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Jayme Lawson hasn’t wasted any time since graduating from Juilliard in May 2019. With her diploma in hand, Lawson immediately began pounding the pavement and booked her first movie, Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor, in a matter of weeks. Shortly thereafter, Lawson also landed a standout role in the off-Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls… And last but not least, in the fall of 2019, Lawson secured an integral role in Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s The Batman, which she just resumed shooting in October.
In Farewell Amor, Lawson plays an Angolan immigrant named Sylvia who reunites with her father (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) after 17 years apart. Along with her mother (Zainab Jah), Sylvia has to find a way to make up for lost time and get to know the man who’s essentially a complete stranger. Despite being from completely different backgrounds, Lawson instantly related to Sylvia’s plight.
“Simultaneously, with Sylvia, I was in that path of reconnecting with my dad and bridging that gap for different reasons than Sylvia’s,” Lawson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “For Sylvia, her father didn’t abandon her, but it felt that way. How do you reconcile this feeling like you were abandoned, even though that’s not what this man did? So, because of those similar journeys, I was able to pull from my life to connect and reimagine in Sylvia’s world.”
In January 2020, Warner Bros. announced that principal photography was underway on The Batman, and within the press release’s cast list, Lawson’s character was described as “mayoral candidate Bella Real.” While Lawson could neither confirm nor deny those character details, she does explain how she identifies with her character, and all but confirms that she is not a part of Batman’s storied history.
“To be quite honest, I am bluffing every day,” Lawson admits. “And I think that ties in with my character. She’s gotta fake it till she makes it. She’s running up against the big dogs. And so there’s not much transformation that’s happening when I show up on set. I am surrounded by a lot of great talent and I’ve just gotta fake it. So I will be as nervous as can be, but I can’t let it be known. So I just do what I’ve gotta do. It’s working out so far, so that’s good.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lawson also discusses the unique intimacy of Farewell Amor’s set, the specifics of her The Batman audition and her dream to make an action-spy movie.
You were cast in Farewell Amor just weeks after graduating Juilliard. Does that mean you auditioned while you were still in school?
Yeah, I think I was auditioning either around my graduation week or right after. I think it was right around May, and I was auditioning all the way through June.
When you’re enrolled in Juilliard, are you allowed to go out for jobs? Or do they want you to finish your education first?
Yeah, you’re not allowed to audition for anything, unless it’s something that’s going to happen over the summer. By the time your fourth year comes around, they’re pushing you more into the industry to take on auditions and things like that. But you basically sign an agreement that while you’re in school, you’re not going to take any outside work. You’ve got to make that sacrifice to be in school for four years straight, which is difficult. (Laughs.)
What acting technique were you primarily taught?
You’re never taught in that way. The teachers are all trained in various techniques, and so it was never, “Okay, here’s your Meisner technique class, here’s your Stanislavski, here’s your Uta Hagen.” It was none of that. It was just getting different perspectives every single day in every single class. So it was a mix of a lot of things that were recorded and things that were passed on through tradition, which is what made Juilliard so unique because you’re not focused necessarily on these specific techniques. They just give you things and you do what you can with it.
Upon her arrival in New York, Sylvia aspires to be a dancer. Did you connect with her fairly easily since you had just completed your own artistic pursuit in New York?
I connected with Sylvia based on her relationship with her father. What is it to know this man and to know that he exists? To have had some relationship with him early on in that fatal way, what is that like to be reunited with him 17 years later? What would I imagine he would look like when I saw him? Would I instantly love him like I think I should or thought I would? Would it feel like home? All those questions really intrigued me and grounded me for Sylvia. And specifically, her relationship with her mother and her best friend back home. What is that like to be completely upended and have to move to a whole new country after 17 years of making a home? Those were the things that really connected me with her.
Does your military family play into the father side of things?
Yeah, part of that had to do with military and just personal family issues. Where I come from, it’s kind of normal, unfortunately, that your father isn’t as present as you would like him to be, or is there and dips out — for whatever reason. And simultaneously, with Sylvia, I was in that path of reconnecting with my dad and bridging that gap for different reasons than Sylvia’s. For Sylvia, her father didn’t abandon her, but it felt that way. Her father was still meant to be looked at as this hero in her eyes because he’s out there providing a better life for her, but at the same time, how do you reconcile this feeling like you were abandoned, even though that’s not what this man did? So, because of those similar journeys, I was able to pull from my life to connect and reimagine in Sylvia’s world.
