Home » Jharrel Jerome Talks Practical Effects & The Superhero Politics of ‘I’m a Virgo’ – Exclusive Interview

Jharrel Jerome Talks Practical Effects & The Superhero Politics of ‘I’m a Virgo’ – Exclusive Interview

by James Preston Poole
A purple and orange colored graphic of Jharrel Jerome as a 13-foot-tall young black man named Cootie in the Prime Video original series I'm A VIRGO.

As far as debuts go, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You was a major underground smash. The satirical comedy, which features call center operator Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) rising the ranks of a company by using his “white voice,” made quite a deep impression on audiences back in 2018. While many other recent movies with sharp political and social commentary have since come and gone, Sorry to Bother You has since remained in the cultural consciousness. Riley’s hilarious, bizarre, though incredibly poignant, film has even helped radicalize some folks to adopt an anti-capitalist perspective on the world. All eyes are now on his new Amazon Prime Video series, I’m A Virgo led by Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome, to deliver more of his strong viewpoints. 

I’m A Virgo does exactly that. Set in Oakland, California, the Prime Video original series follows Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot-tall black man hidden from the world by his aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and uncle Martisse (Mike Epps) in their less-fortunate neighborhood. Spending his days on a diet of comic books, curiosity eventually gets the better of Cootie when he reveals himself to three young locals – played by Brett Gray (On My Block), Kara Young (The Punisher), and Allius Barnes (Cruel Summer) – who push him to finally venture out into society. Cootie’s joy at getting to experience life outside his home is cut short when he ends up in the crosshairs of the city protector known as “The Hero” (Walton Goggins), who’s the real-life fascist superhero that polices the heightened reality the show takes place in.

Jharrel Jerome brings a sensitive naivety to the character of Cootie that anchors the viewer to the very out-there story of I’m a Virgo. Audiences will recognize the actor from his pivotal roles in Barry Jenkin’s Best Picture-winner Moonlight and Ava DuVernay’s Netflix limited series When They See Us. The latter saw him give a gripping portrayal of activist Korey Wise, the oldest of the nowExonerated Five,” which took him all the way to the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards where he became the first Afro-Latino and Dominican to win an acting Emmy in 2019. Jerome has since starred in films like Concrete Cowboy and more recently in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, where he voiced the new Prowler, Miles G. Morales, towards the end who is going to play a bigger role in its sequel, Beyond the Spider-Verse.

Part coming-of-age joyride and part dark comedy, I’m A Virgo is inventive, hilarious, and poignant in its multi-layered commentary. In sitting down with lead actor Jharrel Jerome for an exclusive interview, the star revealed to us some of the biggest technical shockers of I’m A Virgo, like him acting with minatures and six-inch dolls on set to create a forced perspective with Cootie’s massive size. Additionally, Jerome touches upon the place that the show has in the current, comic book-obsessed cultural sphere with its unique superhero politics.

Exclusive Interview with Jharrel Jerome for I’m a Virgo on Prime Video

Boots Riley is a very fresh, exciting voice in the visual media space. How was it working under the direction of such a distinct and large personality?

Jharrel Jerome: He’s just such a force and such a creative spirit that I think, no matter what medium of art you’re in, you spend time and you have conversations with him, you’ll want to go back and within yourself, figure out how can you push your own needle and how can you push your own box. Boots is just such a pro at that. So working with him is not only just working with a director, but it’s working with an innovator and a visionary. It’s just nothing but inspiration and motivation.

Jharrel Jerome as Cootie a 13-foot-tall young black man stacks up empty dinner plates on his table while on a date at a buffet with a beautiful girl named Flora in the Prime Video original series I'M A VIRGO.
Jharrel Jerome & Olivia Washington in ‘I’m a Virgo’
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Mr. Riley gave you a one-of-a-kind physical challenge on I’m a Virgo, which is playing with the insane size difference of your character Cootie versus the rest of the cast. What was that like on set, and how did that affect your kind of method of performing?

