KCRW's Behind the Screens: Elvis Mitchell in Conversation with Angel Manuel Soto and Jahi Di'Allo Winston - Presented by HBO Max

On October 13th, KCRW’s Elvis Mitchell, host of The Treatment,  lead a conversation with director Angel Manuel Soto and star Jahi Di'Allo Winston from HBO Max's new film "Charm City Kings."

Check out their conversation below. 

Elvis Mitchell:
Welcome to KCRW's Behind the Screens. I am here with the director and the star of the new film “Charm City Kings.” The director is Angel Manuel Soto and the star has the best name of any actor ever, Jahi Di’Allo Winston. Hey y'all, thanks for doing this. 

Angel Manuel Soto: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: Thank you for having us.

Elvis Mitchell: My pleasure. Angel, let me start with you. One of the things that really impresses me about the movie is the way you use sunlight. And sunlight is actually really a character in the film that takes you back to the documentary called “12 O’Clock Boys”, which is also about innocence and hope. Will you talk about that a little bit? It is really like a visual motif.

Angel Manuel Soto: It is a visual motif. The story takes place over one summer. And we really wanted to capture that sense of freedom and joy and youth. Just going back to my childhood in Puerto Rico - the hot bright sun, the harsh contrast light, and everything just feels very possible. It doesn't matter how poor you are. Everything feels like you're just kids having fun. As the movie keeps progressing, you start noticing how the earlier parts of that coming of age journey of Mouse is geared more into the lightness of it all. And when the bike gets stolen and everything starts going south, we started heading into darker tones. It starts getting a little bit more overcast as it goes through the length of the film. Then at the end, it was serendipitous. In the last moment we see a year later, it's raining. For me, the whole process of using light, using texture, using the weather speaks a lot about the emotional connections and emotional journey that each character has not only between each other, but with the film in general.

Elvis Mitchell: I was thinking about the too because the very beginning of the film when we meet Mouse's brother Stro, it's dark and overcast too, isn't it?

Angel Manuel Soto: We wanted to use that to our advantage and turn the story, in a subtle way, that feels right with the environment and the atmosphere that this friendship really has at the beginning. It’s at those moments that you see the emotional thing. As it keeps going throughout the film, those emotional peaks are hit a lot with, not just the score from Alex Somers, but also the motif of lighting.

Elvis Mitchell: Very much so. Jahi, I wanted to ask you, what do you think of Mouse when you first read the script? What were your thoughts about the character?

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: Well, I really loved how, just from a story perspective, we were seeing this world and experiencing this world through his eyes. Him being this miniscule 14-year-old boy and us really getting to experience this mountainous world through his eyes with him at the center of it. I love the dynamic between him and his friends. And I love the idea of being able to add an element of humanity to the troubled black teen trope that has already existed in Hollywood. And add an element of empathy into the systemic contexts that come into play there. But just trying to tap into his humanity. I enjoyed the simplicity of the story and how it was structured and crafted. Those really are the things that stuck out to me.

Elvis Mitchell: Right. Mouse’s physical presence is different with Blax [Meek Mill] than it is with Rivers [William Catlett]. Obviously, he’s so desperately looking for a big brother. I wanted to ask you how you figured that out because he gets really, really close to Blax, but he's always separated from Rivers. Like he doesn't want to get physically too close to him. I want you to talk about that because I thought was really interesting.

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: Well, I think his want and desire for a big brother figure in his life is evident in his behavior and in the spaces he takes up. It's great that you pointed that out because Blax is more like the big brother, whereas Rivers is sort of the father figure. My job as an actor is to focus on the character and look beyond the script to fill in those blanks that the script doesn't necessarily touch on. Because it's a two-hour film, we have a lot to do. It was interesting because Rivers served as the father figure and Blax served as the big brother. So it led me to believe that, because Mouse is deterred from Rivers and latched on to Blacks, it lends itself to what you said, that he was turning away from a father figure. It also led me to believe that maybe his relationship with his father wasn't that good or strong. Maybe he wasn't really desiring or needing a father figure in his life because of who his father was, which we never touch on in the film. And I'm glad we don't, because I like that we're dismantling that absentee black father by having two black mentors in the film. I think all of the things that you said are right on and that was definitely something that I thought about when trying to craft Mouse.

Elvis Mitchell: I'm guessing that one of the things you responded to as an actor was that you, like you're saying, get to do a lot of that work because the script doesn't over explain. We're going to see from the way Mouse relates to his friends and everybody around him, what he wants from them.

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: Yeah, for sure. Another thing that I wanted to do with this film was to have an element of glee and levity throughout it. I definitely have to credit Donielle [Donielle T. Hansley Jr.], who played Lamont, because we had that feeling on and off screen. I think both of us had an understanding that if that chemistry is not intact, if that doesn't work, then the film doesn't work, because they are the heart of the film. When it was solidified that I wanted to be a part of this, I asked myself what was the chemistry read when I met the two of them, because I didn't know them. But when we got in the room, it was really magical how it would happen. We all just clicked right away, innately and immediately. And we all left that room and knew that we had something special and that it would be great to get together with them again. So we ended up doing the film in West Baltimore, for six weeks or eight weeks, something like that. And I have to credit them for just bringing the levity out in me because it was a very high maintenance environment filming. It was stressful for me because this was the most I've ever had to film and the emotional depth in which I had to tap into was difficult. And so they definitely brought that out of me throughout the period.

