Jovan Adepo has become one of the most esteemed artists of this generation, with a breadth of work and critical recognition across the cinema and television landscapes. He will next be seen in Paramount Pictures’ highly anticipated film ‘Babylon’ from Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle, alongside an all-star cast including Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. ‘Babylon’ is set for wide theatrical release in the US today (23 December).
Jovan, in just a few days we’ll be seeing you in the highly anticipated film ‘Babylon’, which chronicles the rise and fall of multiple characters during Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s. What is the most special thing about this feature that we as viewers will experience?
I think it’s the opportunity to sort of get an inside look into an era that I don’t think a lot of people are actually familiar with. Speaking of myself only, but kind of getting this idea from Brad and my other castmates, the 1920s wasn’t an era that I really spent too much time on in my personal life, other than some of the music that existed during that time. But as far as being historically familiar with that era, this was a new learning experience. So I think that will be shared with audiences as they come to see this film.
What was your first reaction when you were cast in this epic film, which already received 9 nominations for the Critics Choice Awards, including for Best Picture?
I couldn’t be happier when I got that call. I remember auditioning for this, it has been in early 2019 and I didn’t get the call until November of 2020. So with that amount of time you could absolutely just assume that you didn’t get the part and you sort of move on and go back to hitting the drawing board as they say. So getting that call from Damien was just amazing and I was excited to get an opportunity to work with all of these talented artists and Damien, who I was a massive fan of already.
How was it working alongside such an all-star ensemble?
It was a dream. I think I’ve been very fortunate early in my career to work with people that I truly admire. Denzel, Viola, Damon Lindelof, Regina King, there’s tons of people that I’ve been really lucky to work with thus far. So getting an opportunity to come into this project with such an ambitious script and such really complex and interesting characters played by all stars, like you said, it was an opportunity to be on like an all-star team in sports and having the opportunity to contribute to that team as well, feeling like I’m gonna be playing with heavy hitters and we all have one like-minded mission and goal and we’re just gonna come in every day and do our best to achieve that.
In ‘Babylon’ you portray Sydney Palmer, a jazz trumpet player. How hard was it to play a trumpet for your role? Have you ever played any other instruments?
It was incredibly difficult, but it was something that I wanted to do. I was in love with the opportunity to get to play someone who was essentially a pioneer for black entertainers of that era. I was lucky that I had a few months to really dig in and learn the music that Justin was scoring. And I had a great coach, Dan Fornero, who’s a brilliant trumpet player and is respected in the the jazz music industry. I had a great support system.
I’ve gotten to play some really cool roles where I’ve gotten to learn new skills and I learned to play the guitar for another job. And I still stick with that, even today. I think having instruments and playing musical instruments at any stage in your life is really good for brain stimulation and keeping you sharp, so I’ve really come to respect that part of my leisure time. Of course I like to play video games and stuff, but there are times you gotta put that stuff away and really do the brain work that is required for our job.
As we said, ‘Babylon’ is set in the late 20s, when Hollywood was transitioning from silent to sound films. Can you yourself imagine living back in the 20s, especially now that you know how today’s life looks like?
I don’t know if I would want to do that. I’ve heard that question before and I’m interested in what and how my life would’ve deferred if I was in that era. Like, if I still would’ve become an actor or would I have tried to become a musician or an artist or painter or something. I’m curious. I feel like I would absolutely wanna have a career in the arts, but I’m not sure exactly what I’d be doing. There’s so many different variables about life that I’m curious how that would’ve unfolded for Jovan in the twenties.
For your performance in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ you received an Emmy nomination for an ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie’. This is a huge honor for any actor. But what would you describe as the biggest reward for your work as an actor?
I think it’s the opportunity to keep working. And I know that sounds like the perfect politically correct answer to say, but it’s true. I’ve always been very transparent in how I feel about my career. I’m very incredibly ambitious. I always have been perfectionist. And so of course getting nominations and things like that are always a good testament to people’s appreciation of your work. But sometimes it can be a double-edged sword because if you go into roles expecting that sort of recognition, it can kind of throw you off track and it can be something that doesn’t really serve to be helpful in your mindset, in the place that you need to be to do great work. And this is just me essentially regurgitating advice that I’ve gotten, if it’d be from Denzel or Toby or even Brad, to just keep being focused on the work and let everything else be a fortunate byproduct of it.
I think it’s cool that I can do jobs like ‘Watchmen’ or ‘Fences’ or ‘The Leftovers’ or anything. They happened years ago and people still are talking about them. That means that those characters that you played made a lasting impression on people. People can sometimes be like ‘oh, I forgot that you did that’. But it’s really cool to be promoting one movie and someone comes up and is like ‘oh yeah, ‘Watchmen’ man, ‘Overlord’ man, I loved it’. It means that what you did is lasting in people’s brains. And that’s what I would like to do, cause I wanna leave behind something important when I’m old and gray and I’m retired on a beach somewhere.
Before acting, you received a B.A. in political science and philosophy. What made you pursue these two studies? And how did you go from this into acting?
