Streaming shows | Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome speaks about his streaming show I’m A Virgo
Jharrel Jerome, Emmy winner, stars as Cootie, a 13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland, California, in Prime Video’s upcoming dark comedy series, I’m A Virgo, which is set to premiere on June 23. The absurdist show, created, written, and executive-produced by Boots Riley, follows Cootie as he navigates life as a ‘giant’ in the outside world after being hidden away during his childhood and spending most of his time on comic books and TV shows.
In a recent video call, t2 spoke with Jharrel Jerome and Michael Ellenberg, one of the executive producers of the show, about the physical and emotional aspects of playing Cootie and the inspiration behind the series.
Michael, what was the inspiration behind I’m A Virgo?
Michael Ellenberg: After watching Sorry To Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, I was blown away. It was a blend of absurdist-surrealist humour with big political ideas packaged in humour, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I thought, ‘He has to make a series!’ I chased Boots hard, and he pitched this idea of a 13-foot-tall giant who leaves his house for the first time on his 19th birthday. I liked his notion of flipping the superhero dynamic on its head, where the hero is a figure of oppression.
Jharrel, what was your initial reaction to the story?
Jharrel Jerome: I first heard about the story through a personal email that Boots sent me with the subject line, ‘Thirteen-foot tall Black man in Oakland.’ I was immediately intrigued and curious. Once I read the email, I met with Boots and he explained the whole idea and how he wanted to shoot it with forced perspective. I thought it would be a fresh and new challenge, so I went for it.
Aside from the physical aspect, what was it like to emotionally inhabit this character?
Jharrel: It was a fun challenge to figure out who Cootie is because he is not a linear person. He is very smart and well-read but also socially awkward. It was fun to toe the line between feeling comfortable and uncomfortable and thinking he knew it one moment and doubting it the next. The technical challenge of shooting in forced perspective was also difficult, as I had to imagine my scene partner’s reactions and look at a green ‘X’ mark instead of them.
What do you think makes Cootie’s story both specific and universal?
Jharrel: Cootie is relatable and relevant because of his energy, heart, and soul. He has the trait of wanting to change and fit in, and he is the epitome of an outcast. He is different and forced to deal with the idea that he is not like everybody else. This is something we can all relate to. While watching Cootie, you root for him and cheer for him because it’s almost like cheering for a little version of yourself. Michael: The story is specific in terms of Cootie being an African-American man and trying to find his voice, but the notion of feeling special yet frightening to the world is universal.
Michael, how do you balance a story that is both specific and universal?
Michael: I’m A Virgo always keeps an eye on the fact that it is a coming-of-age story. Cootie is coming of age socially, politically, and as a son and young man. These societal ideas are integrated into the story, making it relatable to all audiences.
What can the audience take away from this story?
Jharrel: The show has a strong anti-capitalism message, and it highlights the side effects of capitalism. Michael: The show tells us that what you have been given in life need not be permanent. You can challenge it and make something different out of it. We hope the energy of the show is infectious and that the audience can take it with them.
Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome looms large as a 13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland, California in Prime Video’s coming-of-age dark comedy I’m A Virgo, which premieres on the streamer on June 23. The absurdist series created, written and executive-produced by Boots Riley has Jerome’s character, named Cootie, having to navigate life as a ‘giant’ in the outside world after growing up hidden away and passing time on a diet of comic books and TV shows.
Over a video call, t2 chatted with Jharrel Jerome about physically and emotionally inhabiting the part of Cootie, as well as with Michael Ellenberg, one of the executive producers of the show.
Michael, what sparked the idea of I’m A Virgo?
Michael Ellenberg: I had seen Sorry To Bother You (directed by Boots Riley) when it was released a few years ago and I was blown away… I had not seen anything like it before. It was a blend of absurdist-surrealist humour. It had big political ideas packaged in humour. It was a wonderful political satire with a blend of many elements that I hadn’t seen before. And I thought: ‘He has to make a series!’ I chased Boots hard and fortunately, he agreed to work with us. He pitched this idea of a 13-foot-tall giant who leaves his house for the first time on his 19th birthday… and we jumped at it. I liked his notion of flipping the superhero dynamic on its head… here the hero is a figure of oppression.
