When Danielle Deadwyler first read the script for “Till,” she needed a minute. The film follows Mamie Till-Mobley’s fight for justice following the brutal 1955 murder of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, by white supremacists in Mississippi.
The Atlanta-born actor and performance artist read the screenplay in the summer of 2021. At the time, she was in Los Angeles to film the Netflix series “From Scratch,” following her roles in the streamer’s all-Black Western “The Harder They Fall” and on HBO Max’s post-apocalyptic drama “Station Eleven.” Playing a lead in a major feature after a slew of supporting roles—that’s the dream, right? But for the 40-year-old Deadwyler, who got her first break in the Atlanta theater scene, it wasn’t so straightforward. In fact, the idea of headlining a movie of such enormous historical significance left her head spinning.
“This is a deeply emotionally charged story that is weighted with the lives of the people before and the lives of the people after,” she says. “It is about a Black woman’s labor, publicly and privately. All of that was ringing in my mind before saying yes.”
“I want to do things that are left and right, commercial and experimental, raw or slick. You’ve got to stay malleable and be available for what could be asked of you.”
Taking on the monumental task of portraying Till-Mobley’s journey from a mother crippled by grief to a powerful civil rights activist was what frightened Deadwyler the most; but it also convinced her that she was doing the right thing. “You want the responsibility of sharing the story respectfully, appropriately, and honorably with the complexity that it deserves,” she says. “That’s what came through in the script. And that’s what came through in the fierce, rigorous work we did to figure out who this woman was—not as an iconized image of herself or her son, but as a human being. It’s significant to get to that for Black women’s lives.”
Deadwyler was still filming “From Scratch” with Zoe Saldana when preproduction on “Till” began. The movie was produced by Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Chinonye Chukwu—best known for “Clemency,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019. Chukwu co-wrote the film alongside Michael Reilly using filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s 27 years’ worth of research into Till’s murder. The work also involved a deep dive into archival footage, involved digging into various theses from academic institutions and Till-Mobley’s own memoir, “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.”
“Every role is different, but this one was layered with a heavy amount of research and a heavy amount of digging into the script,” Deadwyler says. “There were rigorous workshop sessions on getting to the heart of every beat, every intention, every scene.”
But the hardest part began two weeks before filming kicked off in September 2021. “That’s when the physicality comes into play and you do wardrobe fittings. It’s just a different manner of being,” the actor explains. “[Till-Mobley was] a respectable Black woman in 1950s Chicago. Your understanding of the research changes the physicality.” She worked closely with costume designer Marci Rodgers, who also created the 1970s-era wardrobe for Spike Lee’s 2018 Oscar-winning film, “BlacKkKlansman.” Adds Deadwyler, “I’m not the biggest ‘I’m in my wardrobe, and now it makes sense’ [kind of actor], but it doesn’t hurt. If it feels right, it will make you move in a way that feels affirming.”
The actor was particularly inspired by the “insane amount of surreptitious photos” of Till-Mobley that makeup artist Denise Tunnell had collected. “[That’s] the stuff you want to look at to see [the Till family] in their humanity—the stuff that is iconized,” she says, referring to the infamous image of Till’s brutalized body in an open casket. (Till-Mobley insisted on having her son photographed in death to expose the horrors of his murder to the world.)
“There is so much poetry, so many essays, so many resources, so many mementos that are representative of their life. You’re ‘on’ all the time in an effort to receive everything—to employ every minute detail and make this woman’s life come to life,” says Deadwyler.
While her character work was intense, the actor also found it, at times, peaceful. “It was a quiet moment of receiving. We had done so much work already, so it was trusting in that,” she recalls. “And if something new comes, you register it and let it meld with everything else that is already a part of the world, and you keep moving with it. I wanted to synthesize everything in order to get to this kind of embodiment.”
Deadwyler’s thoughtful process mirrors her quiet, compelling performance, which critics have lauded for its incredible emotional range. She’s also getting serious awards buzz. The actor recently took home a Gotham Award for outstanding lead performance and is set to receive a Breakthrough Performance prize at the Palm Springs Film Awards in January 2023. To say Deadwyler embodies the role would be an understatement; her ability to act with her whole being makes for some of the most effective moments in the film when no words are spoken at all.
In an interview with Nylon, Chukwu said that she was “blown away” by her lead actor’s self-taped audition, for which Deadwyler asked her own then-12-year-old son to stand in as Till. The director could tell from only a few scenes that the performer was able to convey an entire story with her eyes.
In a particularly memorable scene set at the murder trial, the camera remains on Deadwyler’s face for the duration of Till-Mobley’s testimony—a seven-page monologue. Chukwu was planning on doing eight or nine setups for the scene, but when the actor received a standing ovation from the cast and crew after the first take, the director realized her work was done.
Filming “Till” in parts of Georgia and in her hometown of Atlanta allowed Deadwyler to go home to her son every night and leave her work behind until the next day. “It was me respecting the spaces of: This is where a certain spiritual, artistic, cosmic labor is happening, and then when you come home, this is a space of recovery. It requires that, or else you burn out,” she says.
