There’s a buzz in the air about the actress Jamila C. Gray who is the lead in “On the Come Up” and it started at the Toronto Film Festival. The film marks Emmy-nominated actress Sanaa Lathan’s feature directorial debut.
We caught up with Gray, who was making it all look easy, via a Zoom interview. It took me a few seconds to drink in her new look, a departure from her character Bri. The actress’s makeup was flawless and her hair—in two, long ponytails—framed her beautiful face perfectly.
“I like your hair,” I say with a smile. “I love your hair,” Gray says back.
“On the Come Up” the movie is based on Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel of the same name and delves into the world of Bri, a 16-year-old female rapper. The subjects tackled in the film would definitely qualify it as a coming-of-age tale but (thankfully) it has a swagger and heart that makes the pulse race. For Bri, trying to balance her father’s legacy on her shoulders, managing a challenging relationship with her recovering addict mother (Sanaa Lathan), and a desire for financial stability make achieving her dream—to become a hit, hip-hop artist—a do-or-die endeavor for the up-and-comer.
“On the Come Up” takes the important opportunity to analyze the true price that comes with success. And although Gray admits that she doesn’t have much in common with Bri, she 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. She’s moving forward. Bri’s definitely on her come up and I am being on mine. She’s searching for herself. I’m finding myself and that happened in the process of playing her,” she confides.
There are layers to “On the Come Up” no doubt pulled from the gems that are from the novel. But the main theme is the importance of staying true to yourself, and Gray believes that this is an important lesson not only for herself and Bri, but for everyone.
“I think it’s very important to stay true to yourself,” she says. When pushed to answer what that could possibly mean, she offered this: “You have to take time to sit with yourself to understand things. Discover the things that you love and those things that you don’t love. Accepting yourself for who you really are. I can’t help thinking about what would it be like if everyone took that time to sit with themselves, would the world be different?”
Kudos to Gray anchoring the film as an unknown lead (almost unheard of) but to be directed by Lathan, who has starred in many films including the classic “Love & Basketball” and shows such as “Succession,” was an added bonus. As an actress, Lathan understood how to get performances from her cast.
“She [Lathan] helped me to stay grounded on set. I was No. 1 on the call sheet and that comes with a certain responsibility. You have to treat everyone with the respect you want as well. You show you. You do the work. She was a great mentor for me.”
In “On the Come Up” the young rapper on the come-up has no choice but to try and balance the weight of her world on her slender shoulders. Her day-to-day is stressful, trying to deal with racism at school, violence in her neighborhood, and the growing tension with her mother, a recovering addict. The character is tough and although she’s not exactly street smart she does have the instincts of a fighter. This character has rage, which was a challenge for the actress to tap into.
“That was really tough,” she says. “So for me to understand her rage, I really had to understand what she had been through. I stepped into research, talking with people who suffered from addiction and watching documentaries about women whose parents were addicts.
“To get Bri right, I really had to do my research,” she continues. “I really had to understand what she had gone through.”
The other challenge that Gray had to master was learning how to rap and still be convincing in the rap battle scenes. To help her prepare she worked with rapper Rapsody—who wrote the rhymes that Bri spits—and the hard work paid off.
While the power of the music is an integral part of the movie, for Gray, she hopes that people will feel the message, which is to “remain true to who you are, stand up for what you believe and never let the trappings of fame or even being desperate sway you.”