Sylvia’s father, Walter, talks about the dance floor and how it’s the only place he can be himself and show himself. Is that something you can relate to in terms of being on-stage or on-set?
100 percent. I get to be me under the guise of character. (Laughs.) So it’s the perfect release. It’s the perfect excuse for freedom. It’s the perfect excuse to just be myself, unabashedly, through the guise of “this is a character,” and what that allows me to have that I can’t have in my everyday life. You have to guard yourself every day, be polite and protect yourself. There are also certain things you can’t share with everybody, but when I get to act, I get to explore parts of myself that I didn’t even know were there. So it’s that freedom to explore and release. That’s why I love acting.
Aside from the scenes that connected, did you shoot each character’s section or act all at once? Or would Ekwa knock out a Walter-driven scene and a Sylvia-driven scene on the same day?
Because a lot of the scenes are the same, just from a different perspective, we’d essentially shoot a scene from Walter’s perspective, and then from Sylvia’s or Esther’s. It’s fascinating because you try to ignore what the other characters’ perspectives are. So the reward came when we all got to see the film and were like, “Oh that’s what was going on. That’s what everybody was dealing with.” Of course, you know the script and you know what’s in the script, but the nuances that each actor brought made it that much more rewarding to see how it all tied together. Particularly when we did the hospital scene, Sylvia had to go and get her arm checked out, and we first shot it from Walter’s perspective. Then, just off-screen, that gave me time to figure out and live in: what is Sylvia experiencing? What is she seeing? What is she noticing? Then, when that camera flips around, and to really indulge in that, I just love those moments. I love when we got to flip as we worked on those scenes.
Did you research families who’d been separated by the Angolan Civil War in a similar fashion?
Yeah, we had to look up and get familiar with what exactly happened in Angola. Even more specifically, Kuduro, which is the style of dance that Sylvia does, is bred out of that civil war. To the naked eye, it looks just like some form of Afro-Hip Hop dance, but it is bred out of that need of the youth trying to express the war that was happening through their bodies, and through movement. So a lot of research went into what exactly was going on, and then talking to Ekwa and getting her perspective. It’s based off of her uncle’s life, even though they’re not from Angola. And it’s based on that “what if?” question. What if they get reunited? And then on top of that, prior to shooting, we had two weeks of actual tablework between the three of us and Ekwa, just figuring out our backstory, getting real concrete into what our relationship was and what have we actually endured. What have we actually gone through? What have we actually seen and not seen?
Had you ever done a dialect that was remotely close to Sylvia’s?
Absolutely not. (Laughs.) This was the most difficult dialect I think I’ve ever done. I remember when I was auditioning for it, the casting director, Rebecca Dealy, prior to her bringing me in, had asked me, “Okay, have you ever done any step dancing before?” And I was like, “Yeah, when I was in middle school, I’d done steps.” And then she asked, “And are you familiar with African dialects? Do you have any?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve got some.” I was thinking mainly Nigerian and West African dialects, so I’m like, “Yeah, I have that.” So when she sent me sides and I’m listening to what an Angolan dialect sounds like, I was freaking out because it’s based in Portuguese and I’ve never had to train myself in that way. Man, that was intense dialect work. (Laughs.) Oh man. But it was definitely rewarding. Manuel, who was the dance instructor, would come on set and say, “Perfect.” He would just say that that’s what it sounds like back home. To get that approval from the source felt real good.
At a certain point, Sylvia performs Kuduro in front of a group of people. Even though it’s make-believe, is it still just as terrifying as it would be if you performed the steps as yourself?
100 percent. I have never done Kuduro so I wanted it to feel authentic. I wanted girls from Angola to look at this film and feel like she’s one of us. I wanted them to feel like I’m doing the style justice. So it was nerve-racking. It was absolutely nerve-racking having to do it over and over and over again. So yeah, it was easy to channel those nerves. Am I doing it right? Am I showing up right? Am I getting the heart of it? Is it guttural? Is it feeling as authentic as it was in rehearsal? All of that stuff.
Between the cast and crew, how cramped was Walter’s apartment set?
(Laughs.) As cramped as you could possibly imagine, that’s how cramped it was. Out here in Crown Heights, dead of the summer, no AC. Yeah. (Laughs.) But it was a fun time, though. It’s crazy to think now with Covid, a film like this can’t be made right now just because of how intimate it is and how intimate it required the cast and crew to be with filming. So it makes it that much more precious to me because I actually look back with fondness. Yeah, we were all cramped in that tiny apartment, but it was amazing. The collaboration that was happening on all fronts was absolutely amazing.
