Dear White People interview: Jeremy Tardy on playing Rashid, the show’s cultural resonance

Jeremy TardyIf you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, Dear White People is one of the shows handed down by Netflix so far this year. While it’s incredibly very funny, it’s also powerful, relevant, and a breath of fresh air in terms of perspective and diversity. Within this show, (which chronicles the lives of many young men and women at racially-divided Winchester University), is Jeremy Tardy’s character of Rashid. He is a highly-intelligent young man from Kenya proficient in multiple languages, and he’s also responsible for many of the show’s best one-liners and commentary. He’s a character we certainly want to see more of in the event the series gets picked up for a second season.

In our exclusive interview with him, we had a chance to speak with Tardy on playing this role, the training that he did for his accent, his improv leanings, and also the social relevance of a show like this in what is clearly a country divided just as much as the aforementioned school.

CarterMatt – How long were you filming?

Jeremy Tardy – It took about two months. We started in September, and we actually ended on Election Day. So, around November 8.

What was the experience like actually getting to sit down and watch the show?

It was really a pleasure to sit down and watch it. I had read the scripts, but I wasn’t in all of the episodes. So with episodes 3 and 4, I didn’t see what happened. I had a general sense, but because I wasn’t in it I didn’t know the full extent of what they were about. I was focusing more on my portion and my own bit; seeing it all together as one piece was a really cool experience. I was very inspired by the work that I was seeing my fellow actors do! Knowing them and knowing their personalities on set [was wonderful], but seeing their craft and their work come together on screen was inspiring and really great to watch.

In looking back at the show now, how proud of you are it? I mean it is incredibly funny at times, but in terms of taking on social issues it’s really powerful and emotional. I’m not sure there’s another show out there like it.

I’m very proud of it. I think it’s very much a part of this cultural zeitgeist. There is this push for stories by people of color about people of color, and for people of color. It’s exposing realities and personalities that you really wouldn’t get on network television or any other platform. Netflix, Ted Sarandos, his whole team, and Lionsgate have really been great. They’ve made it a great environment for the writers to tell their stories. We have a great team of writers alongside [creator] Justin Simien, who have the space and liberty to bring out whatever they need to in order to bring these stories to life. Sometimes it’s with Troy, the young black man who’s trying to be on the right track, handling the pressure of being like Obama and trying to do the right thing every time. Or, you look at Coco and Reggie. They’re all coming from authentic and vulnerable places.

With Coco, for example, you see this black woman start to come apart in ways you don’t often get. I didn’t expect that myself. One of my favorite scenes is with her and Troy, where they are having sex and at a certain point her wig comes off. Then, she has this whole moment where she goes in her shell. That was a very revealing and vulnerable moment, and I’m proud that the writers and the whole team is pushing this reality forward. It’s really giving people perspective.

One of the things that I was excited to speak with you about was your accent on the show, since it was so good that I didn’t know what your speaking voice would sound like. What did you do to prepare for that? Did you work with a specific dialect coach?

I didn’t work with a dialect coach, but that was something that was considered. I went to Juilliard, and I worked with some of the best dialect coaches in the world. One of them was a woman named Deb Hecht who was one of my voice teachers. She did a lot of coaching for Broadway, and she gave us a lot of the tools and techniques to do so much of that on our own without having to depend on someone else.

So for me, I was blessed because a friend of mine put me in touch with a young guy from Kenya who was in New York. I just recorded him during conversations and asked him questions about things that only somebody who lived there would know. I would really get the perspective of living there in Kenya. All of that good stuff. I also made a point of listening to a Kenyan comedian in Erick Omondi, and I would listen to a Senator in Mike Mbuvi. I also listened to a lot of Swahili, one of the bigger languages in Kenya. I wanted to get the fullest range of the spectrum in the time that I had to prepare. I wanted to listen to the Kenyan comedian to get a sense of his rhythm and the way he communicates, and then also someone who was a little bit more diplomatic in the Senator. I tried to get a nice little range, and put myself at the middle of it. I’m still working on it. I’m getting some encouragement and some criticism of it, so I want to plug myself in and do the best work possible.

At Juilliard was comedy something you specifically pursued? Rashid has so many good lines within the show and he’s such a naturally funny character.

