RJ Cyler on ‘Emergency’ and the Power of Perspective – Exclusive Interview

Following his standout performances in films such as Power Rangers and The Harder They Fall, RJ Cyler has been pinned as a rising star. Very few in his generation of actors have charisma as infectious as his. Not only that, but “Cyler’s comedic timing and delivery are highly commendable as he always manages to steal the show, even when pitted against some of the biggest names working today.” With his filmography spanning a range of genres and tones, it’s no surprise to see him shine in his latest project, Emergency, which allows him to dabble in both comedic and dramatic thriller aspects.

Emergency originated as a 12-minute short directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D Dávila. The pair went on to adapt the short as a feature, casting Cyler and The Underground Railroad star Donald Elise Watkins as their two leads. Emergency follows a group of lively college boys who find an unfamiliar white girl passed out in their living room. Unsure of what to do and hyperconscious of the consequences their actions may have, of course having to do with the color of their skin, the group heavily debates involving the authorities before forming a plan of their own. The film premiered at this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the same festival in which the short won the Special Jury Prize back in 2018.

With Emergency finally hitting its Prime Video release for all to enjoy, we sat down with RJ Cyler to talk about his personal connections to the film, how he approached its topical racial and social themes, and what kind of representation he hopes to see more of in the film industry moving forward.

Donald Elise Watkins & RJ Cyler in ‘Emergency’ courtesy of Prime Video

It’s been quite a while since Emergency premiered at Sundance, how are you feeling now that the film is available on Prime Video?

RJ Cyler: I’m excited, for real. I feel like a parent that knows they’re about to have a baby and it’s like, holy shit, but okay I’m cool, this is nice. I’m excited to see how it grows its legs and how it’s going to connect with people. You know, see if people get the message, see if people find the comedic moments, see if people start a conversation, which is really what this movie is for… to start the conversation about perspective. 

It’s so crazy to me that Emergency started as a short that was only about 12 minutes long, yet the concept works just as well as a feature. When was the short brought to your attention and what were your first impressions?

RJ Cyler: Carey Williams, who is our director, sent it to me and was like, “RJ, I’m working on this film, it’s called Emergency, and here’s the short for it.” He gave me the rundown and then when I looked at the short, I was like “I”m down for that” – just because I could find myself in the shoes of either Kunle or Sean. I could definitely step into either pair of Gucci slides. Then to see the full scripted rendition that K.D [Dávila] had done and to meet her, it just makes so much sense because she’s a thinker of all points of perspective, rather than just her own.

So it just really made sense that this movie came out in such a great way and then to hear how it became the feature from the short. It just unfolded in the right way and then I’m glad that they trusted myself, Donald [Elise Watkins], and Sebastian [Chacon] to bring it to life, because holy crap it’s really smooth, It’s actually really smooth!

You first worked with Carey Williams recently when you played Benvolio in his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet – R#J. What was it like working with him again?

RJ Cyler: It was really good, Carey is a very trusting director. I guess you can say he’s really laid back. He looks forward to real nostalgic moments in film and things of that nature, rather than just the spectacle part of it. So when it comes to his eye for shooting, it’s cool to have a director that switches up his tactic each time but still stays true to how he directs. He definitely trusts each actor with their role; he’s like, “This is why we booked you for the part, so I’m not going to overshadow you on how you should do it,” which really brings an honest sense to the character and great chemistry both on and off camera.

RJ Cyler & Donald Elise Watkins in ‘Emergency’ courtesy of Prime Video

Emergency has multiple aspects of social commentary and themes on identity, race, and prejudice. How much of your own experiences did you draw from when crafting the character of Sean?

RJ Cyler: A lot of it! I’m the youngest son of three, I’ve got two older brothers and Sean is like all three of us in one kid. So it was cool to be able to go back and be like, “Well, Steven does this sometimes or Broderick does this stupid shit sometimes or RJ, yeah you definitely do stupid shit sometimes (laughs),” and then put those into one character.

When it comes to the experiences that he has in reference to police and things of that nature, I just had to draw back and have those moments that I didn’t get to have in those times of the confrontation or the situation, because at the time I can’t react. I can’t do anything really because I could lose my life.

In this filming aspect, I feel like it was a little piece of therapeutic nature because I don’t walk around with as much pressure which is really cool because I kind of get to live or say the things that I wish I could say in the real interactions with law enforcement, but also seeing that I had really good interactions with law enforcement and got to draw from that too when it came to the understanding of where Kunle comes from. So to be able to draw from both types of situations and then give them honestly to a character rather than to have him seem like someone who is so steel-minded that you couldn’t show him differently. 

