On #FreeRayshawn, Jasmine Cephas Jones threw herself into the emotional whirlwind of a nightmare scenario, working tirelessly to get to the truth of a story that is, unfortunately, all too common in America today.
Created by Marc Maurino, the Quibi short-form series centers on Rayshawn (Stephan James), a young, Black veteran of the Iraq War, who finds himself in a standoff with a SWAT team, after an incident with undercover cops results in unintended, fatal consequences. Trapped in his apartment with his wife and child, Rayshawn looks to social media and a sympathetic police lieutenant, in an effort to clear his name, before he becomes yet another victim of a corrupt justice system.
In the drama—which addresses the intersection of social media, the justice system, and police brutality against the Black community—Jones plays Tyisha, a wife and mother who has Rayshawn’s situation thrust upon her, when he comes home in a panic, and bullets start shattering the windows of their high-rise apartment. Joining the project just before production was about to start, the actress had little time to prepare. But given the talent attached, and the dire importance of the material at hand, #FreeRayShawn was simply a project the actress could not pass up, one that would result in her first Emmy nomination, alongside co-stars James and Laurence Fishburne.
Originating the roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in Broadway smash Hamilton, Jones was happy to see a filmed rendition of the play hit Disney+ last month, accessible to millions who hadn’t been able to see the play firsthand. Like #FreeRayshawn, Hamilton was a project of major cultural importance—and one the actress won’t soon forget.
Below, Jones reflects on the takeaways from #FreeRayshawn, and her most memorable moments, as part of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beloved musical.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with #FreeRayshawn? What drew you to this show?
JASMINE CEPHAS JONES: I actually got offered the role. It was a very last-minute thing, and Quibi obviously was new to the game, as well. I saw that Antoine Fuqua was a part of it, and Stephan James and Laurence Fishburne, just amazing actors and creators, and I thought the story was really, really important. So when I got the offer, I looked at the script and saw who was a part of it. It’s shooting in New Orleans, which I love, and it’s a new platform, with Jeffrey Katzenberg, with Quibi, so I just thought it was an amazing project to be a part of. So immediately I was like, “Absolutely. When are we going to shoot?” And they were like, “Actually, next week.” I was like, “Great, okay. I will pack my things, and let’s go.”
DEADLINE: What kinds of conversations did you have with key creatives on the project early on?
JONES: I was one of the last people to come on and everything was very, very quick for me, so I had to put all my training that I’ve had, and work in very quick circumstances. Sometimes you get the luxury of having a script for a really long time, and you can get to talk with the director or the producers, and evolve with the role. But I had the opposite. So as soon as I got the script and I landed, I immediately went to work. We did a read-through. It was Antoine, me, and Stephan, and we really worked on the relationship between Rayshawn and Tyisha. That changed actually a lot from our first meeting that we had, and we talked for a couple of hours.
I had to really be focused and get on set, ready to rock and roll, and I didn’t have a lot of time with it, which also was kind of cool. Sometimes you just have to jump in, and it’s really cool to have those experiences, because you learn a lot, and you really test your ability as an actor, and how quick you can analyze the script and form this character. That was my experience with this whole project, really, so it was definitely a challenge, but I was completely ready to take on that challenge and go to work.
DEADLINE: What was it like to put yourself at the center of a nightmare that is all too real?
JONES: It was one of the most emotional, challenging roles I’ve ever had to do. I think that was because we talk about some very, very important issues. But [also] you really don’t get time to breathe because it’s an action show. Immediately, it opens up in an action sequence where Stephan is doing a car chase with the police. Our window gets shot at and blown up, they throw in tear gas, and the first half of the show, Tyisha does not know what is going on. So she’s got this frustration, she’s confused, she’s trying to figure it out. She’s trying to also be a mother to her child, and calm her child down, so it’s a huge emotional rollercoaster for her, while she’s experiencing police brutality through explosions in her home, with no explanation.
I think the hardest challenge for me as an actor was to not be one note. I had to find the truth, and the groundedness, and the reality of this character, and the heart of her in the middle of mayhem and things getting blown up, and people not giving her answers to her questions. I think it’s so easy to completely just go to anger, and live on anger, and ride that anger train, and be one-noted, and my biggest challenge wasn’t to do that, to find every single emotion, every single beat that a person would go through in a matter of 24 hours, while you’re being attacked and your husband’s not telling you why.
DEADLINE: What was it like working with Stephan James?
