“Bolden” is the story of Buddy Bolden, the African American cornetist who is responsible for the development of the jazz genre.
Gary Carr, Yaya DaCosta, Reno Wilson, Erick LaRay Havey and more came together under Dan Pritzker’s direction to convey the life of the unrecorded artist; and the time he spent with his cornet before being committed to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum in 1907.
By 30-years-old, Bolden had been facing fame, drugs and mental illness. The film takes the audience on a journey through his perspective of how it all unfolded. DaCosta, Wilson and Harvey sat down with The Knockturnal to answer a few questions about the movie, their research and their experiences on set.
The Knockturnal: Congratulations on this project. It was amazing. I’m very interested in knowing what your process and character work was like to get into character as Louis Armstrong.
Reno Wilson: Thank you for asking that. Music. I think the way in with Pops is the music. I started- I’ve listened to everything, you know, what we know about Louis is “Hello Dolly”- Hello Dolly (scatting) and “What a Wonderful World” and all that when he was older, but what got me, what hooked me into who he was was when I went back to like the 20’s and listened to the Hot Five stuff ‘cuz in 1926 Louis Armstrong for all intents and purposes was Jay Z.
The Knockturnal: And hip-hop actually came out of jazz.
Reno Wilson: Correct, correct, and they thought hip hop was gonna be a fad like it was gonna go away-
The Knockturnal: Go away, and here we are.
Reno Wilson: Here we are, it’s like modern pop music and there would be no hip hop without Louis Armstrong. There would be no modern music without Louis Armstrong. So it’s an honor to play him and have people see that this dude was more than just you know “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” he created the—he was the progenitor of music as we know it.
The Knockturnal: And in the film we get to see that he was the first African American jazz-
Reno Wilson: To speak on the radio. Yeah, that was a real story.
The Knockturnal: Right, and that’s why it was such a big deal that he acknowledged Buddy Bolden. What would you say is Armstrong’s purpose in the film, why did he need to be in the film?
Reno Wilson: Buddy Bolden was the spark; he was the spark. He was unrecorded, there’s one picture of him, he was the spark that sparked a young man like Louis Armstrong, so we see where it started and we see where Louis Armstrong took it and that was just 1993 when Louis Armstrong was super hot, like he was modern popular music, and Louis Armstrong took it past that. He went international, he went worldwide and became an ambassador to the world from the United States, but he was the spark, Louis represents where it went.
The Knockturnal: Why did the story need to be told?
Reno Wilson: Because nobody knew it. We didn’t know, nobody knows and there’s so many stories like that of these various you know black artists and other figures in science and education although these stories are endless and thank God in 2019 we’re starting to see a more diverse collection of storytellers and people telling these- it’s so much more interesting to you know, go see a Green Book and you know, see all these various movies about different people you know so it’s beneficial to the world to hear stories like that like where the music began.
The Knockturnal: The film was amazing. My first question to you is what attracted you to the project?
Yaya DaCosta: I love history, I love music and it was just—it seemed like such a powerful story and it was just an opportunity to be a part of something really really powerful. It’s jazz, you know, jazz is the most American thing or at least the first purely American, new modern American art form and it’s something I’ve always loved and it’s a story that finally gets to be told. So I play his wife and it was an honor.
The Knockturnal: Right, and you say, and I agree with you that it is very powerful but there is very little dialogue so what do you think makes the movie so powerful?
Yaya DaCosta: Well, Dan Pritzker’s attention to detail is something that I hadn’t experienced before at that level. When I was on set, just paying attention to even the little things, you know on the walls or you know the way that we would prepare for a scene and talking about our emotional bodies, our characters’ journeys and then also in the context of the year that we were in, the place that we were I mean there was so much just honoring this story and honoring American history, honoring African American history, honoring music, the lighting design was just beautiful, when I look at the film I’m just like wow, there’s so many beautiful shots. The DP’s work was just stunning. The costume designer, Colleen, did an amazing job. He really really got the right people for this project and as a whole I think it’s really satisfying to watch even in the moments of silence or just music or dance.
The Knockturnal: And what was your reaction when seeing the film because I could imagine not knowing what it’s gonna look like when you’re filming it, especially because it’s kind of like a whole montage, what was your reaction?
Yaya DaCosta: Well what I appreciated about that aspect of it is that I felt like we were really taken inside of Bolden’s mind, right, and so there was a lot dancing between reality and his perception which got increasingly interesting as he started to lose his marbles.
The Knockturnal: Right, literally.
