Jharrel Jerome Isn’t 13 Feet Tall, But He Knows How It Feels

Sure, Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) is 13 feet tall. But he’s a lot more than just his height: He’s a Virgo (which means he loves adventure), simultaneously naïve and wise, and he really, really loves bass.

Cootie is the heart of I’m a Virgo, the absurdist comedy series from Sorry to Bother You creator Boots Riley, which comes out Friday on Prime Video. (Yes, Riley, a self-proclaimed communist, acknowledges the irony of an anti-capitalist show streaming on Amazon, but he’s got to get his work out there somehow. As he told Variety, “There’s no clean way to get stuff done.”)

The 19-year-old giant has been sheltered his whole life by the aunt (Carmen Ejogo) and uncle (Mike Epps) who raised him, siloed from the outside world by their fear and protection. He learns about that world through a steady supply of TV shows and comic books—specifically those about The Hero, a.k.a. Jay Whittle (Walton Goggins), a tech billionaire and supposed superhero who believes that law equates to morality.

Enter: Felix (Brett Gray), Jones (Kara Young), and Scat (Allius Barnes), a group of friends from the neighborhood who take Cootie in and introduce him to the ways and wonders of the world outside his doors. After his first night out at a club, Cootie comes home incensed—how could his aunt and uncle have withheld the glory of the subwoofer? “I’m 19 and I heard bass for the first time?” he says. “That’s abuse!”

Cootie is brought to gangly, lovable life by Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome, who gave memorable performances in Moonlight and When They See Us, and lent his voice to Miles G. Morales in the recent hit Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Riley reached out to him about the role via email: “13 foot tall Black man from Oakland. I want you as the lead.” The show, though shot through with surrealism, addresses real-world problems: economic inequality, the exploitation of the working class, and how to organize against it.

“With Cootie, Boots found a way to make, honestly, a larger-than-life Black man,” Jerome tells TIME, en route to Oakland for an advance screening. “I think as a Black man, when you walk around the street, you kind of already feel like Cootie: You feel a little too big, or you feel a little too intimidating, even though you’re pure-hearted. Maybe you’re just going to the grocery store to grab something for your grandmother,” he continues. “But an officer of the law or somebody of upper class might look at you like you’re 13 feet tall and you’re this monster.”

Jerome spoke to TIME about inhabiting Cootie, working with Riley, and what he’ll take with him from the character.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

TIME: I’m a Virgo creates this rich sense of place in Oakland. The city clearly means a lot to Boots, the same way you’ve said the Bronx means so much to you. How did you honor that? How did you learn the culture?

Jerome: Yeah, I think Boots’ love for Oakland is definitely similar to my love for the Bronx. He is very inspired by the culture of Oakland music, Bay Area music, all the way from back when he was in The Coup in the ’90s. So for me, adopting Oakland style was very easy just hanging around him. But Cootie has been inside of his home his entire life. Early on in my process of dissecting the character, I realized that Cootie shouldn’t be inspired by Oakland itself, and more so inspired by his parents and The Hero and the comic books and TV shows that he’s been watching.

I’m A Virgo - First Look
Walton Goggins in I'm a VirgoPrime Video

Cootie has this inexplicable love for subwoofers and bass. As a musician, what did you make of that? What did you think of the kind of hyphy soundtrack?

One of my favorite lines in the entire script is when Cootie goes on that monologue about how he feels like he was abused for not listening to bass. It’s just such a testament of Boots’ passion for both music and filmmaking. To see a musician put in a script in such beautiful detail the feeling of what it feels like to listen to bass is so important, and it goes exactly with who Boots Riley is as a person.

The music is incredible. Tune-Yards work really well with Boots. Boots is big on these very wacky, existential sounds to push the feeling and the vision that he has, and Tune-Yards know exactly how to do that.

You’ve picked some really powerful projects so far, including this one. What makes a role stand out to you?

I definitely have been purposely meticulous in this way. Pretty much how I see it is, if I’m 45 years old, I want to look back at my IMDb page and be like, “This is back-to-back bangers.” And of course that’s not easy. But I love the idea of longevity over just doing it now for the sake of it. I’m very big on who I’m going to be surrounded by. So I’m patient in that regard. And then there’s just this feeling I get after I finish reading a script where I have butterflies in my stomach because I just want to be that character so bad. I don’t often feel that, so I trust my gut when I do.

I’m A Virgo - First Look
Jharrel Jerome in I'm a VirgoPete Lee—Prime Video

The Hero says that “all art is propaganda.” How do you feel about that, given that art is your whole career?

I love that line, because I think that is the irony of the entire project. There’s a lot of ironic details with the release of the show. One just being such an anti-capitalistic piece being streamed on Amazon. And then Boots missing all the press because he is currently on strike, which is the essence of what this show is about, standing up and being a revolutionary. I agree with [that line]. I think as artists we’re aware of the propaganda that might be set, but I think it’s about changing the fine print.

What do you mean by that, changing the fine print?

I think everything’s going to be at least viewed as propaganda, but what is the overall message we’re trying to push behind the propaganda? Propaganda might not be a negative word if we don’t want it to be. The idea of it is just pushing a message, right? So Boots is finding a way to write a show that’s almost anti-propaganda propaganda. There’s just a beauty in him even writing that line as an artist who’s dealing with that issue. So in my opinion, he’s changing the fine print a little bit.

What do you think Boots was trying to convey politically through Cootie?

Boots has a way of—I don’t know how he does it—but he can fit 30 themes and concepts into one scene sometimes. I think depending on your age, your demographic, the neighborhood you live in, it will inform how you receive this show. And I think that’s the beauty of the show. Boots was able to write such a lovable, nuanced character that can really mirror the lives of a lot of Black people in America today, in just being different, between being an outcast, between being viewed as somebody different than who you really are.

Cootie has such a sense of awkwardness and naiveté to him—how did you get that right?

The best word you said right there was naiveté. I wrote that word down a ton of times to keep myself centered. You have to toe the line between this wise, intelligent being and this socially awkward, unknowing person. He was really well-read. He’s smart. It’s just when it comes to the outside world that he has no idea what he’s doing. I pulled a lot from my personal experiences. Definitely not 13 feet tall, but I do relate to him in the sense of feeling young and old at the same time. I feel as though a lot of things around me forced me to be mature and a lot older than I feel. But then the little boy inside me is still on the swings at the playground.

I’m A Virgo - First Look
Olivia Washington and Jharrel Jerome in I'm a VirgoPrime Video

In your interview with Emmy Magazine, Boots said that “if we’re doing it right, we’re always coming of age.” How did Cootie fit into your own coming of age? What did he teach you?

I think that being strong behind your word is such a powerful characteristic to have. And you can see it’s allowed Cootie to survive in a lot of situations that he was thrown in. Even though he was the awkward one, he really firmly believed that he belonged there. I love to carry that with me wherever I go.

But Cootie has a million things to learn. It’s cool to play a character who doesn’t know much. It makes you rediscover things again. Even the line about bass, to explain bass in that way, and realize that’s exactly how I also feel about bass is such a beautiful thing. And that’s me coming of age right there in that moment.

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