‘Till’ Star Tosin Cole: From Larking About In The ‘House Party’ Reboot To Portraying A Civil Rights Legend

Tosin Cole was larking about on the set of the Warner Bros  House Party reboot in Los Angeles when an email dropped from casting director Kim Coleman (BlacKkKlansman) about Emmett Till’s story.

“I was like, ‘I’m filming for months non stop, I want to go home,’ ” he recalls thinking. “They wanted me to go for Medgar Evers, and I was like, ‘I don’t know who that is. Let me think about it.’ “

His agent brought him up short telling him, “No, you got to do it. At least send a tape.”

“I was like, ‘I’m doing night shifts in LA. I don’t know when I’ll have time,’ ” he worried.

That’s when Barbara Broccoli, an executive producer of UAR’s Till, zinged him a message saying, “We’d love to have you on board, if you can.”

That missive sharpened Cole’s mind. 

Besides overseeing the James Bond universe with Michael G. Wilson, Broccoli’s active in theater and independent film production. She supported Debbie Tucker Green’s play Ear for Eye when it played London’s Royal Court Theatre starring Lashana Lynch (No Time To Die) and Cole. They also appeared in the screen version produced by Fiona Lampty, now director of UK features at Netflix, of which Broccoli was an executive producer.

“Barbara had obviously put in a good word for me … And then, I did the research about who Medgar Evers was, this giant of the civil rights movement, and I was just like, ‘Ah, sh*t. I don’t know, man,’ ” says Cole, recalling the moment over breakfast at the Dean Street branch of Soho House in London.   

“And then, obviously, I did the tape. The offer came through. And then it was like, ‘All right, cool. We want you in Mississippi in like two days after you finish wrapping House Party.’ But I was nervous because I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t know how important he was. So, when you’re doing your research and then you’re finding about who he was and how people were talking about him. And you’re going into the history of who he is as a man.”

He had little time to shake loose of Damon, the party promoter wannabe he plays in House Party whose actual day job is working for a  home-cleaning service in Los Angeles with Kevin, played by Jacob Latimore (Detroit).

“Then I started getting worried. I was like, ‘Ah, did I do enough preparation? I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to lack.’ I didn’t want them to go, ‘Why did they cast this guy?’  But yeah, I had to just dive in, man.”

Till director Chinonye Chukwu, along with Keith Beauchamp, an Emmett Till scholar and a producer on the film, sent him reams of research. “But I think the Medgar Evers conversation, that really helped me a lot, and what really kind of just gave me the confidence to go on was with Myrlie Evers, Medgar’s widow,” he says, in a state of awe as he mentions her name.

Myrlie Evers, now 90, figures prominently in the history of the long struggle for civil rights.

There’s a poignant scene in Till involving Myrlie Evers (Jayme Lawson) and award season breakthrough Danielle Deadwyler as Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley where the two women seem to foreshadow Medgar Evers death. 

However, his mission that day in 1955 was to guard Till-Mobley.

Some sixty-eight years later, Evers related the same conversation to Cole. “She was like,”Medgar saw it as a mission, to just protect her like it was like his sister,” he says.

“She’s getting on but she’s quite active, she’s funny as hell though. Remembers everything quite sharp,” he says fondly of Myrlie.

“When she talked about Medgar, she’s still very direct, present, she didn’t miss a beat. She was like, ‘I still love him to this day.’ And every time I used to ask her a question she was like, ‘He was like this, he was like that.’ Told me he was prepared to die for the cause, every day.”

DEADLINE: Myrlie Evers passed some history directly to you.

TOSIN COLE: Remarkable woman. To hear history from her directly. I asked her a question then like boom, she answered the question with all this extraordinary insight, then obviously I started getting deeper and deeper: Did he always feel like he was going to die?

She was like “Yeah, he treated it like he was going to war everyday.” And that’s how I felt going on set. This is my mission and I’m ready to die protecting. This is the general [Till-Mobley] here, we’ve got to protect the general by any means by any cause, I’m ready to die behind it. It was that energy. 

DEADLINE: It’s very strange history, isn’t it really? Because the character you’re portraying doesn’t know at that moment he’s making history, there has to be an unawareness, tricky to pull off, but you do.

COLE: Well, the hardest thing is to do as I look at it is: How do you show determination without having to do anything? It’s easier to do a speech or actions.

DEADLINE: How did it make you feel, portraying Medgar Evers?

