How Jharrel Jerome grew 13 feet tall for his, uh, biggest role yet in Boots Riley's I'm a Virgo
Boots Riley, the writer-director behind 2018's off-the-wall Sorry to Bother You, got Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome's attention pretty easily for his latest project, I'm a Virgo.
"He emailed me personally and said, 'I want you to be a part of this and I want you to play Cootie,'" Jerome tells EW. The title of the email was "13-Foot Tall Black Man from Oakland."
"And so I just immediately opened that up and was intrigued and, by the end of the email, I was saving his number and calling him so I could figure out when I could sit with him," Jerome says.
About a week later, they met for breakfast and Riley pitched him the entire idea.
The Prime Video series follows Cootie, the titular Virgo and 13-foot tall Black man from Oakland, as he ventures out into the world for the first time in 19 years, making friends, falling in love, and making highly questionable decisions.
Prime Video Jharrel Jerome in 'I'm a Virgo'
But in all fairness, it's hard finding a decent paying job when you're the height of a single-story house.
All the while Cootie's city is plagued by a vigilante would-be superhero who's been using excessive force for minor offenses and soon sets his sociopathic sights on Cootie.
Like Sorry to Bother You, there's a lot to I'm a Virgo besides its novel premise, with Riley undercutting the comedic moments, of which there are many, with piercing social commentary and an urgent anti-capitalist message. Riley also uses animation to drive the story, but instead of CGI, he created Cootie's exceptional height using old-school camera tricks.
It's certainly an ambitious project, the scope of which Riley might have realized a little too late on in the production. "I remember Boots pulling me aside saying, 'Somebody told me not to do this because it's going to be hard.' And he was like, 'I should have listened,'" Jerome recalls. "I thought that was hilarious. So that's pretty much what it was like. It was very tense. It was very hard work to do, but everybody was so talented and driven and good at what they did that it all came together."
Still, despite Cootie's size and Riley's stylistic flourishes (of which there are also many), I'm a Virgo ultimately tells the tale of a young man's coming-of-age. Here, Jharrel Jerome discusses how he grew an additional seven feet or so, the inspiration behind I'm a Virgo, and where the future might take Cootie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first thing I thought when I first saw the images of the show was like, "How the hell did they do this?" So can you tell me about how they made you seem 13 feet tall?
JHARREL JEROME: I can imagine that's the biggest question that people are going to ask for sure, because I'm not even 6 feet tall. So they definitely pulled some magic. Boots came up with a really creative idea to shoot forced perspective. So we kind of avoided the CGI and the special effects for most of shooting and we dealt with miniature sets and a 13-foot silicone doll version of me that they designed.
So they built two huge, massive dolls that were pretty much moving around on set for all of the over-the-shoulder shots and all of the moments where the other actors were talking to me on their coverage. And then for me, they built six-inch dolls of all the other actors, so I would act with them. So at no point during shooting were any of the actors actually looking at each other. We were all just pulling tricks the whole time.
And then we also used miniature sets and designed miniature rooms and even the restaurant, lowering the ceilings. So it was really all me playing on a small size set, so I felt gigantic.
Prime Video Jharrel Jerome in 'I'm a Virgo'
How did that feel, acting without other actors around?
It was definitely a challenge, definitely one of the biggest challenges I faced on set, technically speaking. It's really a lot about connecting and locking in with your scene partner beforehand in the rehearsal process so that you can bring a chemistry that's already set to the scene.
Really, I think what's magic about a couple of actors working together in a scene is when they lock eyes and they can connect and their spirits are intertwined and they can really feed off each other. So we didn't get the chance to do that, so we had to be able to work that out before.
I definitely remember in the beginning, I had to come to Boots a ton of times after "Cut" and ask him, "Am I even doing this right?" Because I couldn't pinpoint exactly what I was doing, but I had so many things to think about at once. Hopefully, my performance comes off well because a lot of it was me spending time in my head doing back flips.
So did you talk to Boots about his inspiration behind this character and the story?
