Exclusive Karan Kendrick Interview
If you’ve been paying attention, you know there’s a Black actress renaissance (quietly) happening in Hollywood where talented beauties like Karan Kendrick are landing roles in Oscar-buzzy films like “Just Mercy” while making power moves in a suffocatingly white industry.
At this point, it’s safe to say Black womanhood is a superpower that resonates from the sweet as pie southern belle who opened up about her role as Jamie Foxx’s fiercely loyal wife in the soon-to-be movie of the moment.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you get involved with “Just Mercy” — did you audition?
“I did, I auditioned for “Just Mercy” through Carmen Cuba’s office and it’s an office that I’ve gone into several times before, but this one was the fit. This was the one. When I got the audition materials there was an image of Minnie McMillian and there was some video footage of her — and I saw my grandmother. I immediately felt that I knew her and connected with her.
She is a woman who represents, for me, the Black women that I knew growing up. Women who understand the necessity, not just the importance, but the necessity of choosing to love and what that looks like. The necessity of journeying with someone through experiences that may not be warm and fuzzy. And, the question then was ‘What would we do without the love of a Black woman?’ What we do?”
That’s what I ask myself. Because your character, y’all are in a relationship that’s imperfect and I was like ‘I want that.’
“You want an imperfect relationship?”
Not imperfect, but I want somebody to hold me down like you held Jamie down in the movie. Tell me about how you came together and formed this very believable relationship.
“I think that I had to consider Minnie McMillian’s ‘why.’ First of all, knowing that you’re gonna play opposite Jamie Foxx, who is an incredible actor, professional, human, everything, you want to come correct. There’s no space for fan-girling. You have to honor this space with the work. Knowing that you are sharing a story that is so important, you want to honor the work.
You can’t take anything for granted and you can’t waste time freaking out. So I had to enter this space understanding her ‘why.’ Why does she forgive him? Why does she choose to love him? And I think that she understands that making a different choice then changes who she is.”
“So in doing this, in making this choice, she maintains her identity.”
“Alright now! (Laughs).”
I know you went to Spelman, so I was expecting this profoundness from you. How did your experience at an HBCU shape your voyage in Hollywood, your path, your direction, how you accepted roles…?
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I grew up in an HBCU town — Fort Valley, Georgia. The Fort Valley State University, and so I always had an understanding and appreciation. My experience at Spelman helped me to understand who I am as a Black woman in America. You can learn everything else in a class.
You can study Shakespeare, you can study Greek classics, you can study the American classics but understanding who you are then allows you to maneuver through time and space in a very specific way. I would like to say that I choose these roles but I honestly audition for what (laughs), for what I’m called in for most of the time. Not always, but most of the time — there are some things that I’m like ‘Nah I can’t do that.’”
“There are pieces that sometimes don’t speak to me. If it’s a space that I don’t know that I can enter, or contribute in a way, then I will respectfully decline and make room for someone else to tell that story that can speak to it. It’s not necessarily something that’s like ‘Oh this is scandalous,’ but it’s just if it’s a story that I feel like ‘That’s not mine.’ Then I just say no. ‘Thank you, but no.’”
Well you’ve been doing a good job. You have diversity on your resumé. You have “Hunger Games,” you have “Just Mercy,” you have the movie that I hated you in… well not really hated you in… (laughs).
“Let me guess, The Hate U Give?”
“Iesha is so misunderstood.”
But, you know, you’ve had a great run at the beginning of your career. What do you think is fueling that? Your team? Your management? God? Prayer?
“God, absolutely. Absolutely, and I think it’s a combination. I think that in the work I seek to — when someone said it last night, I was like ‘I’ma steal this’ — my work is a love letter to Black women and to Black womanhood. It’s an opportunity to share us in a way that people may not have. Every one of us. Every part of who we are. From Iesha, who you look at and you see her in blonde hair, green fingernails, and pleather leggings, and you think you know her. You may know a part of her. You may know that she’s gonna absolutely turn out this funeral ‘cause she wants to see her son.
But, do you also know that she wants to see her son so desperately because she has not been able to? You know that she’s in the hallway trying to get her drink on, as she says, but do you also know that she would do anything for these kids, including putting herself in harm’s way because she loves them? We are not one thing. We are not a monolith. We are complex.
Minnie McMillian is a strong, Black woman who stands by her man, but she’s also terrified. She’s also conflicted. She also, like we see in the family scene, is leaning on the community to hold her up and to stand by her side and to let her know that she is not alone. She’s all of those things and so much more. You learn about her in the silences.
There are moments that I don’t say a word, but there’s a whole life, a whole world going on, on the the inside. So, the opportunity to share the nuance, the layers, and the complexities of Black womanhood as I understand it, that is an incredible gift that I’ve been given in my work and a gift that I try to share.”
So, take me through the process of playing a real person…
“Mhmm. There’s a level of responsibility and accountability and you want to get it right… because Minnie McMillian is still with us. And I was like ‘What do I want her to feel when she sees this portrayal of her life on screen?’ And so I thought ‘I want her to feel seen in the best possible way and heard. Not marginalized, not othered. I want her to feel understood, not dismissed. I want her to feel protected. I want her to feel loved.’ In much of my work, when I get a breakdown and I see the different descriptions of character, I begin to pull these pieces and try to layer on what I think about [them]. With Minnie McMillian I had to do the exact opposite.
I had to strip the layers away and open up my heart and that was probably the biggest difference and it was incredibly scary. I had to be very vulnerable. The beauty of the process is: the team of storytellers that I was working with made it so easy. You have the director Destin Daniel Cretton, who is an incredible humanitarian. He’s a person who understands family. Destin is from Hawaii, but he understands universal truth of family and community and so he was able to share that part of the African American experience, although it may not be his own. He was able to show us in community and how we walk together, in a way that I haven’t really seen on film.
You have people like Jamie Foxx, who is a masterclass on camera and a class act behind-the-scenes. So when the camera stops he is pouring into us, whether it’s playing a gospel song that helps us in the moment that we’re in, or telling a joke that helps us through the moment that we just finished filming.
You have people like Michael B. Jordan, who absolutely crushed his work as Bryan Stevenson and also, off-camera, served as producer and is a leader. So, he walked through that space in excellence. He walked through that space in a way that made everyone feel like we had to kind of rise a little higher. We had to grow a little bit in our humanity and our artistry in order to walk through this space.
So, I had to open my heart in a different way, I had to be much more vulnerable, but honestly, the ensemble — from camera to sound to lights to craft services — made it easy. Everybody, hair and makeup, props… we were all in on this one.”
Last question, this is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. What would be your best pitch if you were to tell people why this movie should be considered and actually nominated with a chance to win?
“This is a story about a man whose life was changed forever. It’s a story of a community and a family who, either by choice or by force, chose to journey with this man on his road to redemption. This is all led by a man who I believe was created just a little bit lower than the angels, named Bryan Stevenson, who for over three decades has shown up to do the work that we so desperately need in our country.
So, this story is not just a movie, it’s a movement. It’s an opportunity for us to choose humanity, to choose justice, to choose mercy. It’s an opportunity to grow a little bit more and engage a little bit differently and love a little bit more. It’s an opportunity for us to be our better selves. That’s Just Mercy.”
“Just Mercy” opens in select theaters on Christmas and expands nationwide on January 10.