It started with a DM.
Gabrielle Union had signed on to executive produce writer-director Elegance Bratton's narrative feature debut, The Inspection, an autobiographical drama based on his own experience as a gay Black man in the Marines. The film is also about his complicated relationship with his mother, who rejected him at age 16 because of his sexuality, and Bratton's hope that enlisting in the military would somehow bring them back together. Bratton wanted Union to also play the role of his mother, but the actress wasn't quite convinced that she had the performance in her.
Meanwhile, the actor Jeremy Pope was on his own circuitous journey to The Inspection. The Emmy and Tony nominee (Pope made history as the first Black actor to earn two Tony nominations in the same year) was set to star in a studio film, but as the production was about to start filming, "I got into a conversation with the director that went pretty poorly," he recalls. "The director basically said that I had an inability to connect with a female character because I was gay."
"And I realized, 'F**k that. I don't need to be in this room.' So, I left that movie," Pope explains. "People had made me feel like to be a successful Black actor, you need to show that you can lead a studio film. Like, if it's on your resume, then people will take a bet on you. That s**t is very real in this business. But I said, 'F**k that.' And in that same breath of me saying f**k that, my phone rang. And they were like, 'A24 is ready to have the conversation and give you the offer for The Inspection.' And then the DM came."
"I slid into his DMs — as an exec does, you slide into talent's DMs," Union remembers. "And I was like, 'I heard you read it and you're interested. If you are down, kiddo, I'm in. Let's make some magic together.' He responded right away."
Which is how Pope wound up playing Ellis French, the movie's stand-in for Bratton, who joins the Marine Corps to escape homelessness and earn respect from the homophobic mother who had kicked him out years prior. Union co-stars as Inez French, a flinty prison guard who's turned her back on her son. Weeks later, Union and Pope were on set in Mississippi. "It's been a blessing," reflects Pope, "and an affirmation of life does the life thing. And who's meant to be in the room will be in the room."
A.frame: Gabrielle, you've said that you weren't sure if this was a character you could play, or could see yourself playing. What did Elegance say that ultimately convinced you?
GABRIELLE UNION: He just had a freakish level of confidence in me and my abilities that I just didn't have in myself. He hit me at a time where I was searching for more. I was like, 'Well, this is probably it. Maybe don't be so afraid. And maybe playing something that isn't so close to me can take me someplace that I've never been and that I've actually been searching for.' But it was his confidence. I was like, 'Where is this confidence coming from?' He was like, 'Girl, you have always shown us that you could do this, from Cadillac Records to every season of Being Mary Jane.' He's running down my whole resume, and he was like, 'The Black community's always seen it, because we've followed every role that you've taken. We've known you could do it. Perhaps other sectors of Hollywood forgot or just didn't count those roles, but only you could do it.'
Because when they first approached me to be an executive producer, immediately I have a list of actresses that I think should be Inez. I was not one of them! So, when they said, 'No, we want you,' I was like, 'Please don't let me ruin this movie.' But once I figured out my way in, I started looking forward to the process. And then, once I got in there, then I stopped really looking forward to it, because it was very dark. It was just very dark, finding that you have common ground with someone who behaves in this way.
Do you remember your first time meeting one another?
UNION: I was just a fan, initially. I saw him on Broadway, before Hollywood came out, and was just, like, a nutty fan. I don't even know if he remembers me backstage gushing over the cast, but I was just a fan.
JEREMY POPE: I think the first time I met Gabby was at the Met Gala or something, at one of those fancy kind of events where we're dressed in looks that we probably wouldn't wear on the street. And I obviously know Gabby is a national treasure, especially to the Black community. Just all of the works that she's been a part of. Then, when this project was coming about, she slid into my DMs on Twitter, and was like, 'Yo fam, are you making this movie? Because if you're there, I'm there.' We kind of pinky promised to do it together and didn't end up really getting to meet each other until we were on the ground in Mississippi making the film.
UNION: The first time I actually met him face-to-face was when I first landed in Mississippi. By chance, it was the exact point that we got shut down due to COVID. My husband was like, 'Come home, come home.' He sent a plane, as wealthy athletes do. So, I was like, 'Jeremy, I literally just met you. Production is shutting down. Do you want to ride back to L.A.?' That man was on the tarmac with his roller bag, like, 'You're not leaving me!' [Laughs] On that plane ride, we bonded, laughed, sang. That's where we got to really know each other. And thank God we had that time. That was early August, and we didn't go back to pick up filming that last week until mid-November.
"I've never committed this fully to any character, to where I would ever be at risk of [not being able to leave the darkness]. And we just never let each other slip too far."
Your scenes together are some of the movie's most emotionally demanding. On those most demanding days, as actors, what do you need from each other to get through and get the performances you needed?