Did playing Till-Mobley bring up difficult conversations? “The film informs my discussions with my child, rather than my relationship with my child informing the film,” the actor explains. “It’s enough to know all the history, to know that the continuum of it is persisting. I don’t want to put that weight on the energy of my home and my son, though we’ve talked about a number of things in the same way Mamie talked about them with Emmett.
“I’m having discussions with him about what it means to step out in the world with his friends,” she continues. “He has white homeboys and homegirls, and I say to him, ‘When something happens, it may be different for you.’ [It would be] irresponsible to not say that. He knows what’s happening on a daily basis. That’s just a part of our lives.”
“When everyone is working at such a diligent level, an intentional level, you can lean on those shoulders. The weight is not all on you, even if you are the lead. It’s a community for a reason.”
Some of Deadwyler’s experiences on the set of “Till” were more akin to working with a local theater company than on a big-budget film—and that’s exactly how she likes it. Having started her career on the Atlanta stage in her late 20s, she was delighted to find herself back in the city for the movie. She crossed paths with creatives she had worked with on everything from indie films to “performance art in weird-ass galleries.”
“When everyone is working at such a diligent level, an intentional level, you can lean on those shoulders,” she says. “The weight is not all on you, even if you are the lead. It’s a community for a reason.”
The daughter of a legal secretary and a railroad supervisor, Deadwyler never intended to be an actor. She took dance classes as a kid and appeared in school plays, but never with the goal of turning performance into a career. “It was just a part of my world and always has been, but no one in our family was a working artist,” she says with a shrug. Instead, she had her sights set on academia.
Inspired by her older sister, Deadwyler majored in history at Spelman College, then got a master’s degree in American studies at Columbia University. She planned on enrolling in the women’s studies graduate program at Emory University in Atlanta, but she was rejected. “I boo-hooed for a second,” she admits. “It was part of what I really wanted to do.”
Instead, she taught at an elementary school for two years until, as the actor says, “I realized I was missing something.” Was this the turning point where she decided to shift into the arts? “It was the roundabout,” she says with a laugh.
Deadwyler immersed herself in her craft at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre in Atlanta. It was there where she got her big break in a 2009 production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” directed by Jasmine Guy (best known for starring on 1987 “Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World”).
“It was her directorial debut in Atlanta, and that’s when I pivoted, and I was like, ‘I’m not teaching anymore, because I need to be doing this,’ ” Deadwyler recalls. “Jasmine is my OG mentor friend. She has taught me and ushered me along in a really beautiful way.”
That performance opened the door to film and TV opportunities, and in 2012, Deadwyler made her screen debut in the TV movie “A Cross to Bear.” A regular gig on Tyler Perry’s soap opera “The Haves and the Have Nots” followed, along with appearances on Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Damon Lindelof’s superhero drama “Watchmen.” These projects eventually paved the way for her turns on Patrick Somerville’s “Station Eleven” and in “The Harder They Fall.”
“[‘Till’] is about a Black woman’s labor, publicly and privately. All of that was ringing in my mind before saying yes.”
Her vulnerable portrayal of Cuffee in Jeymes Samuel’s film earned Deadwyler the 2022 NAACP Image Award for supporting actress in a motion picture. (Samuel and his co-writer, Boaz Yakin, based the character on Cathay Williams, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Army.) But while it’s easy to see why Deadwyler is being celebrated for her acting work, it’s only a fraction of what she does as a performer.
“I do happen to be a multidisciplinary artist, and I want to do things that are left and right, commercial and experimental, raw or slick,” she says. “You’ve got to stay malleable and be available for what could be asked of you. The body begins to limit itself as you get older, which sucks; but it still has a way of doing what it can do and of finding new ways to do what it does.”
Deadwyler says that performing in the Alliance Theatre’s 2015 production of Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert’s dance-focused “The C.A. Lyons Project” was her most formative experience as an artist. “Dance is one of the most direct languages,” she says. “This character did not always speak, and the play was structured in multiple fragmented scenes, similar to how we think. We don’t think linearly; we think in fragments. This was a communication through silence. I grew exponentially by being able to do that.”
One could argue that “The C.A. Lyons Project” was what ultimately prepared Deadwyler to play Till-Mobley, even if she didn’t know it at the time. “I don’t think I can work in the same way again,” she says. “It’s surely the hardest thing I’ve had to do. Every project wants something different out of you, and ‘Till’ called for an erectness and a different understanding of what beauty is and the significance of balance.”
Deadwyler, who is currently filming the Netflix action thriller “Carry-On” in New Orleans, has always been drawn to playing “marginalized beings pushing themselves to the center,” she explains. “People who are trying to self-architect and challenge the world are interesting to me. I’m trying to make myself and remake myself every day.”
Her search for those types of roles will continue—but she might need a breather first. “I think there are new things to explore and other realities to get into,” she says.
“I’m here for weirdness. Let’s go all the way. We owe ourselves an alternative reality to keep challenging the people who don’t want alternative realities to exist. I don’t necessarily have a specific thing, but I know how I want to feel and what I want other people to feel.”
And what’s that? “A seismic shift. Because what are we doing it for, otherwise?”
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 29 issue of Backstage Magazine.
Photographed by GL Askew II on 12/03 at The London West Hollywood. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.