“Just Mercy,” the film based on the book of the same name, authored by Attorney Bryan Stevenson, stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, a lawyer who fights for the rights of innocent men on death row.
His main subject, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is placed on death row even before his trial. It’s a captivating thriller that, because it is based upon truth, sends chills down your spine as you wipe away the tears.
Tim Blake Nelson, who plays Ralph Myers, and Karan Kendrick, who plays Minnie McMillan — Walter’s wife, were in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival. Nelson’s character, Myers, is responsible for manufacturing a false testimony against Walter which places him on death row.
Both actors took time out of their schedules to talk with me about their characters and making the film. (Edited for space and clarity)
Rarely does a movie live up to a book, but this one hits every note right. Tell me about connecting with and portraying your characters, Ralph Myers and Minnie McMillian.
Tim Blake Nelson (TBN): Having done this for awhile, I’ve learned to resist the impulse I used to have, to get there immediately. I would read a character and be so fueled by fear that I wasn’t going to meet the challenges, that I would want to see my results immediately.
Right away, I’d try the characters on, make bold choices and find something. That impatience to wait and let a character seep in was closing off other possibilities. So, what I’ve been doing lately and I really did with this character, is reading over and over again and in this case, watching tape of the guy over and over again without ever daring to try it on.
So just letting him live with me for awhile. By trying it on, I’m meaning just literally say the lines in approximation of the voice. With “Ralph,” I spent a good three weeks to a month with the videotape of him, but never trying it on. Then, only when he had seeped in and something was coming from within me, did I approach the voice and the physical aspect of his visage and the visage is really strong.
Karan Kendrick (KK): I felt like I knew her. There was something about Minnie McMillan that was just so familiar to me in terms of where she was from, in terms of her life experiences, her connection to family. I had a small video clip because I wanted to hear her, and hear her rhythms and her cadences and how she spoke.
I think the hardest part for me was to understand the choices that she made. Try to understand her “why.” And not judge her “why,” but really understand and embrace and get it… and I really wanted to be able to walk in her love for Walter so that it wasn’t just a woman standing by her man, but why.
How was it to work with director Destin Daniel Cretton.
TBN: I asked a lot of Destin and thankfully he gave it to me. I asked if I could come down 10 days early and work with the makeup artist and wardrobe, and film some stuff and really find the right balance with a very difficult character. He not only said yes, but he was wildly encouraging about it, always available.
The way Destin runs a set is more conducive. It feels like an extended rehearsal [and] you can live in the moment without the pressure of performance. He gets out of actors performances that are really living in the moment. That’s why we go to the theater. It’s why we go to see movies.
KK: Destin’s way is very laid back. I have this image of him … Destin’s son was 7 months old, and Destin had him on set and swaddled. He’s connected to him. Destin is working and walking through and handling everything, but he’s playing with his son’s feet. That’s Destin.
What do you hope will be the result or impact of this film?
KK: I hope it will encourage us just to connect more with each other just as human beings on the planet. Instead of being fearful or hateful toward what we don’t understand, to try to understand that that we are fearful and hateful about.
I don’t think this is a film that you can watch and remain unchanged. You have some decisions to make after you see this. There’s so much work to be done [and] it feels sort of overwhelming. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. So it forced me to ask and answer what is your something? How can you effect change? How can you just be a kinder human being next to you.
TBN: The film certainly has a political and social agenda. It’s one that I embrace and one that everyone who acted in and worked on embraces or we wouldn’t have been there. Of course, it’s an anti-death penalty movie, to put it frankly. It rehearses all the reasons why someone should be against the death penalty and I think in such an impactful way it would be hard to imagine a person who would watch this movie and not have their mind changed who had been a proponent of the death penalty before hand.
And then on a deeper level, I think it’s a movie about empathy and having a nuance, even sophisticated understanding of the humanness of all of us.