Jharrel Jerome knows his way around Central Park. It was a breezy seven minute walk from his high school to the entrance near Manhattan’s storied Tavern on the Green.
“That was the park I hung out in as a kid in high school,” Jerome, 21, recalls. “That was the spot.”
He was a teenager who cared about basketball and the perfect dis to sling at his friends in rap battles. He was decades removed from a notorious 1989 case in which five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for raping and nearly killing Trisha Meili, a white woman who had been jogging in Central Park. But he could have been one of them.
“It wasn’t a story I knew in detail,” Jerome says. “Just like the rest of the people that I know, we kind of know the story — it was almost like in the back of our head, something that our parents taught when we were younger but nothing that we completely understood.”
He gets it now.
The young actor, who made his debut in 2016’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” stars in a new Netflix limited series from filmmaker Ava DuVernay that revisits the case that became a flashpoint illustrating deeply rooted racial and socioeconomic tensions in America.
“When They See Us” is a four-part series based on the lives of Korey Wise (formerly Kharey Wise), Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson — the group of then-teenagers who came to be known as the Central Park Five. It tracks the attack and arrests before delving into the trial and the time the young men served behind bars. Jerome plays Wise from age 16 through to his release from prison.
The series dropped on Friday to overwhelmingly positive reviews that praise its heartfelt depiction of events as well as the empathetic performances of the actors.
Talking by phone on a day off from production in Charleston, S.C., where he’s shooting the third season of Audience Network’s “Mr. Mercedes,” Jerome is contemplative as he distills the responsibility he felt in portraying Wise, whose story stands out as the most harrowing of the group.
Wise wasn’t a suspect, but he had been with his friend Salaam when police took in Salaam for questioning. Wise accompanied his friend to the precinct for support and wound up being charged. At 16, he became the only defendant sentenced as an adult. He was convicted of assault, sexual abuse and riot, and sent to Rikers Island with a five to 15 year sentence.
A chance encounter in prison with the actual assailant, Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for other crimes, eventually led to the exoneration of Wise and the other men. Wise spent more than 11 years in prison by the time he was released.
“It was definitely the most difficult process I’ve ever had getting into the mindset for a role,”Jerome says. “This was real life; he really went through this. And here I am playing somebody who has never been seen — like, really seen — before.”
To prepare for the role, Jerome studied the 2012 Ken Burns-directed documentary “Central Park Five.” A lot of his focus was on finding the vocal technique that would capture Wise's soft-spoken cadence. But mostly, his preparation came from spending time with Wise, now 46. DuVernay said Jerome would often ask if Wise could come to set: “He wanted to be able to look over at Korey. He wanted to feel him. He wanted to hear him. Not to mimic, but to push himself.”
"He’s my brother now," Jerome says of Wise. “I look up to him. I look up to his courage. He's taught me so much on how to be strong.”
It gets Jerome talking of how Wise would pat him on his chest every time they saw each other — “He would say that he was the lion and I was the young Simba.” And how, the first time they hung out, they went walking through Harlem and headed into a Foot Locker. Wise bought Jerome a pair of beige Nike Huarache sneakers.
“I was like, ‘Korey, please do not buy me sneakers. You don’t have to do that.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no. You’re Korey Wise. I buy Korey Wise sneakers.’ He bought himself a pair too. We matched. It told me so much right there about who he is.”
“It’s funny,” Jerome continues, “seeing him now and hanging out with him today helped me play his younger self. Because that’s exactly how he was before his time and before his tragedy. He was the man, he was cool — and it’s beautiful to see that prison — false imprisonment — can’t knock that out of him.”
DuVernay, who was a co-writer on the series and its sole director, was impressed by Jerome's stamina and the maturation of his performance. Then there were the little things he did, she says, that would break her heart.
“The human things,” she said by phone. “The care that he gave to the parts that were more quiet, the moments that another actor might have glossed over. He knew the little stuff is the big stuff.”
Over email, Wise gave high praise to what Jerome, whom he calls 'baby boy,’ delivered: “He had me looking at myself while becoming a beast in there … unbelievable to see what I went through and to still be here after all that.”
All this from a kid who thought he’d spend his adult years as a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut. Jerome says it was his family who suggested he try acting, given his penchant for real-life drama. He attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan — making the trek by train every day from the Bronx, where he lived — and learned what went into being an actor while navigating feeling like an outsider.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty popular in middle school,” Jerome says with a chuckle. “When I got to high school, it was a big reality check where I was like, should I act? Because I’m not really talented. These kids are beyond talented. They sing, they dance, they know what a monologue is and I didn’t. So, yeah, it was definitely a challenge my freshman year.”
But by his freshman year at Ithaca College, he landed a gig that would not only get him out of his dorm room for 12 days but would kick-start his career: “Moonlight.” The Barry Jenkins film revolved around 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 film’s central character, Chiron.
“ ‘Moonlight’ was definitely not at all what I thought it would be,” Jerome says. “It was the first project I ever booked. I was still in school. I still felt like a little kid. It changed my life.”
Jerome’s ability to mine the authenticity of a moment is what struck Jenkins the most. He points to the scene from “Moonlight” in which Kevin and Chiron are sitting on the beach at night.
“Jharrel was asking me what the scene was about and I was like, it’s about first sexual experiences,” Jenkins said by phone. “And he said: “Is this the first time Chiron has kissed another man?’ And I didn’t say anything. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Oh, it’s the first time Chiron has kissed anybody.’ I didn’t have to direct anything. When you watch Jharrel in that movie, he’s not a guy who’s been over-rehearsing. That’s a dude learning by doing. It’s amazing.”
Asked to predict what’s in store for Jerome in the years to come, DuVernay expressed cautious optimism.
“The world is his oyster,” DuVernay said. “But he lives in a world that doesn’t see him in the same way it sees Ansel Elgort or Timothée Chalamet. My highest hope is that the industry rushes to his talent.”
For now, Jerome is focused on the present. And that’s getting people to listen to the stories of Wise, Salaam, Santana, McCray and Richardson.