Elvis Mitchell: I'm glad you brought these things up because this gives me a chance to ask Angel a question I have been wanting to ask, which was - casting somebody who you had to understand was smart, but he couldn't tell us that. We get to see the way he deals with an animal back at the very beginning. You know that he's got a big heart and he’s a smart guy, but he's never telling anybody how smart he is. So talk about the first time you saw you saw Jahi and spoke with him and that casting decision.

Angel Manuel Soto: Definitely. We spent a lot of time looking for Mouse. We worked with the casting director of The Wire in Baltimore and we did a whole nationwide search. As we were picking our selections, I really wanted to focus on being able to capture the soul of Mouse. It makes it easier for me to interact with an actor when they're resting face or their eyes act as a window to their soul and already give me 50 percent of what I want them to say. And things like that personally help me with subtext when I already have that layer of backstory told just with a stare or a smile. But the other part that was really important to me was the chemistry. So we called in a couple of kids from Baltimore and from all over America and they were all super talented. They all brought something different to Mouse. But it was when when I saw Jahi interacting with Donielle and Kezii [Kezii Curtis]. We were just sitting there and saw the whole thing happen before our eyes. They were joking around and they already had inside jokes as if they knew each other for years. And on that energy, we were like “Let's start. Let’s do this.” And with all the banter, they started just feeding off of each other, bullying each other, having fun, and we just knew, that was it, we found them. We still had other meetings and we decided to give everybody a chance. But we saw it play before our eyes and saw that chemistry, which I think is the heart of the film like Jahi said.

The soul of Jahi is important and he is an empath, as a human being. When we met, he was like 13 going on 40 and I knew this kid was super smart. He knows more about social justice topics than I thought I knew. And this kid, he's on top of things and is teaching me all along the way. But there was stuff that he didn't know or that he hasn't experienced yet and he was very open to really trying to put himself in those shoes. We had a moment where we were talking about loss. The film deals with a lot of loss, which is something that I'm very familiar with sadly. Being able to see Jahi embody that sentiment of loss in such a profound way without saying what Mouse was going through. You see it right there in the film. That level of authenticity to emotion is really hard to find and I found it in Jahi.

Elvis Mitchell: Moving on. Angel, the kids all have these big brimming eyes that tell us a lot and that’s really the difference between the kids and the adults. The adults have all these heavy-lidded eyes that don’t let anything in and the kids are taking everything in. I want to have you talk about that a little bit too. Because it's kind of amazing.

Angel Manuel Soto: Well, it’s really that whole thing of the sparkle in the eyes, like the innocence. The fact that that their purity hasn’t yet been stained by the realities of life. I feel like it's a very powerful thing to see play out. And it's a very hard thing to go back to once that light turns off. I think there's a turning point in every adolescent’s life, like what happened to Mouse, when he had to become a man and grow up too early. When adolescents go through experiences that involve a different paradigm of life, they lose a little bit of that shine and that sparkle in their eyes that is really inherit to Mouse and the kids in the film, especially when their innocence gets corrupted halfway through. So being able to protect that. That scene had a couple of lines from Mouse and I just told Jahi to hold them back. Like think like you’re going to say them and then just don’t. That scene for me was the most personal one because it reminded me a lot of that moment in my life when my mom went through that same shit. That was when you really feel the whole pressure of what you have been fed since you were little and now you have to step it up. Stop being a child. Grow up. You need to provide. And you're just a kid. That’s exactly what happened to Mouse. That was the moment after seeing everything they went through, that he realizes we need to go get it. And that definitely shines down the sparkle in his eyes. I don't know if you noticed, but Jahi spoke about something that's really interesting regarding the absence of the Father.

Elvis Mitchell: The mug. We see the father mug. In so many ways, this film is a weird kind of procedure. There is lots of information that we never really get. I don't want to tell people too much. But there's mysteries about his brother, mysteries about his father, mysteries about where Blax came from and what he did. It feels like what you guys were doing was saying “let's not give too much away. Let's let people live with the movie rather than being told what's happening.” Can you speak a little to that, Angel?

Angel Manuel Soto: Correct. I like to have questions. A lot of the things I create come from a place of trying to see questions being played out. Sometimes we don't really have all the information, but you can feel people. And I think that part of creating this empathy within the characters relies more on me wanting to care for this person that I met today, as opposed to them telling me their story so that maybe I will care. With that whole journey and experience, we want to really to follow this one summer with our friends. We're going to give you the information you need to know as the story progresses because the subtext and the morals of the story at the end of the day, are really the ones that we want to hammer on. It's a simple story about a kid who wants to bike one summer and things go south. We get the tropes. You know how it’s going to be. What do we want to say? What needs to be said? And what do we want to say about ourselves in a movie where the general story would translate to a different demographic? And how can we own that demographic and tell our stories? Jahi says something really interesting in a couple of interviews about how we do not need to be measured every time or viewed through the lens of our struggle. The struggle forms you and you fight it. But you are not just your struggles. You're also a story of hope. You're also a message of what we can do to make things better by showing how toxic masculinity affects the decision of young men without making the story about that. And I think that allowed us to be able to tap into those moments.