Yaya DaCosta: Yeah, you know, whatever was happening in his mind that landed him in the insane asylum was something that Dan Prtizker had complete artistic license to explore and I think he did it in a really beautiful and respectful way.
The Knockturnal: What was it like working with Pritzker on his creative endeavor? What was that experience like?
Yaya DaCosta: Oh my goodness, it was amazing. Seeing somebody be so passionate about telling a story authentically and just wanting to get it right no matter what, wanting all the details to be authentic no matter what even in the mythical components of the story, like I said, there’s a lot of artistic license but it was still you know, based in truth and based in a passion for jazz music and for this aspect of American culture. It was a great example to work with him as a creative person. I just a lot of times think that projects are rushed and people just gotta get it out and make deadlines and have budgets and so to see someone be really free in their creativity was very empowering.
The Knockturnal: What was the transformation like from being a model to an actress and how are you enjoying it?
Yaya DaCosta: You know, I’ve actually loved being an actor. Many people don’t know this but I’ve been an actor since I was about 11 years old. My first paid job was an educational film and my acting coach in junior high school is still like a second mom to me and was always sending me on auditions throughout my teens and so yes I did model along with bar tending and teaching at a school and all these other side hustles because of course in the beginning of your acting career you’re not really making that much money it’s hard to support the bills. I was in New York doing theater and pounding the pavement so yes I’m grateful for those days you know as a mannequin but no for me it wasn’t a transition I’ve always been an actor and I’m just so grateful to be continuously getting work you know I mean it’s like every actor’s dream to have a steady job and I have one on NBC with Chicago Med and it’s just like wow you know in the beginning it definitely took a long time to say I’m an actor because people always want proof of that and it’s been really empowering on my journey to be working with so many different people from my first gig with Alfre Woodard, Antonio Banderas and playing Vanessa Willams’ daughter on “Ugly Betty” and Angela Bassett and Whitney like all these people who I’ve looked up to for so long encouraging me and helping me wear the hat proudly. It’s definitely always been a part of me.
The Knockturnal: So tell me, is your character real or based on research?
Erik LaRay Harvey: Real. And his first name was Buddy.
The Knockturnal: Okay, because I did a little research of my own, and saw Bartley it was? And his first name is actually Buddy.
Erik LaRay Harvey: His first name is actually Buddy. There’s not too much like knowing about Bartley either but there are some references to him you know in earlier texts and I did a lot of digging and was really surprised when I found out his name was Buddy as well as Buddy Bolden so throughout the whole filming I just called the move the Two Buddies- but it helped me connect really to Bolden as his manager in the film my names Buddy too of course he’s my boy.
The Knockturnal: Tell me a little bit about that research process because there isn’t a lot of information on either of the men so what was it like when you finally got your hands on some information and had to use it to make a whole character?
Erik LaRay Harvey: Yeah, you take the smallest piece and just let your imagination fly. And then the script helps a lot of course because it’s sort of fantastical in the sense of like we really don’t actually know the details of his everyday life so we can imagine a lot of it and build upon that. The smallest details I got from Bartley. Which is fascinating, the fact that he was a promoter, that he did have a hot air balloon. He was a bit of a Don King, with PT Barnum and the fact that they were just showmen. Willy knew how to make a buck.
The Knockturnal: I know as an actor you’re not supposed to judge your character, but what is your opinion on him because you made a promise, like I can get you where you need to be, and he did get Bolden where he needed to be but he also did a lot of damage so what was that like getting into that?
Erik LaRay Harvey: Right, such a sort of like convoluted, complex story that Bartley was, I mean, intentions all good when he first starts out. Whether he’s got the boxing, whether he’s got the hot air balloon rides, whether he’s got the music, he’s promoting good things, things that uplift people. Sort of fairly you know not threatening entertainment and then he’s sort of forced to spread this stuff in the community, which brings about the demise of the community, which isn’t really too far from what we see today when they infiltrate drugs into a community, so he was sort of forced to do that and he sort of killed for that too. It’s a duality between wanting to do good and yet being forced to do sort of this evil thing.
The Knockturnal: I’ve seen you in other roles, in your role in Luke Cage, Proud Mary, how have those roles helped influence this character?
Erik LaRay Harvey: Well they’re all coming from a position of strength, and those kind of characters I like to play. And they’re all very different in their own right-
The Knockturnal: But all kind of very powerful-
Erik Laray Harvey: Yeah, very strong, serious guys. And I’ve been fortunate you know to be able to play those sort of roles, I guess people see me that way and I really enjoy it you know? It’s always better to be a person that has some power than a person that doesn’t.
The film hits theaters this Friday.