If you’re anything like me, you recently binge-watched Netflix’s 10-episode coming-of-age story, On My Block. The show follows a group of nerdy high-school freshmen growing up in South Central Los Angeles, as they navigate the pains of adolescent self-discovery while trying to protect a friend who unwillingly gets pulled into a familial history of gang violence. In a lot of ways, it’s a classic take on the awkwardness of teenage life. The rewarding twist, though, is that it’s set within a community whose narratives are often told in reductive, dehumanizing ways.
One of the show’s main characters is a heartwarmingly earnest black boy named Jamal Turner. Played by Brett Gray, he is the sassy ball of energy who steals the show with slapstick skills and impeccable comedic timing. Gray, a 21-year-old actor and musician from Philadelphia, attributes the success of the series to showrunner Lauren Iungerich’s vision, but also to the immediate chemistry among the actors. "Listen, when I put on 'One Wish' by Ray J, they know the lyrics," he said, laughing, in a phone call. In our fun, wide-ranging conversation, we spoke to him about being a part of On My Block, his beginnings as an actor, and venturing into music.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your beginnings.
I am from Philadelphia, born and raised on the playground…[laughs]. I started [acting] when I was 6, I was in a play in school. I was shy as a kid so I didn't really have a lot of friends and stuff, but when I did the play, everyone was like, "Oh my god, Brett, you're funny!" Then I got all these friends and so I told my mom that I wanted to be an actor. I think it was the next weekend, she took me to the New Freedom Theatre [ in Philadelphia, PA].
I did my first professional show when I was seven, at the Academy of Music. You could not tell me that I was not the lead of the show. That was really the beginning of it all, just having the experience of going to class and working on something and then doing it every night in a show for the first time ever. It completely transformed my life and I'll never forget it.
How did you come across the role for On My Block?
I was actually doing in a musical in the Hamptons [at the time]. I got a call from my agent and she was like, "Hey, there's this part, it's everything you could dream about. It's all people of color, it's representation, it's about kids growing up south central L.A., it's a comedy..." I'd never done a comedy before. I was like, "I would love to try this."
So she had me send in a tape from the Hamptons. The day my show ended, they flew me to L.A. for the chemistry read; I think I came home, packed my bag and went straight to the airport. At the chemistry read, it was so much fun, everybody there was awesome, but I was sure I wasn't going to get it. I was thinking, Nope, they don't like me enough, they weren't really calling me in too much. Maybe they saw something in the tape that I just didn't bring today. A week later, they called me and were like, "Hey, you're Jamal."
How did it feel playing Jamal?
Playing Jamal was actually kinda difficult. Because it was my first comedy, I didn't know how to balance the drama and comedy of the show fully yet; thank God we had the direction of Lauren Iungerich — our showrunner, who also directed the first two episodes and the last two episodes — to sort of help us and say, "OK guys, this scene needs to be bigger, and this moments needs to be louder, and this moment needs to be more wacky." She really helped guide us, and then you know, by episodes four and five we found our footing.
I think the hardest part was just this being my first comedy and also Jamal is pretty hyperactive and he does crazy neurotic things, which sometimes it just feels uncomfortable to do when there's like 40 dudes around you with cameras and you have to like eat egg salad sandwiches and makes noises, it's crazy. But it was so much fun and I think I played the best character because I got to do all the fun stuff.
Were there any things about Jamal that you could relate to?
Yes, he's obsessed with his friends almost to the point where it could be a negative thing. It's an addiction, really. I'm so addicted to my friends; I would rather do nothing and be with them all day. I think Jamal is the same way, and I think that he goes to a little further extent that I would, but definitely we share the feelings of loving our friends and wanting to be appreciated and being happy and fooling around and getting through stuff. Other than that, I don't think that me and Jamal are that much alike. Everybody says we are, I mean I have my moments where I'm like crazy and loud and stuff, but I'm usually chillin' and working on stuff and playing around.
In the show, the relationship between the group of friends is so close that it almost seems like that they're related in some way. What did it take for y'all to develop that chemistry?
Sierra [Capri] who plays Monse, Jason [Genao] who plays Ruby, and I are all from the East Coast, so when we all found out we got the part, we had to move to L.A. so we all moved in together. We moved into an Airbnb and we stayed there almost the whole time we filmed. We had no choice but to become a family; we were on set 14 hours a day and then going straight home in the same Uber, sharing the same one bathroom for almost the entirety of the three-month shoot. So we sort of had to become a family.
Everyone would come over and we would all run lines before the scenes we had to film and it was so much fun. When we'd get a new script — they wouldn't let us always have all of the scripts just so we wouldn't know what would happen — so when we finally got a new one, we'd all order a pizza and come to our Airbnb and all run the lines as our characters. I'm so thankful that we all get along so well and that we all love each other so much. We all talk everyday, we FaceTime all the time.
I think becoming real friends and being open to each other really helped the connection in the show too. Also that we're all people of color because usually you're the only person of color in something you do so there's sort of a wall up, not intentionally or negatively but you have to figure out how traverse your way into things. I think because we were all from the East Coast and were all people of color we sort of just clicked and bonded, and we got to talk about things that were a little heavier and a little deeper and a little controversial. It definitely helped us all build a bond more quickly.