JONES: We would have moments where I would go up to him and be like, “Can we work through the scene? Can we talk about this?” A lot of it was that we had to trust each other. We’d never worked with each other before, I was the last one cast, and then we had to be husband and wife. We had to have this background, and then be in this extremely heightened situation, so we had to have a conversation and be like, “We really have to dive in together and trust each other, and know that we both have each other’s backs, really understanding the material.”
He’d been sitting with the material for a while, I think, and he’d been part of the project for a long time, where I was very new, so I knew that I had to really use my theater training, all the cards that I had, that I knew that I could do, and go into that space and just look at him and be like, “I’ve got you, don’t worry. I’m 100% capable of doing this, and I’ve got your back.”
DEADLINE: What do you think about the choices made in the framing of this story? The series really seems to present a balanced portrait of the situation at hand, suggesting that Rayshawn can be an imperfect person, while also being innocent of the crime of which he’s accused. At the same time, via Laurence Fishburne’s character, we get a very human portrait of a police officer. Essentially, the story is one of imperfect people, trying to survive and do their best within an imperfect world.
JONES: Well, [Rayshawn]’s a war vet that comes back with some PTSD, who works at a fast food restaurant, you know what I mean? That’s a real thing. [That] is real life. You have these people that fight wars for their country, and then they come home and they need to attend to their mental health, and they can’t get a job. That’s a real thing.
Laurence’s character, he’s an African-American policeman that has a lot of guilt in the back of his mind because of his past, so you see the real emotion of wanting Stephan to win, and all of those conversations of diving deep and trying to get him out, trying to get a win in there because of what Laurence’s character has been through as a police officer. You see the emotion with Tyisha of all of the families that are affected, or that have been victims of police brutality, as well.
So, I really do think the script balances out the emotion, and also the action in the film, and the heart of these characters and these people, and why they fight so much for what they believe in. The whole thing with Stephan, and him using social media to get people on board, and to fight with him, in less than 24 hours, it’s pretty amazing, and that’s kind of the climate that we’re living in too, with social media and the power that has.
I feel like social media is another character in the show. That’s why it’s called #FreeRayshawn, because he builds a little bit of this army within less than 24 hours, because of the passion that he has, and he’s smart. He’s like, “Let me see if I can get people to help me and come on my side through this video,” and you can see what’s going on, and I think that’s also the world that we’re living in today.
DEADLINE: Obviously, after the death of George Floyd and protests that have rocked the nation, this series has become even more timely. What do you hope people will take away from it?
JONES: If people don’t understand what’s going on, I hope when people watch this, they can start a conversation, and get a look into how these horrible things affect families and communities, and [understand] that it’s a real, real thing. For people who are like, “Oh, I don’t know if this is real,” or don’t believe it, I hope it at least starts the conversation, and opens their eyes to how it affects everyone. Not only the victims, but the families, and how it affects community, as well.
It opens an eye to also fighting for your country, and coming home, and not being able to get a job. These are real factors that we’ve developed into this story that are all based on real events and real life, and I think that’s the whole point, for me, of being an artist, is to shed light on real stories. In the beginning, if you didn’t have an opinion about it, or if you didn’t believe, or you felt one way, I hope that by the end of seeing the show, you come out feeling a little different, or you can at least start the conversation. That’s the whole point for me, really.
DEADLINE: Hamilton came out on Disney+ in July. Can you recall some of the most memorable moments from your time with that show?
JONES: That show was a whirlwind. I was in it for two years. We started off-Broadway, six months at The Public [Theater], and then transferred to Broadway. It was a moment in time, and it’s literally being a part of history. That show, I feel, changed musical theater in a huge way, and crossed over into pop culture in a way that’s never been done before.
Really, Lin is a genius, and to be part of that is monumental. That cast has become my family, and it’s something that I will never forget, from performing to the White House, performing for the Grammys, to literally meeting every famous person you can think of, that has watched you perform for three hours, and has come backstage, and has looked at you as an artist, and has just been like, “Thank you for sharing that piece of art with me.”
That show has changed my life in the biggest way possible, and from Prince being able to see the show, to performing for Michelle and Barack Obama at the White House, to meeting Jay-Z and Beyoncé, to being able to do student matinees for kids that only paid $10 to see the show, it was a remarkable time. It was one of the most amazing times of my life.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
JONES: I did a movie, Blindspotting, and it’s being transferred into a TV show and following my character, Ashley. So that’s still in development at the moment, and I’m really, really excited for that. I’m constantly working on music. My EP, called Blue Bird, came out in March. So, I’m just constantly working on my music, and there’s a few other projects ahead which I’m really excited for.
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