In the critically acclaimed 2018 film Blindspotting, Jasmine Cephas Jones is the secret heart of a Bay Area story. Co-written and produced by her Hamilton co-star Daveed Diggs and his creative partner Rafael Casal, the movie saw Cephas Jones play Ashley, the long-time partner of Miles (Casal) and a devoted mother trying to protect her young son, Sean, from the encroaching forces of police brutality. In the new series based on the film, now airing on Starz, Ashley comes to the forefront, with Cephas Jones leading a women-focused story of survival in a gentrifying Oakland amid the mass incarceration crisis.
Since playing an original Schuyler sister in the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon, Cephas Jones has steadily built an accomplished Hollywood career through supporting roles, appearing in HBO shows Girls and Mrs. Fletcher as well as the films Marriage Story and The Photograph. In 2020, she won her first Emmy for playing the partner of a military veteran caught in a police standoff in the Quibi show #freerayshawn; she broke a record with her father, Ron Cephas Jones of This Is Us, as they became the first father-daughter duo to win Emmys in the same year. She also released her debut solo EP, Blue Bird, in March 2020.
In Blindspotting, Cephas Jones gives an outstanding performance that blends dramatic acting, comedy, and spoken word for a rounded depiction of a mother holding it all together when her partner is incarcerated. She also developed the character as a producer on the show, working with a creative team primarily composed of people of color, women, and Bay Area natives. Cephas Jones spoke with ELLE.com about how she ensured Ashley was well-rounded, creating a show with her friends, and making the spoken-word scenes feel honest.
While you’ve had a number of supporting roles on shows, Blindspotting is your first starring role. How did you prepare for the transition to the top of the call sheet?
I got a call from Raf and Diggs about 3 years ago that they wanted me to play Ashley and lead the show and tell it from her perspective. So, I’ve been sitting with this character for a very long time. She’s been through so many drafts and editing that, by the time we got to set, I really understood her and knew who she was as a person. I was so excited to explore her more and create a big arc for her.
What did those conversations look like? Was there anything you specifically pushed for with Ashley’s characterization?
We really wanted to show all the colors and sides of her. She’s going through this traumatic event, but we wanted to show all the different emotions she had: that she can be funny and she can be badass and take a racket and trash a hotel room. I didn’t want to make her a one-note character. It’s easy to do that when the character is going through something very specific like this. I really wanted Ashley to have a lot of emotional range.
There are so many different parts of Ashley, from being a mother to Sean to dealing with Miles’ incarceration, then also living in this multi-generational home with Miles’s mother and sister. What was it like acting alongside Helen Hunt and Jaylen Barron?
We had a lot of conversations off-screen on how we wanted to play with each other onscreen, and because we supported each other and there was so much love there, we really were able to kind of go at each other. We wanted to make it believable. All of those scenes that I have, with especially Jaylen, where we get into a lot of fights, it was super fun to do that with her because we cared about each other so much and there was so much support there. And Helen Hunt, she’s a legend. She plays Rainey so effortlessly and she’s really amazing at what she does. I learned so much from her. It really is like a masterclass working with Helen.
How did you approach playing a mom? Was it continuing your approach from the movie, or did you have to change it up, especially since deciding how to tell Sean that his father went to prison was such a big storyline?
I don’t think I really had to change anything up. I’ve played moms in the past, so there’s this understanding and this motherly thing that is kind of natural to me now. What Ashley’s going through is new. She has this secret that she’s hiding from her son, and she’s really battling how to tell him. That’s her biggest challenge of the season, because she’s so heartbroken about it, and she doesn’t know how to tell somebody that’s so young and doesn’t understand what this means. How she has to navigate that was very interesting to play, and those moments of when she wants to tell him but she doesn’t—trying to figure all of that out was a bit of a roller coaster.
The spoken-word interludes are so great, and they seem like the moments where your character can be the most honest with the audience. What was your approach to performing them?
