When They See Us earned 16 Primetime Emmy nominations and star Asante Blackk is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his incredible portrayal of young Kevin Richardson, one 5 teenagers of color — dubbed the Central Park Five — who was convicted of a rape he did not commit. Asante is just 17 years old and When They See Us is his first-ever TV project. He talked to HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY as part of our Emmy Contenders series about being nominated for the first time. He revealed how he found out and what the real Kevin Richardson said to him after the nominations were released.
Asante also opened up about the intense interrogation scenes and what director Ava DuVernay did to help the younger cast members who played the Central Park Five — now known as the Exonerated Five — channel such emotion and devastation when the young men were read their guilty verdicts in court. Asante discussed how being a part of a critically-acclaimed and life-changing project like When They See Us has inspired him as he moves forward with his acting career.
What was your initial reaction when you realized that you were nominated for an Emmy?
Asante Blackk: Just disbelief. Complete disbelief. There was no hint, there was no notion that I was going to get nominated and I didn’t expect to get nominated at all. I was really just expecting the big ones, like perhaps we’ll get nominated for Limited Series or Jharrel [Jerome] to get nominated for Lead Actor. And I would’ve been completely fine with just that, it’s so deserving, but to wake up in the morning and the first text that I got was from Ava DuVernay herself congratulating me. And I had no idea what she’s talking about. I kind of thought she’s talking about the series as a whole at first, but then I started seeing things on social media and things online about me specifically being nominated for Supporting Actor. I was just in complete disbelief. I didn’t actually believe it until maybe like an hour later. I was at my aunt’s house and I was like, “I think I’ve just got nominated for an Emmy.” So this whole time showing her what I’m seeing and I’m like, “Did I get nominated? Did I get nominated? Did I get nominated?” And she’s like, “Yeah, you got nominated.” I’m like, “Are you sure they didn’t make a mistake?” But, I mean, it was just so much shock and I just felt super, super grateful to even be considered for the nomination, but to actually be nominated? Oh, man, I was over the moon man, in disbelief, but also in gratefulness, you know? It’s just the weirdest thing, being so young and this being my first project, I never in a million years thought that I would get nominated on my first ever project ever. It’s just such an honor. I will forever be thankful.
Did you hear from Kevin Richardson after you got nominated for an Emmy?
Asante Blackk: He was one of the first people to text me. He said “Little bro, congrats on the Emmy nomination. Wow!” With like, a thousand Ws. And then he said, “Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor [in a Limited Series or Movie]. Oh, snap, go ahead, little bro.” So I was so excited to hear from him. I’m sure this means just as much to him as it does to me and the entire Exonerated Five. They were all super, super happy that people are receiving this project about their lives so well and that it’s really getting this critical acclaim because it really means that people are seeing them. People are seeing them for the first time in 30 years. So it’s a super proud moment. I’m proud of them. They’re proud of us. It’s just pride all around.
What was it like meeting and sitting down with Kevin for the very first time and hearing directly from him?
Asante Blackk: It was just all love. I met him along with Kylie Bunbury who plays Angie, my older sister, and we really just sat down and talked like we’d known each other for a while. Rather than talking about the issue itself, we were kind of just talking about his wife and his kids and what he’s doing after this and how life is treating him now. I just really got a sense of how amazing a person this man is. I mean, he’s so strong, he’s so kind and sweet. I really tried to take that kindness and that sweetness and put it into the performance with the pain and sorrow. The kindness and sweetness is just as much a part of him as this painful and sorrowed part of his life.
I was just completely blown away by the interrogation scenes. They were incredibly hard to watch. What was that like for you to have to get into that mindset and stay there?
Asante Blackk: It was super tough. It was super, super hard to get into that emotional state and the kind of state that they need for the duration of the time when we filmed those scenes. I really just tried to keep telling myself, “This is bigger than you.” I’m on set with legends, people that have graced the screen for years and years and done it so well and there’s me, just this newcomer in these scenes, these very, very intense scenes where I’m expected to deliver my best. It was super-duper hard. But like I said, I really kept telling myself, “This isn’t about you. This isn’t about you trying to show the world, oh, you’re the greatest actor ever.” I’m not trying to try to showcase my talents really, but really just trying to get to do the men justice and to do the story justice so that people can truly see the innocence that they had and truly see how corrupt the criminal justice system was at that time. So they get to see parallels between back then and now. It was also backed up by just the support from the cast and crew. Everybody was so supportive. So while there may have been fear of not doing well enough or things like that, there was never a moment where I felt uncomfortable with it.
