Words by Victor A. Rodriguez

The phrase “I was born to play this part” is overused in Hollywood. Yet, in the case of Jharrel Jerome it could not be truer. The part we speak of is that of Kory Wise, a member of The Exonerated Five in the Netflix mini-series When They See Us.  Directed by Oscar winner Ava Du Vernay it tells the true-life story of the a group of then young boys of color wrongfully convicted in the 1980’s Central Park Jogger case. Jerome’s portrayal is perhaps the most challenging. While other members had two actors portray them as boys and then men, Jerome played Wise from adolesence to adulthood. Add to that shouldering an entire episode dedicated to Wise’s story arc. Certainly, a lot for a 22-year-old actor to take on. However, Jharrel Jerome was up to the challenge.

The public took notice. In 2019 Jerome’s portrayal of Kory Wise garnered him his first Emmy for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie”. More recently he nabbed a Critics Choice Award. Now about that “born to play this part”.  You see, like Wise, Jerome is a New York native, Bronx born, bred and of Dominican ancestry. Also, like Wise, he had his own fish out of water experiences in life. Early on Jerome’s mother noticed his penchant for playing different characters and freestyling. She encouraged him to audition to attend the famed LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in New York City.

Now comes the fish out of water part. There weren’t many young men of color in the hallways of LaGuardia, even less from the Bronx. Jerome would be accepted to and attend LaGuardia but soon found he did not entirely fit in with protégé’s and phenoms who spent an entire life dedicated to performing.

Nonetheless, Jerome persevered, performing in LaGuardia productions ranging from Othello to In the Heights. After graduation he started to develop a portfolio of work. Chief among them the role of Kevin, in Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winning Moonlight. Some additional indie work would follow, when Jerome became aware of DuVernay’s production of When They See Us. Jerome perhaps said it best. He told Variety “Being from The Bronx — being from right around the way — and being Dominican, a person of color, it was just so important to me from the moment I saw it. These men are here and alive and if I did this, I would be doing something way bigger than me.”

Upon landing the role Jerome got to work. There were conversations with Kory Wise himself, research and as he told Backstage, writing lines literally beside what was in the script. What he believed Wise would say in that place and time. He told Backstage, “Ava did not ask me to do it. So, when you see me telling my Deloris, my mom [played by Niecy Nash] something, even though the line says this, I said a whole other line in my head right before,” he comments. “That’s where you see the emotion in my face. Instead of me being like, ‘Mom, I’m here for you,’ I wanted to say, ‘Mom, they touched me yesterday and I don’t know what to do, can you just please help me?’ I think we all want to say [one thing], but we say something else to protect them or us.”

The hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed. Aside from the recent accolades his portfolio of work keeps growing. Jerome recently appeared in Jimmy Kimmel’s live production of the 70’s Norman Lear classic television show Good Times, as well as the upcoming Mr. Mercedes. Next up, the feature film Concrete Cowboys alongside, Method Man and Idris Elba. At just 23 years of age were confident there are many more stories Jerome will help to tell.