So you started your career at one end of the spectrum and you quickly ended up at the complete opposite end, that being The Batman. Was the difference between sets as jarring as one might expect?
In some ways, yes, and other ways, no. On Farewell Amor, we’re working with one camera, a small crew and a tiny cast. And then my first day showing up for Batman, we’re running four cameras simultaneously and I’ve never experienced that. Farewell Amor was my first time on a film set, so to jump into that… The crew is huge, and the production is huge. (Laughs.) So in that way, it was as jarring as I expected. But I still felt welcomed and like I belonged, which I wasn’t expecting. As a newbie, as a freshman in this industry, I was really scared that when I got there, Matt (Reeves) was going to look at me and be like, “Well, why did we hire her? What is going on? Get somebody else in the room.” (Laughs.) But it wasn’t that at all. I felt and still feel like I belong in those rooms. And the crew is amazing on Batman. Everybody is just so warm and lovely. You hear horror stories about your first set experience with a big cast, and it just wasn’t that and it hasn’t been that. So that was a beautiful surprise. That was a real, real nice surprise to have.
Did The Batman feel surprisingly intimate at times?
What’s interesting is we didn’t get much done before Covid hit. And so, from when I was there, the feeling on that set was far from sterile, in my experience. So it’s not going to be the same kind of intimacy that you get on Farewell Amor. But just by nature of the story, what the storyline requires and the nature in which everything is conducted, there was still a sense of familiarity on that set, whether you knew people for years or were just showing up. Now, during Covid, it’s just hard to have that kind of intimacy on a set right now and you can feel everybody wanting to. When I went back out in October and I saw the crew, I almost cried because I hadn’t seen these faces in so long. Everybody wants to hug and touch and talk, but we’re on a tight schedule and we can’t because of protocols. But the feeling is still there and the desire is still there.
Given the circumstances, do you feel as safe as you possibly can on that set?
100 percent. I remember talking with [producer] Dylan Clark over the summer; I’d ask him questions and he’d keep me up to date with the protocols. So they’ve been very forthcoming and open about making sure that we feel safe and have whatever we need, at any moment. So I feel absolutely safe being on set for that production.
When you first got the call, did you run and scream through the streets of Crown Heights?
(Laughs.) It was funny because I was at the gym when my agent called me. So I actually whispered because I couldn’t scream. I was in public and I was very much aware of my surroundings. (Laughs.) It was mainly a shock because I could’ve sworn they had gone with somebody else; it had been so long. I didn’t even go in thinking I was going to get it. I just went in because I wanted to impress [casting director] Cindy (Tolan). And so, for this to come out of it, it was like, “Oh my god.” And it took a while for it to sink in, like what was actually happening. It wasn’t until I actually showed up to my first day, that I was like, “Oh wow. This is it. This is big.” My mom screamed for me, though, when I told her. She went absolutely ballistic. (Laughs.)
Did you send in a tape first, or did you go in to read?
Yeah, I went in. This was while we were still in rehearsal for For Colored Girls at The Public. So on a lunch break, I just went in and auditioned for Cindy. And then, maybe a few weeks later, they brought me in again with some new material. And then I didn’t hear until a month and a half later. So at that point, you think, “Oh, they’ve gone with somebody else. It’s done. It’s over.” So yeah, it had been a minute.
At least it wasn’t one of those six-to-nine month processes that Star Wars is known for doing.
Yeah, in that respect, it was quick. I went in in September and found out in November. So, not bad at all, but you’re not expecting it. You kind of let it go. And it’s crazy. When you’re not concerned with actually booking the material, it’s those auditions that you actually end up booking. You’re just going in to be friendly with the casting director or impress the director enough to think of you for another project. It’s one of those games we play with ourselves to not be overwhelmed with what’s actually in front of you. (Laughs.)
Did you audition with fake sides each time?
Wow, I wasn’t expecting to hear that.
Yeah, some details and names may have been changed, but yeah, I was shocked. There wasn’t too much trying to make something secretive or anything like that.
There are some heavy hitters in this movie, whether it’s the actors or the characters they play. How did you calm your nerves on your first day?
I don’t think I did. (Laughs.) I still haven’t. To be quite honest, I am bluffing every day. (Laughs.)
Fake it till you make it.