A lot of that is because of the writers, but they also give us so much room to ad-lib and improv. In auditioning for the show, my callback was basically an improv session working with Jemar Michael, who plays Al on the show. He was in my callback session and they just gave us the scene, but they also asked us to improv and riff off of what was written. There are moments that ended up being in the final footage, whether it be with myself or other people, which are improv and that’s great.

In terms of training for comedy, we definitely had a good bit of that. I took clown classes and all sorts of classes that were all about bringing out humor and basically bringing out your inner child, which is so important in the work that we do. It’s all about trying to find those moments of exploring what’s possible. It could lead to humor, but the end goal isn’t necessarily to be funny. It’s more about exploring colors and nuances that wouldn’t otherwise be on the page.

Were there any specific lines you remember that were improv and made it into the show?

For me, in episode 5 — which is the pivotal episode of the series so far — there were two moments that were definitely improv. Barry Jenkins was directing that episode, and the whole team understood where it was going. He wanted to bring out the levity so that when the moment happens with the gun, it happens almost out of nowhere. There is a scene with Rashid where he’s talking with Kordell, and Kordell is talking to him about Jesus and about missionaries. Kordell tells him that without missionaries, Africa wouldn’t have Christianity. In that particular moment we were kind of between takes, but they were still rolling and we didn’t know that. We were just going and trying to stay hot, and I’ve heard that a lot of people fell out of their chairs when I say ‘so I am Jesus’ after Kordell says something about Jesus living inside all of us. All of that was improv.

Later in the episode before the party, we basically leave the movie theater and everybody’s complaining. Rashid says ‘I’m going back to Kenya’ and that was improv (laughs). Barry was just telling us to keep going.

Jeremy Tardy

Have you thought about what a Rashid standalone episode could look like in the event that the show gets another season?

I was recently at a panel discussion for the show, and Justin Simien and Barry Jenkins were speaking. Justin, in speaking about his goals and anticipation for more of the series, he explicitly made it clear that he wants to see Rashid with his own episode, and people like Joelle and Al with their own episodes. We see them through the perspectives of other people. He wants to see one where it is through the eyes of Rashid.

Right now, we really don’t know what Rashid does, what he’s at school for, or where he comes from specifically and what his whole deal is. I mean, he speaks five languages! I want to see Rashid speaking those five languages and seeing him in a context where he would be speaking those languages. I want to get a sense of what his culture shock is coming to America. That was a big thing in one of my conversations [with one of the contacts from Kenya], trying to see this world through this man’s eyes, coming to America and studying there … I would love to really explore what the juxtaposition is of what his lifestyle was in Kenya and what his lifestyle is in America. I’m not saying he comes from poverty or anything — I actually think he probably comes from privilege and is an intelligent young man with an upper-class family. Seeing him in Africa would be pretty dope.

You mentioned earlier that filming ended on Election Day, and this is obviously a show that tries to be very relevant. So many of us want to hope that race relations in America are getting better, but unfortunately all you have to do is look around to realize that it’s not. Do you think that some of these politics will play a part in a season 2?

Definitely. Nobody really knew what course the entirety of the election was going to take. If only because of pure hope and to not be in the situation that we’re in now, but I think the proclivity for the writers was to lean towards a Hillary Clinton presidency and what that would look like in 2017 or 2018, and what that could look like potentially for the students.

We haven’t alluded too much to the political situation in season 1, but it’s very relevant and present in the relationships between the diverse groups of people in the show. As far as any real anticipation for the political climate or issues with it, there was a real consciousness to it but I don’t think the writers are too heavily trying to incorporate that. I don’t think there’s a pressure to pull it in because it reads through in the lines, and in the spaces between the lines.

Is there anything else you want to talk about that you’ve got going on?

I actually just worked on an awesome short film about Gary Brackett, a linebacker for the Colts. They’re getting it together to make it into a feature, and I got to work with some great actors — Michael Beach, Dexter Darden, and Elise Neal were involved.

I have recently formed my own production company, so I’m in the process of producing a film right now. It’s a little too early to reveal what it is, but it’s going to be a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

Thanks to Jeremy for speaking to us here at CarterMatt! As always, we welcome your thoughts on it in the comments! We also suggest that you check out Dear White People on Netflix if you haven’t already – it’s really great.

Also, be sure to check out some more of the feature-length interviews that we have up on CarterMatt. (Photo: Netflix.)

 

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