Interview: Christina Jackson Talks About Shirley, Working With Regina King and John Ridley, and Why She’s Never Watched a Certain Film

Like many, I first remember taking notice of actor Christina Jackson on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as Maybelle, the daughter of Chalky White (the late Michael K. Williams). She has starred in other impressive series, including WGN’s Outsiders, as well as The Good Fight and Deception. Most recently, she was a series regular on season two of Apple TV+’s Swagger. But it was her role in the period war drama Devotion, in which she played Daisy Brown, the wife of groundbreaking aviator Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors), who became the Navy’s first Black aviator, that got her noticed by film fans and Variety, which listed her as one of its 10 Actors to Watch.

Currently, Jackson co-stars in the Netflix biopic Shirley, alongside Regina King as trailblazing political icon Shirley Chisholm, the first Black Congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. Jackson plays college-age, real-life Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California, who is presently the highest-ranking Black  woman in Democratic leadership. But when she met Chisholm, Lee was discouraged about politics but still eager to work for Chisholm’s presidential campaign. The film also stars such luminaries as the late Lance Reddick, Terrance Howard, Andre Holland, and Lucas Hedges, and it’s a fantastic and crucial film about a nearly forgotten period in American history, written and directed by Oscar-winning writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave).

I had a chance to sit down with Jackson on her recent visit to Chicago, and we were able to go through her time spent with Rep. Lee in preparation for Shirley; her experiences working with King and Reddick; and the responsibility she felt in playing a real historical figure. Please enjoy our talk…

Before we dive into the film, I wanted to point out that in your acting career, you’ve worked with arguably two of the finest actors on The Wire, both of whom have died. What did you glean from working with Lance Reddick on this film, as an actor, as a human being?

I’m incredibly grateful for the time we were able to spend on set. I’d never met him before, and being able to talk to him, he was the consummate professional. He came in prepared; he wasn’t in the corner running lines. He knew his character, so he had time to sit and talk, so we got to know each other, and he told me about his career and what he missed out on, things he was excited about. I always ask actors, “What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done?” Not, the best, but favorite, and he told me  Corporate, which you would not expect. And he was very excited about the projects he had coming up. So when you watch Shirley, this being one of his last performances, as amazing as it is, it is also very fitting of the legacy he left behind.

I was very nervous but grateful that Barbara Lee is still alive and I was able to talk to her and say, “I have what’s on the page. What were you feeling, thinking? What kept you going?”

—Christina Jackson

He still has a couple more things coming out, so I don’t have to deal with the idea of living in a world in which I won’t see him in anything new again. Barbara Lee is someone who’s worthy of her own movie at some point….

I was just saying that to someone earlier. So much!

But at this point in her life, she was jaded about the whole political process. This is her coming-of-age/origin story. And you’ve played real people before, so is there an extra sense of responsibility when playing someone real, whether they’re still alive or not?

Every time. Very specifically, there’s a difference between when you play someone you can go back and look at footage of. I don’t have that a lot of the time because we’re going so far back in time. Specifically with Barbara, I had photos and watched the documentaries, so I just took what I knew by 1972—I knew she was already a mom, I knew she was a student, an activist in some way. What does that look like in the context of this story? What does that look like when you cross paths with a Shirley Chisholm? I was very nervous but grateful that Barbara Lee is still alive and I was able to talk to her and say, “I have what’s on the page. What were you feeling, thinking? What kept you going?” Because she dips in and out of the campaign at times. It was nice to be able to do a project where she had already given so much of a blessing before I met her. And to be able to lean on her and be able to ask her any questions along the way, that was vey helpful.

How immersive in her life did you want to get, because at this point in her life, maybe you don’t want to know too much about what comes next, maybe you don’t want to portray her as someone who knows what great or challenging things are on the way.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? I know what she becomes, so what we’re watching, which is really beautiful, is the beginning of a political career. We just didn’t know how far she was going to go then, but we know now, which makes it all the more special. At the time, I just wanted to know what she was thinking and feeling, and who were some of the people who you were talking to? Did she have any close friends? And the answer was “Not really. We were all doing the work.”