Oh yeah, oh yeah. And I think that ties in with my character. She’s gotta fake it till she makes it. She’s running up against the big dogs. And so there’s not much transformation that’s happening when I show up on set. I am surrounded by a lot of great talent and I’ve just gotta fake it. So I will be as nervous as can be, but I can’t let it be known. (Laughs.) So I just do what I’ve gotta do. It’s working out so far, so that’s good.
Did you do a deep dive into all the relevant Batman comics?
No, I didn’t. Yeah, no. (Laughs.)
I think I’m picking up what you’re putting down.
Are you cherishing your last days of anonymity?
Yeah, definitely. And purposefully, in a way, I’m trying to savor that. With everything that’s happening, looking for moments of joy and potential blessings is a must, and what Covid has done, in a weird way, has given me more time with my family. Since I’ve been in school, this is the most that I’ve seen them in five years. And so it’s grounded me to get back in touch with my foundation, where I come from and who I am. This industry can get a little crazy, and so I never want to lose my footing, especially with how the year started at Sundance. I’d just finished off-Broadway, and then I was going to film in the UK. It felt like a whirlwind until this sudden stop. It’s just been really great to cherish this quiet time and really take advantage of that because hopefully, within the next year or so, it’s not going to be a thing anymore. So I’m taking full advantage of it as I can.
Do you find yourself scrutinizing every word and every image you publish online now?
I am very conscious, especially this year, in particular. Everything with social media just feels so frivolous right now because of what a lot of people are going through, not just in this country, but globally. We’re hurting. So I found myself in a space where if I’m not talking about anything of relevance to the pain that people are feeling, I’m just not going to post anything. There’s no need for me to share any photos or do anything. So I try to be respectful in that area. Even when I’m on social media, I don’t care about what people are posting right now because our country is going through a lot. So everything else feels like excess, and that’s just how I think about things, in general. Is what I’m putting out into the world not just helping me, but helping my community or other communities? If not, then maybe it’s time to just sit back, don’t do anything and learn, or be educated or let somebody else take that space. So that’s how I want to continue moving through my career.
According to the Internet, you performed a lot of Shakespeare while at school. Is that something you’d like to continue doing on-screen and on-stage?
Yeah. Look, I love language. So I’ve already figured out pretty early on that I need both theater and film. I can’t wait till theater gets back up and running, my God. I got into acting because of my love of language and playwrights like Ntozake Shange, who was one of the first playwrights I read back when I was 13 years old. Lorraine Hansberry, too. So I fell in love with language, and naturally, Shakespeare is something that I enjoy. So yeah, when theater gets back up and going, I’m going to be looking for stuff to do, for sure. (Laughs.)
A lot of actors have told me that they prefer the high of the stage because it’s not as stop and go as film or television. Do you also prefer the sustained energy of the stage?
I love both for really different reasons. On the stage, there is that high of once you step out, the play belongs to the actors and the audience. That energy that’s happening on stage is being shared with not just your scene partners, but also with an entire audience. That’s what makes everything new every single night. At least you hope to live in something new every single night. You’re saying the same words over and over again, but every single night, it’s different and you’re discovering. And I love that. So far with film, I’ve found that there is a level of intimacy that I haven’t yet found in theater. I may find it in a rehearsal room, but the moment we step on that stage, because you’re having to share it with a hundred or more people, it doesn’t necessarily belong to you. It doesn’t belong to you in that moment. Whereas on film, all that energy that’s charged up, that is expanding, is now having to be brought in so tight. So everything is more immediate and bubbling on the surface when I’m on a film set. And I find that a day of filming is basically the entire rehearsal process and show run on stage. It’s all condensed into one day of filming. (Laughs.) So that’s a different kind of high. You’re just like, “God, I’ll never have another chance to do this again. I have to get it done today.” So you’re trying to find all the nuances that maybe, with stage, you have four weeks to find and four more weeks to find when it’s in its run. It’s just more condensed. So that’s why I love both.
And lastly, if you could green light a role or genre for yourself, what’s the character or movie you’ve been dreaming about all these years?
Ooh. I would love to do an action-spy movie. I’ve always loved those, so much so that I would pretend to be a secret spy as a kid. (Laughs.) I was just obsessed with double agents and all of that action. So I would love to get into that at some point, but there are many others. There are so many different things that I want to do that are now being written for someone like me. It’s just a really exciting time to be in this industry.
Farewell Amor is available Dec. 11 in select theaters and on digital and VOD.
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