In a year where so much has been postponed and interrupted, having a film like Miss Juneteenth to hold on to felt like a special gift. Set in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature is a loving celebration of community, family, and tradition—three things that have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. Nicole Beharie stars as Turquoise, a onetime beauty queen-turned-hardworking single mom who pins all her hopes, dreams, and regrets on her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) and the Miss Juneteenth pageant Turquoise won back when she was a teenager.
The role re-establishes Beharie as an actress to watch, in a sensitive, authentic performance that transcends the cultural archetype of the “strong Black woman” and treats a complicated character with the respect and nuance she deserves. And critics and her peers are noticing: Beharie won the Best Actress award at this year’s Gotham Awards, and was nominated for Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. We talk with Beharie at length on this week’s episode of Push The Envelope, about her journey towards finding the character of Turquoise, her relationship with her onscreen daughter, connecting with community as a person who’s spent much of her life traveling, and the surprising reason she sports those cowboy boots on the film’s poster.
Listen to the full conversation with Beharie on the podcast—which also features editor-in-chief Patrick Gomez and TV editor Danette Chavez discussing the TV nominees for the upcoming Golden Globe Awards—and read some excerpts down below.
AVC: Did you have any experience with beauty pageants going into this film?
Nicole Beharie: I actually had a negative relationship to beauty pageants. My sister is obsessed with them, okay? And she would watch the Miss Whatever— Universe, World, South Carolina, Texas—just all of the pageants that you could possibly watch. And she would just kind of rate women, like, “oh, she’s prettier. I like her better. I like her dress.” And it just never sat well with me. So my understanding of pageants was sort of like the Trump pageants from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
But this once I read the script and spoke to the writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, she she was like, “no, no, it’s different. It’s scholastic. It’s all about history and scholarship. It’s not about your aesthetic physical form. It’s about the community, and rooting these young ladies in confidence in the community.” And I was like, “oh, okay, interesting.” It was very different than what I thought a pageant was going to be. And that affected how I ended up playing Turquoise, my character, because, again, a certain kind of pageant mom would carry herself a particular way. I’m thinking big Texas hair and lashes and nails and all that stuff. But no, it’s not that kind of pageant. It’s not that kind of world. It’s a more pared-down situation, more about survival and access than anything.
AVC: The film takes place in Fort Worth, Texas. Did you do any kind of accent work when you were building this character?
NB: I went down a little bit early, maybe a week and a half? I asked [to do that] initially when I got the script because Channing—this is about her neighborhood. This is about her community, and the people who raised and inspired her. And so she made it very clear that she was very specific about wanting to bring that to life, and that I would be acting with nonprofessional actors and there would be locals that would be working with. I didn’t want to stand out like a sore thumb.
So I asked for some dialect tapes while I was in New York, and then came down a little early and worked at the bar that my character runs. It’s not like I was working working. I was there for, like, a day, just kind of taking it in and seeing what everybody does and hanging out. But it was important actually go down there, because on the tape you can hear the differences [in the way people speak], but you have to see the way people move their faces and their jaw, you know what I mean? The way that someone’s machinery works is a big part of how we communicate, too. There were some things that I heard, and then when I saw it, I was like, “oh, that’s how they’re doing it with their jaw.”
AVC: I know you weren’t working there working there, but I just want to follow up—when you were at the bar that’s in the film, did everybody know, “oh, this is the actress who’s coming to town to be in a movie”? Or did you try to do it undercover?
NB: Well, I had somebody there with me from the film, one of the producers. So a few people knew—like the owner, obviously. And some of the waitresses knew because I was behind the bar and they’re like, “why is this lady here?” But I don’t think the people that were in the bar knew what was what was going on. I’ve actually worked as a hostess, and as as a waiter back in the day, so I was shadowing. It was day one shadowing where the person shows you the ropes, l, “now you pour the coke, now you do this. What do you say here?” kind of thing. And so I just put my head down and did everything that she told me to do. And it was it was actually a lot of fun.
AVC: You mentioned that for the director, Channing Godfrey Peoples, this was the neighborhood that she grew up in. Were you shooting on location for most of the film?
NB: For all of it. We were shooting in Fort Worth, and most of the locations are local, even sometimes family- and friend- owned businesses.
AVC: Did that inform how you played the character, seeing the way people move and talk and things like that?
NB: Absolutely. Being in that environment is extremely supportive. It gives you the permission to disappear even more, I think. And also [you have] an obligation to—I don’t want to say fade in, but to blend in so you match.
