The explosive Netflix series “When They See Us” features five young actors playing the “Central Park Five,” convicted for raping Trisha Meili, aka the Central Park Jogger, in 1989.
The convictions were vacated in 2002 when Mattias Reyes confessed to the crime and, of the five young men, Korey Wise — 16 at the time and treated as an adult — served his sentence at Rikers Island before being transferred to other facilities, including Attica and Wende Correctional Facility.
Jharrel Jerome, who portrays Wise, is the only one of the five actors to play his role as a teen and as an adult. He auditioned twice for “When They See Us” executive producer Ava DuVernay, once when he was clean-shaven and the next time bearded, convincing her that he could play both Koreys.
“I play him from age 16 to 28,” says Jerome from Charleston, SC, where he films the series “Mr. Mercedes.” The demands of the role did not put him off. “The story was so painful and it was going to take a lot of focus and pushing past dark thoughts in my mind, but it did not intimidate me,” he says. “Being from The Bronx, a young man of color, when I look in the mirror, I see Korey sometimes. It’s given me a voice I never thought I’d get the chance to have.”
While many scenes are disturbing to watch, the one where prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) grills Wise on the witness stand, asking him to read a confession he allegedly made to the police, will rip your heart out. “I don’t do so well in school,” Wise says.
“I remember shooting that scene like it was yesterday. That knowledge of Korey being on that stand started to twist my stomach,” he says. “That feeling kept me grounded in the scene.” DuVernay did take after take without pause, and the depth of Korey’s humiliation becomes unbearable. “Ava was there to push. Ava was there to drive. I went from yelling at the end to jumping back to the first question,” he says. “At the end, everyone stood and clapped for me. It blew me away.”
The slightly built actor used a body double for the incarceration scenes where Korey is beaten so savagely by other inmates he required hospitalization — and chose solitary confinement for long stretches to stay alive.
“I tried my best to do all my stunts,” he says. “Growing up I was very into wrestling and the WWE. When I got the scripts and saw all the fight scenes, I tried to pretend I knew how to fake fight. The scene in Wende with the eight men stabbing me in the prison cell, it wasn’t the best idea for the star of the show to be thrown against a metal toilet.”
Jerome was discovered by Barry Jenkins, who cast him in “Moonlight.” He played the character Kevin in the middle section of the Oscar-winning film. “He saw something in me and put me in that project at the last minute,” he says. “I’m forever grateful. Where would I be today without him? Probably graduating with my friends and looking for a job.”
The actor, who was a student at Ithaca College when his career took off, left after sophomore year. “God was taking me away from school and throwing me into the world,” he says. He wants to go back, but with the likes of Oprah Winfrey tweeting about his performance and awards buzz on the rise, it doesn’t look like graduation is in the cards. Jenkins texted his congratulations when he saw “When They See Us,” but the greatest tribute came from Wise. Jerome met him on set when DuVernay introduced her cast to the real Central Park Five (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana and Wise).
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“Ava brought out the men to the first table read. I was very intimidated to meet Korey,” Jerome says. “I saw him crying. He took the chain around his neck and put it around my neck. I will never forget that moment. I wore it to the set every day.”