When Jeremy Pope was a young boy, he used to watch the 1996 movie “The Preacher’s Wife,” which stars Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, over and over again. “I watched it all year ’round, although it was a Christmas movie. In the movie, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington had a child named Jeremiah, and I kept thinking, ‘That’s me: I’m supposed to be Whitney and Denzel’s son!’ I just loved Whitney for who she was — her art, her gift, her heart and honesty.”
This year, the talented 30-year-old actor has the lead role in a very different kind of movie — “The Inspection,” Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical work about a homeless, Black queer man who joins the Marines. Pope, who was nominated for an Emmy (Netflix’s “Hollywood” miniseries) and two Tonys (“Choir Boy” and the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud”) is getting raves for his emotionally charged performance in the newly released A24 film.
“I loved the script and Elegance’s words on the page, and I had so many questions about what happens after the movie ends,” says Pope. “We realized we had so many mutual friends, so it felt like meeting the third cousin that you didn’t know you had.”
Pope waited nine months until he got the final word that the movie was going forward and that he was going to play the lead. Then came the emotional and physical challenges of a role that required weeks of training at a boot camp in Jackson, Miss., during 117-degree summer days and a grueling 19-day shoot. The part also pushed the actor to revisit his own experiences as an artistic, queer Black man coming of age in Orlando.
“I have played roles through which I challenge the definition of masculinity before,” he says. “I have had my journey of learning to love myself and my Blackness and queerness full stop. It can be tough and scary at times, because you feel very vulnerable. But when you’re working with a collaborator like Elegance who’s able to see the love and harmony outside the pain and trauma, it becomes a labor of love.”
Pope admits that he wasn’t always this comfortable in his own skin. “It has been a constant journey of evolving and learning to love the new versions of yourself,” he says. “My father was a pastor and a bodybuilder — two arenas that are hyper masculine and have definite ideas of what a Black man looks and acts like. Black mothers also teach you what it means to be a Black man so that you can be safe in this world, because at times, the world can be a very unsafe place.”
He also mentions that he didn’t know of any Black gay movie stars when he was growing up. “I didn’t even know it was something that I could strive for and achieve,” he says. “So you put this idea on our vision board, but do you also laugh at it? Can you take it seriously? How do you even get credits in a business that is not willing to give you the opportunities to get credits? But I was lucky that I was able to work with great collaborators who loved me for the versions of who I was at that moment, for my heart and intentions.”
Pope praises the understanding that came naturally between himself and Bratton. “I was able to look across the room at my writer-director who was also a Black queer man, and there were things that we just didn’t have to explain to each other,” Pope recalls. “No shade, but this was different from me explaining to [‘Hollywood’ producer] Ryan Murphy what it means to exist in this world or how I interpreted it and [the character] making these achievements. There were things that I didn’t have to explain to Elegance, because he just knew.”
He also gives a lot of credit to his co-star and film’s exec producer Gabrielle Union, who plays the lead’s tough and relentless mother. “Gab and I have shared a lot of experiences, fun celebrity moments like the Met Gala. I’m also a big fan of the work that she does on the streets. She’s a true light and a national treasure to the Black community. She found a real heart and soul for this character that people might consider cruel on the surface. I’m so grateful for the work that she did to get this movie made and for showing up as my mother in this movie and being my northern star.”
Next up for the versatile actor is portraying artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the film adaptation of the play “The Collaboration.” For now, he says he has been quite pleased with how audiences have responded to “The Inspection. “I’ve been reached out to by a wide demographic of people who told me that the film sat with them for days. They say thank you for your service. I hope this film can be a reason for someone to know that there’s a way out. Because I know when you are in the lowest moments of your life, it can be the most random thing that gives you a sense of faith. This film can tell you that you can find acceptance, self-love and a chosen family of people who hooyah! and support you for who you are.”