'Blindspotting' Star Jasmine Cephas Jones Talks Trauma, Oakland, And Helen Hunt [Interview]

Singer, actress, and producer Jasmine Cephas Jones can do it all. She played a dual role in the Broadway smash Hamilton and stole every one of her scenes in the 2018 film Blindspotting. Now, she has a starring role in the TV spin-off show about her Blindspotting character, Ashley, putting her center stage. In the Starz series, Cephas Jones is a force of nature – singing, dancing, rapping, and baring her soul to the audience. Blindspotting just wrapped its first season, and we can't wait to see more, especially from her.

We had a chance to chat with Jones via Zoom from her New York apartment, where she shared her inspiration for Ashley, her experiences with series creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, and her love for the city of Oakland.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.What are some of the differences in working in TV versus working in film or on Broadway? Did being in Hamilton help you prepare for some of the more musical aspects of the series?

I mean, they're completely different mediums. I think, for the musical, we're rehearsing from four to eight weeks and you're living basically with a cast with your dressing rooms all by. You really create. You're doing it live. You're mic-ed, you have to make your expressions really big and you're performing for 1,300 people. We did that in the Richard Rogers theater on Broadway, and you have to reach all the people in the back and with TV, everything is a little more intimate and smaller because the cameras literally right here in your face. So they're just two completely different mediums. I think if anybody can have any sort of theater background as an actor, I think it definitely helps through over all mediums. But yeah, this was very, very different to Hamilton and in many different ways, but I learned a lot doing that musical and I think it's definitely helped me through everything I've done after that.

Speaking of more intimate, what influenced the decision to focus on Ashley? Because the Blindspotting movie is more about the two guys, every scene Ashley's in is just explosive. So what made the decision to go that direction?

That was really on Daveed and Rafael. I think they've explained in a couple of interviews that they wanted to see more of Ashley and they were presented with doing Blindspotting as a TV show and they said, "Well, we'd only do it if Jasmine Cephas Jones would do it and would love to come back and play Ashley again." And so I'm so honored and I was just so excited that we were going to do it this way. And kind of the storytelling of the TV show is nothing that I've ever seen and I think is just so beautiful. And there are so many women in the show, which is awesome. I think the movie was very male dominated because it was about the relationship between Colin and Miles. And this one is a little more female dominated and more about the community and the people left behind of the prison system.

That leads straight into my next question. I was going to say, this is much more a story about women than the movie. It's about these relationships between women and how these families cope with the horrors of mass incarceration, instead of focusing more on those incarcerated. How does it feel to bring these perspectives to the screen? 

I think it's refreshing. I think it's important to see that the prison system not only affects the people in prison, but affects family and friends. And also what happens when you get out of the prison system. You see that with Ben's character Earl, and that it's almost this haunting thing that doesn't leave you and to really see that community and the love there and what people have to do to kind of survive this almost trauma and almost this loss, this family loss that has happened and how important community is and how important that support system is to show that it doesn't just stop at the prison. It affects so many people that are involved and it almost spreads out and how insane that is.

What are some of your inspirations for Ashley? Are there any other characters or writers or anybody who sort of helped you bring that character to life? Because she's such a fierce mama bear and so complex.

She is. There wasn't really anybody else that I based her off of. I mean, I played her in the movie and then about a few years ago, I got that call from Rafael and Daveed. So Ashley's been sitting in my mind for years and she's been through so many drafts and so many conversations. I've been to Rikers Island. I've visited loved ones, a loved one in jail before, a relative. And so I got to kind of pick from my own experience and really create this character on my own and also with Rafael and Daveed over the years. So she's very new and something that we've all built.

Can you tell me a little bit about keeping Oakland authentic and bringing the city to life for everybody to experience?

Yeah. We shot all the exterior shots in Oakland. I've been to Oakland before because we shot the whole film in Oakland. Benjamin's from Oakland, Rafael and Diggs... They're from Oakland and they're on set every day to make sure that we pass the Oakland test every single day. Oakland is all in the scripts. It is written there. It is in the house in all of the sets. So it's almost, even though we shot all the interiors in LA, you can't run away from it. It is embedded in the whole show. And you're right. It is like a character in the show. I worked on like my accent and the little twang. And when we did the exterior shots, it was just so awesome to really be in Oakland because it's such a musical and cultural city and to be around the people and to do the sideshow and listen to the music. You're just completely transported, but we were transported every day. There was no really running away from that.

So speaking of the house and all of that, what was it like working with Helen Hunt? Her playing this sort of cool stoner mom is so wildly different from what I expect.

It was absolutely amazing, really. There's no better people to play these roles. I think the most challenging thing was we shot it in the middle of a pandemic when the vaccines weren't out. So we were very careful and in between shots and scenes and everything, we had to wear a mask and we had to wear a shield. So we really had to push hard to be believable that we've all known each other for years, and that really goes to show how talented this cast is, and to kind of create these relationships. And so we tried to bond and have as many conversations as we could, so we can be believable on screen and little dance parties in between shooting and everything that we just could to really bond and be believable. But we had so much fun and Helen is an absolute gem and she's just amazing. She's amazing to work with. It's like a masterclass working with her.

How does it feel to be reunited with so many of the folks you've worked with before in Hamilton, and on the first Blindspotting movie? How does it feel just to get to spend some more time with these folks and create more together?

I mean, it's like an artist's dream, right? You always want to work with the people that you love and the people that you trust and that they have trust in you. I think whenever I see any of my friends who are performers and I get to see them on TV, it just makes me so happy that they're doing their thing and they're shining so bright. And if ever I get to work with them again, it's the best feeling ever when you get to work with the people that you love and you care about. So the fact that I got to do that on this show was just so much fun. It's a family affair.