AVC: What was your onset relationship like with Alexis Chikaeze, who plays Turquoise’s daughter Kai?
NB: She was a dream. She was such a dream. At first I was a little nervous, because I knew I was going to be in in almost every frame of this bad boy. We had another actress [playing Kai], and then she pulled out. I was already in Texas [at that point], and I read with a few young actresses who came in, and Alexis was one of them. She was just so terrific. Of course, a little nervous and excited, but very competent and playful. I hoped it would be her. And then when they said that it was her, it was my goal henceforth to just make it as fluid as possible, and just make it second nature to be together.
So in the same way that Turquoise wanted her daughter Kai to succeed, I also wanted Alexis to succeed. She’s a first time actress, it’s her first time being in a movie. She made a terrific debut. She’s so focused. Your first time in a movie, you’re just trying to figure out where to stand/ Where’s my mark? How do I get there without looking down at the tape?” Stuff like that. Little technical things. And you just try to make it easy. It was one of the joys of [the production], seeing her grow exponentially. And I’m proud to be part of it. I’m sure the world is going to see more from her. She’s in college now, and I’m sure she’ll she’ll come out and take over.
AVC: Life imitating art.
NB: It was actually a huge gift, because being in the sorority of actors or actresses—it’s a very peculiar lifestyle. One of the funny things was that she was like, “oh, this is not what I thought it would be like.” People think it’s very glamorous. You’re in Texas, working in the middle of the night. Mosquitoes are getting you and you got to pretend like they’re not. She’s like, “it’s hot! My hair!” And I’m like, yeah, this it part of it.” It’s a very particular life.
And so it’s kind of fun to share that with someone else, and [watch] someone see all the ins and outs of it for the first time, but also fall in love with it. I think I saw her realize that this is what she wanted to do.
AVC: One thing that I really like about this film—and I think it speaks to your performance in particular, but also to all the actors in the film—is that it does deal with conflict, but it’s not overplayed. I thought that it was very realistic in the way that the the relationships played out. Was that something that you were going for in the performance?
NB: I mean, this is how this person would do it, right? Based on the environment and the people that I was around and the way she was written, this is how she would do it. It’s not like it’s my, the actress’, way of doing it. If I were playing a different character, I might play the scenes completely differently.
But, yeah, this is this person, you know? She’s very minimal about communication, and relying on other people in many ways. There’s no big grand monologue or soliloquy about my pain or my dreams—none of that really happens. It’s all in the activity, and even sometimes in the physicality. The touch, and the proximity to other people, and things like that. Those are the only things that I could think of that I was conscious about, the choreography of movement. When she’s more on the gas and when she’s observing. But I definitely wasn’t like, “I’m going to underplay this.” That’s who she is.
AVC: The physicality you were talking about, that’s super interesting. Is there any particular example of that that you can think of?
NB: There’s a scene where Turquoise is signing Kai up for the pageant, and she’s back in her old stomping ground with all the fancy ladies, and there’s like her shoulders are slightly lifted. You can just feel that there’s an air [about her], an uncomfortable way she’s carrying herself versus when she’s at the bar, or when she’s alone with [her estranged husband] Ronnie in bed, or in the kitchen. There’s just a different way of carrying yourself. A lot of it, I think, would manifest in the shoulders. Also, I had on those cowboy boots because I sprained my ankle at a certain point— [laughs]
AVC: Oh my god! I thought that was just a Texas thing!
NB: I mean, there are people that wear cowboy boots. But that particular look was not the way we were going initially. And then it was like, “okay, well, we have to do this.” It was an option in our fittings, but then it turned into a necessity, because I had to wear either a brace or some sort of wrap. And so I ended up wearing the cowboy boots a great deal, or those ugly little black socks. People are like “what’s going on? Why does she have on those black socks?” Because we’re trying to hide my ankle brace! So that sort of affected it, you know. I don’t feel like I slowed down or anything like that, but it slightly affected the pace for me.
But what’s funny is, Channing likes a much slower pace. There were actually some scenes where I was speaking kind of fast, or I was cleaning up the kitchen quickly, because I’m used to either TV or not being the lead! You [get] used to driving things, like, “let’s get it done.” And she’d always be like, “can you slow it down a little?” And I’m thinking in my head, “when you cut this movie together, it’s going to take forever!” But you go with it. And I realized that that’s just a part of her aesthetic, providing a kind of spaciousness for characters that are underrepresented.