COLE: It made me appreciative of the people that came before us. It made me so appreciative of people who were fighting for us and just taking all the arrows for us. Like, they’ve got a back full of arrows just to protect us. And that’s how you see it. It’s like a group full of people taking arrows and look at their backs, there’s scars and stuff like that. And we’re like the little kids in the front being sheltered almost.

And it’s just really understanding how much time has changed and understand how different time was 60-70 years  ago.

I think people forget how different it was back then. It makes you appreciate others and then when you hear about someone who was fighting for our rights and was a part of the movement. You should just respect their journey. It’s like you’ve got a whole different utmost respect for them and appreciation for what they did.

DEADLINE: I still can’t comprehend that until recently the Senate and the House were still debating whether to make lynching illegal.

COLE: Last year, like April, March last year. How does that even make sense?

What about that is a discussion?

No matter how much society has progressed and moved forward, it makes you kind of scared about some of the people that are still alive [who supported lynching]. They’re still around, man. So, how many more years, and how many more generations does it take in order for that to be eradicated? We’ve still got a long way, man. But I’m saying, how long will it take for them, for that ideology of that generation… There’s still like another two, three generations who kind of still agree with those things, and believe in those ideologies … It’s like another 200 years maybe.

DEADLINE: Thank God that law has been enacted but stuff still goes on,right?

COLE: You know what the black experience is like. For me personally, until this is a thing that we don’t have to keep on discussing and … And I think we’re changing, but I don’t think it’s fully changed. I don’t think we’ve fully gotten what we have. Black is still labelled Black. There’s Black theater and Black this and that. I don’t think things are fully changed. But this is what we’re pushing for. 

DEADLINE: Talk to me about working with marvellous Danielle Deadwyler?  

COLE:  I used to check up on her. Try and make her laugh, try and encourage her to have some rest, like make sure you go on holiday after this, and decompress and get everything out of your system because what she put into that, it was inspiring to see someone so locked in, so prepared, so ready to go the mile, ready to go the distance, to tell someone else’s story. It meant so much to the world basically it meant so much to the movement; that kick started everything.

You only tip your hat and smile and be proud. It was inspiring. The world should definitely see it just for her performance alone and what we were talking about before.

DEADLINE: I need to ask you about House Party. I know the Reginald Hudlin 1990 original. Is it updated? 

COLE: Really and truly, it didn’t need to be called House Party. It’s like it’s own thing. Obviously we still pay homage to that. But I would say it’s a reboot, or a continuation in a sense. [We’re interrupted by Maria, our server who offers a discount on the tab Deadline’s picking up because Tosin, also a member, is under a certain age. Deadline sings a chorus of Maria from West Side Story to Maria in appreciation. It is definitely early in the morning].

So it’s a continuation. I’m not ‘Kid’ [Christopher Reid], I’m not ‘Play’ [Christopher Martin] from the 1990s movie. I play Damon, and Jacob Latimore plays Kevin.

It’s set in LA. It’s two friends. Their main jobs are cleaners. They’re party promotors on the side and my character’s gotten fired from every single thing because there’s always trouble. 

DEADLINE: When the original came out Black filmmakers were few and far between.

COLE: I feel like now there’s an influx of them, its good because we get the culture and the cultural nuances. That’s what makes it connect, those little nuances.

The little things, because if you take care of the little things it helps build up the bigger things. And those are the things that I’m quite particular about.

DEADLINE:  The little things are very important and we’ve seen that in the work you’ve done with Chinonye Chukwu on Till, Calmatic with House Party and Debbie Tucker Green who wrote and directed Ear for Eye. I saw a point you made a while back about working with Peter Moffat on 61st Street, who is white, and the importance of collaboration.

COLE: It was a collaboration, but one of the things … Obviously I was like, because he was the show runner and was going to be heavily involved in getting the pieces right, and that’s what drew me to that project as well. Obviously, Peter’s very collaborative and if he has an idea that he’s strong about, he’s strong about that. But also he was making sure that I had a voice in that, making sure that it was a collaborative experience.

It’s like me saying I want to write a show about a higher upper class Bridgerton, or upper class Victorian lifestyles and I got a idea, and there might be a nuance that I’m missing, there might be a nuance that I’ve never experienced in my personal life. And someone’s explaining to me, “This is how it would go,” and I’m like “No forget that.” I might be missing a trick there because I’ve never experienced that so I have to listen and be like: Allright cool, how do I learn about that? If you’re writing outside of any other culture then you have to explore it, and listen. You got to take the people who are living and breathing it and they know about it, that’s their day to day.

