Nicole Beharie embraces imperfection in life and in her ‘Miss Juneteenth’ character
When Nicole Beharie reflects on “Miss Juneteenth,” she gets philosophical.
“There’s this idea, this Japanese philosophy: wabi-sabi. It’s sort of reminding yourself what’s essential, simple and imperfect, and in flux. If you have a ceramic or something and there’s a crack in it, you would paint, like, gold wherever the cracks are to show that there’s beauty in that; the sort of beautiful and broken,” the actress says by video call. “I feel like I walked away with that awareness ... we’re all wonky as hell, chipped and cracked, and maybe if we paint gold in those places and stop trying to hide them and not look at our past, maybe we can move forward.
“As an actor in Hollywood, you don’t want to have imperfections and you don’t want to make mistakes, but this is also about second chances and giving yourself a second chance. That’s what the character ended up doing.”
Beharie knows about second chances. Her career was on the rise, with acclaim for projects such as “American Violet” and a leading role on a network show (“Sleepy Hollow”). An illness led to her departure from the show and a few years of struggle; now she’s back on track, with five projects in two years. For “Miss Juneteenth,” she has picked up an Independent Spirit Award nomination (the film got four, total) and won a Gotham Award for her vanity-free lead performance.
She plays Turquoise Jones, who won the titular pageant years ago but found that her life wasn’t one long red carpet after. The film opens with the former beauty queen scrubbing a toilet at a barbecue joint. She works several gigs, including having been a stripper for a while, so that she and her teen daughter, Kai, can get by. Now she’s pageant-momming Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), hoping the scholarship prize will open doors for the girl, despite her resistance.
The film’s themes of the dream beside the reality, the aspirational and the practical, manifest throughout, as with the protagonist’s two suitors. One, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), is the ex-con father of her daughter; she still has sparks with him, though he’s undependable. The other is a funeral director who is a good man but who doesn’t set her ablaze. The exotic even coexists with the earthly in her name: Turquoise Jones.
Before filming began, Beharie spent time on location in Como, a close-knit Black community in Fort Worth, Texas, to soak up the atmosphere and dialect and meet some of the people who inspired first-time writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ screenplay.
Of how the stay informed her performance, Beharie said, “Some of it is nebulous stuff. The way that I carry myself [in life], I’m a little up here and, like, frenetic, and so there’s a groundedness. There’s humor in spite of everything, that’s one thing I picked up. Someone is about to die, and people are making jokes. It’s the way that people in the community found joy in everything.”
“I did get a sense that the women that were around [Peoples], that were supporting her in creating this, there really was a regalness, even though they weren’t dolled up and didn’t have the time to do all the little princessy things. I assumed ‘ex-pageant winner’ meant sort of ‘debutante.’ I was thinking I was going to go down there and wear a minidress; she’s gonna have on makeup, and she’s pushing her daughter ahead. The more I was in that environment, the more I was like, ‘You can’t be that person working at this bar.’
“[Turquoise] maybe wanted that, or there’s a part of her that’s like that, but everything — everything — is invested in her daughter and her family. Being around those women informed that, I’m calling it ‘tough tenderness.’ ”
Make no mistake: “Miss Juneteenth” is all about the messiness. Characters are smudged; Peoples’ script contains no angels or devils. Even when Ronnie spends the money he had promised them for a pageant dress, Beharie says she can see why he did it.
“Ronnie ends up using it for an investment into his own business, right? And many people are like, ‘He’s so awful,’ and I’m like, ‘You know he made an investment to start a business and she bought a yellow dress?’ One is actually more practical, even though it’s a betrayal.”
She calls herself out for her initial misconceptions about the part, colored perhaps by her own desire to appear glamorous onscreen.
“I had been sick in the past, so there are some imperfections in my face. I’m getting older. There’s all this stuff you can see when you don’t have foundation on in a movie,” she says, tying it all back to the film’s collision of aspiration and reality.
“It’s not what I had in mind, but I think, ‘S—, this is reality.’ At the end of the day, you have to experience that, imperfections and all: This is us.
“So yeah, wabi-sabi.”
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