Jeremy Pope Has a Not-So-Secret Sweet Tooth

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Everett Collection

Jeremy Pope’s speaking voice is as velvety as it is powerful, which, if you’ve heard the man sing, should not come as a surprise. Since 2018, he’s been bringing his vocal talents to the stage, where he earned two Tony nominations in the same year for his debut Broadway performance as Pharus Jonathan Young in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and for playing Eddie Kendricks in the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud. Beyond the stage, he’s appeared on television (in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood and Pose) and film (The Inspection, The Collaboration), and he has recently started to work behind the lens, too.

Pope grew up in Florida, and after a pit stop in Orlando to visit family this month, he headed over to Miami, where his newest collection of photographs appeared on display at the SCOPE Art Show for Art Basel. The exhibition, called “FLEX(bitch),” follows his 2021 photo essay, “Generations,” and addresses some of the same themes. It’s about masculinity as he experienced it growing up — his father is both a pastor and a bodybuilder — and his journey to manhood as he lives it now.

Photo: Jeremy Pope

I read that you’ve been cultivating your skills as a photographer since college, when you were taking headshots for your fellow acting students. Can you talk about how you evolved your photography skills while becoming an accomplished actor and singer?

That was really a big part of my life when I was in New York, just grinding and hustling between catering and all of that. It is more a hobby than something I do all the time. But after I’d spent last year working, I wanted to do something that was for me. That usually starts when I go back home, where there’s less noise. I think about young Jeremy, when I was at home making beats or working on whatever I was doing as a kid — just that creative freedom to think and expand and go, What do I have to say? And why do I have to scream it? I want to get to a place where what I have to say is so loud that it becomes actionary for me. That was the early thesis of unpacking what the “FLEX” series is, but it initially was me just having time, picking up my camera, and wanting to shoot on film.

From left: Photo: Jeremy PopePhoto: Jeremy Pope
From top: Photo: Jeremy PopePhoto: Jeremy Pope

“FLEX(bitch)” addresses the structures of masculinity you were raised with, and I see echoes of that in your photo essay “Generations.” Can you talk about how your relationship with your masculinity, and your creativity around it, has evolved?

Coming from these spaces that are extremely hypermasculine, and knowing that a lot of my core foundation comes from being in those environments, it allowed me to take time to unpack and relearn and reshape and try to guide myself to a healthier place of self-love and existence. Me and my dad have a beautiful relationship; it has had its ebbs and flows, but it’s ultimately always lived in a support and love place. But in trying to understand where I come from, and my foundation, I found out my foundation was a little rocky for me to stand on. I think my idea of masculinity was very fragile — is very fragile. Visually, this project was giving us something new, starting with myself. And the definition of “flex” is to bend, like bending the things that I thought were true. Bending the Bible that is supposed to be the word of God and you don’t question. Allowing questioning to not be a sin, but a launching pad.

Photo: Jeremy Pope

Am I serving the fullness of a Black experience, the Black male experience, in a way that is pushing the narrative forward for the industry that I’m a part of? I look at my career and the opportunities that I have as a vessel. What I’m creating and doing is bigger than me. It has to be, because my time, our time on this earth is so short and limited. I want to believe that what I’m creating is planting a seed for something that maybe I won’t even see, but I know that it’s going to grow into another person being able to exist or share or create.

Photo: Jeremy Pope

I know you’ll be speaking to Tarell Alvin McCraney at Basel. What does that conversation, and his work, mean to you?

It means everything, because Tarell is one of my good, good friends, and he gave me my first shot in New York in 2013 in Choir Boy, which ended up being my Broadway debut and my first Tony, so it’s very special for me. But more importantly, I remember him being one of the first people that I saw standing in his Blackness, just so strong and confident and comfortable. I remember being like, I want to be like Tarell, I want to just exist. He wasn’t ever overly fazed. He was just who he was. We both know what it means to come from Florida, to come from religion, come from the South. I’m just excited that he was down. He was like, “Whatever you need, Pope.” I hope to be able to take the series to other states and places to further the conversation and allow people access to something different.

You played Jean-Michel Basquiat on stage in The Collaboration, which has now been adapted for a film. He was an artist, and you’re now stepping into your artist shoes at Art Basel. What did you learn about art from playing Basquiat?

Anytime you play a character as long as I did, they teach you. You learn about yourself through the character, and I think what I learned through Basquiat was having an open mind and an unconventional approach to everything that you do, not allowing there to be a ceiling, especially in these spaces that weren’t really built for you to be in. He challenged the narrative. I kept saying to myself, “The world is my gallery.” Basquiat taught me to be free in my art.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

Oddly enough, I feel like it’s my grandma. My grandma’s pretty tapped in. It’s kind of crazy, the stuff she’ll know. She’ll be like, “You heard about Cardi B?” I love connecting with her and also sharing culture with her. She’s kind of informed me about what it meant to be liberated and free in the ’60s and ’70s, and I’m telling her what it looks like in 2023.

You’re hopping in an Uber XL and you can bring five celebrities, dead or alive. Who are you bringing?

