truth.

TBN: The idea that I’ve got this base covered because I read that book and I can say that I like it, that kind of thing?

KK: Not only that, but I can rewrite the book myself based on my experience and what I want to see and how I identify with it. So I can latch onto a character, one character, and identify with their experience without even considering anyone else in the book. I don’t have to acknowledge anyone else’s truth or humanity, and I think that parallels what happens particularly in the Deep South, so that no one else exists. When you think in terms of the fact that we, as African-Americans, live in a country where we historically have not even been considered whole human beings, how do you recognize the humanity in someone that you don’t consider human? So it’s easy to dismiss someone’s experience, rights, privileges—it’s easy to not even see them, not even consider them.

So in a way, art isn’t enough. There’s humanity on the page, but it’s easy for some readers to discount…

KK: You discount it, because humanity only exists for him—the character whom you identify with—not for everyone. 

Header caption: Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Karan Kendrick at the Premiere Gala of Warner Bros.’ “Just Mercy” at the Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada - 6 Sep 2019. Photo by Eric Charbonneau.

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