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‘When They See Us’ star on competing for Emmy against ‘Moonlight’ costar Mahershala Ali

Jharrel Jerome
Jharrel Jerome has been nominated for a lead actor Emmy for his performance in the Netflix limited series “When They See Us.”
(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

Emmy nominee Jharrel Jerome, who stars in “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s Netflix limited series about the Central Park Five, is emotional over his lead actor nod

Jharrel Jerome was overcome with emotion.

“Oh, man, I’m on cloud 9!” Jerome declared just minutes after he learned he had been nominated for lead actor in a limited series for Netflix‘s “When They See Us.” Director Ava DuVernay’s searing saga, which earned 16 Emmy nominations, including one in the competitive limited series category, revisits the case of the Central Park Five, five black and Latino Harlem juveniles who were wrongfully convicted of raping and beating a white female jogger in 1989. Jerome played Korey Wise, who at 16 was the oldest of those charged and is now a criminal justice reform advocate.

“I just finished crying,” Jerome said by phone from a New York restaurant where he, his manager and several friends had gathered to monitor the announcements for this year’s Emmys. “I just can’t even put it into words. The second the news came out, we all just freaked out, started screaming in the middle of the restaurant. I think everyone thought someone had passed out.

“Although it’s so wonderful to be nominated, I was going to be OK with whatever happened. Just being a part of this process was a blessing in itself. “

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In preparing for the role, Jerome spent considerable time with Wise, often inviting him to the set.

“To me, that’s where the real award is, to have brought Korey to the world,” Jerome said. “To be able to portray him as a man and as a human being means more than any nomination. He inspired me in every way. He is my brother.”

Jerome also noted how the project has re-ignited racial tensions surrounding the case, while also bringing a spotlight to current controversies in the country revolving around cultural differences.

“Art imitates life,” Jerome said. “We can do stuff on-screen just to get a paycheck, or we can have a voice. I act to inspire and save lives. The fact that the show has sparked discussions shows we’re moving in the right direction.”

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Jerome first drew acclaim with his breakout role in “Moonlight,” the 2016 Oscar-winning film centered on a young black boy grappling with his sexuality while growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Jerome played Kevin, a bisexual teenager who strikes a bond with the movie’s central character, Chiron.

Now, the young actor will have to face off in the Emmy race against his “Moonlight” costar Mahershala Ali, who is nominated for HBO’s “True Detective.”

“I’m so honored to be nominated with Mahershala,” he said. “He was such an inspiration to me, always inspiring me to do better.”

Others in the category include Sam Rockwell (“Fosse/Verdon”), Benicio del Toro (“Escape at Dannemora”), Hugh Grant (“A Very English Scandal”) and Jared Harris (“Chernobyl”).

“I’m inspired by every one of these actors,” Jerome said. “No matter what happens, it’s an honor to be beside them.”

Michael K. Williams, who received a supporting actor nomination for his role as the father of Anton McCray in “When They See Us,” said he was in the gym when he heard the news. “I’m ecstatic, man,” the actor known for playing Omar on “The Wire” said in a phone interview. “This never gets old. I’m just a dude from Brooklyn, doing something in my adult life that is being acknowledged. I’ve finally found my place in life.”

Williams added that he was proud of the project. “It’s the first time they were able to tell their truth. It was a truth that has been already acknowledged by the community. But the fact that the academy has honored it also says they believe this is their truth.”

After spending the day in New York, Jerome is returning to Charleston, S.C., where he is filming the Audience Network’s “Mr. Mercedes.”

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But he already knows whom his Emmy date will be.

“I’m bringing my mama,” he proclaimed.


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