When the nominees for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards were announced on Tuesday, breakout star Jharrel Jerome was surprised to hear his name listed as one of the contenders for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. Only 21 years old, he’s fairly new to acting, having only appeared in the Oscar-winning film Moonlight and the Audience Network series adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. While both proved that the rising star had plenty of charisma and acting ability, it wasn’t until he portrayed Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five series, When They See Us, that the industry sat up and took notice.
As soon at the limited series debuted on Netflix, it was clear that he was one to watch. The actor not only earned Emmy buzz and rave reviews, but DuVernay said he was deserving of all the same opportunities that his former high school peer, Ansel Elgort, was getting in Hollywood while Oprah Winfrey took to Instagram to demand a standing ovation for his performance. A few short months later, Jerome is riding high, vying for his first Emmy alongside esteemed actors Mahershala Ali, Benecio del Toro, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris and Sam Rockwell.
Including Jerome, When They See Us earned a total of 16 Emmy nominations. The series is up for Outstanding Limited Series, with Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams and four others vying in the other three acting categories.
While speaking with ET, the actor revealed where he was when he heard the news, what it means to be nominated and how the series has impacted his career.
ET: I don’t even know if you could put this into words, but what does this nomination mean for you?
Jharrel Jerome: I can’t put it into words. [I’m] having a hard time. All morning, I’ve been trying to figure out, “What do I say? How do I say it?” But I can’t even figure out. I just know that I feel so honored to be a part of this category with the men who are a part of this category. I’m so honored to be even considered in this mind frame at all. It’s a blessing, you know. I feel like I’m on cloud nine. I feel like I’m dreaming. I feel like I’m gonna wake up in, like, two hours. But it’s real, man.
Where were you when you heard the news that you were nominated? Were you watching the nominations? Who were you with?
I flew into New York so I could be with family and friends. And so, I was in a restaurant next to my hotel with some close friends from high school, and my manager, and my mom was on the way. I took my phone out and I watched the live video right on my table. It was, like, leaning on the plate and we were just watching it. It was the first category! It was funny because I was gonna go use the bathroom and my manager was like, “You’ve got time. Don’t worry. You know it’s not gonna come ‘til later.” And then I come back and it’s happening right there. So I freaked out… They listed the names -- and obviously they deserve it, you know -- and then it came to my name and I freaked out. I flipped out. Everyone in the restaurant freaked out. They thought someone had passed out on our table. People were like, “What’s going on?”
Who was the first person that you called? You just mentioned that your mom was on her way, so did you call her?
She was the very first person I called.
What did you say? What did she say? Was it just screaming?
It was just screaming and crying in the middle of the New York City streets. She was like, “You did it! You did it! You did it!” I can’t even remember what I was saying. I think I was just saying -- I was crying and saying, “It happened! This is happening.” But yeah, she was the first person I called, and my dad was the second.
We heard that she is going to be your date at the Emmys. What is that going to mean to have your mom there to see you for your first Primetime Emmy nomination?
It’s gonna be so crazy! I mean, we have countless pictures together at random little awards shows -- and you can bring it all the way back to all the high school performances she came to see me in, all the middle school performances -- we have so many photos, where we're in, like, a suit and a dress, in front of something. I think this one is definitely gonna be the most special one so far.”
Was it a total pinch-me moment to have your name read in the same sentence as Mahershala Ali, Benecio del Toro, Hugh Grant and Sam Rockwell?
Oh my goodness, it’s crazy. Just two-and-a-half years ago, I went onto my first set ever and it was the Moonlight set and I got to meet Mahershala the very first day. So, I think it’s true when I say that the very first industry person I ever had a conversation with was Mahershala Ali and he just had the greatest words of advice. It was to stay strong, like, no matter what we do. What we're doing today is today, so stay strong. And now that I get to go see him at the Emmys and say, “Wassup?” The fact that we’re in the same category is a blessing.
The show received 16 nominations in total...
And that includes Niecy Nash and Aunjanue Ellis. How excited are you to get to share this with your entire When They See Us family?
That’s the greatest part: it’s not just me; it’s the entire family. It’s Ava. I mean, I’m so proud of Asante [Blackk]. He blew my mind when I saw his performance and I know that it’s his very first performance. For me, it reminded me a lot of myself when I did Moonlight -- just to have your first project be something kind of larger than life. I remember just grabbing his shoulders and I’m like, “Just hold on tight. Pick the right roles, and let’s see what happens.” And now he’s nominated.
How many celebrities or idols of yours have reached out to you to congratulate you on this series? Who was a fan that shocked you?
I kind of turned my phone off the second everything happened. I was like, “I love everybody, but I need to stay here.” But Oprah reached out a couple of weeks ago and that -- to this moment -- is the greatest reaction I could have gotten. She tweeted, she posted a picture of me and we did the Oprah interview and she had beautiful words for me.
Can you top Oprah?
No. You can't, unless Barack Obama gives me a call.
Have you reconnected with Korey since the debut of the show? What is he going to think of all this?
I can't wait to call him to tell him about the nomination. I haven't spoken to him yet but we just spoke last Friday because I'm moving back to New York and he just got an apartment in Harlem, so we have plans to have dinner. He just bought an apartment, overlooking Central Park. So to me, that means a lot and I know that's heavy for him. So, I want to stand right next to him and kind of look out there and see.
How has your life and your career changed since the series came out?
Before I started acting, like, before I became an actor, I had no idea what my role would be in the industry, you know? To be an actor or to be an artist in general -- there is such a wide spectrum for it. You can just have your fun with it or you can do it for the paycheck or the success or you can take your time with it, pick the right roles and do a series. When I did Moonlight, that kind of presented the idea that I could do some serious work and I could try and focus on the serious work. When They See Us,to me, is the perfect followup for something like that. For me, as an artist, I want my art to imitate life. I want my art to be medicine for anybody. If it's one person, it's one person. If it's the world, then it's the world. But for me, I want to make sure I finish my part on the project so that it speaks to somebody, you know? When They See Us is the exact project that can speak toward a large group of people -- not just one set of people -- so if I can do a project like that again, then that's all I want to do. To be a part of a project like this is bigger than any nomination. It's bigger than any win. This is my passion and it feels good to be feeding my passion in the right way.
The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be handed out live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 22 on Fox. Check out ET Live and ETonline for ongoing coverage of the awards.