Interview: Co-Stars of Just Mercy on Finding Their Characters and How the Film Changed Them

Now playing in theaters nationwide is the powerful and thought-provoking Just Mercy, a true story based on the book by Harvard Law School-educated civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan), who moved to Alabama to defend those wrongfully condemned or those who were not afforded proper representation. The first case he takes on is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old girl—a killing that it was virtually impossible for him to commit, which doesn’t make a difference to the new District Attorney (Rafe Spall) or the arresting officers.

Just Mercy
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The film was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12 and the upcoming martial arts-focused Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and co-stars Brie Larson as Stevenson’s devoted local advocate Eva Ansley, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as McMillian’s fellow death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton (who Stevenson also represented), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and most recently on the acclaimed HBO series “Watchmen”) as prisoner Ralph Myers who lied in court about McMillian’s involvement in the murder, and Karan Kendrick (The Hate U Give) as Walter’s wife Minnie.

We had a chance to sit down with Nelson and Kendrick in October, while they were attending the Chicago International Film Festival where Just Mercy had its Chicago premiere. Our conversation covered navigating the labyrinthian legal and political distortion of justice and racial equality that this case epitomized, and why it remains important to tell stories such as this. Please enjoy…

Your two characters could not represent more different aspects of this story. But what do you both remember responding to initially about your specific characters when you first read the screenplay or book?

Karan Kendrick: I had never seen a woman like Minnie McMillian in a script. I had not seen this southern, black woman who had to make these choices for herself and for her family. She reminded me of the women who raised me, and that was immediately a draw. The more I learned about Bryan Stevenson and the work that he was doing, it was an honor and privilege to help amplify his story. For decades, he’s been doing this work, and I only knew on a very surface level about what he was doing. I didn’t know to the extent he was changing our country. And we are on two ends of the spectrum, and yet our characters are so incredibly connected.

I can’t imagine any actor not wanting to play Ralph. What do you remember responding to initially about him?

Tim Blake Nelson: First and foremost, it was the notion that it was going to be a movie about Bryan Stevenson, and I knew that was going to be interesting. Of course, I was curious how in the world I was going to fit into all of that, knowing a little bit about him already from the NPR story that I’d heard a few years before, maybe a year before. I also know about the Equal Justice Initiative [the non-profit organization Stevenson founded, based in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial], and then when I read Ralph Myers, I definitely wanted to play him but I wasn’t sure how I could get there without it seeming put on. So really, the exciting challenge for me was finding him from the inside, rather than just an applique process. It was that right balance of fear and enticement with the role.

And you’re right, any actor is going to want to play a role like this, at least a character actor, and to some degree, I think a lot of lead actors are character actors, so that’s not to disparage anyone. So I felt like this was something I had to do because of both the overall thing of it, the nature of it, and then the challenge of the character, which frightened me a bit.

That’s interesting that you say it was about finding him from the inside, because that’s what it’s like for the audience as well. When he’s introduced to us, it’s done so in a very specific way, almost like he’s a monster in the way he looks and how self serving he is. But the arc of this guy is remarkable, maybe the most dramatic of anyone in the film. That had to be a motivating factor for you: “Just wait until you see where this goes.”

TBN: Oh yeah, it was that. And we shot the last scene first, the courtroom scene. Again, I like to look at that as an opportunity; anything that happens on a set should be looked at as an opportunity, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy with self-doubt and complaint and a reservoir of excuses to which you can go when you’re thirsty for them. So, I saw that that’s the way it was scheduled, and my first reaction was “Oh, shoot. I don’t want to do that first.” And then, I said “Alright, it’s a challenge, Tim. You’ve got to learn from where he goes and let that inform what he was before that,” which is really the way you need to approach it. It was a host of challenges, but every one of us who did this film, we just came out the better for having done it, and that’s the joy of being an actor. You get to go out and try on lives and internalize what happens to you along that journey.

For Walter and Minnie, family is the most important thing, and when Bryan figures that out and comes to visit the entire family—that scene with the whole community surrounding him in your house is one of my favorite scenes. Talk about the staging of that sequence, and why it was so important to this story.

KK: It’s so spot on. Coming from a southern family, this is how we roll—you never walk alone, you absolutely always have your family with you. If someone passes away, they become an ancestor, and you carry them with you in a different way, but they’re always with you. I cannot imagine Minnie meeting Bryan by herself.

Just Mercy
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

KK: No, and I have to really applaud Destin Daniel Cretton, our director, and Andrew [Lanham, co-writer] and Bryan for sharing that part of the story. It’s something that could seem very small, but it’s those details that help to really define the world that we enter into in Monroeville, Alabama. It’s interesting to hear people respond to it. I remember when I was college—I went to college about two hours from where I grew up—and I’m from a small country town and was a theater major, so when I did plays, my parents would get the church van, fill it up, and drive the two hours with the van full of people to come and see my school plays. When I did a professional play at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, they got a charter bus, and it was the church folks and the family and other community people, and they came up to see me. And I would say to the other people in the play, “My family is coming tonight,” and they were thinking it was my mom and dad, and then 50 people would show up in the lobby. It’s that sense of community that helps hold all of it together—Minnie, the children, at some point Bryan, we’re standing with him as well through this process.

