Hot Actor: ￼￼Jason Mitchell
"Jonathan banks wouldn't say 'nigger' to my face," says Jason Mitchell, laughing. The 30-year-old actor is referring to a scene in Mudbound, the upcoming period drama about two Southern families – one black, one white – in the 1940s. At one point, Mitchell's character, a World War II veteran, refuses to leave a shop by the back door after being confronted by racists – including Banks. It turns out the Breaking Bad star was less than comfortable using the n-word on set. "I told him, 'I'm ready to kick this scene's ass!'" Mitchell recalls. "I gave him permission because it's like, I gotta kick this up a whole other notch. Say it, and we'll hug it out afterwards!" Banks gave in, and Mitchell's reaction runs the scale from sorrow to rage. Mission accomplished.
Mudbound, which got a standing ovation at Sundance, could establish Mitchell as
the closest thing to this generation's Denzel Washington. It also caps off what's been a two-year-long streak for the New Orleans native, from nabbing the part of Eazy-E in the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton ("I thought, if I fuck this up, it's 'Don't bother coming back to L.A.,'" he jokes) to a series of supporting roles in movies like Keanu, Kong: Skull Island and Detroit.
Mudbound director Dee Rees saw him in Compton and told her producers she had to have him. "He has a wisdom, a kind of behind-the-eyes quietude and a calm bravery on-screen," she says. "When it was time for the doorway showdown, most actors would've gotten flustered. Jason moved through it with such grace and aplomb. He's the real deal."
The result is generating Oscar buzz for Mitchell, who's already got more than enough work lined up for the next year – including a new Showtime series, The Chi, about life in Chicago's South Side; a guys-weekend movie; and a drama about a prison inmate working with horses. "You know, my grandfather fought in the Korean War [not World War II], but Mudbound is really his story," Mitchell says. "He's 87, he's been through some shit, and he's never seen his life onscreen before. So the fact that I may get to walk down a red carpet with him and show him his story two generations later …" He tears up for a second. "That's why I do this." D.F.