Although set in 1970s Harlem, “If Beale Street Could Talk” showcases a beautiful love story and a race against the clock that calls upon modern-day racial tension and a broken judicial system.
If Beale Street Could Talk follows newly pregnant Tish as she strives to save her beautifully passionate and charming relationship with fiancé Alonzo Hunt, nicknamed Fonny. The two have always dreamed of spending their life together, but their plans are put on hold when Fonny is arrested and held accountable for a crime he did not commit.
The Knockturnal sat down with American Horror Story star Finn Wittrock to gain more insight into the film.
The Knockturnal: We loved the movie. How did you get involved?
Finn Wittrock: I love the movie, too. I hadn’t ever met Barry [Jenkins]. I’ve worked with Plan B’s producers a little bit before, but it kind of fell out of the sky for me, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. I read the book immediately and fell in love with it, so I was happy to be able to help tell the story.
The Knockturnal: The story is so important and relevant to what is going on in the world today. Talk a little bit about the overall message and why it’s important for viewers?
Finn Wittrock: Well, I think that the message at its core – in the movie and the book – is a love story, despite all odds. It’s about a family that is in love with each other. I think the strength of the family’s togetherness of love is the true message, despite the fact that they’re facing this enormous injustice of America, yet their love for each other is never diminished. That’s really the thing that comes through the most. It’s full of rage and heart. This book especially is about love. Romeo and Juliet is a great love story, but it’s also a political story, and this is exactly like that. The politics are not swallowed by the love; it’s sort of pointed out in a higher fashion because of it.
The Knockturnal: Your character goes above and beyond in the film to fight injustice.
Finn Wittrock: I think [James] Baldwin is very generous with the part of Hayward. You hear about him a lot before you meet him, and you’re not quite sure what to make of him, and he gives this really interesting perspective. In my mind, he’s lived this comfortable, white, middle-class existence and is confronted by this great injustice. He wants to fight his way out of it and wants to fix it, and his eyes are open for the first time in his life to the plight of this community that’s right in front of him, but he never saw, which can happen a lot especially in New York. Do you ever actually look at the homeless person right outside your door, it’s so easy for you to just put on your blinders. His story is about his eyes being opened, and Kiki [Layne] has this line, “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to be family.” It’s an amazing moment. He’s both really touched by it and also challenged by it. He sees how hard these people fight for each other.
The Knockturnal: We don’t have superheroes like Batman or Superman in real life, but we have people like Hayward. Who do you think today are modern superheroes?
Finn Wittrock: Well they are the lawyers. They’re those lawyers that are down on the boarder in Texas fighting for those families for free, or who are taking on the cases of migrant children and they’re not getting paid for it. They’re the superheroes. Indigenous people at Standing Rock who were camped out there forever trying to fight the pipeline. They’re all around us. Like Hayworth, we just have to open our eyes to see them.
The Knockturnal: What kind of law would you do if you were to practice law in real life?
Finn Wittrock: Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I think I would be an Environmental Justice Lawyer. I’d be out there opposing those chemical companies that are poisoning the rivers and unloading more emissions than they say they are and all that stuff. That’s what drives me crazy.
The Knockturnal: You mentioned Kiki before if could talk a little bit more about working with Kiki as this is her big breakout role. Was there any advice exchanged?
Finn Wittrock: It was cool because I sat across the desk from Regina King and Kiki, and it’s like this one woman, [Regina], who has worked forever and is such a pro, and then this girl, [Kiki], who is fresh out of Drama School. It was really cool to see them interact. I think it was actually Regina’s first day on set; it was only day three when I did that scene, and so they were still finding each other and it was just cool to see Regina kind of immediately become her protector, like become her mother, and never in a way of giving advice per se, she was never telling her what to do, she was just like there for her. And Barry was, too. Barry is just a very warm person on set but also a very challenging person. He does push you and you could see him and he would be with her, talking to her quietly on the side, and they sort of created this repartee with each other because he knew that this was an overwhelming shoot experience for her, but he also knew that she could do it, you know he wouldn’t have cast her otherwise. So it’s like, he just had this great sense of “I have total faith in you and I’ m also going to push you to the limits.”
The Knockturnal: You have had some amazing other roles we all love, talk about how all those roles prepared you for this.
Finn Wittrock: Well yeah you know it does take prep to kind of come in for one scene. I mean this movie had lots of those. Yeah like, you come in for a day and …it maybe seems easy, but you have to do a lot of homework to show up. They didn’t have a whole lot of days to shoot this. I think having training, I started doing theatre and the idea of ‘show up ready to go’ was something I learned starting up. You have a job to do and you have to do it. I try to be as fully-fledged a character doing a one day, one scene part as you are the lead of something.
The Knockturnal: We talked about the overlying messages a bit. What do you think are some of the other big takeaways? Some people say, family, some people say social injustice.
Finn Wittrock: Yeah, all those things are true. I think [James] Baldwin was all about trying to wake people up, you know? This is happening in front of you and it’s not right and we should do something about it. That cop, just for no reason, just because he has a grudge against Fonny, just slaps this charge on him, and it’s completely unfair and yet the system does nothing. It just sees him as a felon now. There’s no wiggle-room; there’s no humanity involved. And Brian Tyree Henry’s part, he’s just thrown in jail for this Marijuana charge and in the book he has full on PTSD. I think that in the book he kills himself. I could be making that up or thinking of something else, but I think that is true. He gets suicidal because he is so depressed from the horrors that he saw in jail. I think that is what Baldwin is about; he’s like waking people up. There’s that amazing interview…someone who is a professor in Philosophy is like, “Why do you always make things about race?” And I think you can YouTube that answer (laughing). Unbelievable! He kind of, like first of all, how fired up he is, but also how incredibly eloquent he is about explaining. He’s like “I don’t want things to be this way,” basically, “you know you say that the government is looking out for me, but I see a different world than what you tell me.” So waking people up.
The Knockturnal: If you had to pick one person in the world to see this film, who would it be and why?
Finn Wittrock: Hahaha oh! I mean maybe that officer that was just found guilty of shooting that guy 16 times.
The Knockturnal: That’s a good one.
Finn Wittrock: I think everyone should see it. This version of a black family in love with each other, having such a deep, amazing family bond – that’s the thing that people keep saying, I don’t want to say revolutionary, but that’s the thing that we don’t see enough in the cinema. It’s not about a family that’s poor and living in Harlem and having trouble; it’s about a family that is incredibly tight and has a cohesive unit and is a family that everyone wants to be a part of.
If Beale Street Could Talk comes to theatre’s on Friday, December 14th. Check out a trailer for the film below!