Boots Riley, Jharrel Jerome on Series, Dolls Pitch 5

Boots Riley didn’t set out to make I’m a Virgo as a television series. Even a year after releasing the show, which premiered to critical acclaim and received four Spirit Award nominations, he’s not entirely sold on the medium. “I’m just going to be honest for the other filmmakers out there: I’m not a TV person,” he says. “I feel a little bad making TV because it’s designed to keep people hanging on — I watch shows sometimes and get offended because I know they’re just trying to keep me going to the next episode.” 

But half a decade ago, when he was shopping around his idea for a follow-up project to his 2018 breakout film, Sorry to Bother You, Riley made a deep connection with Media Res founder Michael Ellenberg, before learning that he produces only for television. Riley acquiesced, and the concept — from the beginning, the logline was always “A 13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland” — started to grow, albeit in a very Boots Riley sort of way. The filmmaker wrote the pilot himself and brought on small-screen veteran Tze Chun (Gotham, Little America) to fill in his knowledge gaps and run the writers room, but he sought out less seasoned scribes as additional collaborators. “I think sometimes people come into this industry with all of this passion and ideas for something new, and then after they’ve been in TV for a while, that’s all been polished away,” explains Riley. 

I’m a Virgo became a seven-episode limited series, part bildungsroman, part newfangled superhero story, held together by biting commentary about racism, our country’s broken medical system, over-policing and more. It follows Cootie (the titular giant Virgo) as he steps out of his adoptive parents’ home at 19 for the first time to learn about the outside world; he falls in with a group of passionate young activists and falls in love for the first time, as the city struggles to understand the giant in its midst. It’s not based on Riley’s teen years, but he sets the show in a version of his hometown of Oakland while keeping both the year and the sense of reality purposefully vague.

By this point, Riley — whose prolific music career took off in the ’90s with The Coup, an activist hip-hop group he co-founded — already had made a name for himself as a certain kind of auteur: inventive, colorful and unapologetically provocative in his messaging. So while Hollywood was familiar with his work’s raison d’être, people weren’t enlightened about his ability to actually create a world with a 13-foot-tall protagonist among a cast of “regular”-size people, especially given that he insisted early on that the filmmaking be done practically, without the use of CGI. He quickly realized he would need to show, not tell — and that’s where the dolls came in.

Jharrel Jerome was in a quiet period when he received his first visit from the dolls. He’d already won an Emmy for his work in the 2019 Netflix limited series When They See Us and was being slow and specific about his next moves; then the pandemic hit, and that pace ground to a halt. Out of nowhere, he received an email from Riley with the now-ubiquitous eight-word logline in the subject line and a request for a meeting. 

“We used the Scooby-Doo theory for the costumes,” says costume designer Deirdra Govan of Virgo’s wardrobe. “Cartoon characters never change their clothes, so we created a wardrobe that each character could repeat, and it would tell you about who they are and would hold visual interest throughout the series.”

Pete Lee/Prime Video

Four days later, Riley came to Jerome’s hotel with a briefcase full of figurines. He had a large figurine to represent Cootie, much smaller dolls for Cootie’s friends and family, and a miniature car, and he demonstrated on the hotel table — using his finger as a camera — how he was going to create the show. “When They See Us did a lot to me, mentally and emotionally, and took me to a place as an artist that I never thought I would get to, and I wanted to feel something similar,” says Jerome. “I wanted it to be something just like this, honestly. As soon as I heard it was going to be Lord of the Rings elf-style shooting and camerawork, it was a resounding yes.” 

On set, the dolls became supersized. The crafts team — led by production designer Maxwell Orgell and costume designer Deirdra Govan — created hyper-realistic puppets of Jerome in both full-size (13 feet) and half-size forms, in addition to miniature versions of the other characters, so that Riley could use forced perspective to create the illusion of size differences. They also built multiple versions of each set — one in which Jerome would appear very large and one in which his co-stars would appear very small, stitching the scenes together later in postproduction. “This job was literally a big math problem,” says Govan, who used drapes, sheets, blankets and a patchwork of T-shirts to replicate how Cootie would have had to build his wardrobe: “Everything was scaled just so; the puppet’s huge neckline is the [circumference] of an adult pair of jeans.” 

Jerome in an exterior shot in New Orleans (as Oakland).

Pete Lee/Prime Video

Before filming began, Orgell — who first built an entire range of mock sets to help Riley sell the practical effects to the executives at Prime Video — plotted out every single scene of the show, shot by shot, to make sure they had the correct combination of puppet, half-scale set and typically sized props prepared for every frame. “Normally in television, you build these worlds for them and then let them go play,” he says. “That’s not at all how this worked.”

