While Moonlight begins with a boy running from bullies, the TV adaptation of Mr Mercedes opens with people running from a slaughter. In both cases, there is a struggle with morality, one where the central characters must navigate the unrelenting evils of this world. It's not too difficult then to understand why Jharrel Jerome was attracted to key roles in both of these projects.
Navigating The Violence Of 'Mr Mercedes'
Barely out of his teens, the 20 year old star has tackled the kind of controversial projects that others might avoid so early on in their career, but Jharrel Jerome is keen to stress that "We can't avoid negativity." Speaking to us about the violence depicted in Mr Mercedes, Jerome explained that:
"It's tricky. We can never ignore the evils of the real world, but it's always important to look at television and film to cope with these sort of things. I think that's what film is, that's what TV is, music, art in general. Art is a reflection of real life. It does suck that things like that do happen in real life, but I think it's also important for a show like 'Mr Mercedes' to share that and make people aware that this does happen, and unfortunately it does. But we have an intriguing and intricate story that just happens to deal with something that happens."
The character of Jerome Robinson is mostly absent during the show's more horrific scenes, instead helping Detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) track down the Mercedes killer through his knowledge of computers and technology. However, Jharrel's character finally confronts evil face-on in the Season 1 finale during a scene that holds disturbing parallels with terrorism in real-life. While there's always a risk when filming stories that cut uncomfortably close to reality, Jerome confirmed to us that the intent was never to be exploitative in any shape or form:
"It's never too much. Everyone who worked on the project had the best intentions in mind. We're just here to create a story and bring to life something that Stephen King put together."
Mr Mercedes walked a fine line here, but the show's bravery ultimately paid off, resonating with fans and earning a renewal for Season 2. Part of this success is also down to the fan base of #StephenKing who supported this adaptation from day one. Jharrel has been enthused by the "incredible" response to the show so far, although we couldn't help but wonder if he also felt the pressure of starring in a Stephen King adaptation, particularly in a year where the likes of IT have found such wide success:
"Not so much. It was very helpful having the book as a sort of guideline for me. Stephen King has a brilliant way of writing his characters. He puts a lot of depth and complexities into these characters. It kind of makes it easy for an actor to put on these character's shoes. I don't want to say easy... I think it helps... I definitely put my own flavor into Jerome. I had a lot of my own ideas for Jerome, but it was always good to go back to the book to help write those."
Instead, the biggest challenges that Jerome faced on set were of a more practical nature.
The 'Horrors' Of TV
Before he was cast in Mr Mercedes, the young star was catapulted to fame early on thanks to the success of Moonlight at awards season. In many ways, the world of TV must have seemed far scarier than anything that Stephen King could concoct in his stories:
"It definitely came as a challenge. It was my first time working on a TV set ever, so that alone was my biggest challenge, dealing with the quick pace of everything, shooting Episode 4 before Episode 3... Having that sort of energy is challenging, but its just about keeping your head on straight. I was surrounded by the most incredible cast and crew. [Director] Jack Bender made it easy for all of his actors to just feel comfortable with each other."
In particular, Jharrel struck up a bond with Irish actor Brendan Gleeson while filming numerous scenes together. At first, Jerome admitted that he was "terrified" of working alongside Gleeson, but the two quickly grew comfortable working alongside each other, to the point where their relationship developed into a powerful teaching tool for Jharrel:
"I had at least two questions a day for Brendan! But even with the littlest things. We'd be working on a scene, and he could even tell I was having a tough time with one part without having to say it, he'd look at me... But at the same time, he wasn't there to teach, to seem like he was above everyone. He just naturally taught and gave off wisdom, so that was very helpful."
Shining In 'Moonlight'
However, before Jharrel brought an iconic Stephen King creation to life, the young actor tackled another tricky role in Moonlight, playing Kevin in the film's most iconic scene. If Mr Mercedes was challenging, then it's difficult to grasp exactly how difficult it must have been to film that unforgettable moment on the beach where Kevin helps Chiron finally embrace his desires.
While he may not have been able to predict Moonlight's success at the time of filming, Jharrel knew that this sequence would be particularly significant, so he and co-star Ashton Sanders prepared accordingly:
"We knew this was going to be one of our trickiest scenes, something we wanted to make raw and real, but we actually had all day to focus on that. So before we filmed that night around 11pm, we got together and realised it was about giving our all and diving into these characters 100%. Barry Jenkins, who directed, made that so easy for us. He closed the set. It was just me, Ashton and a few of the crew members."
Despite the cold, the cast and crew refused to rush shooting this scene, aware that it would become the beating heart of the movie should it ever find a wider audience:
"Jenkins allowed us to take our time with the scene... what made that scene so beautiful was the pace. That scene could have been quicker, more sexual, it could have been all about this and that, but it wasn't about any of that for Barry and the script. It was all about the subtlety and honesty in these humans that are finally coming out for the first time ever for the both of them... me and Ashton had to take that into consideration. We're both straight, but regardless of that, we knew that this was something that we wanted to tell, an important story that needed to be told."
People have been quick to label Moonlight as a gay movie, a black movie, an epic love story, but the film is so much more than any of those labels suggest, something which is encapsulated in that memorable scene on a dark Miami beach:
"I think it's more than just a gay film or a black film. It's a film about humanity. The characters you see in Moonlight? Yes, they may have been black, they may be young or gay, but they're all in us, I believe. We all have these sort of demons we need to fight, so the story to me is more about love and human connection. It's more about longing and looking for who you are inside of you over anything else."
Now that #MrMercedes has been renewed for a second season, Jharrel Jerome and his fellow co-stars will return soon to fight demons of a different nature, but beyond that? The breakout star of #Moonlight will continue to tackle controversy in the upcoming movie Monster, which revolves around a teenager who's been incarcerated in a New York juvenile detention center. At just 20 years old, Jerome has already set himself on a career path that will continue to shine bright long after the acclaim for Moonlight and Mr Mercedes has faded.
Are you excited for Season 2 of 'Mr Mercedes'? Let us know what you thought of the show in the comments section below!