Nicole Beharie on Why Her Gotham Award Win for ‘Miss Juneteeth’ Was a ‘Wake-up Call’

For Nicole Beharie, playing former pageant queen and single mother Turquoise Jones in “Miss Juneteenth” has been one of the most intimate experiences in her 13-year career. In the film, from director Channing Godfrey Peoples, Beharie’s character enters her teenage daughter into the titular pageant despite her daughter’s initial disinterest — but ultimately, both are changed for the better by the experience. Beharie’s career, too, was changed: She won the best actress prize at the Gotham Awards in January.

You looked so surprised when you won the Gotham Award. Why was that?

I just was excited to be invited to the party. Then, following the tribute to Chadwick Boseman [her on-screen husband in “42”], it was really bittersweet. But something that struck me in the days following was I really didn’t imagine that [winning] was even a possibility for me. There’s a kind of apartness that I expect, being on the periphery [of Hollywood]. I don’t know if it’s sobriety or if it’s cynicism. That win was a little bit of a wake-up call.

What was it about this role that spoke to you?

There was a period in my childhood where my mother was really struggling and she was in school [working to advance from an R.N. to a doctor]. We had a Christmas where there was food on the table, all the bills were paid, but we may not have gotten gifts. The church gave donations to families, and I remember getting this box and being so excited that we ended up getting gifts after all, because she had given us a little sit-down talk about how things were hard. I opened the box, and inside was a size 9 white pump. I was a child, thinking, “What am I supposed to do with a pump?” I was so upset, but I remember seeing her laugh it off.

There’s a scene in the movie that just pulled my heart out. My character Turquoise comes home, she’s been inundated with bad news and it’s her daughter’s birthday. The lights are turned off, the cake got smashed, but [she and her daughter, played by Alexis Chikaeze] have this beautiful, tender moment together where it’s like all the stuff on the periphery doesn’t matter. It’s really about that connection. I know what that’s like to appreciate someone’s sacrifice and love. It’s so subtle, it’s so small, but I want to pay homage or honor to that part of my journey, my mother and the many women that have kept our communities together. I am fascinated by the people who don’t get to speak a great deal and instead of focusing on the people who are the loudest, [Channing] zoomed in on a woman who was generally voiceless.

Turquoise is fighting for a dream for herself and for her daughter, saying, “I want to have something of my own.” What does that mean to you?

There are two men offering her different lives. One of them looks better; he literally [comes] in on a horse, like the knight in shining armor, and who doesn’t love a love story? This is still a love story, just a little different. It’s a love story about a woman and her daughter, but also a woman falling in love with herself.

What was your greatest takeaway from this film?

“Wow, look at what women can do!” Look what [Channing] did on a shoestring budget. She wrote it from her heart, about things that she knows and loves, her own community. We’re seeing a lot of people take the risks and have that faith in themselves in our field — go out and create their own work — and it’s adding all these new textures and stories and voices into the community. And a lot of them are women.

Things you didn’t know about Nicole Beharie:

Age: 36
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
The history factor: She hopes the film will lead to Juneteenth becoming a national holiday: “I think we need to acknowledge, as a nation, this huge part of our history.”
Up next: She recently wrapped production on Amazon anthology series “Solos,” which also features Helen
Mirren, Morgan Freeman and Uzo Aduba, as well as the HBO limited series “Scenes From a Marriage” opposite Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.

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