The core of the whole film really is the dynamic between Kunle and Sean. How much time did you and Donald Elise Watkins have to prepare beforehand, or perhaps even during the shoot, to work on that chemistry?

RJ Cyler: It really happened from the audition that we did together. We read together and Donald’s spirit is just so bright and infectious. You know how we all wish we had the happiness of the toddler that we used to be? Donald still has his and it’s so refreshing to be around him. On the days when I was tired, Donald would pick me back up and vice versa. And that just came from the trusting nature of knowing what we’re trying to present to the world acting-wise, but also “whatever you need I’ve got you.” It was just this willingness to serve and support each other in that way. That’s what really made the chemistry on camera come across really honest. We used to go to brunch and stuff like that with the cast and everybody just hung out like friends, so what you’re watching on camera is literally us in real life.

It’s so good that you did have that dynamic because the film becomes a lot more intense to watch towards the end, so I can only imagine how intense it was just to shoot. What did you guys do in your downtime to stay grounded?

RJ Cyler: We shot in Atlanta, so if you feeling great from work, one weekend out in Atlanta would do you okay. We also worked out a lot. Me, Sebastian, and Donald worked out a few times together to help us keep calm. Even on our days off we would just go and get lunch or drinks, we created a little family in Atlanta even though none of us were from there. When we weren’t working on set we would be hanging out at somebody’s house. Once I cooked dinner for Donald and Sebastian, and this was the first time I ever made steaks because I don’t eat meat, so I didn’t get to taste them but they turned out pretty good! 

Now, your comedic timing has been on point since Power Rangers all those years ago, so it was exciting to see you do more comedy, but obviously, you also had to balance it in this film with both the drama and thriller aspects. As an actor, how do you go about finding the balance between all those different tones?

RJ Cyler: I just try to remember what it is to not try to act, but more react in my humanity because we had on and off days each and every day. One part of the day we can be happy, the next part we can be down. I’m not saying that is something that has to happen, but it’s just the way the brain works. We’ve got millions and millions of memories up in there, even ones we don’t always think of in the forefront, but to balance that is similar to acting. In an instant, things can get serious, or in two seconds things could get so light that we forget what we were angry about. It’s all about recognizing the volatility of the human state and putting that into the character work.

Sebastian Chacon, RJ Cyler, & Donald Elise Watkins in ‘Emergency’ courtesy of Prime Video

The premise of Emergency is so simple, yet the social context, as well as the ways in which each character responds and reacts to the situation at hand, is very indicative of the times we live in. Do you think it’s more important than ever that we start to see stories like this on screen?

RJ Cyler: Definitely. I feel like there is a big gap that is separating us now to a point of ignorant response, rather than something of action or knowledge to understand. We have the movies that paint the police as the total bad guys. We have the movies that paint civilians as the total a-holes. It’s such a thing of picking and choosing the extremes of each side rather than seeing the reality.

A lot of films nowadays intensify the fear of the other part. A lot of interactions that do happen between young black men and police officers happen in a state of ignorance because on a day-to-day basis, that’s not who we deal with. So if I don’t deal with them on a day-to-day, but all I see from things about them is bad, of course when my interaction happens, I’m going to think they’re out to get me, or on the other hand, this young black man is going to hurt me or something like that. But it’s not like that, we don’t have any effing problems. The only problem we’ve got is gas prices. We have the toxic shit, we have the trauma shit, we’ve got it y’all! We’ve filmed it so many times and we’ve spent billions of dollars putting it out into the world in different ways.

So how about we switch it up and actually preach something that is better for reality? We could change the narrative so damn quickly, but it’s just easier for people to follow the wave. So I’m glad we didn’t follow the wave and it’s really good that Carey did lean into just the honesty and not try to fight the script. That’s what makes him a great director. He let it flow, but then amplified it.

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from Emergency?

RJ Cyler: Perception is power and sometimes you can change this shit, even if it does take us changing our own understanding. It’s so good to challenge your own understanding because 9 times out of 10 it could be wrong. I know that we, as humans, don’t like to be wrong, we don’t like to have slip-ups, but it’s okay to say, “Damn, I was wrong that time” or “I can switch this up with how I think.” We can heal from the trauma and then move past certain things, but we must allow ourselves to. Hopefully, that’s something that people get from [Emergency], to find more of an understanding place and to start the conversation.

Emergency is now streaming on Prime Video!

Read our ★★★★ review: As Insightful As It Is Hilarious

Follow Senior Film Critic Yasmine Kandil on Twitter: @byebyebucky

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