UNION: Initially we had a week. And then, when we came back, we had three days! The graduation, the cafeteria scene, and the hallway [scene] were all one day, and we were losing light. So, imagine we're in the summer, we got daylight until almost nine o'clock in the South. Now, it's November, and you got very limited amount of time. Because we were under the gun, we had to stay connected. We had to make sure the love was there. Even though we both express it differently as our characters, me and Jeremy needed to be together. And this was never anything that was spoken, it just happened. I've never done this before and I haven't done it since, but either you saw us holding hands or we were snugged up. To this day, even on a carpet or Q&A or what have you, we are holding hands or we're hugging each other.
POPE: On those days, you have to know that you're just going to be exhausted emotionally. That just is the gamut that day. With Gabby, a lot of our work was finding what wasn't on the page. Because yes, there's the things that are being said that feel very cruel, but I said, we have to understand that the love of his mother is French's North Star. It means everything. It's like an elastic band. It's like, there's so much tension and it wants to pop, but somehow it's still together and it is one. So, it was a lot of conversations, and understanding their kind of spatial awareness together and what it means to just dwell in a space with someone you love so much but can't quite seem to understand and grasp. And how you get so close to it, but then how the rug is pulled underneath you. There is this yearning on both sides. And then, having Elegance in the room, who is directing and guiding us to the promised land, if you will. But having his own moment of healing and therapy with being able to leave some of the traumatic and hurtful things that were said to him in that space. Putting it all out there, crying it all out, yelling it all out, and then knowing we can leave it in that space. And he has said to us, he's so grateful to Gab for bringing his mother back to life, and having a bit of closure, a bit of understanding.
UNION: We're each processing so much as human beings in those moments that are real, and then, where our characters are going is also real and it's f*****g dark. We had to hold onto each other so we didn't slip all the way into darkness. Being in Hollywood so long, my first movie ever was with Heath [Ledger, in 10 Things I Hate About You]. I remember he was the last one to arrive of the cast, and clearly, the drinking age was younger in Australia. He met a couple of us at the bar, and that is what I will always remember. It was the best parts of Heath. He was just so amazing. After he played the Joker, I'd still run into him. We'd all run into each other and it was just love. And after the Joker, he talked about just not being okay, just not being able to leave the darkness. I never understood that until this. I've never committed this fully to any character, to where I would ever be at risk of that. And we just never let each other slip too far. So, we were safe within the scene, each scene, but everything you saw was, max, two takes. We ran out of time and light, so it was a rush. It was rushing and we didn't have rehearsal, we just had to stay in it. And we had to protect each other in our darkness.
Jeremy, what does leaving behind a role at the end of a shoot look like for you? What was the experience of shedding someone like French?
POPE: It takes time. It takes time. I think French is one of those roles where it was such a job of service. You really don't know when you're making independent films where they'll go, how they'll land, if 50 people will see it or 50 million people will see it. So, you're not making it for those reasons. You're making it because of, you know, heart and what you feel like you can contribute. I think French will live with me for a while. I haven't been able to quite shake him off. But it's the positive things. It's the things that affirm me in my Blackness, the things that affirm me in my queerness. Growing up, wanting to be an actor, an artist, a creative, I didn't see Black queer men thriving in this way. I'd never seen a Black gay movie star. I didn't know that was something I could aspire to be. I always felt like, 'You'll be the Black actor, but you'll be in the ensemble. Or you'll be the sidekick best friend, or you'll be the thing to the left. You can't be front and center. If you're going to take space, take as little as you can.'
But I've been able to work with people that championed the beauty of and the complexity of being Black, and being queer, and have loved on me and affirmed me. I think if anything, French and playing French, affirmed me in my capabilities as an actor, as an artist, as a Black man. And I think that type of affirmation is what I pull on on the days where I don't feel enough, or I feel like someone is trying to tell me something that is not true about myself, whether that's about my worth or my capability, or what isn't on my resume yet, or what isn't at the box office yet, or whatever the case may be. That I am more than enough. That I am deserving of anything that my heart desires. That is what French left with me.
Gabrielle, what is the experience like to watch the movie now and see yourself in this role?
UNION: Because my real life keeps getting louder and more public, everything has a different meaning. Even in the last week, Zaya filed to change her birth certificate, to change her name and her gender on her birth certificate. That elicited a response that was not ideal. So, watching it since then, even the birth certificate scene feels different. It wasn't my motivation when we shot this a year ago, but it hits different today. Everything hits different today. I watched it again while we were in Africa. My aunt missed one of the screenings, so I showed her. And everything lands differently. Because, unfortunately, my real life is not so far off of French's life, everything is weighted, it's heavier, it's darker, it's more heartbreaking.
And I just lean in love. But we hear from parents — it's the most common thing that parents say is, 'I don't know how to love her. I don't know how to love him. I don't know how to love them.' Which is a foreign concept. But if living out loud and showing people what it looks like is helpful, that's the lowest bar. The bar is quite low and we can absolutely do that. But we owe it to folks to do a whole hell of a lot more. And we try to.
By John Boone