John Ridley has a real gift for making history cinematic, so it’s not like you’re just watching a textbook. Tell me about what was different about the way he ran his set than maybe other directors you’re worked with.

He’s a great director, but to also have him as the writer is incredibly helpful. Also, there were a lot of decisions that had to be made before anything gets to me, like we’re not doing an entire cradle-to-grave story , which would have been way too much. So he decided to focus on the campaign, and as you weave through, there is all of this personal stuff that happens. We get to have these personal conversations between Barbara and Shirley, etc., so we learn a bit about her past through those moments. We were very fortunate that it was John, because whatever resources he thought would be helpful, he would pass along. I’ve done enough period pieces that I know how to research to get what I need, but it’s always so helpful when you get more. If we all have access to the same information, we’re all coming into it with the same amount of giving, and then you add to that for each individual person.

Why do you think this story needs to be told right now?

I think it’s timely. However, it’s been 50 years . There’s the conversation about a woman being president. When Hillary Clinton was running, there were all of these signs around New York saying “Before There Was Clinton, There Was Chisholm.” I’m not going to talk about why we don’t or haven’t had a woman run, because it’s not impossible; other countries do it, and they’re fine. Specifically right now, there’s more information than there’s ever been, yet a lot of stuff gets lost or we don’t know where to look. This film, in just showing the process and giving that to you and letting you do whatever you will do with it, that’s a great thing. My personal belief is that a lot of citizens in this country don’t have a good enough understanding of how our politics works, which is a problem. And you can blame education or other things, but in a movie, we can give somebody something for two hours. This movie is really beautiful, in that it’s not spoon feeding; it’s a very smart, educational, entertaining two hours. Now is a great time, not just because it’s a political year, but also it’s time.

With Regina, I would ask her full-on questions about certain things, and hopefully not in a pesky way, like “If you’re given a direction, and you feel different about it than the director, what would you do?”

—Christina Jackson

Watching the process is important, but also watching someone with this level of moral compass is striking. When she says that she believes everyone should be equal, I believe that she means that. When I hear it today, I don’t believe it from most people. There was a time when people ran on that platform and meant it.

Right, there are a lot of people today who feel very defeated when it comes to the political process. They don’t believe anybody or feel that very basic needs are being looked at. We’re watching now with inflation and homelessness and people needing 30 times the amount to rent an apartment. Everything feels impossible, and you want desperately to hear people who hear your plights and honestly believe will do something to get it done, and I think that’s what made Shirley so special.

It’s been 2-3 years since I’ve seen Regina King in anything, and I know she went through absolute hell in that time. But to have come back in something where it seems she was shot out of a cannon, it’s so impressive. What do you take away from your time working with her?

With Regina, I would ask her full-on questions about certain things, and hopefully not in a pesky way, like “If you’re given a direction, and you feel different about it than the director, what would you do?” And she would always answer me every time. I think this is very special because Regina and Reina King, her sister and producing partner , they’ve spent 15 years trying to get this story made and held onto it, didn’t let it go, and got an Oscar, which makes things a little easier. When you have a passion project, everything is heightened, so in watching her portray Shirley, she had everything available to her—the dialect coaches, the best wigs, all of that—as well as the writing of someone she trusts in John. She had everything she needed to not have to worry about anything other than the performance. Just to sit and watch her, it was amazing but also to include a Barbara and all of this energy around her, I’m very grateful. She’s phenomenal, so you’re watching so many years of, not perfecting a craft but living in it, going beyond herself to breathe life into these stories, and I think Shirley specifically, has been amazing to watch her get through it, get it done, not give up on it.

When she is playing what is essentially your character’s mentor, does that make it your relationship with her similar?

It’s a parallel, for sure. Like I said, I would ask her questions, and it’s very similar to her and Barbara having those conversations about why you don’t want to go to the convention. I would talk to Regina about certain things, and her openness and honesty was so wonderful. Being the younger actress who…Regina has been working my entire life. 227 came out in 1985; I was born in 1987, okay? She’s been that girl for a long time. But also the inspiration of seeing Regina’s name where I wouldn’t expect, like animation; she did The Boondocks, both voices, back and forth. And to see her now get into directing, it’s not just inspirational. To have her trust me to come on this journey with her, because she could have gotten anybody, and that’s something I don’t ever forget. She saw enough value in me being able to come on and tell this story with her, that’s makes me feel better at the end of the day.

