How Antron McCray Helped Caleel Harris Find His Voice in ‘When They See Us.’
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were labeled “The Central Park Five” by the media when they were arrested, tried and imprisoned in 1989 for the rape of a Central Park jogger. At the time, they were just teenagers, boys, forced to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. It wasn’t until DNA evidence and a confession that they were exonerated.
During her OWN/Netflix special, Oprah sat down with the cast and crew of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. She also in a later segment sat down with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, calling them The Exonerated Five. During the special, Antron McCray, in a heartbreaking moment admitted how he was still very much a broken man. DuVernay’s four-part limited series sheds light on what the men, as young boys went through.
Caleel Harris plays the young McCray. I caught up with Harris to talk about how he tapped into McCray and honored him, but also learned what McCray told Harris during the table read, offering him words that would help him portray the role.
When you went in to audition for this, you originally went in for the role of Kevin. What was the story behind that?
I got the audition for young Kevin, and I sent in my tape. The casting director, Aisha Coley really liked the tape. She wanted me to meet with Ava. I was in a different state and doing a different project, but at the time it didn’t really work out. Somehow, they figured out a way that I could fly to New York and meet with Ava. It was my first time ever being in New York. I had never been to New York before that and my first time there, I was going to meet Ava DuVernay.
I met with her and read the lines for young Kevin. She said, “I really like that, but can you read the lines for Antron.” I read the lines and after that, we really sat down and talked. We talked about the project, what it means and my life. It was a process that I’d never done before.
A month later, I was in my room and my mom came rushing in. She had a phone in her hand. “It’s Ava. It’s Ava DuVernay.” I ran and got the phone and said hello? She goes, “Hello, this is Ava. I want to offer you the part of young Antron.” I was so happy. I started sprinting through my whole house. It was such an amazing experience.
After it sunk in, where did you go next to understand him?
It started off with the Ken Burns documentary. We started to dive deeper into who these men really were. It was brutal. I had to watch the actual confession tape that Antron made. It taught me so much about the situation that they were in. It was so obvious that they were forced to say those things and it was just terrible to watch. I listened to about 4-hours of audio recording. You could hear his pain and how what happened to him in 1989, still sticks with him today.
What did you learn from talking to him and from spending time with him?
He’s such a strong individual. He’s super resilient. These things still linger within in, but he still has great spirits. He’s a bit shy, but it was really touching for me to see him come out of his shell and to see that blossom within him.
He’s such an incredible person, and I’m grateful that he’s able to be a part of my life. He’ll always have a special part in my heart.
He came on set a few times. I got to spend a lot of time with him after we had finished shooting.
Where did you first meet him?
I met him at the table read. It was such a nerve-wracking experience because we were about to read these men’s lives out loud. It’s something you’re never prepared for.
I went up to him at the table read and asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help portray you the best I possibly can.” He said, “I know you’re going to do me right. I know you’re going to do me proud. I believe in you.”
I was speechless because I didn’t know what to say in response to that?
What was the toughest part of playing Antron? You’re not just playing a role when he’s someone very much alive and someone who was grossly done wrong by the system.
There was that tremendous responsibility and a tremendous amount of care that is required to handle these types of roles. I feel the hardest part was trying to find a way to capture the emotions that Antron was feeling in 1989. It really was the most traumatic moment in his life, and I had to find that place in my mind and put myself there. It was a scary thing to do. When you’re on the set, you’re in an interrogation room; it’s dark and cold? You ask yourself, could I have stuck to my truth? Could I hold up? Also, we haven’t gone through what these men have gone through so we can’t really truly relate to that aspect, but we can do our best to display it properly on screen.
What they went through in 1989 was absolutely terrible.
What was it like sitting in the audience during the Oprah special and you’re hearing him describe how this broke him?
It was really hard to listen to and to hear that. To hear him be so honest, I started crying. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not a crier. The tears flowed with that emotion. I feel such a connection with him, and I feel his pain. I’ll always be praying for Antron, but I’ll always be there for him if he ever needs me. The world needs to know, the effect this stuff has on people.