Jeremy Pope’s origin story began in Orlando, Florida, and it was clear to him what his evolution would involve from the beginning. “I knew I was a creator,” he recalls. “I loved to sing. I loved music. I loved art. I loved theatre.”
And here we are, it’s true, the manifestation of Pope-as-artist is among us. He has just finished up on Broadway playing none other than Jean-Michel Basquiat in The Collaboration, written by Anthony McCarten, alongside acting vet, Paul Bettany, as Andy Warhol. The Basquiat-Warhol duo have performed this piece in London’s West End, then made a feature film of the story, and now the story has come home to NYC. Again, Pope knew this trajectory for his work and self was somewhere to be found, as long as he kept seeking. “After doing plays and musicals in high school, I just continued to follow those experiences,” he says. “I just continued to say ‘yes’ to experiences that brought me closer to opportunities doing that.”
And the opportunities have abounded, and only look to be growing. Notably, Pope has starred in A24’s The Inspection, directed by Elegance Bratton, where Pope spellbinds as a gay Black man in the Marines. The performance has garnered awards nominations and saw him win Best Actor at the AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association) Awards. Indeed, Pope’s range is something that sets him apart from most actors today. He can pierce with eyes and good looks, yet also maintain a kind of elegant masculinity, ultimately captivating the audience, particularly with a performance he gave in Netflix mini-series Hollywood, which garnered him an Emmy nomination. Or again back to crooning, a talent and knack Pope picked up early on, growing up in the church, where he played Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations in the musical, Ain’t Too Proud, and as Pharus Jonathan Young in Choir Boy, both Broadway hits, that led to Pope being double-nominated for Tony Awards.
In terms of whether the stage or screen is more interesting to Pope, he maintains candor, balancing the fruits and challenges of each medium. “Full transparency,” he shares, “the difference is usually the paycheck, as far as working on stage and doing million dollar movies. But my training began working on stage, and there is nothing like the energy that’s transferred when you’re performing in a show every night, with a different audience, and I consider the audience to be kind of the last character of the play, because they inform you how the world works. It’s magical and transformational. I feel so fortunate whenever I’m on stage. To be able to tell a story from beginning to end without someone yelling ‘cut.’”
Pope admits the nature of the stage can be a beast of its own making, “The theater is very hard and challenging, and that’s the balance I’ve had to find over the years. It is something that is most times a labor of love, and you have to care about the story and the art, because it does take a lot out of you. And you just don’t have as much free time—you get one day off where you can get groceries or do laundry and stay a human, but most of the time you’re at your theater every night doing your show with your cast.”
Although the rigors of the stage are not lost on Pope, he admits that therein lies the beauty and fun of the job—the fact that he got to rehearse and play with the script for an extended period of time and it remained exciting, “We just celebrated our 50th Broadway show last night of The Collaboration, and I’m still in rehearsal, and I’m still playing and trying and finding, and I love that aspect of working on stage you get to rediscover every night on stage, and you stumble into things just by kind of showing up to the character and the story.” Pope pauses, then continues, “I’m very grateful to be able to explore in all the mediums and to be able to adapt, and I think the beauty of working on screen is that there can be more subtle and nuanced work, if you will, because the camera will tell the audience where to look, whereas on stage it’s a different way of guiding your audience to where they should be responding.
Not only is Pope straddling the worlds of stage and screen, but he is also finding avenues to perform as an actor and singer. “What I love about music is that it’s universal. I love how our hearts and our minds respond to music, and really brilliant songs are often songs of story and feelings and emotion and a journey,” Pope says, pondering. “If we take the time to break down the lyrics of songs they may be simple, but they can penetrate someone’s heart and soul. I love when those mediums meet [acting and music], like in some really special musicals, where characters can’t find the words anymore so they break out into song, and I’ve had the privilege to work in musicals that do that.”
We can only imagine that being a multi-faceted artist will require a certain level of focus when choosing what to work on next, and commit time to excavating. Pope is keen on creating a roadmap for himself every year as an artist, “I set an intention board. Intentions, feelings, vibrations. A list of things that I want to accomplish, things that feel scary. I feel like if you’re not scared, you might need to find a couple things that do scare you and feel almost impossible, or you’re not quite sure how that would happen, and put them on the board. Start to manifest the people you want to work with, and projects you want to work on and follow that.”
Pope speaks further on this process, “I always go: ‘What’s my why? Why am I here? Why spend time doing this?’ I also don’t want to be bored on someone else’s journey,” he says, “I’ve found when I have rooted myself in taking jobs for financial reasons, it hasn’t been the most fulfilling. I feel that being an artist is a very vulnerable and sensitive and emotional thing, and whether it’s the biggest hit or not, [what matters is], is it something I care about, and will I be excited to talk about it, and while talking about it, I don’t have to name drop to validate said experience. I try to center myself and ask myself ‘why’?”
With this understanding of Pope’s process, it is much less surprising as to why he chose to sink his proverbial teeth into the role of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the renowned being the heart and soul anti-establishment artist par excellence. But, of course, Basquiat could play in many worlds—the traditionally white capitalistic art spaces, and the underground graffiti and music scene. Pope’s thoughts on why he was compelled to explore Basquiat resonate deeply within him, “We can’t look at culture, music, or art, without acknowledging the influence and impact that Basquiat had. He wasn’t on this earth for very long, but he had such an impact. He was such a special unicorn of an individual, and anyone I've met that had the privilege of being around speaks of his heart. I was intrigued to try and understand the heart and soul of the man. I’m intrigued by specifically Black artists who have left a legacy, because I hope to have longevity as an artist.” Pope pauses, parsing out his next feeling, “But I often wonder about the cost of being an artist, because there is a chipping that happens when you give yourself, and when you love so much, and give that away to the world, and how that affects the artist. And also how I can be better about protecting myself. That was my ‘why’ with The Collaboration: excavating behind the canvas and trying to understand the fragility and vulnerability of being a Black artist in a predominantly white industry, and what that means, and what's being asked of you, and how you have to shape-shift, but still be asked to create from a place of honesty, and sometimes that honesty is painful.”
It seems like a distinct luxury, and a distinct challenge, for Pope to unveil his full being in multiple mediums. Fortunately, he does it so well, and fortunately he does it with such open-hearted grace, “From my own experience of trying to navigate success and life and wants and desires and people’s desires for you, I try to nuanced performances with what I know,” he concludes. And that nuance continues to grow alongside vital questions like: what Pope knows, who Pope is, what is Pope’s ‘why,’ and what graceful incantations are to be birthed next in the course of the artist’s methodical unfurling.
Photographed by Hao Zeng
Styled by Alexander-Julian Gibbson
Written by Augustus Britton
Groomer: Jai Williams
Producer: Jean Jarvis
Photo Assistants: Andrew Leguillow and Ivan Leon
Groomer Assistant: Jennifer Green
Location: AREA 1202 STUDIO
Flaunt Film: Pierce Jackson