Whenever I watch a movie where they show what the real people look like at the end, I’m always like “Well, nice try.”

Close enough !

But with this film, every single one of you looks just like the real people.

Even Lucas.

I was just going to say that: even Lucas Hedges.

He looks just like that man. And I met the real Robert Gottlieb at BAM last week, and I was like “I don’t know Lucas, I might be looking at your future.”

Whenever I talk to someone who has made a period piece like this, I’m always curious about the importance of tools like hair and makeup and wardrobe. Being able to look in the mirror and see a different person, how much does that do to get you in the right headspace?

It would be the equivalent of having a childhood arcade that you loved and somebody took you back to that place, and then all of that stuff came flooding back. It helps. It’s the same thing with period pieces; I love history. The 1920s is my favorite decade, so to be on Boardwalk Empire and see how much HBO put into getting Model T Fords, making sure that the rugs are from the time period a year before the one we’re filming in because somebody is going to notice, making sure the pin curls are the same. It’s the same thing for 1972—it’s the bell-bottoms. Lucas hates that he had the sideburns, but they were like “No, that’s period appropriate, somebody has to have them, you pulled the short straw.” All of that helps your part of the storytelling come together, because it’s all needed. Even when I’m in the trailer, I wouldn’t play any music after 1972, just to keep you in the era of what you would have been listening to. I remember on Boardwalk Empire, craft services would make recipes from the 1920s, and that helps so much because you want every component to come together to help you tell the larger story.

I’m not a horror girl, by any means, so I have not seen the movie.

—Christina Jackson, re The Night House

I need to ask you about a film you were in that came out during the pandemic that I actually saw at Sundance in 2020, called The Night House. Rebecca Hall was here a couple years ago with her film Passing, and I had to ask her a couple of questions about the movie because it was one of the smartest, scariest films I’d seen in a while.

You’re going to be upset with me? But I want to hear your question.

Did it even make sense to you as you were shooting it?

Well, I’m not a horror girl, by any means, so I have not seen the movie. Even just my one scene where I play the co-worker, I just came in, gave my performance, I’m going to leave it. But I remember I was in my house watching something on YouTube, and an ad came on and my voice was playing. So I’m in the trailer, but I was like “What is this? Oh right!” I did go there and shoot this. Loved Rebecca. Even when we were there, the energy around it was very exciting. I wish I could give you more; I’m just not there yet. And I think it’s the only thing I’ve done that I have not seen.

It’s not a conventional horror film, but it does get scary.

I know, but I don’t like getting caught off guard, don’t like being scared. And one of my former costars is Kyle Gallner, who does so much horror. He’ll get to tweeting about stuff, and I’ll ask “What can I see?” And he’s like “I got nothing for you.” I’m still getting residual checks from it, so I’m very appreciative.

No pressure, but it is one of my favorites in recent years.

You know what? Okay, let me get this tour done, and then I’m going to sit during the daytime and give it a try. You’ve given me a good point where I think I can watch it, thank you. You’re like the fourth person who has brought this up. Even when I’m not trying, I’m picking good projects; look at me .

Do you know what you’re doing next?

No. I had a crazy pandemic; I spent it working, so I decided to give myself a little bit of a break, but then we had the actors’ strike, so everything is just now coming back. So I’m back to being choosy now in what it is that I do. I would love a comedy—please print that. I’ve been shot in the face, pregnant on shows so many times, I’m been mamas, it’s been a lot. So fingers crossed for a comedy, but I’m also really excited to see what people are writing and creating and what’s coming up in the industry. I think it’s a good time right now.

Do some more horror.

Stop it . I’ve got to reach out to Jordan Peele, and maybe we’ll talk.

Best of luck. Thanks so much.

Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your week.

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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 (SlashFilm.com) 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.