In the beginning I was really nervous about it because I was like, “I’m not a rapper.” I didn’t want to come off as this being a performance; I wanted it to flow and make sense with the rest of the show. When we started working on it and rehearsing, we realized that I had to approach it like a Shakespearian monologue with the rhyming. I really broke it down into very specific beats and thoughts. When Ashley does go into heightened verse, you see everything that’s going on in her brain and literally what her next thought is. It’s very detailed. Because of the thought process that I put into each individual verse, it definitely was my most challenging part of the show. I wanted it to be raw and real and for people to really understand what Ashley’s going through emotionally in that moment. It really is when she is her truest and most honest self and she’s sharing this part of herself with the audience.
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I really appreciated the spoken-word and dance sequences as a way of getting to know the character beyond what she shows the people around her.
One of my favorite things about the show is the storytelling and how we’re talking about these issues through comedy, heightened verse, and choreography. The choreography is like this theatrical Greek chorus that amplifies what the character is feeling at that time, and the dancing is so beautiful because it’s another creative way to make the audience understand what is happening and what these characters are feeling. The choreographers are absolutely brilliant, and the dancers put so much hard work in. It really was such a collaborative experience, working together and figuring out how to present this in the best way possible to amplify the words off the page. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show.
Blindspotting is also your first producer credit. Did you enjoy the process of producing? Would you like to produce again in the future?
Absolutely. I was involved in a way creatively that I’ve never been involved before. It was very freeing. I was always listened to, and if something didn’t feel right or something wasn’t working, I was able to feel comfortable to stand up and talk about it. I really had that platform and that say, and a great supportive cast and other producers and directors.
In front of the camera, but also behind the scenes, most of the people who worked on Blindspotting were people of color, women, and people from the Bay Area. You can definitely see that level of representation reflected on the show. How did it feel to be on a set like that?
It’s a long time coming, girl. It’s amazing to be a part of the show where you see women of color in the writers’ room, women producers, and women directors. You get to look around at the cast and see all different shades of color as well, and also a generational gap too, with Helen Hunt and Margo Hall. This is the type of show and environment that we need, and that I want to be involved in more. It 100-percent contributes to the storytelling and how we see the world. It makes a difference, and it’s so important to have that. The show wouldn’t be the show if we didn’t have all of those women on set, onscreen and behind the screen. It was just such a breath of fresh air and a moment of really relaxing and feeling comfortable in this work environment.
Your father is an actor, and your mom’s a jazz singer. How did growing up surrounded by art inspire you to become an actress and a singer?
I think I really had no choice. I completely fell in love with it as a kid. My mom had the dopest record collection, and that’s where I first knew who Stevie Wonder and Prince were. And my dad brought me to the theater and opened my eyes at a very young age. The creative world was such a part of my world as a kid, and it was really just a matter of time. I also saw the beauty in it and the struggle of it as well. I ended up growing such a love of performance art that I didn’t want to do anything else, and I think a lot of it has to do with them. I saw all the joy and the light that it brought to my parents when they got to perform. It rubbed off on me, and I went on that journey and found own way and my own light and how I wanted to interpret that for myself.
Have you been working on new music since Blue Bird?
Oh, yeah. I’m focusing now on my album, and that’s the next thing I want to do this summer. Once everything kind of dies down, I want to continue to write and create music.
Thinking back on your career with #freerayshawn, and now Blindspotting, you deal with a lot of heavy topics. How have you taken care of yourself and your mental health while filming such demanding roles, and in the midst of a pandemic?
It’s understanding the role that you’re playing and how important it is. It’s a bit of a duty for me, and it’s also very therapeutic in its own way. Portraying these stories helps other people in the world understand what’s going on, and when you’re doing something like this, that is the goal. Having a support system with you also helps. A bubble bath at the end of the day helps. It can be triggering, and it can be hard to play or portray, but at the end of the day, I know why I’m doing this, and I know that it’s important to do something like this, which makes me happy. I feel inspired when I do it and I hope that I can inspire other people as well.
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