Interview by James Patrick Herman
Photographs by Jeff Vespa
I’m from Indianapolis and a lot of my family are from Alabama and Kentucky. My outlook on life is very different from the city mentality. I still appreciate the small things, which is the key, especially in this business. If you get too focused on the job, you start to lose yourself.
Yes. My cherry’s been popped. I’m thankful, I’m blessed, I’m overwhelmed, I’m nervous and I’m anxious.
Sensation is such a great word. I don’t know how to describe it but when I hear it I just think: Wow. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. And it’s crazy how things come full circle. This film was brought to me three years ago and somebody else was going to be the lead, then it randomly fell into my lap, and out of nowhere I was flying to Virginia to shoot it. And the whole time on set I was like: Yo! We’re going to Sundance. And everybody was like: “Don’t say that. You’re going to jinx it.” But I said: No, I believe in this film. And in everybody that’s in it. We all had so much passion. So the fact that it’s now happening is crazy.
Fraternities have never been viewed in this light before. They’re no different from gangs. People live, eat, breathe, sleep and die for that stuff. The whole point of a fraternity is to mentally and physically break down their members. I feel like a lot of fraternity movies have been — you know, I don’t want to say cookie cutter, but just not as deep. This film shows the hard side of it: The hazing, and how it hurts your relationships and your school work. It’s like yo, this is real, this is raw, this is what happens. It’s dope, man.
Heartfelt, selfless, curious, strong. He’s kind of the leader of his brothers and he wants to be great so that they can be great; he wants everybody to be the best versions of themselves. He’s college student — a young man becoming a grown man. In a fraternity, you start to figure out where you stand.
Yes, in the sense of becoming a man and making hard decisions. He’s too busy to have a girlfriend and to make it to work and I related to that. Becoming a man — that’s one of the hardest phases of life. It’s confusing, it’s scary, it’s exciting — it’s all of these things. We started shooting when I had just turned nineteen and there was a lot going on with my music, with my relationships, with my family. I was going through a lot, but I realized that’s the beauty of this thing called life: The struggle. It’s the gray areas that matter. We have the black and white — the start and the finish — but it’s the gray area in the middle that makes it the beautiful thing that it is. People lose themselves because they’re so worried about the destination, but the joy is in the journey.
Three or four years ago, I met with the director to talk about the script but nothing really came of it. Two years later my agent hits me up and he was like: “Yo, they’re bringing back this movie and they want you to read for a role.” Then they wanted me to read for another role. Somebody was in the lead already — I don’t want to name names — but he dropped out and since they didn’t have a lead, they wanted to give it to me because I didn’t really fit into those other two roles. To be honest, in the beginning, it wasn’t something I was psyched about. But the minute I started studying for it and got on set and me and the director starting working together, we just had that synergy. He was very open and let me have a lot of creative control. From that point on, I knew we were going to Sundance — I could feel it.
It was a dinner theater show, a holiday spectacular, in Indianapolis. When I was seven, I played a little boy who discovers the magic of Christmas; he sneaks out of his room and sees Santa and they go on an adventure together. I also had to tap dance and sing. I started tap dancing when I was three and competing when I was four. I had little Rudolph slippers with taps on the bottom — they were the coolest thing ever. I thought that I was going to be the next Savion Glover or Gregory Hines. This was three months out of the year, so I did that for almost two years. The guy who played Santa said: “Have you seen The Lion King? You should play Simba.” And I I was like: “Huh?” My mom had taken me to see it the year before. I ended up auditioning for Simba in Chicago. And I took that little boy’s spot in that same musical I had seen and went on tour for three years with the Broadway production of The Lion King. Changed my whole life.
No. The last time I was in real school I was in third grade. And then when I moved out here, I did capoeira — an African-Brazilian martial art disguised as a dance— for a really long time. I’d help teach but I didn’t get paid; that was just something I did. I was always trying to make music and act.
If there’s any sign that says Sundance, I’m gonna have to crouch in front of it with a peace sign on each side. That has to be the pose. For people who can’t see me: Basically, you take both hands and you leave two fingers up on each one — the peace sign — and your head is slightly cocked to the left. And you have to have the expression of: Yeah, I’m at Sundance. Are you surprised? You don’t have to say that, but to get the facial expression right you have to think that.
I want to meet the guy. He’s an incredible director. Correct me if I’m wrong: Didn’t he direct Ordinary People with Tim Hutton? But even as an actor, he’s legendary. I’m not gonna lie: I think he killed it in Captain America: Winter Soldier. He played a bad guy — the head of Hydra — and at the end he was like: “Hail Hydra!” I’ve gotta catch up on more of his movies.