Two-time Tony nominee Jeremy Pope was immediately drawn to the semi-autobiographical story of Ellis French, who joins the Marines thinking that if he dies in combat, at least he’s worth more as a Black gay man in uniform than one who dies on the streets. Though Jeremy had stints on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood and Steven Canals’ Pose, those performances did not prepare him for the emotional and grueling shoot of The Inspection, from writer/director Elegance Bratton. But his responsibility to his director and to Ellis allowed Pope to give a performance he hopes will inspire other Black queer youths as much as the role inspired him.
DEADLINE: How did you first get introduced to writer/director Elegance Bratton?
JEREMY POPE: My team and I are always investigating cool creatives, directors, producers that speak the same love language, in regards to the arts, that I do. Elegance was one of those people that my agent at the time was just very passionate about and she was like, he has a project which feels almost too right. So, I was sent the script; fell in love with it and really wanted to connect with Elegance. I remember after I read the script, my big thing was like, “Well, where is he now?” I almost needed the Part 2 to what happened after. I had so many questions on how he became this light of a person and to be so smart and so funny and just excited about life after going through so much.
I hopped on a Zoom with him the next day and we just chatted it up and connected on life and what it means to be queer and Black artists. Even though this was his first big project, we shared a lot of similar ideals and I think that’s really where the collaborative process began with The Inspection.
DEADLINE: When you agreed to take on the role of Ellis French, how did you approach the character knowing that it’s quite autobiographical to Elegance and yet still a fictitious character that needs your own personal stamp on him?
POPE: I think meeting and working with Elegance was a very delicate process, because not only was I taking on his story, but he also wrote this and was going to be directing me in the film. So ultimately, I had to ask him to trust me and said, “There is going to be a negotiation that happens when we’re being collaborative together because my job is to be the vessel. I’ll take information that you’re giving me, but I’ll use my own vibrations and stories and things that have happened to me to be able to find a deeper layer to this character.” And early on in the process he was like, “I do trust you.”
He was championing me and he wanted me to have all of the resources and tools I needed to give the best performance. So once I knew that we were rooted in that, my approach was just to make as much space as I could for Elegance. There were all of these elements from him that affirmed to me that he wanted me to win.
DEADLINE: It’s also quite a vulnerable place for Elegance to put himself in.
POPE: Definitely. I wanted to put myself in front of him because I had been in the business for a bit longer. I know how difficult and hard and fragile it feels to be a representative of the Black and the queer—and the cost that you have to give for people to understand or find their way in. So, I knew that I was going to be protecting him. I just wanted him to feel safe and know that we could try together. It was very collaborative than any other experience I’ve had, being that he was still dealing and healing from this experience. I also understood that when you’re this vulnerable with your story, once you give it away, you can’t get it back.
Also, his mom had passed right before we started filming this. Things were actively happening in real time and he was having to address those things. It was dark and it was hard and it was emotional, but I think we could just lift each other up when one of us was feeling weak or whatever because we knew that ultimately the story was going to be something bigger than just Jeremy and bigger than Elegance. Plus, how important it would’ve been for us to be able to have seen this version of a fighter, a believer who wins, who becomes his own hero, and how important that representation is and can be.
DEADLINE: The character of Ellis has basically been betrayed by everyone around him and left to fend for himself as a young boy. How did you empathize with Ellis knowing that his situation is very common for young Black gay teens still.
POPE: I think I can only speak from just my experience and what I know. I’ve had my own share of abandonment and feeling mistreated because of how I identify and how I choose to show up in this life; and that’s very hard. I’m part of an industry where code switching as a Black individual and as a queer individual is a norm. I have to shape shift myself to feel like, if there is any space for me in this room, how can I take it? I can’t be loud. There’s a way of survival and I think that’s what Ellis is doing. Ellis knew that he had to go to the streets, he had to find a community where he would be loved and accepted and if that meant a limited resource, that was his only way. He knew that he wasn’t going to survive living in a household that was toxic and where his mother didn’t approve of him. So, when he reaches that place of, “I need something better”, his option was to join the Marines. Because the world is showing him that Black queer men die, but if he dies in service then at least he will have some type of value.
With Ellis, his love to his mother is conditional. If you fit these boxes, if you do it this way, I will love you. But that isn’t the ultimate freedom that he’s deserving and striving for, and I think that’s his journey we watch. This film is not about someone going to the Marines and can do 10 push ups instead of five, Ellis always had the strength and the tools within himself. His challenge is to show up. But in him showing up for himself, he realizes this responsibility of taking care of the man to the left and to his right shows that he is strong, powerful, and deserving of love.
And that is essentially what Elegance did. He didn’t talk to his mom for many years and this film was an attempt to connect again. He knew that if he made this film, she would have to acknowledge his existence. In his mind, he was able to use some painful moments and offer it as a beacon of love; it was an olive branch. He doesn’t hate his mom; it was just complicated.
DEADLINE: How did you discover your worthiness?
POPE: Any group of marginalized people, it’s like you have to recreate a narrative for yourself sometimes before the world even shows you that you are worthy and deserving of opportunities and experience and love that is not conditional.