Elvis Mitchell: What you’re talking about here again is what really works for the film and what makes it really interesting to me - that everything’s happening in the moment, which means people aren't telling you what they're thinking or what they're feeling. And I want to ask you, Jahi, if that really excited you, as an actor, that you could actually express what Mouse is going through in different ways other than dialogue, because it was a real test for you.

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: Absolutely. That’s always what I look for in any character or break down that comes over. If we comparatively look at how we interact in real life, very rarely do people say how they actually feel. For me, when I'm reading a script, that's how I know it's bad when someone says, “This is how I feel and this is what my therapist said I should say because this is how I feel” instead of just doing something. Shonda Rhimes always says a character should make things happen. Make sure things don't happen to the character. Make sure your characters are doing all the things that they think and feel and say, because our behavior and our experiences influence our everyday experiences and interaction. So absolutely, that was something that was very attractive and appealing about the script, the fact that Mouse never really says what's wrong with him and why he doesn't like Rivers. It's all the things that we've talked about up to this point in the interview. It could be that he didn't have a good relationship with his father. It could be that he never knew his father. It could be that while Stro was alive, he idolized him, but he never really felt like he could live up to him during Stro’s life and after he had passed on. There are a lot of things that can be unpacked if we're talking about the story beyond the script and how those things are in comparison to real life. But I agree with what Angel said. This specific story that we're telling is about a boy who just wants a bike and how he's vehemently passionate about this world and about his culture, and how his passion leads him down this tumultuous road that causes him to make decisions that he can't retract.

Elvis Mitchell: I think what's really fascinating about this again is that you guys are both talking about tropes. There are tropes in black drama and there are tropes in black coming of age films, where we're constantly being told what has just happened. For me, the art of this film is about the taking away, because you set up things that we expect to get answered and we never get answers. But again, that's how life is in the moment. I have wondered if that was really a strategy for you to tell the story in the most visual terms possible, rather than being so much about on the nose dialogue?

Angel Manuel Soto: 100%. I know that there are moments that you have to give something. Like Jahi said earlier, I still struggle with the fact that it’s hard for me to tell you that I'm not doing okay. My pride and former machismo has been invested in. We want to denounce toxic masculinity, but we don't want to denounce it in the movie. So how do we show the effects of it and see the repercussions of that decision? I think we don't say much, but we show more than what we are supposed to say and that's the beauty of being able to keep the humanity in the dialogue. Keep the intentions, the idiosyncrasies, the lingo and the specific words that ground us in that place in time. For example, even behind the joking around and the banter, there is a layer of the character that's manifesting without being on the nose.

Elvis Mitchell: There’s one scene that really gives them away that’s worth watching the movie for. There’s a scene where there's a young woman that Mouse's been after and she comes over to him after he suddenly raises his status in the neighborhood and, in a way, he plays her off. From what you spoke about, that scene really is this festering boil of toxic masculinity. And he’s picked on by his boys and even the girls have unfortunately been dislocated in all this. That’s such a great scene.

Angel Manuel Soto: Exactly. The reaction to that scene is like “Man, Mouse, you shouldn't be doing that.” And that's the reaction you want from that scene like maybe nobody told him there, but us as an audience feel like he did her wrong. That’s the conversation. As opposed to making it very straightforward “this is the moral of this scene.” Let's let it play out the way it really plays out and show it with the light of what we're trying to say, as opposed to having them voice it.

Elvis Mitchell: Jahi, talk about playing the scene a little bit, because that's also when we realized that Mouse is kind of lost. When he knows that he's not the guy who he was at the beginning of the movie, is he?

Jahi Di’Allo Winston: No, he is definitely not. I think he's always who he wanted to be though, which is the sad part. We don't like him in that moment, but that's who he's always wanted to be. Because, like you said, that's what he was taught he is supposed to be. Again, it's us tackling and dismantling those ideas of toxic masculinity without actually making it about them. I think if Angel wanted to make a movie about toxic masculinity, he probably would have done a documentary about toxic masculinity. But we were telling a story.

That scene was fun to do because I just can't stand toxic or hyper masculinity, like the dudes that won't actually eat a banana. They'll break it in half and then just eat it out of their hand, which is so dumb to me. It's food. Just eat it how it's supposed to be eaten. I don't get it. I kind of like making fun of that through my work. So that was fun to do and sort of be a jerk and behave how I would never behave in real life and have that braggadocios energy and have the support of my friends who are also exhibiting the same toxic horrible behavior.

Elvis Mitchell: Well, on that note, I guess we should end this. I'm so glad to have had a chance to talk to you guys. It was really great. Thank you so much.