For the release of ANTEBELLUM, I got the chance to chat with Tongayi Chirisa, where we discussed everything from the research he did to prepare for his role to the power of non-verbal communication and methods he used to decompress from the weight of his role.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Tongayi. I know it’s important to try to keep as much about this film secretive as we can, but can you tell us a little bit about your character?
Tongayi Chirisa: I play Eli and we find him on this plantation. We have no idea how long he’s been there for. He’s definitely experienced his fair share of brutal acts toward him. He’s gotten to a point where he’s just like: I need to find a way to get out of this. That’s pretty much in a nutshell who Eli is. He has to do what he needs to do to figure things out.
Eli is forced into horrific situations due to the cruelty of the slave owners on the plantation. Can you talk a bit about preparing for this role and going through those experiences?
Tongayi Chirisa: There was a lot of research that I needed to do in first understanding the culture, the history of America, the plight of the African American and what it might have felt like from a psychological point of view. We know what happened on a physical spectrum but what does that do to a human being emotionally and psychologically? So just having to understand that process and what it meant to be in survival mode your entire life. You’re censoring yourself, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder because anything that resonated a consciousness of wanting to ask questions or to wrestle with the system warranted death. Like you could die for simply asking a question or looking at your slave masters in a certain way. The only way of survival was to be less human and to see yourself as mute and as cattle, which was horrifying. From just my experience as a Zimbabwe coming into this world and working on a real plantation, for me it became more than just acting, it was a rite of passage. It was understanding where I’ve come from and the liberties that I had and then to be in a world where all of that is suddenly stripped away. You’re now living in conditions that are far worse than most animals live which was horrifying. To carry that throughout the entire movie was heavy. It was frustrating, it was confusing, and I think, you know, you will find Eli in that world trying to express that in the best way he could.
There’s a powerful where we see Eli picking cotton and whistling a tune. Can you talk about the importance of that?
Tongayi Chirisa: Verbal communication is not the only way to talk and actions speak louder than words. I think people in the time found ways of communicating with each other without actually saying what they wanted to say and so that was done a lot of the times through the songs that they sang; whether it was whistling or a certain movement of hand and body. Where I’m from in Zimbabwe, if my friends come over to my house there’s a certain whistle that they do that will tell me: okay, my friends are outside. Somebody else would just think that it’s somebody whistling, but to those that know, it was a cue for me to be like “Okay, I gotta go, my friends are here.” Whistling has been part of the DNA in Africa since we were created and so this is no different when you find Eli using the whistle because everyone knows exactly what it meant. It’s a dream to have a language that’s nonverbal, that no one else knows other than the community. It amplified strength, it showed unification, and it shows solidarity in the midst of these adverse conditions that they lived in.
Your character finds himself in perilous situations alongside Janelle Monae’s character. How was it working with her?
Tongayi Chirisa: That’s an icon living! What can I say! Yo, I worked with Janelle, come on now! (laughs). I geeked out, I still geek out every time. I’m like, “Yo, it’s Janelle”! You’re holding it in and people are like, “What are you working on” and you’re like, “I can’t tell you but let me just tell you…” (laughs). It was exciting! The first time I met her I geeked out for like 5 minutes. I was like, “Please, let me have this moment, I don’t want it to affect what we’re going to be doing when we start working so let me freak out a little bit” and I did just that (laughs).
As we’ve talked about, ANTEBELLUM deals with heavy themes surrounding slavery and the horrific treatment of Black individuals. When you had downtime, were there things you did to help let loose?
Tongayi Chirisa: I know I did. We [cast members] definitely hung out a little bit; we went for drinks and stuff like that. Everybody has got their own way of dealing with it. Some felt it’s absolutely important that they stay in that world because it brings about the reality of what they were trying to convey with their characters. We all had a point of contact that allowed us to express, in the safety of each other, as professional actors, to be able to explore these dark themes and go where we needed to be in order to bring the authenticity of the world. That, in and of itself, was beautiful because there was a camaraderie amongst us to bring truth and there was a deep respect for the material that we had. Everybody came with the authenticity that they needed which made it much easier and richer to play the scenes that you saw because, as you say, it’s heavy. But that just shows you the depth and the gravitas of the trust that we had with each other.
For more on ANTEBELLUM, check out our review here. ANTEBELLUM will be released on VOD and Digital on September 18, 2020.