Interview: Nicole Beharie (‘Miss Juneteenth’) on collaboration, pageants and taking big risks
One of 2020’s Sundance debuts that is making a mark at this time of year is Miss Juneteenth. The film, written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, is rooted in a specific community in Fort Worth Texas and the world of pageants.
Nicole Beharie (Shame, 42, and TV’s Sleepy Hollow) stars as Turquoise Joines, a performance that has earned her a Gotham Awards nomination for Best Actress. She was once Miss Juneteenth, a title commemorating the day slaves in Texas were freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Turquoise works as a waitress and barmaid while grooming her 15-year old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to try for the title and the coveted scholarship that comes with it.
Peoples’ film has a slow, meditative tempo as it shows us Turquoise’s life and the people in it. The character is a real star turn for Beharie and she commands the screen taking charge as the lead of this character study of a woman trying to thrive and build a life for her daughter. We recently talked to Beharie on the phone about the film and that’s where we started the conversation.
Murtada Elfadl: Congratulations on the film I saw at Sundance, and then saw it again last night to talk to you and I’ve just been struck by it since. I thought about it and talked to friends about it and recommended it all year.
Nicole Beharie: Thank you.
You’re welcome. And one thing that I wanted to ask you about first is that the movie seems to be a character study and a collaboration with the director Channing Godfrey Peoples. Can you talk about that, please?
Oh, I love that. Thank you for such a great and specific question. The character study. Initially I auditioned and came in with my general understanding having lived in the south, in Georgia and South Carolina, of who this character is. And also a general understanding of what pageants are. Then working with and speaking with Channing, she made it very clear that it was really about this nook. This very particular community in Fort Worth, Texas. That was the community that she was born in, where she was raised and reared and that she wanted to honor.
And so that became the character study. It’s almost like doing a biopic without doing the biopic. I wasn’t playing one woman, it was a series of people that I’ve met in Texas that, I think, shaped my director’s vision and what she wanted people to see and feel from the character. And so our collaboration became about meeting people in the community. Before I even went down to Texas, I asked her for dialect samples, because as you can tell, I don’t speak like Turquoise. I listened to a bunch of different tapes. Some I liked, some I thought I don’t want to do it that hard. We collaborated on finding her dialect and the way that she spoke. Then the way that she looked. Initially you read she’s an ex debutante pageant winner and she’s pushing her daughter into pageants. So you’re thinking Glam! She was like no no no no she’s hard working, she’s on hard times. I’m like yeah but she still has time to glam.
And she goes I want you to meet some of these women. That’s interesting, I didn’t see it that way on the page. I thought she was going to be still in that Texas pageant mode. It was very different but refreshing. It’s the thing that makes Turquoise, I don’t want to say approachable, but someone that everyone can relate to. Her daughter is the most important thing to her she puts her money and her time and everything in. That’s where the collaboration and the character study started for me. I was coming in with some other ideas and then I realized it is a very specific thing. Okay, cool. I actually like that. And so I got to meet all these people and build a person out of the experiences that they showed me and ultimately some of my own.
I liked what you said about how she’s not glam, because to me she was very unadorned. When I interview actors they talk about how they usually find the character through the costumes, the wigs, from the outside in. You mentioned talking to some people, how else did you find Turquoise?
I was fortunate enough to go down there to Fort Worth, Texas. The production and Channing were smart enough to say, let’s go work at the bar for a second. Let’s spend some time in these spaces. Check out the funeral home. I was also insistent on it once I realized how specific it was. I was also aware of the fact that basically everybody was from Texas but me. A lot of the speaking roles were locals. Literally everyone other than Alexis Chikaeze and Kendrick Sampson were from that particular community, and those two are also from Texas. I wanted to be able to blend in. So it was listening and watching and being respectful. People in Fort Worth,Texas are real, they are not biting their tongue. If I asked how my dialect sounds, people would say it like it is. (laughs). That doesn’t happen in LA, but it was actually wonderful.That’s kind of how I got into it. Then the heart of it is wanting to protect my daughter and wanting something better for her and wanting to see her excel, something that everyone can connect to in their own way. So I had to pull on some of my own heart’s desires and work with that.