I’m gonna go with Prince. He’ll have the aux, he’ll handle the music. Plot twist, Miss Honey from Matilda, because she was everything. She was just kind. Who else … Beyoncé, hello? Just because of Renaissance. That’s three. Basquiat. I’d love to connect with him. And my grandma. I gotta throw my grandma in there. It would be lit.

What is the last meal that you cooked for dinner?

Probably Thanksgiving. We threw down. It’s my favorite holiday, so I definitely cooked smoked turkey wings, mac and cheese, sweet potato soufflé, creamed corn, fried chicken. I go hard, like it’s kind of a problem. That’s why I haven’t been in the kitchen since. I made cereal the past couple of nights. I was recovering from my Thanksgiving throwdown.

Sweet potato soufflé sounds incredible.

It’s insane, fam. Brown butter crumble with marshmallow. Next level.

Do you have a ritual before performing, on set or in front of a crowd?

If I’m doing a show on Broadway or in theater, it’s really just getting the energy right, especially being in New York, it’s a lot. I usually listen to a great playlist. I have my palo santo. I love snacks, to get myself whatever energy boost or candy rush I need to be able to go out there and give the show what it needs.

When I’m on set, I call it a moment of still. I like to be alone to allow things to come in. Music is a big thing; it probably is for a lot of people. With Basquiat, it was a lot of jazz and instrumental stuff. With certain characters, it’ll be word-specific or genre-specific.

Your red carpets are always so legendary. Do you have a pre–red carpet ritual?

I always get really nervous before a carpet. I call it bubble gut. I get really quiet. I don’t know if that’s the Cancer in me. I’m not a big drinker, but if I was, I’m sure I’d be doing shots. Normally I have a little Sour Patch in my pocket — li’l Sour Patch candy, Sour Patch Children. Pop one of those. Those really take me there. I’m a big candy fiend! So I usually have like a little Hi-Chew, or just something on me to keep it sweet.

What is your comfort rewatch?

The TV show Martin that was in the ’90s, or Sister Act 2.

What about something you’ll never ever watch, no matter what?

I don’t really mess with extremely gory or horror stuff. I don’t like anything that’s psycho, like it could happen. Stuff where it’s like, the neighbors looking at you. I’m trying to see positive things that make you laugh. Even some of these thrillers sometimes be on the cusp, because I’m like, that’s a little spooky, now. Listen, if you like it, I love it. But personally, I’m not throwing that on and being scared in my house. Why would I do that to myself?

What’s the best piece of gossip that you’ve ever heard?

I think because we’re living in the Renaissance era — at least, I am — I think anything related to Beyoncé, that type of gossip. Act Two, Act Three, we’re all fantasizing and I’m like, Do they exist? Like, Are we delusional? I was fortunate enough to see the premiere in L.A. She’s so sweet and lovely. But she really be minding her business.

Was there any good intel at the premiere? 

I think it’s beautiful to watch her process as an artist, as a mother, as a woman. In the end credits, there’s new music, so I do believe there’s got to be new music … like, where’s the hard drive, ma’am? I know you got things on the hard drive. Stop playing.

What’s your favorite game to play?

I like to play Uno, but we play it dirty style. Doubles, triples, give me your hand, take mine, draw 30 ’til you get the color. We play hard in the streets and talk a lot of shit while doing it too.

What music do you listen to when you’re alone?

That varies, but I’ll say this week — and most weeks — I’m usually going old-school: Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross, Prince, Aretha. It’s crazy because growing up I always felt like that was old music, but now it feels like the soundtrack of my life. Most of the time when I’m home alone, I’m cleaning, so it feels like, Put on the cleaning music.

What’s a book you couldn’t put down?

Janet Mock wrote a book, Redefining Realness, and she was someone that I was able to work with during Hollywood and Pose. I bought the audiobook; I was about to go on a flight, and I was like, Let me support her and read this book. I couldn’t stop, I was learning so much. Maybe because I was connected to her and she doesn’t lead with all the things that her book entails. I’m always moved by people’s vulnerabilities to share, because once you share something you can’t take it back.

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?

“When you know better, you do better.” So stay open, and stay open to the process, and allow everything to have a process. We want results so fast. As an artist, as a human, you’re supposed to have a process.

What show is your partner not allowed to watch without you? 

We’re watching a show on BET+ called The Ms. Pat Show, which is a funny show. I’ll tell you what they can watch without me: anything scary. Watch that on your own time, that ain’t got nothing to do with me.

What’s your favorite piece of art that you own?

A photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The photographer who shot it is Richard Corman. It was really cool to be shot by the same photographer that had shot that series, and we did an homage to that, so it was really special and unexpected that he gave me one of the raw prints from his shoot with Basquiat.

What is the worst thing to do at a dinner party?

Not acknowledge everybody at the dinner party. It’s so strange. I’ve been to a lot of them where you’re having dinner and you’re sitting across from someone and they’re on their phone, or they talk through and around you. Just don’t do that. We’re all here. We all got names, whether the name cards are on the table or not. You don’t have to talk talk, but I try to do that at parties. Just make sure everyone knows, Hi, I’m Jeremy. Have we met before? If we have, refresh my memory or if not, I’m available to connect if you choose to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jeremy Pope Has a Sweet Tooth