Did either of you get to spend time with the people you played?

TBN: I was discouraged from spending time with him; I certainly wanted to go and meet him and spend several days with him, but there was some trepidation around that that I don’t think would happen now. Now, Ralph is actually working with the Equal Justice Initiative, so were the movie made two months from now, I’d be with him. But when it was made, I just had the videotapes, and it felt like he was bunking in my office, I was watching him so much. So he was there with me every day, but only on tape.

When we see him in that “60 Minutes” piece at the end of the film, any thought I may have had that you were exaggerating some part of your characterization went right out of my head.

TBN: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful that that image appears [laughs].

KK: I have not met Minnie. There is a video clip of her in response to when Walter is released, so I watched that on loop, and I had images of her, but I have not met her. My initial thought was that I did want to meet her. But my second thought, when I considered her in the context of family and my grandmother, I was like “This is a lot for her. This has to be a lot for her to re-live.” It felt for her, in particular, that meeting her would be been more Karan-serving than Minnie-serving, and so I was like “Let me go a different route.”

I’ve been aware of this film getting made over the last year or so primarily because Michael B. Jordan is a producer on it. Was his passion for this story one of things that pulled you into it?

KK: I was already in, but what I remember about Michael is how wonderful it was to watch him balance the strength of a producer and the vulnerability of Bryan Stevenson. It was beautiful to watch him on set, and he did it with such aplomb. I was kind of in awe of how he really captured Bryan’s spirit, not only in the work but in the process.

TBN: I knew Michael already, because we’d done Fantastic Four together, and he’s just one of the best people I’ve ever met. There are two people with whom I’ve worked recently who share the plateau of the classiest people I’ve met doing what I do, and they would be Michael B. Jordan and Regina King [Nelson’s “Watchmen” co-star], and Michael was that way on Fantastic Four. He was doing the part of the Human Torch, but prepping for the first Creed movie, and I would watch him train every day on set, often between takes or come in on his day off to train, because they had a gym that travelled with us. And he invited me to train with him, which is the most ludicrous idea [laughs], and he’s just a great guy. On this film, you both knew he was a producer, but you wouldn’t know it.

Talk about how Destin is different than some of the other filmmakers you’ve worked with.

TBN: There are a lot of different types of directors, and they really do fall into certain categories, if you ignore nuance. If you look at nuance, everyone is different, of course. Destin is one of those directors who likes for the filmmaking process to feel like an extension of rehearsal. What’s great about rehearsal for actors is that you take chances and you’re unafraid. You don’t feel like risks can lead you into territory where it’s a performance, and therefore you’ve done something indelible that’s always going to be associated with your portrayal. It feels like you can always do it again, and nobody’s judging you. And Destin and his crew radiate that energy, where you feel like you can live inside of a moment and let a scene take you to any possible extreme, and you’ll neither be chastised or questioned about that. When the camera is pointed at you, that’s how you achieve ineffable moments, because the director has given you that space. That’s who and what Destin is.

KK: One-hundred percent. There’s a level of safety too; he creates a safe space, and I think everyone around him radiates that. And there’s this incredible amount of trust. You’d be surprised, both on set and in life, how you respond to someone trusting you.

I know for some actors, there are certain roles that linger with them long after the harder work is done. Was that the case for you with these roles? And how did the film change you?

KK: It’s certainly my perspective. It deepened my respect for humanity. It also forced me to step more into my understanding of humanity, to really embrace all of who we are. Like with Ralph Myers, instead of choosing to hate someone you don’t understand, choose to understand someone so that you don’t hate them. This process, being able to see Bryan Stevenson up close, I don’t even think gift is the word. To be able to work with and learn from some of the greatest [gestures to Nelson] and most prolific actors on the planet, I don’t know that I want to let this one go. The people, the stories, there are still so many lessons being uncovered. I’m really grateful to have this privilege.

TBN: This has been a wonderful experience and certainly has changed me, firstly on just a surface level—there’s a lot I just didn’t know. The simple statistic at the end of the movie—for every nine executions, there’s one innocent person on death row—I didn’t know that. I also, on a deeper level, didn’t quite understand how the power structure in America, particularly the white power structure, exploits poor whites against people of color in their effort to hold onto power. Ralph Myers is such a catalyzing character in that regard, in terms of the impact he has on Walter McMillian’s life. Getting to live that and understanding that by playing a character is what interests me about acting, getting to try on a different life with every film and live inside of another human experience, even if it’s a comedy, it’s still human. Hopefully it’s my own way of becoming a richer person myself; we all have our own ways of doing that, I don’t think it’s confined to acting or even the arts. Even people in blue-collar jobs can find what more deeply humanizes them, through the process of going to work everyday and collaborating with others. Which is my way of saying that artist don’t corner the market on deepening their experience as the years go by. I think we all find ways to do that, and that just happens to be the way that acting affords it.

KK: To that point, I don’t think anyone can watch this movie and remain unchanged. I think that once you see it, you will have to decide how you’re going to move forward. No one can do everything in terms of change, but everyone can do something. So for me, the film forced me to ask and answer the question “What is your something?” I hope that that is a change that people will take away: What is your something?

Thank you both.

KK: Thank you.

TBN: Thanks for coming in.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.