Plays a Civil Rights Icon in Till
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s quite a challenge for a young actor to play a civil rights icon. Therefore, Jalyn Hall took very seriously the idea of playing Emmett Till – a fourteen-year-old Black boy who was tortured, mutilated and killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman in the Jim Crow south.
In the film Till, Hall – who was fourteen himself at the time of the filming – had to show beyond being a name which became a rallying cry in the civil rights protests of the 1950s, Emmett Till was just a normal kid.
It is a breakthrough role for Hall, who is best known as a regular on the TV series All-American. However, more importantly to him, it is a story which has to be told.
A couple of days before the world premiere of Till, we caught up with Hall to discuss playing such a historically significant role.
How did you first learn about the story of Emmett Till? I’m sure that you probably had heard about it before you are involved with the movie.
Yes. My mom told me about Emmett Till’s story and tragic death when I was younger, as an attempt of prevention of anything like that ever happening to me. Like a cautionary tale, which is often told to kids nowadays, often Black and brown kids.
As an actor, do you feel a certain responsibility for playing a real-life character of such historical significance as compared to say, just playing a normal, fictional character?
Yes. There is, of course, that kind of responsibility and even that obligation to fully embody this person. Because you’re right, it’s not a character. It’s a human being, who had goals, dreams, nightmares, just like any of us. Making sure to capture his innocence, his caring, sense of heart, his pureness, all of that was crucial to showing the world who Emmett Till was.
Of course, Emmett had no idea he was going to become a historical figure. He was just a nice, hopeful, loving kid. And to a certain extent, he was naive to the world that he was in down south. Was it difficult to play the lighter scenes when Emmett was just being a normal kid, when you knew his eventual fate?
No, no, no. My process, just in general, was to just take it one day at a time. I never really thought past what we were doing in that scene. That helped me to not even think about the tragedy that he was going to have to go through. That also even added on to the performance because with me not thinking about that, it only added that innocence. He never thought that that would happen to him. That wasn’t even in the forefront of his brain. I do hear a lot of people say that with the naivety of him in that time period. But as we see in the movie, his mother raised him with love, so the sudden sense of hatred wasn’t going to get through.
Obviously, he’s known for his fate, but in researching him, what were some of the things that surprised you about him just as a normal human being?
One of the things that surprised me the most was just how mirrored our characteristics were. Traits of a love for music, a love for dance, or unwavering love for his mother. All of this stuff was easy to translate because most of it is shown in my regular life.
Speaking of your regular life, I was reading that you come from a very close family. Did that help you to understand the family dynamics of Emmett with his mother, his grandparents and his cousins?
Oh, yes. All of that was it was just hit right on the nail. I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, so most of my time here is spent with my family, my grandma, and my cousins. It was really just bringing that authenticity to a film, because, like I like to say that me and him were not unlike. We’re talking the same person in a way. So, it was very easy to embody him in that curious, loving spirit of that 14-year-old that I was. Now the world can feel that.
Till is getting some Oscar buzz particularly for Danielle Deadwyler, who plays your mother. What was she like to work with?
Oh, gee, she’s an amazing person. First of all, she’s an amazing actress. She’s an even more amazing person. She’s such a such a loving person to be around. She’s charismatic, hilarious, welcoming, warm and so humble. She’s often praised about this. We praise her because she deserves it, of course. But she’s so modest in the way that she’s so selfless about this. It’s purely the justice and the message that she’s trying to convey. That makes her a ten times better actor and an even better person.
How did you get the role? What was the auditioning process like?
When they told me what it was for, I just knew right then that this was going to be so, so important. Especially important to me. Important to our world, our times and our community. I knew from the jump that this was going to be something that will make such an impact on the world.
We’ve made so much progress since the days of Emmett Till, but yet there’s still a long way to go. How do you think that a film like Till can help stimulate the conversation on human rights and relations?
Like you said, we have made some progress. That is evident. But we still have a way to go, like you said. With this movie being shown, a lot of people are afraid of the effects of it on people. What it will bring in and what it will come with.I strongly believe that this is one of those things where we have to watch because now, we can see where we were, where we’ve come and where we need to be. That’ll inspire so many. Awaken something in everyone to inspire them to do change. To make change. To go out there and make the world a better place. To move on from these troubled times that we’re still in, unfortunately.
What was it like to live out – even second hand as an actor – the world of the segregationist south of the past?
Wow, everybody in their life goes through something where it changes them in miraculous ways. Changes them for the better and they come out a new person. I feel like, going through that it was very foreign. Indirectly, I have definitely felt sometimes that pressure. But directly, my mom has done a great job at protecting me and shielding me from the terror and the hatred that is unfortunately in the world. Going through it firsthand… of course, to some extent, because it’s film… but the acting, I really took it as a personal experience. In doing so, I changed in so many ways. Learned stuff about myself, in so many ways.
As a young actor, how do you follow up playing an iconic role like Emmett Till?
Well, we really never know, and I don’t really weigh my projects. Of course, there are some that have different meanings and different intentions. Others may be to entertain. Others may be to educate. But this is definitely something that the world itself will be changed [by]. People will be moved after viewing this.
Last month, you took part in the TIFF premiere of Bruiser. What can we expect about that film?
Bruiser is a very… (pauses and laughs) I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a film that is so detailed in its rollercoaster of emotion, in its action, its intensity and its music. Honestly, it’s just an artistic masterpiece that [writer-director] Miles [Warren] has put together. I can’t wait for everybody to see that as well.
In recent years, you’ve been on All-American. How is it different work going on a TV series to a movie?
Yes, season five of All-American is here. It’s all pretty familiar and similar in ways. I really am loving the diversity. I feel like making a show is like a longevity thing. Whereas with making films, you just leave it out there. This is your creation that you lend out into the world. So, they’re both similar in ways and they both make an impact. I just love the diversity. I love doing them both.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 14, 2022.
Photos ©2022 by Eric Charbonneau, Dan Steinberg, Lynsey Weatherspoon and Andre D. Wagner. Courtesy of Orion Pictures. All rights reserved.