Yeah, I did early on before I started to dive into Cootie's mind and design stuff myself. But from what I know, Cootie is pretty much a 13-foot tall version of Boots when he was a child. So, aside from Boots, and I always laugh at this, but Boots is not a Virgo, so I didn't understand that part.
But other than that, just the wide-eyed creative energy, feeling confined, and feeling there's so much more to him — I think Boots just had fun and tapped into his younger self and kind of wrote a version of his childhood where he heightened his reality a bit and created a lot of symbols that related to his own life personally. So once he told me that, I felt it was a lot more personal.
How did you get into character because this guy hasn't had any social interaction for 19 years except for his parents. So how did you get into that? How'd you play that?
For me, it was really less about how big he is because people ask me, "Did you talk to tall people when you went ahead and studied for the role?" I laugh at that. I'm like, "No, I didn't talk to anybody who's tall." Just to me, Cootie wakes up every day and he's used to being 13-feet tall. That's his life. So he doesn't wake up and look in the mirror and gasp at how big he is. He's so used to it.
So for me it was thinking about who he is on the inside. And it's a child. It's someone who's incredibly naive. Someone who's naive but intelligent at the same time. He's been kept inside his whole life, but in other stories, you kind of hear when somebody's trapped inside their home their whole life, it's torture or it's abuse, but it's the opposite. Cootie was just kept inside. He was cared for, he was loved and he was taught to read, he was taught to write, he was taught to think and to be funny enough, an extrovert.
So I wanted to play around with the idea of Cootie seeing the world with a naive eye but with an intelligent mind. And I think that comes with knowing it all, which is a big trait of a Virgo, you can see it. And so I wanted to play with that bright, wide-eyed facial expression where everything is brand new and everything is a challenge. How do I make my face? How do I flirt? How do I keep friends? How do I act cool? How do I act normal? All at the same time, the other side of my brain is thinking, "Well, I am cool. I am normal. I am flirting. I am making friends."
He's actually very excited to be there. He just doesn't know exactly how to be there.
Prime Video Jharrel Jerome in 'I'm a Virgo'
Now, is this a limited series or is it going to be more than one season?
More than one season is the plan. I'm not too sure what the future of the show is, but I know it's not a limited series.
Do you know how many seasons are planned?
No, I do not know, but hopefully seven million. No, I'm just kidding. That would be crazy. No, I'm not too sure how many seasons, but I know that Boots has a lot more story in mind and he has a couple of ideas of where Cootie can go, and they're all just as massive as his first idea. So not sure how long the show will last, but I know that it won't end here.
What are you most excited for people to see with this show? Or is there a message that you hope they take away from it?
I feel like no matter what Boots makes, that's going to be a loaded question because Boots somehow knows how to fit so many grand ideas and thoughts into one piece. I think that's what made Sorry To Bother You so special. And I think that's what's going to make Virgo special, too. But ultimately I hope people take away a lot of things. I can't even name one.
I guess the main one, for Boots' sake, would be his message of anti-capitalism, which carries throughout the whole project. And that's a topic that doesn't really get addressed in fun ways, honestly. Yeah, it can get addressed, but often it's one of those things where we kind of snooze and like, "That's a little boring. I don't want to take time to understand the system. I'm already kind of set in." And so I think Boots has found ways to make light and make fun of something that's a real serious issue that I think stems into all the other issues that we face in the country.
So it's almost like getting to the root of the problem. And so I think if you watch Virgo, you can put your mind in getting to the root of a problem while having fun at the same time.
And then on the other hand, just watching so many beautiful Black faces get together and do a project that is so whimsical and so joyous and different from kind of the stigma and the stereotypes of what Black Hollywood has been. I think Boots is able to create incredible multi-dimensional characters that we haven't seen before. And to see them get occupied by strong Black talent, I think it inspires a consumerist change. And then every tall person feels loved after seeing this.
All episodes of I'm a Virgo premiere on June 23 on Prime Video.
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