Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
Danielle Deadwyler’s eyes are an instrument that she knows how to use with absolute precision.
In HBO Max’s post-apocalyptic drama “Station Eleven,” they can stare into another person’s soul as their character, Miranda, absorbs the world around her. In Netflix’s noir western “The Harder They Fall,” they’re the last thing a baddie sees before he’s killed by the witty gunslinger Cuffee, whom he plays.
And in her latest film, “Till,” from director Chinonye Chukwu, about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose gruesome 1955 murder in Mississippi by white supremacists helped spark the civil rights movement, they often fill the entire screen, tortured and unblinking in shocked pain, eyelids fluttering at the painful memory. Although the actress has had a prominent presence in supporting roles in recent years, “Till” marks her first leading role in a feature film.
“I grew up with that story, but I didn’t really know it,” Deadwyler, 40, recently said of the relationship between Mamie and Emmett in an interview on a rainy afternoon at the Park Lane Hotel in midtown Manhattan. “So this was an opportunity to show what it meant to be Mamie both in public and in private and how she set about navigating those two identities.”
Deadwyler’s expressive eyes are just the beginning of her acclaimed portrayal of Emmett’s doting mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. In her review of the film for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised Deadwyler’s talents: “With steady intensity and nimble emotional swings, Deadwyler rises to the occasion as Mamie, delivering a silent and focused performance that works as a counterpoint to the heaviness of the story, its depth and its violence”.
Deadwyler grew up with three brothers in South Atlanta, his mother a court clerk and his father a train supervisor. Her mother, she says, insisted that her children have a diverse cultural life.
“My mom used to say, ‘You can’t go to UGA,’” she recalled, referring to the University of Georgia. “He had set out to get us out of our comfort zone,” she added.
As a young man, Deadwyler dabbled in theater and dance; she took her first dance class at age 4, after her mother saw her sway to “Soul Train,” and she fell in love with theater in high school.
She went to a college near her home and graduated as a historian from Spelman University, continuing to act in plays. She earned a master’s degree in American Studies at Columbia University in New York and wrote her thesis on sexually positive portrayals of women in hiphop (in 2017, she did a second master’s degree in Creative Writing at Ashland University in Ohio). ).
When she wasn’t accepted to the Women’s Studies graduate program at Emory University in Atlanta (“I cried in the bathroom of the trustee where I did my internship,” she said), she went on to teach at a charter elementary school for two years. But with her boyish looks and wiry build, Deadwyler had a hard time being taken seriously. “Quinta Brunson’s character in ‘Abbott Elementary’ seems young, but she has a teacher’s presence,” she said, drawing her knees to her chest. “I looked young, she was just out of grad school. The children asked me: ‘What year are you in?’”.
Then came the role that catapulted her: the role of the Lady in Yellow in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” when the play was staged at Atlanta’s True Colors Theater in 2009.
Shortly after, she began to appear on television screens and in 2012 she starred in the television series “A Cross to Bear”, where she played a destitute alcoholic mother. She also began landing small roles on television: antagonist LaQuita Maxwell on Tyler Perry’s soap opera “The Haves and the Have Nots,” a recurring role as Yoli on the Starz series “P-Valley,” and memorable roles on “Atlanta.” from FX and “Watchmen” from HBO.
The latter was the performance that came to mind for “Station Eleven” creator Patrick Somerville as he searched for his Miranda, the artist whose graphic novel drives the series’ narrative arc.
“She acts with her eyes, you can feel how much substance is inside her, even without her saying a single word,” the director said.
He put her through several last-minute script changes, but “he was never concerned about the changes. It was always the very center of it. I was always impressed by her incredible confidence,” she added.
The biggest role of his career so far is “Till” and he almost didn’t accept it.
Mamie Till-Mobley is best known for her insistence that her son’s body be veiled in an open casket to show the world what a mob of white men had done to him, but the film focuses on her transformation from shocked mother to ardent activist. “My reps sent me the script and I was like, ‘Do I want to do this?'” recalled Deadwyler, a single mother of a 12-year-old, “because it’s a joyous but also painful job.”
In the end, the role of Mamie resonated with her.
For her audition, she submitted a tape of her own that included the scene where she ties a tie around Emmett’s neck—her son, Ezra, took the boy’s place—preparing for a trip to Mississippi, as she tells him, “ Don’t be noticed.” Then, on a video call with Chukwu, she acted out the moment Mamie sees Emmett’s dead body for the first time (“I told my son, ‘Hey, you might hear some weird noises.’”).
Chukwu, the director, said she knew immediately that she was in for something special.
“I knew I wanted the audience to see the humanity of this woman of color and that faces would be important, but when I saw how much control and power Danielle had, I leaned into that even more,” she explained.
For example, Mamie’s courtroom testimony scene—a rather explosive seven-page scene that includes pain, frustration, and anger—was recorded in one long take. Chukwu said he had originally planned another eight or nine montages, but when Deadwyler received a standing ovation from cast and crew on the first take — a close-up of her face — Chukwu decided he didn’t need any more.
Deadwyler commented that the weight of Mamie’s suffering, her determination to fight battles for future generations even when she knows she cannot win in the present, weighed on every part of her body on set. But as soon as the day’s shoots were over, a car would take her home while she listened to gospel songs by Mahalia Jackson.
“It’s a sonic change,” he says. “It’s the same thing with Mamie: there’s a private me and a public me.”
There were also relaxed moments on set that showed Deadwyler’s sense of humor. “At first I thought she was very serious and that she would be very mad at me, because I’m not,” said Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Mamie’s mother and produced the film. “But she can also be in a very simple humor.”
As the “Till” publicity tour wraps up, Deadwyler plans to take a break to take it all in. You can also see her star opposite Zoe Saldaña in the new Netflix limited series “From Scratch,” based on Tembi Locke’s memoir about an American student who falls in love with an Italian chef. She and she have a few film projects in the works, including Kourosh Ahari’s sci-fi thriller “Parallel” and Netflix’s star-studded Christmas mystery “Carry On.”
“I want to collaborate with others and I look forward to being approached for new projects instead of doing 80 or 100 auditions a year,” revealed the actress.
Meanwhile, learning that his face can be seen in advertisements mounted above New York taxicabs, he marveled at this reversal of fortune, although he had yet to see one. “I’d like to slowly fade into the dark,” she said with a laugh.
Deadwyler’s laugh is a curious thing, a sound not heard much on screen: it’s a deep, full-bodied laugh that rumbles, echoing down the hall long after the door closes. “Me, would it be?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Nope”.
I ask if there is anything else people are wrong about.
And there’s that laugh again.