Native Son is the literally classic written in 1940 by Richard Wright. Its themes of systemic racism, poverty, wealth and racial oppression shouldn’t be as relevant today in 2019, but they are. Director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan Lori-Parks bring the story to present day Chicago with Ashton Sanders as Biggie.
Love Simon’s Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley soon to be seen in FX’s Fosse/Verdon sat down with us for a brief chat about taking on the well-intentioned, but privileged Jan and Mary.
What was your introduction to Native Son?
Nick: My introduction – and I think I’m speaking for Margaret here too, was the script. I was aware of the novel. It was a classic and I had peripherally heard it mentioned, but I didn’t know much about it. My first introduction to the story was through the script. Afterward, in conversations with Rashid, I brought up that I hadn’t read the book and he didn’t want either Margaret or I to read the novel.
I didn’t read it going into the production, but after the fact, I read it. Suzan-Lori Parks and Rashid were both rights on the money in terms of taking what was needed from the novel but also taking out what wasn’t needed.
After reading it, I saw a lot of the reasons why they changed things. In the novel, almost from the get-go. He’s a one dimensional, pretty callous and kind of a villain. And in this version, he is a fully fleshed out person with interests and likes and dislikes.
What was it like stepping into your character’s shoes in 2019?
Margaret: Mary is someone who is super privileged and blinded by that to a certain degree and out of touch with reality. What’s so cool about working with Suzan and Rashid was that they really weren’t interested in creating characters that fit into stereotypes that we’re comfortable with.
So, with Mary, despite the fact that she is this really privileged person that can make for some cringe-worthy moments, she’s really well-intentioned. I think most people are really well-intentioned and I think that as a white person in America, it can be relatively easy to walk through life without seeing the effect of systemic racism.
I would hope it can provide a level of introspection to a white audience and not to say that I have any answers, but what’s really a testament to Rashid and Suzan is that they were able to tell a story that asks a lot of questions without leaving any answers and hope that spawns a nuanced conversation about these unfortunately relevant topics.
Nick, the thing about your character is he’s a bit of a socio-
Nick: -socio…path? [laughs]
He has good intentions, both of them do.
And that’s the hard part. That’s the uncomfortable part. It’s really hard as an audience member to point to someone and say that’s a villain. It doesn’t give people a way out and the opportunity to say, “That’s the person that I’m not.” I think that there’s a little bit of Jan, Mary or Big in all of us and it’s hard to address that or reconcile that with how we like to view ourselves. I think that’s the problem with Jan and Mary – they have this view of themselves that isn’t completely in line with the reality of the situation.
Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to shoot?
Margaret: The first couple of scenes are always the hardest. One of the first scenes that I shot was one of Mary’s first scene in the films. We actually did a fair amount of this in sequence which was great. She’s making all these assumptions about Biggie and it was a really uncomfortable experience for me, but I’m glad it was uncomfortable because it makes for some uncomfortable moments in the film which was ultimately the intention.
Nick: The script was a bit longer than what made the final cut so there was more stuff of Jan talking out of his ass about different topics where he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but those were fun.
The tunnel scene was an important moment and there’s a lot there. We were running out of time and we were trying to rush it. Those moments are always stressful.
The trickiest part for me was not coming in every day and having these big breaks in the middle of things. It’s hard to get into a rhythm when you start and stop. It was an interesting experience for me and you had to know what you were doing prior. There was no warm up and you had to be ready to go. It was a great exercise.
What was it like working with a director like Rashid?
Margaret: He’s a really gracious person. I loved working with him because he’s such a talented and visual artist. I think it was a seamless transition for him to direct. He doesn’t dumb anything down and just brings everyone up to his level.
What’s next for the both of you?
Nick: I’m doing Shadow In The Clouds. This Summer will be busy. I’ve got a few things lined up.
Margaret: I just finished Fosse/Verdon and got to work with some of my favorite actors in the world. I grew up dancing and got to play Ann Reinking. She’s been a long time hero of mine. I got to play her and I have a tiny part in Tarantino’s new film.
Did you ever see her on Broadway?
Margaret: I wish I had. I grew up dancing and I’ve seen All That Jazz at least 20 times in the back of a minivan. I didn’t get to see her on Broadway, but I got to talk to her once a week which was a great and crazy experience.
Native Son airs on HBO on April 6