An esteemed up-and-coming actor known for turns in films including Patti Cake$, Unicorn Store and The Front Runner, Mamoudou Athie recently earned his first Emmy nomination for short-form series Oh Jerome, No, though he could never have anticipated this result.
A recurring segment within Cake—a short-form comedy anthology, which premiered on FXX last fall—the series centers on Jerome, an overly sensitive young man living out a series of bizarre scenarios in New York, who goes through his fair share of trials and tribulations in his quest for love.
Written and directed by Teddy Blanks and Alex Karpovsky, the project began its life as a one-off short, with seemingly little chance of leading to anything else. A couple of years ago, while wrapping the Patti Cake$ shoot, Athie got an email from the writer/director duo, asking if he’d like to be involved. “I was a little confused,” Athie laughs, “because I don’t think I had anything out, outside of the Get Down trailer, which I’m in like two seconds of.”
Reading the script for the short, Athie was taken by a kind of world and character he rarely comes across. “I honestly just didn’t see a lot of opportunities for whimsy, for black characters [outside of this project]. And the story about this lovelorn, sensitive young man just really spoke to me. It really means a lot to me, that kind of openhearted person and world,” the actor says. “We did the short for this Ray-Ban thing and had a good time, and I thought that was it.”
Later on, after the short was finished, Blanks and Karpovsky reached out once again, saying FXX wanted to include Oh Jerome, No in the half-hour programming of Cake, and Athie went back to work on eight more episodes. “I couldn’t believe it, but it was just one of those fortuitous things that happens, when you sign on to something for the love of it,” he says. “It was a weird and fun experience, let me tell you.”
In both the original short film and the series that followed it, Athie found a character with which he related, to some degree—one that was easy enough to tap into. “To be clear, there’s nothing that really resembles anything in my dating life in the show. Thank God. Jerome has a fair set of issues, so I’m very glad not to share too much with him,” he laughs. “But I think everybody knows what it is to be in this kind of infatuation. I really relate it to my teenage years, just finding out what that kind of love is, that puppy love, and also, just being a sensitive, young man.”
What really informed what the character would become was a meeting with Karpovsky and Blanks, during which the trio laid their awkward dating stories out on the table. “I think we just pulled together a lot of different, funny stories, or awkward situations, and then they took it to the moon,” Athie says. “They really mined everything and made it 10 times more interesting.”
As with the short film, the shoot on the Oh Jerome, No series was a bit hectic and fast paced, leaving Athie less time to prepare than he normally would like. While the former project was shot over a weekend, the latter would be brought to life over the course of a month. “Usually, I like to have a little bit of space to really get into something. In this case, there just wasn’t any, and there’re pros and cons to that. This was really an exercise of just doing it and seeing what happens, and just trusting Alex and Teddy, because even though I read the scripts and everything, there are certain things where I’m like, ‘Guys, now this is ridiculous,’” the actor says. “But one of my favorite things that I learned in school was, just do it. In the time that it takes you to discuss one thing, you could have tried it 10 ways. So, anytime that I picked up on something like that, I’d have to remember that.
“But the script, to Alex and Teddy’s credit, it’s very clear what the situation is and who Jerome is,” Athie adds. “I felt like I had a very good understanding of who he is, so we just got to it, and it happened to work out.”
Along with a lack of time, an added complication for the actor was the fact that he was ill throughout much of the series shoot. “I’m the biggest baby when I’m sick, so one of my worst fears is shooting while I’m sick. And I can see some of the moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, I just look ill on camera,’” he says. “Alex and Teddy really managed to help me out and make it as painless as possible, but that was only two weeks out of, I guess, a total of four. The rest of it was pretty smooth sailing, and we just had a lot of fun.”
While working on Oh Jerome, No had its challenges, it certainly wasn’t “complete torture,” the actor says. In fact, the project came with a number of major upsides, the first being the opportunity to play the kind of part he loves—that of a straight man living in an off-kilter world. “I’ve always had a kind of attraction to that kind of part, because of just the absurdity of the situation. He has no idea that he’s being absurd, and even when he does realize that he’s being absurd, he just can’t help himself,” he says. “So, that’s the thing that I find fun, finding the rational in all the madness, because the world is just a little bit off.”
Enjoying the chance to work on the series with two of his closest friends, Mitchell Winter and Brian Wiles, Athie also found here his first chance to lead a major project. “At that point, I hadn’t done Uncorked, so it was my first time really leading something. I mean, it’s short form, but it was still a couple of weeks [of shooting]. So, it really built up a discipline in me. It taught me a lot about what it requires, and helped me in my last couple of projects in a huge way,” he reflects. “I think the following projects would have been much, much harder had I not had the opportunity to really lead a project.”
Through this process, Athie also found a great new collaboration with Blanks and Karpovsky—one that he hopes will continue forward. “They’re really also quite sensitive guys, particularly Teddy. They really know how to listen, and they just want to have a good time on set,” he says, “and if that’s where you’re starting from, it’s going to be hard to lose.”
While Athie was stunned by his Emmy nomination, alongside a good friend—Watchmen’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II—finding the recognition as surreal as it was special, he’s also had little time to dwell on the matter. Currently, the actor is in London, quarantining himself in a hotel room in the countryside, as he prepares to set out on the shoot of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion. “They’re being hyper, hyper vigilant [about COVID-19],” Athie reveals, “and we’re getting tested quite often.”
And while he’s excited to get to the blockbuster shoot that lies ahead, Athie also is keenly aware of the strange situation he’s currently in, with production starting ever so cautiously in the midst of a pandemic. “I have to say, it is bizarre, because this is my first time in London, and I just can’t enjoy it, really, in the way I would have liked to. But like, that’s champagne problems,” he says. “I’m just glad that we can work, because I understand so much of the industry can’t right now, along with the rest of the world.”
Also recently working with Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour on horror-thriller Black Box, Athie is keen to continue working with actors and directors he’s always admired, while collaborating with great talents he’d never known about, Osei-Kuffour being just one notable example. “Black Box, I just saw it last weekend. I don’t want to say too much about it, but this director, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, is just the real deal. We had 19 days to shoot too much material, and what he did with it is really just something else,” he says. “I think people need to really look out for the guy, because he was really a truly special director.”
Looking to the future, the actor also hopes to extend his creativity in new directions. “I’m starting to now get really itchy fingers, in terms of producing work,” he says. “[But] I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from each and every project, from Uncorked, Black Box, Unicorn Store, The Front Runner. I’ve learned so much from those that I can’t really ask for more.”