Jharrel Jerome is larger than ever — in real life and on screen. The 25-year-old actor stars in Prime Video’s surreal series “I’m a Virgo” as Cootie, an overgrown, 13-foot-tall sheltered teen living in Oakland, CA. It’s the first time Jerome has led a project since starring in award-winning titles like Oscar best picture “Moonlight” and Ava DuVernay’s true-life-inspired series “When They See Us,” making it his biggest role to date — and his biggest challenge. Really, everything about “I’m a Virgo” is big. Jerome is best known for his emotional performances in the aforementioned, the latter of which he tells POPSUGAR “was one of the hardest things I’ll ever do.” But “I’m a Virgo” — which, per Prime Video, follows Cootie as he “escapes to experience the beauty and contradictions of the real world” for the first time — was the ultimate acting test for him. The Boots Riley–directed series is actually what brought Jerome out of hiding after a nearly three-year hiatus.
“It’s coming from me wanting to challenge myself more than the last.”
“My team and I have been very meticulous and very picky with the projects we choose. And if you notice, it’s been a minute since I’ve been out and on the screen and that’s been very purposeful,” he explains of his role in “I’m a Virgo,” which hit Prime Video in full on June 23. “It wasn’t an accident. It’s coming from me wanting to challenge myself more than the last.”
Not only did the show test Jerome’s comedic skills and a myriad of other things, but he was also tasked with portraying a larger-than-life character, which he had some help with, of course — but not through CGI or special effects. The real secret to Jerome’s massive onscreen growth spurt? Forced perspective.
“It was a very technical process,” he says of the old Hollywood trick. “So on top of having to bring in authentic performance, choices, and energies, I had to also think of, ‘Well where do I stand? Where do I look at? I can’t move forward. I can’t move back.’ And so there was a lot of mental gymnastics going on. It wasn’t just that I got to show up, read some lines, and go. It required a lot of patience, so I learned a lot from that.”
Jerome isn’t alone in “I’m a Virgo.” He leads the ensemble cast with “On My Block”‘s Brett Gray, “Cruel Summer”‘s Allius Barnes, “Breaking” actor Olivia Washington, comedian Mike Epps, Tony nominee Kara Young, and acting veteran Carmen Ejogo. And like Jerome, the challenge and intrigue of “I’m a Virgo”‘s whimsical plot drew most of the cast to the project.
“I feel like the minute that I saw it announced in the media that this series was going to be about a 13-foot-tall Black man, way before I even got an audition for it, I was like, ‘Count me in,'” says Young, who plays Cootie’s community-activist-friend Jones. “Because I already knew that it was going to shake the structure of storytelling and really engage us in a way that we’ve never, ever leaned in or dived into before. I feel like this particular story, this message, the characters, and the spectrum of humanity within the characters, anybody can grab onto something that is true to them.”
“It’s deeply moving and exciting . . . lean-in TV.”
For Washington, who plays Cootie’s love interest Flora, seeing Riley’s name (best known for 2018’s “Sorry to Bother You”) attached to “I’m a Virgo” was enough to convince her of the potential. “Meeting Boots and reading these scripts, it really expanded the idea of what it means to be a partner of this larger-than-life man,” she says of her role. “It was a very attractive story to me because you really have to just be . . . I mean, it’s Boots Riley. He makes things so differently, and I love how his brain works. He’s not afraid to push things or try to create things differently. Overall, we might be sharing love or your ideologies, but how it’s presented, that’s so specific to him. That’s really what pulls us in to be able to stand up here and do his work.”
“I’m a Virgo”‘s description bills it as a “darkly-comedic fantastical coming-of-age joyride” that finds Jerome’s Cootie navigating friendships, love, awkward situations, and encounters with his idol, a superhero named The Hero (Walton Goggins). But the real meat of the seven-episode series is its deeply rich social commentary about Black communities in underserved neighborhoods, as well as its out-of-the-box way of examining society’s realities.
“Every time you’d open a script for a new episode on the show, your jaw would drop,” executive producer Michael Ellenberg says of why he onboarded the series. “There are ideas I’ve never seen before . . . It’s deeply moving and exciting . . . lean-in TV” — all courtesy of Riley’s world-building. This is exactly what charmed Ejogo into playing Cootie’s overprotective Aunt LaFrancine, too.
“I’m always attracted to projects that have some kind of either really obvious or sometimes really subtle social commentary happening,” she says. “And I think Boots, he is a real activist in the real world, and he brings that to the work that he makes every time. I actually agree with a lot of the way he thinks [about] and sees the world, so I was happy to align myself with what he does creatively in telling this story. As soon as you say 13-foot Black kid in Oakland, it’s impossible not to be able to imagine what that might look like.”
She continues, “It’s so visual. It’s such a strong idea that I knew that if he could just pull off half [of what] he was thinking, it was going to be worth being on the journey. Because there’s nothing more exciting for an artist, for an actor, than to do something that they’ve not done before.”
Each episode of “I’m a Virgo” pushes the envelope — from Cootie’s encounters with the literal white gaze to a plot-shifting character death that makes viewers take a hard look at America’s racial injustices. The cast felt the weight of those stories every step of the way.
“I felt it in waves,” says Barnes, who plays Cootie’s friend Scat, of his filming experience. “There was so much fun happening and I think it crept in at different times, especially, specifically, with Kara and Olivia’s storylines. Those were the ones that really made me go, ‘Oh wow, this is real.'”
Gray, who stars as another member of Cootie’s crew, Felix, echoes his costar’s sentiments, adding, “It came to me in waves as well. We’re having so much fun, we’re driving the car around, and then the next scene is something really real where it’s like, ‘Whoa, this kind of reminds me where I’m at and what we’re talking about.’ So I feel like it feels like life. It’s a balance of every day. You get it and then you kind of fall off and then you get it again.”
“I love that we are stretching what people think about where we exist in the space of art.”
Being part of a meaningful show like “I’m a Virgo,” Barnes says, has been “a dream come true.” And he knows it’s “going to be talked about for a long time.” “This is cementing something so new and different,” says Barnes. “I know there are other shows that are really changing the game right now, but this show specifically is something I’m going to look back on and always be so, so, so, grateful that I was there when it was happening, and I just so happened to be a part of it in the way that I was to the degree that I was.”
Ejogo calls the show “the smartest kind of television” in the sense that “it’s not scared to be political” or “completely out there”; it’s meant to make viewers reflect. “It’s like this weird mashup where you’re a little woozy by the end and then you realize, ‘Oh, I actually learned something,'” Ejogo notes, adding that she expects audiences to get “nuggets of gold throughout the whole show in terms of ideas and things to think about.”
The cast is most excited, though, for viewers to experience a new kind of fantasy tale with Black characters at the helm — where images of trauma, gang, or domestic violence aren’t the centerpiece. To them, “I’m a Virgo” feels like a vibrant “representation of what our culture is.”
“I love stuff where it’s like, I feel like we never get to see ourselves,” Gray says. “It’s super in this unserious world or this place that exists outside of reality. It’s almost kind of jarring to be like, ‘Oh, these are Black people. This should be more normal.’ But I love that we are stretching what people think about where we exist in the space of art . . . We’re all super weird and intelligent and innovative and rhythmic, and all these things I feel like are all of that is expressed in the show.”
“I’m a Virgo” is now streaming on Prime Video.