Speaking to Nicole Beharie, it becomes apparent that she is really passionate about science. During our interview, the actor erupts into a flurry of asides, from the discovery of two new black holes to her ardour for neuroscience. “I’m fascinated by Pavlov’s theory of domesticating animals,” she says at one point. “Seeing how culture affects things and why people are the way they are.”
Beharie’s interest in the human condition might explain the range and depth of the roles she has played to date, starting with her critically acclaimed lead performance in 2008’s American Violet as a wrongly convicted single mother who refuses to take a plea bargain. Since then, she has starred as the intended parent of a surrogate child in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere; the wife of a conflicted cop battling between his badge and his identity in the 2018 drama Monsters and Men, partly inspired by the death of Eric Garner; and as a resilient-yet-flawed former beauty queen in the upcoming film Miss Juneteenth. A 45-second clip of her performance in an episode of Black Mirror, a masterclass in understated emotion, recently went viral on Twitter.
Beharie’s willingness to embrace change may have something to do with her peripatetic upbringing. Born in Florida in 1985 to a Jamaican mother who grew up in England (Beharie has cousins in Dulwich and Peckham, making her an honorary south Londoner) and an African-American father in the Foreign Service, she spent much of her childhood living across multiple countries. “We lived in Nigeria, Gambia, Panama and up and down the east coast in the US,” she says. “I literally got every piece of the diaspora you can imagine.”
Following her parents’ divorce when she was five, Beharie moved to South Carolina with her mother. She was accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City to study drama and, after graduating, cut her teeth in regional theatre. Soon Hollywood beckoned, with a 2008 role in sports drama The Express alongside the late Chadwick Boseman.
We are speaking the week after the death of Boseman – with whom Beharie also starred in the Jackie Robinson baseball biopic 42 – and she looks back on their time together with fondness. “People say still waters run deep, but Chadwick had this understanding and patience,” she recalls. “He was a constant professional. I have never seen anyone be so disciplined and so aware of everything that is going on, and keep everything so positive.
“I hope no one gets offended by this, but I think working with someone like him has ruined my relationships in real life,” she adds, only half-joking. “Once you have that kind of exchange and you’re heard, seen and so tenderly handled, you want nothing less in your real relationships.”
Following The Express, Beharie’s profile rose further in 2011, when she appeared in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Starring opposite Michael Fassbender, she excelled as Marianne, who serves as his sex-addict protagonist’s one shot at a meaningful relationship. “I remember Steve spoke to me very candidly about people behind the scenes who weren’t sure that Marianne should be cast as a woman of colour,” she recalls. McQueen naturally did not agree: “He said to me: ‘I exist, so of course this character exists.’”
Beharie continues to take on characters that highlight the complexities of Black womanhood, including in her new film, Miss Juneteenth. She stars as troubled former beauty pageant queen-turned-bartender, Turquoise Jones, who is raising her daughter to become the next Miss Juneteenth, a pageant that takes place every year in Fort Worth, Texas. The title’s significance goes far beyond the chance to wear a jewelled crown: it is named after 19 June 1865 – also known as Emancipation Day – the day when enslaved African Americans in Texas finally found out they were free, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of 1863.
In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Turquoise can be seen reminiscing about her glory days as Miss Juneteenth. Sitting atop a car and waving affectionately to the town’s residents, Turquoise takes on the responsibilities of the title as the town celebrates this pivotal and historic day. It serves as a stark reminder that while African Americans celebrate freedom on this day, the remnants of slavery still remain – be it through institutionalised racism or the police brutality running rampant in the US.
When the movie was filmed in 2019, Beharie and its writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples could not have predicted its timeliness. “What was mindblowing is that when we shot this movie, Juneteenth wasn’t a massive cultural conversation,” says Beharie. “But after the brutal death of George Floyd, the uprising and the whole conversation we’re having collectively about race, it was the first Juneteenth that was discussed on a national level.” The actor is optimistic about the sociopolitical shift happening around race in the US, and, of course, it links back to science: “I feel moved by whatever the energies of evolution are. I feel like everything in nature is always moving towards progress. Even though there are some people that want to stay in the past, it’s a force that you can’t continue to repress.”
Her role in the film has won favourable reviews. Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién wrote that “the reason to watch the film is Nicole Beharie’s anchoring performance as Turquoise”, while LA Times film critic Justin Chang praised Beharie’s “rare ability to let you see what she’s thinking”. While the future looks bright for Beharie, it has also meant she has had to confront certain things in her past; most specifically, what happened after she left her role as FBI agent Abbie Mills in Fox series Sleepy Hollow. As a Black female lead in a fantasy drama, Beharie’s casting was significant – but her abrupt departure from the show in spring 2016 shocked fans and caused much speculation online. Beharie decided to speak about the subject in a recent interview with the New York Times, where she revealed that she left partly due to a diagnosis of the auto-immune disease C difficile, but that her decision to leave the show saw her labelled as “difficult” and losing out on work.
“Knowing I had to do a lot of press for Miss Juneteenth and the conversation constantly coming up,’” she says now, “I didn’t want to have to avoid it and to continue to give vague answers to things so I thought, ‘Let me say something.’ But it was years ago, and I’m past it. In a way, it was good to wait until I was thoroughly over it and went through all the catharsis and the hemming and hawing.”
Speaking about the diagnosis now, Beharie sounds relaxed, at ease with her new, unexpected direction. “It has actually changed my life – I’m a bit of a holistic food health guru rookie now,” she laughs. “I’m much more appreciative of every breath, especially during a time like this where that is being taken from people.”
Given the discourse around representation, she is aware that career choices matter more than ever. “There is that extra – I don’t want to call it pressure – it’s almost like code-switching,” she says. “So I’m not just, like: ‘Great part’; it’s, ‘Great part – how is this gonna affect my nephew?’”
“You can probably tell from talking to me that I’m a little out there,” she jokes after one of her scientific digressions. “I love stories about relationships, nuance and families. But it’s also about not boxing yourself in, so that we really cover the breadth of our experience, because [Black people] are not a monolithic thing.”
If Beharie’s career has taught us anything, it’s that what comes next is likely to be unexpected.
Miss Juneteenth is out now in cinemas and on digital platforms