DEADLINE: Right now you’re collaborating with Rapman on the Supacell series for Netflix. I love his confidence. 

COLE:  He worked to gain that confidence. That’s the confidence that’s allowing him to believe in the stuff and in what he’s going to do, and execute what he’s going to do.

And I remember I used to think like that, but then it got beaten out of me.

DEADLINEWho beat it out of you?

COLE:  Social and industry, and maybe people who didn’t believe in themselves the way I believe in myself. Even though I didn’t care what they said, but sometimes, osmosis, still seeps through, because you’re around that and it seeps through, and then you start to take on their ideologies and their way of things. Then it’s like, no, man, f*ck that. I’m going to push through, and I believe I’m going to go here and do this, and this is how I believe. Like, no, I’m me. I’m me, and I’m going here. 

DEADLINE: OK, I love this. Are your parents, family West African? I know about that “I’m going here” stuff.  

COLE: Yeah, my parents are Nigerian. Yeah. [He’s was born in Florida, raised in New York and his family moved to London was 8 or 9.]

Yeah, I want to do what I want to do and how I want to do it. I’m not here to pacify your thing, I’m here to get comfortable with what I’m doing. You don’t like it, you got to respect it. Do you know what I mean? And it’s like that’s how we should push forward, because other people are allowed to do it and they don’t get no stick for it. So why is it when we do it …

DEADLINEWe need superpowers. In Supacell you play an ordinary man living in southeast London who gains some kind of superpower. What’s the power? 

COLE: [Laughs] I can’t say. Go watch it, man.

But I can say I’m playing Michael. I bring everyone [the others with powers] together to help me try and stop this thing from happening. My fiancée is going to die, and I need them to help me to stop her from dying, basically. Adelayo Adedayo plays my fiancée, she’s really good. Good friend of mine as well. We worked together a long time ago.

We did Gone Too Far  [directed by Destiny Ekaragha, written by Bola Agbaje]. It was my first film.

DEADLINE: I remember that film so well.

COLE: That was like 10 years ago. I just turned 20. We were at the BFI Film Festival but I never did much on it. I don’t do a lot of press. I go away and do some work and just keep plugging away, even now I don’t do much press. 

DEADLINE: Why?  

COLE: I don’t know, man. It’s like I got fear of success almost. And it’s almost a fear of saying the wrong thing. I feel like now we’re in an era, you say the wrong thing or you don’t believe in the public opinion, in a sense … it’s just about navigating it and understanding, all right, cool. Sometimes you just got to see how it’s going before you step out. Don’t rush in full-heartedly.

But I want people to know about my work, and not be a secret because I feel like I have been.

But I feel like it’s still shifting, and I feel like I got to start getting used to it now, the press and stuff, so I’m comfortable doing it and I know what I want and don’t want to do. I made a conscious decision to come out of my shell a little bit more.

DEADLINEI thought there’d be much more about you out there. A quiet Nigerian is is a rare thing?

 COLE: I was in Doctor Who for two years [as Jodie Whittacker’s TARDIS companion Ryan Sinclair] and I made a conscious decision to be like, hey, they’re not going to label me that because I know I want to do much more after. And I’m grateful for the journey, but I’m not pressed to be famous, to be like, here I am. I want to be known as me, like I’ve done this and that. And then you’ve been along my journey, so then it’s like, oh, that’s the Doctor Who guy! I don’t want to be known as that. Or, that’s the guy from ….

DEADLINE: I get it. You’re Tosin Cole and you want to be known as Tosin Cole and not defined by a role, right?

COLE: Yeah. It’s like, that’s Tosin Cole, man. Like, I can’t wait to see his next project or see this movie. I always say it to Dan [Daniel Kaluuya]. I remember I was with Dan and I was like, you’re not just the Get Out guy no more, you’re Daniel Kaluuya now, you’re a movie star now. That’s what I’m working toward. Like, you’re going to go see a Denzel Washington movie. You’re going to go see that Leonardo DiCaprio movie. You may not even know what the movie’s called, but you know that they’re in it. That’s where I’m working toward, with a name that’s strong enough where you know who it is and what they’ve done and what they’re going to do. Even if their name’s attached to it, you’re going to go because their name’s attached to it. That’s what I’m working towards.

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