How did it feel coming into a set with characters all of color for the first time?
This is the most "home" I've ever felt in a project. Everyone's our age, we're all people of color, and we all get along and relate to the same things. Listen, when I put on "One Wish" by Ray J, they know the lyrics [laughs].
In the show, it seemed like Jamal took the whole RollerWorld story a lot more serious than the other characters. And at the end, when it seemed like it wasn't actually real, it looked like Jamal was super hurt about it. Apart from saving Cesar, why was that mission so important to him?
It's easy to look at Jamal as just the comic relief who just finds the money at the end, but I really think that he's also a story of someone who doesn't know who he is and who he can be. I think over the season, RollerWorld keeps him on track and focused and I think through it he builds a confidence that he didn't have before.
When everybody gives up on him, I think he realizes that sometimes you have to just pull up your britches and go out there and do it. He went from the first episode, hiding behind Monse when a cholo or something was around, to the last episode — going to the hospital and threatening and smacking Chivo [Emilio Rivera] , and going to his place at night by himself and finding the money. I think he finds so much confidence and I think that for the first time he has to rely on himself. He secured the bag [laughs].
To me, Jamal was very book-smart, super kind, and at times pretty naïve. Why does every friend group need a Jamal?
Because Jamal will teach the others lessons about themselves, and next time they won't sleep on him. He's someone who can make you laugh in a moment of fear or anger or hurt, someone who can take an idea and give you a new perspective.
“I think there’s a misconception about the “hood.” People sometimes expect to see a show where all the characters are always angry or upset because of their circumstance.” —Brett Gray
There are moments like random gunshots, or the story Ruby told about getting robbed while trick or treating throughout the show that paints the surroundings that the characters are raised in. They were still able to even make jokes about it and not let it get in the way of their growth. Why is that important to show?
I think there's a misconception about the "hood." People sometimes expect to see a show where all the characters are always angry or upset because of their circumstance. I know personally when I was growing up, it wasn't about that at all. We knew it was dangerous outside, we know what time to come in the house, we knew where we did and didn't walk, who and who not to hang around — we sort of knew our neighborhood.
But on Halloween, we weren't in our houses trying to say, "Oh my gosh we're gonna get shot or jumped." We were trying to figure out how to get some candy too! If that meant getting somebody to give us a ride, if that meant hopping on the bus, it was whatever it was to still sort of live the life that we felt should have been to able to be normal. If you're injured and you get a massage and someone massages the problem out — I think what On My Block does such a good job of is balancing the comedy and realness and massaging the problem of the neighborhood in the way that we handle things. With TV sometimes people forget that the problem doesn't have to always in your face.
How'd you feel about the ending of the season?
So we didn't get the script for episode 10 until the week before we shot it, we didn't know what was going on the entire nine episodes we shot for the last three months. I was worried, I was like, "Do I have a job next season or not?" I think that the ending was so powerful. I do remember sort of growing up and knowing that at any moment [life] could get way more real than it had been previously. I think it's the perfect way to show that it's a comedy and these are smart kids that are going through things, and it's about, angst, love, drama, and high school, but also, at any moment in time, shit can get real.
Do you have any on-set stories to share?
We'd cut up every day. We was just laughing at everything, cursing each other out, we would do anything and everything. Eating all the food, we had so much fun. Actually, the entire creative team had just as much fun with us, but there were two or three moments where they were like, "Alright guys, we gotta get it together."
There's one story: we were doing the Halloween episode, it was 4 o'clock in the morning at Toluca Lake — it was freezing. I'm in nothing but a hospital gown and shorts, Diego is wearing a toga, we all have egg all over us because we just filmed the scene where we got egged. Ruby looks over to Jamal and says, "Hey could you get a Lyft," or something like that, and Jason and I were debating about who was the better actor about something in some movie, I don't even remember what it was but I just remember being like, "You know what? in this scene, I'm gonna kill him." So I did the line, and I did this neck roll/eye roll and said, "Lyft is only for emergencies" and Jason fell on the floor. We literally did thirty takes of that scene because we could not stop laughing, we could not get it together.
What's next for you?
I have an EP dropping on my birthday August 7th called Easy Days. It's a sonic retelling of my first heartbreak story. At first, my idea was like, "This is gonna be my ode to Usher," because that music and Confessions was sort of what I grew up on. I really wanted to something with the sound of the early 2000s and late '90s. So it sort of sonically sounds like my childhood, but it's sort of refreshed in a way that's 2018. I'm so excited about it, I'm still finishing up songs and they're coming out crazier than I could have expected. It's very organic.
Has music always been a passion of yours?
On My Block is the first project in maybe five or six years that I didn't have to sing. I always sing in everything, I come from musical theater, I've always wanted to make my own music. I do covers with my friends for fun all the time, but like a year go I was with my friend Lauren and she was like, "Hey, you should make your own music" because we were at the studio and I was just singing different things and was like, ok, why not? It's sort of all very new to me but it's been very trained and it actually goes very hand-in-hand with acting. I actually think On My Block is influencing some of the sounds that I wanna use and some of the material that I'm talking about too, so it's sort of like art is hitting life and life is hitting art.