It’s a wonderful performance. And some of the beats that I really loved about it are idiosyncratic. There are quiet moments but there are times when Turquoise shows another fiery side. Like when she’s talking to her daughter about her competitor in the pageant and she says “I beat her” emphatically with pride. Or when she’s talking to her boss at the funeral home about his ex and she says “That girl would have drank your bathwater.” Two small but very different moments that show a completely other side of Turquoise, and that really stuck out to me. Can you talk about finding the different notes to the performance.
Funny you watch very closely. Wow, you really watched. That’s so interesting. So my understanding of her is that she’s someone who survived in that community. The way that she had to navigate being in the juke joint bar culture, running it. The kind of people that you have to come across, the sights and the drugs. All those things we didn’t get into, but obviously that’s the part of it. Having to scrape and save to take care of your child. There’s going to be grit and street savvy. An awareness and a sense of humor. She’s a young sexual woman. We didn’t lean into that a great deal but there were a few moments where there was an opportunity to give a flash. Yes I’m playing a mom with moral standing and a high moral compass and she loves her daughter. But there’s another dimension to her. She also has to be a human being and have some flaws and have a point of view, and an attitude. Make mistakes. There were a few opportunities there to do that. Like cigarette smoking and the moments of wanting to stay longer, wanting to linger a little bit more with her ex, knowing that it wasn’t good for her. There are just a few moments so thanks for noticing that. You don’t want to just be the perfect mother. She definitely has some humor but there wasn’t a lot. We tried to get so much in there while not overdoing it. Definitely wanted to bring some of that into the performance.
The grit definitely shows. One other specific moment that’s memorable is when you’re on the porch wearing the boots and the tiara and smoking. An indelible image on screen. Do you remember that day on set?
I do, yeah. What about it, what do you want to know?
Was it in the script? Or was it a moment that happened on set?
I think there was something like it in the script where she has on the tiara. I’m not going to take away Channing’s vision, but I think what happened if I’m remembering clearly is we sort of got to the end of the night and we needed stills. We were losing the house and needed to fill in gaps. They were just going to take stills. Then they said okay now we’re just gonna roll on this. They let me move around, I think we shot in a few places. Then ended up being on the steps. And like you were saying there was a lot to think about. Turquoise in that moment of the story was trying to sort out a few things. I think it was scripted but we didn’t know exactly how it’s gonna happen. It’s a pretty crazy photo. I remember seeing it after and being like what…
Yeah, It’s a very memorable moment in the movie.
I feel like that moment is 2020 for everyone. Like her on the porch with the crown and going through all those thoughts and emotions. That’s hashtag 2020.
That’s actually a question that I wanted to ask about 2020. How has this year which struck us all maybe shifted your priorities and what you’re looking for in your career and who to collaborate with. Has there been a shift in how you are thinking about what to do next?
I think what has shifted is my belief in what’s possible. When the world comes to a stop and you have time to think and see. There’s so much content out there. But there’s still holes and bits and pieces and things that we don’t get to see. I get so excited when I see a story l haven’t seen before. Like Unorthodox or Small Axe. Different nooks into different communities. I’m really into that. But not necessarily a change in how I’m picking because I still feel like I’ve always gravitated towards things that are exciting to me or interesting or collaborating with new fresh filmmakers. Great people to work with. But I think taking a little bit of the cap off of what is possible. I should be able to stretch a little bit more and play characters that are a little bit different. We can have a narrative film in a way that’s not necessarily in chronological order. Thinking about art a little bit differently. Because there’s so much content I think audiences are really mature and they have seen so much that I think it’s time to take bigger risks to keep people engaged, and to have real conversations. That’s where I am with that. Yeah, thank you for that question though.
Yeah, of course.
Congratulations on the Gotham nomination for Best Actress. Channing was also nominated for breakthrough director. What do awards and recognition mean to you? Especially for a performance like this where you really took hold of this movie and made it flow to your rhythm. People are noticing.
