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Godfather Of Harlem - Jason Carvell

Source: Epix / MGM+

Godfather of Harlem star Jason Alan Carvell sat down for an exclusive interview with CASSIUS to talk about his experience portraying Malcolm X and the heartfelt connection he’s enjoyed with the cast ahead of the climactic season finale.

The latest season of the historical drama Godfather of Harlem has had audiences on the edge of their seats. Tensions have risen for Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) on the business and the home front and more so for his sworn brother, Malcolm X. Surviving assassination attempts both at home and recently overseas in this latest season, viewers are enraptured by the civil rights leader’s journey of fighting to unite the African diaspora while coming to terms with the danger that lies ahead. It’s a story that has been explored numerous times. Still, the MGM+ series has added a new framework to view the internal struggles that Malcolm X dealt with in the wake of his split with the Nation of Islam, adding more emotional tautness and vulnerability.

Veteran actor Jason Alan Carvell has taken over the role of the historic figure for the show’s third season. He replaces Nigél Thatch, who played the role in the first two seasons. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Carvell about his experience conveying the multifaceted reality of the civil rights leader’s life, his relationship with Bumpy Johnson and his daughter, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy).

CASSIUS: Taking on the role of such a dynamic and impactful figure such as Malcolm X is a monumental task for any actor. What was it like working with the writers and producers specifically to get in preparation for the role?

Carvell: Yeah, you know, it’s to say, as monumental. I don’t even know if there’s a word really to describe it. I was a little bit nervous because I was trying to do as much research as I could. And then when I met the producers and the writers, I met Paul, Chris and Mike Quan, and I realize that they already had it in hand, you know what I mean? They had it, they had a feeling for it. The story was right. The story was real, it was truthful. And so my work then was made much easier because then all I had to do was to find a way to embody the real human being of Malcolm X.

I didn’t have to worry about the weight of history because it was already in the fabric of the show, in the writing and in the storytelling. So what that basically did was make my work easier.

Within this season of Godfather of Harlem, we’ve gotten to see that evolution of Malcolm as he’s embarking on this new journey, forging new bonds across the African diaspora and coming home to face danger from all sectors. For you, was there any moment that stands out as truly deep and connective within working on the character this season?

Godfather Of Harlem - Jason Carvell

Source: Epix / EPIX

Absolutely. What’s funny is, we talked about the pressure of it. I feel like telling the story of that transition. For me, the grounding of it, the anchor of it is Malcolm and his family. And also the character of Elise in the story, she’s part of the family, too. And so what I kept going back to, in that journey, was that foundation stone of the family and understanding that whatever Malcolm was doing on a broader scale, culturally, nationally, internationally—so much of the answer to that was found in his family. What he wanted for his family, what he wanted for, as an extension of that, for his immediate community in New York and then broader community across America and then across the world. 

And without that foundation, I don’t know if there’s a story that can be told. He had concerns that were international, that were global. But ultimately, I think there’s that thing that we all have, that the future that we want to see is a future that’s safe for our family. Where they can find joy, where they can find peace. And so for me as an actor, it was relying on grace. It was relying on Antoinette, relying on Forest to get that family feeling down and then just branch out from there.

That takes me to my final question, with you speaking about your experience with Antoinette and Forest. How has the experience of working with such a strong cast been for you as an actor? And how has their feedback been in terms of your interactions with them?

I mean, it’s amazing. Actors, we work on all kinds of things. And you find a way, you know, you always find a way to work with people. You find some happiness, you find some joy in it. But with this, it’s no effort. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s like, and I came into it, I was like, ‘how is this even possible that this family exists?’ Because they know already what they’re doing, you know what I mean? It’s so solid in it, that they just welcomed me. And they just basically were like, ‘all right, let’s play a little bit.’ Let’s find some things, find some truth in this history, find some truth in this story and use relationships. 

And Forest is constant in his joy and working with other actors. He has confidence in other actors to do their job. But even more than that, Forest is constantly excited to discover what other people are bringing to it. And you don’t always find that. Every day, going to work I was like, ‘I can’t wait to see these people.’ It’s weird to say, but you work with people like that. You’re almost like, ‘oh, yeah, and also we got work to do.’ But it’s like, it’s the people. It’s a family like that, it’s tight. So it’s good. And that goes for Forest and Grace (Porter, who plays Betty Shabazz) and Antoinette, people I work with a lot.

Be sure to check out the season finale of Godfather of Harlem this Sunday, March 26 on MGM+.