It’s so weird because when I first went to college, I went to Bowie State University that’s in Maryland where I was raised predominantly, I wanted to be a psychologist. So my original major was psychology. I remember getting the curriculum for at least the first few years in college and I saw a lot of statistics courses and all of these huge mathematical courses and math was always an issue for me when I was a kid. I was really good at writing papers and essays and stuff, but when it came to the high end mathematical things, I was just like ugh. So I switched over and I remember going into one of the counselor’s offices and I was like »How do I get rid of all of these math and statistics class requirements off of this course?« And they were like »You gotta go into history and government or political science or something like an arts degree«. And I wasn’t into the arts degree then or just anything that’s kind of like economics. And so I switched to political science and it kind of changed my whole mindset of what I wanted to do once I got my degree. I was like, maybe I’ll be a politician or a lobbyist or maybe I’ll be in law enforcement, like in the CIA or something.
I knew I needed it to be something grand and really impressive, because my mom said that even when I was little, I was always like »I wanna be like a kingpin one day. I wanna run things«. So I think my mindset was always like that since I was little, that whatever I was gonna do, I wanted it to be on a big scale. Getting my degree, I had to write a lot of papers and I naturally really enjoyed creative writing in my spare time, just to kind of keep things balanced. And I think creative writing kind of transitioned into screenwriting. And once I moved to California to try to get an opportunity to be around scripts, people in my life were just like »You have a vibe of personality that you should perhaps try stepping in front of the camera«. Which is funny, because it’s a lot like Sydney’s experience in this movie, where he’s not really looking to be a star and somebody sort of sees him and they’re just like »Hey, you should give me a call«. And he’s like, okay. So it’s cool. I could definitely relate to Sydney in that way.
You actually moved to LA to become a writer. What kind of a writer did you always want to become?
I wanted to write for film, cause I was a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. I really loved the way that you can control the pace of a film with language. And I really think that it starts with the writer. There’s no film, there’s no anything without it being on the page first. So I really respected the power of creating worlds, just starting from a pen and paper.
You recently also wrapped production on Netflix’s drama series ‘The Three-Body Problem’, an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy, which is an ambitious tale about what happens when humanity discovers they are not alone in the universe. Tell us more about this upcoming series.
The biggest thing to know is that it is a very popular sci-fi franchise. It has a big following in China because that’s where the books come from. Benioff and Weiss really worked hard to make sure that this was a story that was adaptable in the way where the story is surrounded by extra terrestrial elements and science and physics. But they wanted to make sure that the story was still anchored by people, because no matter what the subject is, we have to care about the characters and what their circumstances are before you add in any type of special effects or any type of extra cool big set pieces and all that. At first base level, we have to care about the people that are experiencing what they’re experiencing in the show.
They assembled a really talented cast that I’m really excited about. And again, that’s just really being fortunate to get to work with some cool people. I mean, we have a huge cast and there’s almost too many to name, John Bradley West, Eiza González, Alex Sharp, Jess Hong, Liam Cunningham. There’s just so many great actors that I enjoy watching on TV that it was cool to get to kind of break bread with all of them and spend what was almost a year filming it all over England and a bunch of different countries and different cities. And it was really cool to get to come together as a unit, like I did for ‘Babylon’, and work hard on a story that’s really fresh. It feels new and unique and I’m excited to share it with the world next year.
Also next year, we’ll see you in the thriller ‘Misanthrope’, which marks Damián Szifron’s English-language film debut. It follows a talented, but troubled police officer being recruited by the FBI to help profile and track down a mass murderer. What can we expect to see from your character Mackenzie, also an FBI agent, in this film?
Mackenzie is sort of like the moral compass. Without spoiling it, he is a career guy. He’s somebody that wants to be in the agency for a long time. I think he respects Ben Mendelsohn’s character as a figure who sort of reached out to him when he was in the military and recognized something special in him and wanted to bring him into the FBI. So they obviously have a really close relationship. First meeting Shailene’s character, Mackenzie just likes to try to read people and try to figure out what their intentions are. I feel Damián and I talked about that’s just who he is intrinsically as a person.
It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling anything. But I think Mackenzie is somebody who is very purpose driven and believes in the good in people, even when they don’t see it or recognize it in themselves. He’s one of those guys that in America we call boy scout and it would be representative of a guy who always plays by the rules. He’d be the guy that if he sees a guy walk out of the bathroom and be like »Hey, you didn’t wash your hands. Go back in there and wash them«.He lives by the rules and I think he enjoys structure in his life. So he tries to be a representation of the right way to do things is the best way.
It’s gonna be a busy year for you next year as well.
You know what, I feel we’re still in the throes of promotions for ‘Babylon’, which is exciting and fun, but when it’s done I’ll get to have a rest. We still have a couple of pickup shots, stuff that we missed toward the end of ‘Three-Body Problem’. Just little things to pick up, so I have to go back to do that. And then we’ll be doing press for all this.
We have a bit of a break before we start doing more European premieres and stuff for ‘Babylon’. So I’m gonna get my guitar fixed or repaired and looked at today and take my puppy son on a nice long walk and just enjoy the quiet. I think it’s been back and forth, so now I’m just looking forward to turning it down a bit and kind of staying in and having a warm drink and just relaxing.
It’s all about pacing and trying to maintain your sanity and not burn yourself out and not forgetting to take care of yourself. That’s the most important.
Talent: Jovan Adepo
Stylist: Monty Jackson
Styling assistant: Auva Ahmadi
Groomer: Christine Nelli
Editor: Timi Letonja
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.