Honestly, I’m just honored that people are thinking of it in that way. It’s certainly not anything that I had expected. I would love it if more people saw the film and connected to it. That’s kind of kind of where I’m at with it. Awards, I guess, provide access and a sort of cachet I suppose that human beings are drawn to and respect. So that’s always good, right?
I’m not really sure how to answer that because it’s not something that I’ve ever really worked towards or understood. Certainly with this particular project, I went down to Texas and worked for like pennies on the shilling. But I loved doing it. I’m just surprised, I was honestly shocked. I was like Oh wow. So for me it’s an interesting ride but I hope that people get to see it. Then I also hope that whether we win awards or not, that whatever I’m doing next, because I’ve done a few projects since. They’ll be able to say this lady is a character actress. She does different things. Sometimes I find that people expect the last character that you were to walk into the room and they are like extremely disappointed if you are not that. I would love at least for this to maybe make people think oh she’s natural and that last character is not like Turquoise. That they’ll know I can maybe do different things, that you can take risks as an actress.
I’ve seen many of your roles and you definitely take risks, and you show different facets every time. You’re one of the actors whose name when I see the credits I get excited about watching the film. Who’s that for you?
There’s so many. Let me think. The first person that comes to my mind right now is Jessica Lange and Jeffrey Wright. Philip Seymour Hoffman rest in peace. Oh, man, there’s so many people, so many different styles. I’ve gotten the honor of working with some of them. Anthony Mackie he’s someone that thought was great, and then I got to do Black Mirror with him.
And on the flip side of that, especially for something like Miss Juneteenth, which is really trouted in its community and its specific culture. When you’re working on set do you think of the audience?
Yeah, I do. Not when I’m actually doing the work, not in the moment. I probably think of the audience more in the earlier stages. Asking what are we saying, how will people interpret whatever choice I make. We all come from different walks of life. I was raised by an immigrant mother in America so some of my perspective about things may be different. I have to sometimes make choices so that things aren’t lost in translation. In a way it’s like being bilingual. I’m technically West Indian but I’ve always played African American women. And then I try not to be too political or think about the audience in terms of what my character can or can not do. Actually, one of the things that you just said in your question about actors. There are directors that I get excited about working with. Like Steve McQueen who I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with.
You were wonderful in Shame.
Oh, thank you, thank you. Honestly that experience was so cool because he was capturing this part that people didn’t necessarily see. The love interest for this man in this indie. This Black woman, she’s not gonna do that, she’s not gonna have a one night stand or have an affair. Why not? That person exists. Those are the little things that excite me. When we get to push that tightly bound envelope. What will the audience judge? Does she have to be a completely upstanding citizen all the time? I think some of that is very limiting as an artist, as an actor. If you’re always thinking of what this is saying about your people or about women. I also think about those things too. So it’s a little bit of a dance.
My last question is about your collaboration with the young actress who played your daughter Alexis Chikaeze. Can you talk about finding that relationship that felt real on screen?
Yeah, she’s good. She’s really talented and so open. This was her first project or first job at all. And she came in and she was of course nervous and all that stuff but ready to go. All I can say is I suppose my literal actor mommy maternal instinct ignited and ,without overstepping, I wanted to be there for her and have this be a good experience. Help her “win” which is similar to the pageant. I wanted her to feel comfortable on the set, I wanted our dynamic to feel real. So we would sing songs in the background, sing Beyonce while we’re waiting around, having a good time. But then you also as an actor you endow your scene partner with all the stuff that they need. Sometimes people in romantic situations on set end up falling in love. I genuinely have a very warm special place in my heart for her. We connected in a really lovely way and I’m glad that people can feel it. She was so excellent and I’m really proud of her and I hope that we see more from her.
I hope so too. So, again, Nicole thank you so much for talking to me today and congratulations again on the film. I wish you all the success with it.
Thank you so much and thank you for all your kind words. Stay safe out there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Miss Juneteenth is available on DVD, On Demand and wherever you stream content.