The use of forced perspective meant that Jerome and his co-stars would never be shooting with the real versions of one another but rather the doll versions. “The first thing they teach you in acting school is eye contact, so when you’re on set and looking at a green X-mark and trying to flirt, it’s like, ‘Damn, this mark isn’t so pretty,’ ” he says with a laugh. At one point, the crew tried using an iPad to pipe in the performance of love interest Flora, played by Olivia Washington, from the next stage, but the lagging connection made it even harder to work with. “I don’t usually do this, but I drove Boots crazy because every time he said, ‘Cut,’ I was in his ear like, ‘Is this OK?’ ” says Jerome. “I felt very insecure this time around because of throwing out all my acting tools. At one point, he was like, ‘How about I’ll tell you when it’s not right?’ ”

Jerome as Cootie, pictured bench-pressing a car alongside his new friends Scat (Allius Barnes), Felix (Brett Gray) and Jones (Kara Young).

Pete Lee/Prime Video

Riley handpicked seasoned actors Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo to play Cootie’s parents and Walton Goggins to take on The Hero, an Oakland billionaire who acts as a vigilante. But when it came to casting Flora — a fast-food employee with superspeed powers with whom Cootie falls in love at first sight — he put out a casting call for new(-ish) talent despite the complexities of the filming technique. Washington, an as-yet-unknown actor, stopped everyone in their tracks. “Her audition made Flora seem like she had an invisible cigarette in her hand, and I was like, ‘How come I don’t know this person?’ ” says Riley. “It was only afterward that I looked her up and realized: ‘That’s Denzel’s daughter.’ ”

Washington, who is set to star alongside Kit Harington in the West End adaptation of Slave Play, credits Riley’s off-set tactics for allowing the actors to thrive within the unconventional setup. The creator rented a house with a private pool for the duration of the production and on every day off had the team over to swim, eat and watch movies. He also pushed for collaboration at every turn; he brought Washington the storyboards for the show’s 13-minute-long sex scene to gauge her comfort level before she was even officially cast, and he was constantly open to feedback. “I have a crass example,” Washington says. “There’s a scene where they’re having an argument and Flora’s original line was ‘I like your balls,’ and I told him I think as a girl, I’d say something else,” she recalls with a laugh. “So I said, ‘I like your balls, they’re fun to play with, but I don’t like smelling them from here.’ ” 

From left: castmembers Barnes, Britni Camacho, Jerome, Gray and Young.

Pete Lee/Prime Video

There is, of course, an element of irony to Virgo’s anti-capitalist messaging and its characters’ monologues about the need for the working class to rise up against the rich and powerful when the show is produced by a streaming platform owned by the billionaire (and decidedly anti-union) Jeff Bezos. But Riley says the studio didn’t stand in the way of his creative freedom, and he’s quite pragmatic when it comes to the realities of the Hollywood system. “There are probably upper echelons of any company that would give this show a quick glance and not really get what it’s doing, but I’ll say that there are many executives in Hollywood that agree with my politics,” he says. “We all think everybody else is the system and that we are not. We’d all rather there be a different system, but capitalism is made of a bunch of people who feel they’re doing the best they can. People at Amazon know who they’re working for, but people also have to get jobs where they can.”

Where the production did struggle was the budget. They shot the series in New Orleans instead of Oakland in an attempt to capitalize on tax credits, but found that its growing popularity as a location shot up costs of everything else. Shortly before principal photography began, Riley was forced to cut about 40 to 60 percent of the script — including a big action scene in the finale. He fought to keep the time-lapse flashback sequence of Flora’s childhood, agreeing to shoot it in two hours — they found two sets of twins to play Flora’s parents to save time on wardrobe changes. 

Washington points to this scene as an example of Riley’s commitment to his actors. “As a woman, it’s so easy to get pinned into playing certain parts — and even though Flora is ‘the girlfriend,’ she has a whole life and story that’s separate from him,” she says. “Having her own superpower feels significant, too. I have learning disabilities, and her backstory of learning to deal with her powers felt like growing up with learning disabilities. That was my in.”

When I’m a Virgo premiered in June 2023, Riley had been on strike as part of the WGA for two months and was already one of the union’s most vocal members. The actors were mere weeks away from their own work stoppage and were already uncomfortable with being seen promoting a project for a struck company. The turmoil in the industry served as a real-life extrapolation of the show’s themes but also added a layer of complexity to the release. 

“The Hero’s costume was manufactured by a studio in L.A.,” says Govan of the armor that Walton Goggins wore as an Oakland billionaire who acts as a vigilante. “They took my designs, and then I watched over FaceTime as they poured the molds so that I could approve it in real time.”

Pete Lee/Prime Video

“I’m not going to be saying anything controversial, even to Amazon, if I say there wasn’t a big marketing spend on this show and that is not what we went into it understanding,” says Riley. “So there are a lot of people who know and love Sorry to Bother You but don’t know this is my show — and would watch it if they knew.”

While Jerome stayed mum about the series, he did look at his fair share of reviews. “Seeing that 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and that critics were impressed by the creativity of the show, that made me smile because it’s exactly what we wanted,” he says. “We didn’t need this to be the next Stranger Things. It’s a passion project. You want the right people to see it and think it’s nice.” 

“Anytime you’re looking at Jharrel and he’s touching the ceiling, that portion is built in half-scale,” explains production designer Maxwell Orgell, who built multiple versions of each set, ones in which Jerome appears very large and others in which the actors opposite him appear very small. The scenes were stitched together in postproduction.

Pete Lee/Prime Video

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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