Jharrel, what was your first reaction when you heard of this story?
Jharrel Jerome: The first time I heard the story was from a personal email that Boots sent me. And the subject of the email said: ‘Thirteen-foot tall Black man in Oakland’ (smiles). Immediately, I was intrigued and curious as anybody would be if you were to read that logline. Once I read the email, I immediately hit up Boots and we met for lunch a week later and he sat and told me his whole idea and how he wanted to shoot it in forced perspective (a technique that utilises optical illusions to make objects appear larger, smaller, farther away, or closer than they are). I thought it would be a challenge, as well as something fresh and new and so I went for it.
Jharrel, the physical aspect apart, what was it like emotionally inhabiting this part?
Jharrel: Honestly, it’s a weird thing to say… but it was fun! (Laughs) It was fun to figure Cootie out because he is not one linear person, he is not one linear way. He is a lot of things… he’s very smart, very well-read and intelligent but he is also a little socially awkward. He doesn’t know it all, but he feels like he does (laughs). So it was fun to toe the line between feeling comfortable and then feeling uncomfortable… feeling like he knew it one moment and then doubting whether he did the next. Like feeling like this was the right way to flirt with a woman, and then realising that maybe it wasn’t (smiles). It was a lot of that kind of stuff.
Would you count that as a good challenge to have?
Jharrel: Ya, absolutely! Added to that was the technical challenge of shooting it in forced perspective. I had miniature prop pieces with me and I never looked at my scene partners in the eye at all… I always looked at a green ‘X’ mark. And it was very hard to say lines to a piece of tape and imagine what my scene partner was doing in return. So a lot of it was technically challenging.
What do you think makes Cootie’s story specific yet universal and relevant?
Jharrel: I think there are a lot of things that make Cootie relatable and relevant, specifically his energy, his heart and his soul. I think we can all relate to that. He has this trait of wanting to change and just fit in. Cootie is the epitome of an outcast… he is the definition of someone who is different, someone who is forced to deal with the idea that he is not like everybody else. I think we all have a little bit of that in ourselves… when we walk outside on some days, we don’t feel like ourselves. While watching Cootie, you just want to root for him and cheer for him because it’s almost like cheering for a little version of yourself.Michael: The spark, I think, for Boots was that this story is literal — we are talking about a giant of a man — but it is also deeply personal for him. He was that boy, and he also feels like that boy now in some ways. Cootie is a grown man, but the notion of feeling both special as well as frightening to the world is, I feel, very universal. It is also specific in terms of Cootie being an African-American man and trying to find his own voice.
Michael, what would you say is the key to balancing a story which is universally relevant and yet so specific?
Michael:I’m A Virgo always keeps an eye on the fact that it is a coming-of-age story. You see that in every episode. Cootie is coming of age socially and politically and also learning who he is as a son as well as a young man. That’s always happening inside these much bigger societal ideas. When they are integrated and come together fully, it becomes a story for all kinds of audiences.What do you think the audience can take back from watching this story?
Jharrel: I think people are going to take away a lot of things, depending on who they are and where they watch it and what they are going through. Boots is very strong at writing about anti-capitalism and if there is anything to take away from this subject, it’s the conversation about capitalism and the effect it has on the country and the system that we are in. I think a lot of Black stories are usually about the side effects of capitalism. Boots is actually attacking the source with this one.Michael: It is quite a joyride. First and foremost, Boots is joyous… he wants you to know that one doesn’t need to follow all the rules that society lays down for us. The show tells us that what you have been given in life need not be permanent… you can challenge it, you can make something different out of it. And so you go on this joyride that’s free and loose. We hope the energy is infectious and the audience can take it back with them.