Straight Outta Compton star Jason Mitchell gets gritty in Netflix drama Mudbound
Mitchell was praised by critics for his role in the NWA biopic. In his latest outing, he plays a second world war veteran dealing with racism at home in Mississippi, and helping a fellow ex-soldier deal with post-traumatic stress
Jason Mitchell is a long way from Compton.
Since breaking hearts two years ago as AIDS-stricken rapper Eazy-E in N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, the affable newcomer has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after young actors, dexterously moving between comedy (Keanu), action (Kong: Skull Island) and drama (Detroit).
But with Mudbound (streaming on Netflix on Friday), Mitchell, 30, gets his most powerful showcase yet as Ronsel Jackson, a second world war veteran who returns home to rural Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era.
Living with his sharecropper parents (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) on a farm owned by the white Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), Ronsel finds an unexpected kinship with Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a fellow vet suffering from PTSD.
Writer/director Dee Rees (Pariah), who adapted Mudbound from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, saw Compton and cast Mitchell without an audition.
“To have someone think of me for this calibre of material – that’s a whole different story,” Mitchell says. Reading the script, he was drawn to Ronsel’s compassion and resolve, as well his “bulletproof” friendship with Jamie, which is tested in the film’s harrowing climax, when Ronsel is lynched by Klansmen.
The violent, stomach-churning scene is “the slap in the face that the entire film is built on,” Mitchell says. Despite the physical and emotional intensity of the shoot, “I was excited about it, because there are a lot of situations in our past that we just don’t want to talk about or recreate, and this scene was all of that. Dee told me that she wanted to make it artsy and safe, and I trusted her. I feel like we did history justice.”
Although Netflix has struggled to break into the Oscar race apart from documentary categories, Mudbound might be a candidate to buck the trend. The film, which the streaming service bought for US$12.5 million at January’s Sundance Film Festival, boasts 94 per cent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and half of the prognosticators on awards site Gold Derby predict a best-picture nomination.
Mitchell, too, could be recognised for best supporting actor. He is “the film’s emotional anchor and a stand-out in one of the best acting ensembles of the year,” says AwardsDaily.com editor Sasha Stone. “I would think that actors [voting] would be among the first to notice him and that makes his chances very good.”
That he’s even in the awards conversation is enough for Mitchell, a New Orleans native who at 18 began working odd jobs to support his family after they lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.
At 22, Mitchell realised that “the best way to help my family was to help myself,” he says. “So I went to acting class and I just loved it. It gave me a place to feel safe and be somebody different for three days a week.”
Mitchell lives between New Orleans and Chicago, where he just finished Showtime drama series The Chi, from Emmy winner Lena Waithe (Master of None). He says his Compton co-stars, who he sees regularly, and two young daughters, aged three and five, keep him grounded.
When his kids visit him on set, “they just go to sleep. They really don’t care,” Mitchell says. “When I did the MTV [Movie] Awards, it wasn’t live so we watched it together. Before then, they didn’t get [my job], but now they’re like, ‘Oh, you work in the TV!’ ”