Was it difficult for you to leave that intensity behind every day? Did you find that you were able to shake it off and come back the next day?
Asante Blackk: No, man. This one scene, it didn’t make it into the series itself, but it was in the screenplay. In the scene, and this actually happened in real life, where while they’re reading off Kevin’s guilty verdicts, his mom has a stroke in the courtroom right there. Kevin sees his mom have a stroke as he’s being dragged away to prison and he doesn’t know when the next time he’s going to see his mom is. He doesn’t know if his mom just died right there in front of his eyes as he’s been dragged away. He doesn’t know the next time he’s coming home and I just really felt the intensity and the energy of that moment was just all packed inside of me. I remember I was shooting my verdict scene with Jharrel that day and he kind of had to come over to me after they called cut, and really just put his hand on my shoulder. He just gave me this huge hug and made sure that I was able to come out of it and start over again. Because just thinking about being 14 years old and being sent away for something that you did not do and not knowing if your mom’s okay, it was super, super emotional and I had to really work hard to get out of that headspace that I was in. I was angry. I was angry for Kevin, I was angry for his mom, for his sisters, and just everyone that this impacted.
The closeups of all 5 of you during the courtroom scenes were some of the most powerful shots that I’ve ever seen on TV. You all were just masterful. That must be difficult to have the camera straight on your face.
Asante Blackk: So for those scenes, the super close-up scenes, I had the camera right in my face. Basically what Ava did is she gave us a post-it note and she had us write something that you can look at and immediately get into that emotion on this post-it note. We did that and put it up on the camera so that when we were looking into the camera, we were looking at that post-it note to try to get us into that emotion. Ava’s masterful direction is what got us there for those feelings because I mean, that’s a tough scene to do. Looking directly into the camera and trying to display that emotion so I think that’s what ultimately made it as good as it was.
Ava was the leader of this entire project. What was something that you learned from her as she guided this project and helped bring it to life along with you guys?
Asante Blackk: I learned how when you know what your purpose is and what you’re doing this for, nothing can stop you. Ava is one of the most focused and go-getter type people I’ve ever met. She knows what she wants. Every day when we come on set, she knows what we’re doing this for. She knows that it’s a bigger purpose and it’s a bigger cause than all of us, any of us on set, and she just really knows how exactly to go about things. She knows this because of that higher purpose and that higher sense of responsibilities just to do these men justice and to really show the injustices that are going on throughout this country. Not only in 1989 but in our time. So I really learned how focused you have to be in order to tell these stories because these stories aren’t just for entertainment, art changes the world. Art imitates life and then we get to see life reflected back at us in a way that we never had before. So she knows the power that she has in putting these movies out, these shows out, and she was really able to zone in because she knows that power.
What’s your relationship like with the other younger cast members and how have you bonded over this experience?
Asante Blackk: Those are my brothers for life. Ethan [Herisse], Caleel [Harris], Marquis [Rodriguez], Jharrel, every single one of them, I love them so much. This experience really brought us together because we had that sense of higher purpose. We knew that it was bigger than us. So it allowed us to come together and collaborate on this in the best of ways. There were rarely times when we’re all filming together because we all had our individual scenes or individual things with our families. But whenever we had a scene where we were all together, it was like a family reunion on set and we’d laugh and make jokes and kind of just be talking behind the scenes. But then when it was time to get into character and when it was time to say action we always brought it together because we knew how important this was. I love those guys so much. I’ll forever consider them my brothers.
You mentioned earlier how this role really challenged you as an actor, how has this role inspired you going forward with your career?
Asante Blackk: It’s inspired me to keep on being a part of projects that really speak to people. I’ve kind of taken a different perspective on movies, TV, the entertainment industry, and just art as a whole where anything can touch any person at any time. So something that you’re making, let’s say you have no idea of the power behind it, somebody else is going to get something from that that would change their whole life, you know? So it may not always be on the grand scale of When They See Us, but I mean, art has the power to change lives, to change the world. So in the future for my career, I just really want to keep on doing great projects that inspire great projects, that move people, that heal people. Great projects that really get people talking and change their sense of perspective on things. I just want to be able to shine my light of the world through this medium of ours that I’m completely in love with.