Jamila C. Gray is sitting on a couch chatting animatedly with her co-star, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, when I enter her hotel room. The space is a flurry of publicists and staff fluttering around as the two converse, but she turns to me and her eyes light up when I enter the room.
“I like your hair,” she says with a smile.
Looking at her in a cream blouse and gold heart-shaped earrings, the actress looks entirely different from her character Brianna “Bri” in the new film, On the Come Up. Based on Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel of the same name, the Sanaa Lathan-directed movie — her feature debut — is a coming-of-age tale about making it as a young female rapper. With Bri’s father’s legacy on her shoulders, and a strained relationship with her recovering addict mother and a desire for financial stability, she is determined to make it as a hip-hop artist. The film sees her analyze the true price that comes with success.
And although she doesn’t have much in common with the character she plays, Gray does note that there are a few parallels.
“I know a lot of women in my life who are exactly like Bri. So I had a lot to pull from, as well as there are so many parallels between me and her. Her being on her come up [and] me being on mine, her finding herself, me finding [myself] in the process of playing her,” she says.
And while the main takeaway from the film is staying true to yourself, Gray also sees that as a lesson not only for herself and Bri, but for everyone.
“I think that everybody should always be on a journey to grow. I think it’s very important to stay true to yourself,” she says.
“And you have to have time to sit with yourself to understand everything, the things you love, the things you don’t love, and accept yourself for who you really are. And I’m also on that journey with myself right now. And I think that man, if everybody took the time to sit with themselves, the world would be so different.“
For Gray, this is her first lead role in a major film. And to not only be the star, but to be directed by Sanaa Lathan, who has starred in films including Love & Basketball and shows such as Succession, was an added bonus.
“She was very understanding,” Gray says. “I was heavily involved in pre-production. And that doesn’t happen. I started working on the film two months before we started filming, and she was just working with me every day, kind of like an acting coach.”
I feel like acting is empathy. So for me to understand her rage, I really had to understand what she had been through.
“She really helped me to stay grounded on set. And also, she taught me a lot about how sets run [and] how to enter — because as number one [on the call sheet], the way you treat the film is how everybody else behind you is going to treat the film as well,” she says. “So if you carry yourself with respect, if you show up on time every day, so [does] everybody else. And yeah, she was a great mentor for me.”
In the film, Bri carries the weight of the world on her shoulders as she grapples with racism at school, violence in her neighbourhood and tensions with her mother (also played by Lathan). The character might be hopeful about her future, but due to what she’s been through, she carries a lot of rage in her that she channels into her music. For Gray, it was hard to tap into that anger.
“That was really tough,” she says. “But I feel like acting is empathy. So for me to understand her rage, I really had to understand what she had been through.” She talked with them and asked them questions, and also watched documentaries about women whose parents were addicts.
“So I felt like to portray that character correctly, I really had to do my research,” she says. “I really had to understand what she had gone through.”
She also had to learn how to rap in order to body the rap battle scenes that take place in the movie. Luckily, rapper Rapsody — who wrote the rhymes that Bri spits in the movie — was able to help her prepare, and it was a success: Bri comes alive in those scenes, which are the points in the film that feel electric.
Remain true to who you are and never compromise your integrity.
“Those were actually my favourite scenes,” she says. “I had so much fun with those. Me and Rapsody worked really closely together to prepare for those, and she would [practice with] me once or twice a week and just go through the rap. She would give me direction on like how to move my body and stuff like that.”
Rapsody even set up a mock rap battle for Gray in Atlanta, to really get a sense of what Bri would experience when she stepped into the ring. Like Bri’s first go at it, Gray froze up in front of the audience. “When I froze in that battle, I was like, okay. I can’t do that,” she laughs. “So I started just rapping for everybody, like all the time.”
While the thread that runs through the film is the music, for Gray, she hopes people will also remember what Bri discovers on her journey.
“Remain true to who you are and never compromise your integrity,” she says. “Stand on what you believe. Don’t let fame or even desperation sway you.”