Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal spent 9 years making “Blindspotting,” a dark and dreamlike 2018 buddy comedy about two friends grappling with police power in a rapidly gentrifying Oakland. They considered it an artistic success, if not necessarily a financial one. “We didn’t make any money off it,” Diggs said. “I’m not sure anybody did.”
But shortly after its release, Lionsgate, which had produced it, approached the filmmakers about adapting “Blindspotting” for television. They declined. The story, of Diggs’s Collin, a mover wrapping up his parole, and Casal’s Miles, his volatile best friend, had been told. But Lionsgate insisted on a meeting, and as the men prepared for it, an idea began to form. Maybe they had another story to tell: Ashley’s.
In the film, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles’s ride-or-die, appears in only a handful of scenes. The movie was shot in 22 days; Cephas Jones was called for just three. Ashley exists only relationally, as a partner, a mother, a friend. They reasoned that there was more to this woman, though — enough, Diggs and Casal had decided by the time the meeting ended, to build a whole series around. The eight episodes of this new “Blindspotting” begin on June 13 on Starz.
Cephas Jones still remembers the day, three years ago, when Diggs and Casal called to pitch her on it. She nearly dropped her phone. “I was like, Yes!,” she recalled. “I was like, 100 percent I will do this. I think I even screamed.”
Cephas Jones, 31, who recently won an Emmy in the short-form category for the Quibi series #FreeRayshawn, was speaking on a recent weekday afternoon at a coffee shop in South Brooklyn, near where she lives with her fiancé, Anthony Ramos. (Ramos is, like Cephas Jones and Diggs, a “Hamilton” alum.) She appeared on the sun-kissed street corner almost comically dressed down, in unmatched sweats and ’80s throwback glasses, her hair pulled into a tight bun.
She has an elegant forehead, sultry eyes, and a mouth that often relaxes into a frown, contrasting with her natural, mellow warmth. But there is a watchfulness about her, too — something quiet and self-contained — a glimpse of the girl who used to spend nights in the lighting booth, watching her father stride across Off Broadway stages.
“She has a real vibe,” Thomas Kail, who directed her in “Hamilton,” told me. “Her mom was cool. Her dad was cool. And she is cool.” Friends call her Jazz.
Cephas Jones grew up a few miles from that coffee shop, in Midwood, Brooklyn, the daughter of Ron Cephas Jones (“This Is Us”) and Kim Lesley, a jazz singer. She went to LaGuardia High School, the “Fame” school, and from there to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she hoped to become a coloratura soprano.
She left after two years (“I went through a weird time,” she said) and picked up again at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, then joined the ensemble of the LAByrinth Theater Company, where her father is a member. She auditioned and auditioned, supporting herself as a beer garden waitress. She booked some roles, most of them thankless. Sometimes she was told she wasn’t sexy enough. Or Black enough. Or that she should straighten her hair. Sometimes she forgot why she had wanted to be an artist in the first place.
Then came the audition for “Hamilton.” Before its Public Theater run, Kail decided to recast a few parts, including the dual role of Peggy, the youngest Schuyler sister, and Maria Reynolds, Alexander Hamilton’s mistress. Cephas Jones fumbled her first try at Maria’s song, “Say No to This.” But the casting director told her to come back a week later. That time, singing a version of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” she killed it.
“If she was nervous, she didn’t show it,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s composer recalled. “She was poised and ready and incredible.” Kail recalled the velvety nap of her voice, “How surprising and effortless and natural her sound is.”
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Soon they noticed something else, how completely she transformed from one role to the next. Some spectators — spectators who didn’t read their Playbills — never even realized that the same actress had played both parts. It’s a quality she likely absorbed from the actors’ actors, past and present, of the LAByrinth ensemble — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liza Colón-Zayas, Deirdre O’Connell, Stephen McKinley Henderson — shape-shifters all.
Diggs and Casal discovered this quality during an early reading of the “Blindspotting” film script. They had her read all of the female roles. (The female roles aren’t huge.) “That was really the moment that we realized that she truly was a chameleon,” Casal said.
They cast her as Ashley, and once filming of the movie began, Casal marveled at how quickly and completely she built out her character. “She created an Ashley that felt truly full in her complexity in such a short amount of time,” Casal said. “When somebody uncovers that much about a character in so few scenes, that screams that they need more scenes.”
If this new “Blindspotting” is an ensemble piece, Cephas Jones’s Ashley stands at its vibrant center. In the first moments of the pilot, several police officers drag Miles away on a drugs charge, leaving Ashley to navigate his absence. If the “Blindspotting” movie centered on police violence, the show explores how incarceration affects entire communities.
That theme resonates personally with Cephas Jones, who has vivid memories of visiting a relative jailed at Rikers Island in New York City. “I’m just very familiar with it,” she said. “I understand it. I know it. And it doesn’t just affect the people inside. It affects families and friends.”
“And it’s trauma,” she added. “The show really wants to shed light on that.”
“Blindspotting” does so, in part, through abstract dance sequences, choreographed by the artists and activists Lil Buck and Jon Boogz, which are meant to suggest the ripple effects of imprisonment. Each episode also includes spoken word segments, in which Cephas Jones addresses the camera directly, offering access to Ashley’s inner thoughts. “It might just break me,” she raps in the pilot, after Miles’s arrest. “But I was born to sew stitches.”
These direct address segments provide helpful insight, as Cephas Jones imbues the character with her own watchfulness, making Ashley something of a cipher. “There is kind of a groundedness about her that is me as a person,” Cephas Jones said. “I didn’t want to make her crazy angry or bitter as soon as you see her; I really wanted to make sure that she has so many colors.”
A technician, Cephas Jones makes a mess of her scripts, underlining, highlighting, marking out shifts in meaning and feeling. “And then I throw it out the window, trust myself and dive 100 percent,” Cephas Jones said.
In many scenes, Ashley defers to showier characters like Jaylen Barron’s Trish, Miles’s sister, and Helen Hunt’s Rainey, his mother. With a young child and an imprisoned partner, Ashley has to keep it together, not let it all out. So despite her musical theater background, Cephas Jones rarely goes big and she never pulls focus. But your eyes move toward her anyway. Her acting is as interior as it is unselfconscious, and she makes Ashley seem like a real woman, with real emotions and real history.
“She’s not like, I’m the star, pay attention to me, here I am, here’s my 11 o’clock number,” Erica Schmidt, who directed Cephas Jones in a musical version of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” said. “She just doesn’t do that.”
Hunt, her “Blindspotting” co-star, put it this way: “It’s not like some giant personality walks on the stage,” she said. “She’s just good.”
Diggs and Casal discovered they could write just about anything for her and that she would play it, as long as she found it true to character. She never fought to have the most lines or the most jokes or the most drama. She fought instead for what Ashley would do and could say, and for the woman Ashley might become. “When she is championing a character, she takes that very seriously. She really rides for them,” Diggs said.
Cephas Jones is trying to ride for herself, too. While she and Ramos formerly shared much of their romance, including his proposal, online, they have lately become more private, even taking video of that proposal back down. “Now we just don’t feel like we need to give so much to people anymore,” she said. “Because you want to save that for yourself.”
But her art, like the slinky, slow-jam-filled EP “Blue Bird,” which she recently released, is there for the taking. And so is Ashley, a single mother and working-class woman of color whom Cephas Jones hopes audiences will embrace as a superhero.
“Mothers out there who go through something like this, they are the unsung heroes,” she said. “They don’t wear a cape. They don’t have magical powers. The magical power is keeping your family together.”