This role allowed me to pull from my own experiences that were heavy and dark. Just growing up as a Black queer individual whose dad was a pastor and a bodybuilder, I was always centered in rooms that felt hyper-masculine. I was taught that this version is what a Black man is supposed to look like. From my own experience with the Black community and the church, there is this complexity with homosexuality but still trying to find your relationship with God and what it means to be in the church. There is a lot of, “We’ll pray the gay away and if you don’t acknowledge this side of you then you’re OK.” But can those two things exist? Can I still be a Christian and identify as a queer Black man? Can I still have morals of a Christian individual or morals of the heteronormative relationships I was raised upon, but identify as a queer individual? So, when you don’t define that, you feel like you’re worth nothing. Over the years, I’ve had to understand my value and put myself first and believe in things that I can’t see.
DEADLINE: Ellis puts so much importance in wearing the Marines uniform, what does it mean to him?
POPE: Going back to his way of survival and his attempt at connecting with his mom, that was his way of getting love because it represents this type of man. Putting on that uniform meant strength, meant being complete, meant a man to his mother. No one knew that Ellis was on the streets and didn’t have an education. It’s like if you go to an Ivy League school, it means something without people even knowing underneath what’s happened to you or who you are.
DEADLINE: Your character is a man of few words, but through his eyes you can tell everything he is going through. At what point did you make that decision in your performance to be so still?
POPE: One thing that I do is to always try to find what’s not on the page. I think there is such a nuance in the silence that sometimes is stronger, because as humans we’re afraid to say things, but we still feel them. Something that Elegance and I were very aware of was a lot of the character building in Ellis was in the silence. Like, his perspective of seeing the environment or when he walks into a locker room full of men. As a queer individual, even going to the gym, because you identify in a specific way and you don’t want any trouble, there is a specific energy that happens in your body just out of survival. That was a heavy throughline in our film, which is always coming back to the perspective of Ellis and seeing where his gaze was in this institution and how it was shifting.
I think another beautiful thing that starts to happen in our film once Ellis finds his place in this institution, you then see how everyone is also unravelling and having their own moments and Ellis becomes an emotional center for people to come and say, “I’m also scared or I’m also feeling this.” I think that was very beautiful and interesting to understand, but I think we only understood that because we see where his perspective started.
DEADLINE: One aspect of Ellis is that he misconstrues acts of kindness to sexual attraction. Can you break down his understanding of relationships?
POPE: I think it opens up a complex conversation because much of Ellis’ perception of love has been transaction based. I think a lot of marginalized individuals feel like if you’re offering me this thing, you must want something and you must be interested in it. And I think what happens is he has this person (Raul Castillo, Drill Instructor Rosales) who begins to care for him and give him extra attention. But that’s just because Rosales wants him to be the best. In that olive branch exchange, Ellis goes, “Well, what do you want from me? And yes, you’re attractive so I guess sexually this must be what you want.” And he begins to fantasize and do all of these things, much to his embarrassment.
I think that is such a complex understanding for French because he’s having to redefine his interpretation of what love and support is. He has to learn that a man that comes to you with support or protects you doesn’t mean he wants to be sexual with you. He’s having to relearn his connection to love and just how he identifies in an exchange of support; it’s not transactional all the time.
DEADLINE: Did Gabrielle Union and you have a lot of time for rehearsal because the mother/son scenes are electrifying.
POPE: Actually, it wasn’t a lot of rehearsal, it was just a lot of conversation between the three of us. Because in those specific scenes, all of the dialogue that Gab’s character says to my character are things that have been said to Elegance. So those days were very sensitive and hard. The thing that me and Gab really just held onto was that they don’t hate each other. They just needed to feel the tension in all ways because they both loved and cared for each other.
I know that Gab had to go to some places and I was so super proud of her because this is a type of role that people haven’t seen her in. I also think what she and her family do representing and caring for their trans daughter, is a testament to the work and the understanding and the listening that she’s doing as an individual.
DEADLINE: How has playing Ellis French influenced you?
POPE: The Inspection was one of the most emotional and physically demanding roles I’ve ever done. So after I wrapped, I had to step away from the piece because it felt too real and too close to the surface. I do believe you take pieces of your characters with you. But Ellis reminded me how strong I am and to not be ashamed of my Black and my queerness. I never want to diminish my value in who I am and what I am. So I think Ellis just gave me the confidence to fully show up in a room and to have an opinion and faith in myself.
DEADLINE: What is it like for you to be part of a film that can inspire and represent the voice of Black queer youths on the big screen?
POPE: It really just is a blessing. I try to challenge myself as an artist to always have an intention and know my ‘why’. Why am I in this room, why am I doing this project, and to hopefully have a good answer that feels bigger than just me. I think my ‘why’ with The Inspection was about protecting and showing up for this queer individual named Ellis. I had come and found strength in my Blackness and in my queerness that I was ready to show up fully and not be ashamed of that.
Growing up, I have never seen a Black gay movie star. I didn’t know that was something I could put on a vision board or become tangible. And if it did, it was like, “Well, would that have be a secret?” It has been a journey getting to a place of loving and comforting myself in that truth and knowing that I am born this way and that there is freedom in loving this side of me.
I hope this piece can offer that representation. That something tangible for someone who needs to know there is a way out or for that creative who needs to go, “I want to do that and then some.” I’m just grateful to have marked this in my journey as a creative and hope to be a part of more experiences that allow me to find my own healing while offering the baton of healing to someone else.