Every September, Torontonians eagerly wait for the arrival of TIFF and its noteworthy films and spectacular talent. This year, TIFF mounted over 336 films through a range of genres and early releases. It’s my favourite time of year. Not only are stars brought in from all over the world, the festival is special in that it is a great place for new and emerging talent to shine in. Some are right from our own backyard. Ronnie Rowe Jr. is a Toronto native who is hot on our radar. He stars in his first feature film Black Cop, which premiered at TIFF, a spectacular feat for someone new to film.
I caught Ronnie Rowe Jr. on his way to a fitting for a TV show in Toronto that he can’t quite talk about yet, but something tells me that Black Cop won’t be the last we see of this talented individual.
Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in acting?
Ronnie Rowe Jr.: I was actually forced into acting funny enough, because of a grade six teacher. He was really into musical theatre so he forced all the grade sixes to audition for these plays. One of them was Oliver Twist, another one was Greece, and another one was the Sound of Music. Through this opportunity, that’s when I fell in love with acting. I got to play Danny Zuko, so I might have been the first black Danny Zucko. I got to play Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, I was the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.
I thought it was amazing that I could remember the lines. It never felt like I was memorizing.
K: Did it feel like second nature to you?
RRJ: Yeah, I thought it was so much fun and the most fun I’ve had. I got to be free and do it in front of people and they enjoyed it.
The lights really helped. I got nervous at one point, and thought, “oh, I can’t even see anybody.”
K: What has it been like building your career in the Toronto film and theatre scene?
RRJ: I just came off a theatre tour with Soulpepper, we remounted Kim’s Convenience. We got to go Off Broadway because of it.
I started doing independent theatre about five or six years ago with Unit 102. Through that, more people in the theatre scene started to see me. I got invited to audition for Tarragon, which I booked, but funding fell through.
I did a play with Obsidian Theatre and over at Theatre Passe Muraille and from that, I got to tour Canada with Kim’s Convenience. I got to tour Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, and Off Broadway all this year. It’s been a great year so far.
K: You’ve hit all the major Toronto theatre venues.
RRJ: I love theatre so much. Every time I come off of a theatre run I become this different tool. You get to work the same material for so long and you can’t get bored with it, you have to become fascinated with it, dig deeper, find more things and keep it fresh. It’s a great teacher for me.
K: Do you feel as though it builds a different skill set as opposed to preparing for a film scene?
RRJ: I feel as though it sharpens my actor because of the repetitions. Anytime I’m doing a theatre run I’m always working that material. You discover so many things. The more you say something, the more it comes to life. I love the process of theatre because it’s pretty long.
I think film is like that as well. You get to draw out certain aspects, and you’re trying to find these within the character and the themes. Those processes feel very similar to me.
K: Does one feel more like home than the other?
RRJ: I feel very comfortable in both theatre and film, and I love them both for different reasons. With theatre, it’s the immediacy, and the intimacy. With film, it’s that it’s so character and story driven. It’s about those moments and that’s where the similarity lies. These moments are so key in theatre and in film.
It’s the same with TV, but I feel as though you get to flush out a bit more with those two mediums.
K: It’s nice to have that immediate connection with your audience through theatre.
RRJ: There’s nothing like it. Whenever there is that first joke in a play, to kind of catch the audience within that state of performance is amazing. Then, you just dance with it for the rest o it.
K: So you’ve been a natural since the beginning?
RRJ: It just really makes me happy, being up there and expressive and vulnerable… I love it because it’s so scary.
I found that within the journey of self-discovery and trying to find out who you are, I always needed art to be part of what I do, whether it’s poetry or acting, I need to be artistically expressive.
K: Do you write poetry as well? Did you start as a kid?
RRJ: I do. I’ve been doing it for awhile but it’s just now that I’ve started sharing my pieces more.
K: Do you remember the first time you showed someone a poem?
RRJ: For sure. I’m pretty sure it was a female.
It’s always nice to get feedback and when people resonate with what you’re saying. Just like with acting or any other form of expression.
K: What is it like to have a film premiering in TIFF?
RRJ: I haven’t seen the film in its entirety yet, so the premier will be the first time I’m actually seeing it. It’s a weird thing, where I’m going to be judging myself…
I’m from Toronto and to have my first feature film premier at home. It’s pretty epic. I have such a great support base and family and friends that are so excited to see the film. I get to experience this first thing with them. It’s pretty awesome.
K: Tell us about Black Cop. How did this collaboration first begin?
RRJ: The movie is a satire/drama. It’s a man’s struggle between his duty and who he is as an individual. Through every day life, he experiences profiling, or being profiled by a police officer and it sets him over the edge to take things into his own hands and set out on a path of revenge.
K: What were your first thoughts on the script?
RRJ: I’ve worked with Cory Bowles (director) before on one of his short films called Free Throw. That was four years ago, and he always told me that we were going to work together again. Last year, I get a call and he says he has a script that he wants me to look at.
I read it and thought that it was dangerous. He asked me to come in and tape and to show the producers what I could do. Then they said they wanted me to do the damn thing.
We filmed it in twelve shooting days on a micro budget. I’m really happy with the things I’ve seen based on what we had to work with. It’s pretty amazing.
It’s a dream come true. Most actors I know want to be a lead, but a lead in a feature film and one that has life, a real story behind it. For it to be premiered at home… I couldn’t have wrote it any better.
K: How does it feel to be a leading man?
RRJ: It feels fantastic. It’s something that I was always capable of being and now I’m thankful for the opportunity to showcase that and for other people to see what I already believed.
K: What can Black Cop tell its audiences, especially considering the current political climate around the world and issues around profiling?
RRJ: I feel as though it’s a very timely film. I don’t know if it’s necessarily going to tell you something, but what it does is allow you to observe a different perspective. A perspective that I’m sure that not everybody considers. Based on how things go down, you know that not everybody is considered, or else things would be different if they did.
This film will start conversations and open up conversations that you may have not started before.
K: Black Cop reveals its protagonist as “calculatingly taking control of terror rather than submitting to it.” Is that part of the revenge story you were talking about? What does this mean for your role?
RRJ: Definitely. It means that he begins to profile the profiler. We have heard or seen things through social media, and some of these things may be what you encounter with this gentleman, because he’s heard it. He’s thinking, “let’s see how it feels when you go through it.”
It may promote empathy. It’s easier to sympathize with something, when you see someone like you go through it. The film gives you this opportunity.