Jharrel Jerome: Well, he shot everything with practical effects. He shot everything avoiding CGI. It was all forced perspective, meaning I got to play with mini set pieces. My scene partners weren’t human, they were doll versions, six-inch doll versions of them. It was a lot of mental gymnastics that I had to pull. 

My brain was split; one side was trying to remember the dialogue, the choices, the nuances, and the other side was trying to remember things like, “Where do I position my body? Where do I stand? How do I keep my neck in this one position?” So in terms of my method, as an actor, I had to take a whole different approach this time around. That was exciting for me, and it also taught me a lot. It was almost like heading towards a boxing ring and doing those jump ropes before you actually get into the match.

That’s so surprising to hear, because you have such a natural chemistry with all the actors. How did you know what your rapport would be with each of the characters since you’re basically acting to dolls and other marks for that?

Jharrel Jerome: A lot of it was in the rehearsals and the moments off set. Boots was very adamant about making sure that the crew and the cast got together. Every weekend, we were all going to Boots’ house to hang and chill out. That really brought us all together and brought us a lot closer. Building a connection through the soul more than it just being like “Yeah, we’re now going to go on set and do this show together”. Instead, it was, “No, we’re all bringing a piece of art together”, you know? That kind of informed our relationship on camera for sure.

How did your approach to playing Cootie change as you went from reading the script to your final performance? How did your take on the character evolve?

Jharrel Jerome: I fleshed it out over time. At first, I had no idea how I was going to approach Cootie and that’s what excited me the most – knowing it was going to be a challenge. But, you know, countless conversations with Boots, countless times dissecting the script and thinking about the nuances of Cootie, I think I just fell into his body a bit more. By the end, I definitely [had] an understanding of how he moved. It was hard at first, oftentimes [when they] cut I would go right up to Boots like “Hey man, how was that?” because I wouldn’t even know. My brain is working on so many other things. I had no idea if what I was doing was coming across, so it required a lot of trust for sure.

Jharrel Jerome as Cootie a 13-foot-tall young black man shows off his comic books of The Hero on one hand while showing what he looks like in real-life on a phone in his other hand in the Prime Video original series I'M A VIRGO.
Jharrel Jerome in ‘I’m a Virgo’ courtesy of Amazon Studios

I’m a Virgo is wildly entertaining, but what’s stuck with me is the multi-layered commentary going on. What particularly stuck out to you the most in the show as a satire and which element do you think you would like the audience to take away the most?

Jharrel Jerome: It’s such a genre-bending project that it kind of depends on who you are, where you are in life, and where you are even watching the show – how you view it and what your perspective of the show will be. For me, I definitely think it’s an important social commentary piece. Boots even with his music and with Sorry to Bother You [has] always found a way to include important social issues and anchor it in a realistic world that is somehow blended with fantasy.

So to me, I think I’m A Virgo is Sorry to Bother You on steroids. I hope the audience really takes away the conversation of capitalism and how it actually stems into a lot of the other smaller issues that we have in this country. Hopefully, people can view capitalism as something that can be exciting to talk about in a show and exciting to figure out like, “How do we master it and fix it?”

One thing in particular that I found was a really unique take in I’m a Virgo is how the series ties in the omnipresence of superhero culture with capitalism. Now, as a working actor, how do you feel about the growing tide of superhero culture?

Jharrel Jerome: Superhero culture has been shifting in so many different ways. I mean, with films like Black Panther now, including an entirely black cast, and with shows like The Boys just throwing curveballs and giving you a different side of the heroes and seeing the effects it has on the people on the ground – all the way to a show like this – it’s super great.

The superhero genre has always been our chance to escape and our chance just to ignore reality. But see, projects like I’m a Virgo which blend that with reality [are] so much fun, because [they] allow you to remember that there’s always a message behind everything. This show is cool because if you love superheroes, you love the show. But you’ll also have to learn a thing or two. And I think that’s the beauty of Boots’ work.

All 7 episodes of I’m a Virgo are now streaming on Prime Video!

Follow writer James Preston Poole on Twitter: @JamesPPoole

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