In the stylish remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic “Super Fly,” Jason Mitchell plays one of those gangster roles he’d been avoiding.
“I wasn’t going to pigeonhole myself,” the actor, raised in New Orleans, said last week by phone from Los Angeles. “But I’m always down for a new challenge. It all boils down to quality.”
Quality runs through Mitchell’s pre-“SuperFly” work, especially in the acclaimed dramas “Straight Outta Compton,” “Mudbound” and “Detroit.” And he showed his comic side in Jordan Peele’s and Keegan-Michael Key’s New Orleans-shot “Keanu.”
In the new “SuperFly,” Mitchell plays Eddie, right-hand man to Youngblood Priest. Trevor Jackson — the 21-year-old actor known for TV’s “Grown-ish” — co-stars as Priest, aka Superfly.
“Trevor, he’s amazing to work with,” Mitchell said. “And it’s a super fun movie.”
“SuperFly” moves the action from early ’70s Harlem to present-day Atlanta. Cocaine-dealing partners Priest and Eddie are living large until a hotheaded thug grows jealous of Priest.
“I don’t want to put myself in a cycle,” Mitchell said of the roles he chooses. “It’s a process I’m still going through, but I still want to do movies that move people. That’s really my thing.”
Mitchell’s portrayal of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” moved millions. That performance in the hit biopic about the revolutionary rap group N.W.A. also persuaded writer-director Dee Rees to cast him in “Mudbound.” Featuring Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson, a returning World War II veteran subjected to racial hatred in post-war Mississippi, “Mudbound” received four Academy Award nominations.
Acting took Mitchell from New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood to Hollywood. He lives in Atlanta, hub of Georgia’s thriving film and television industry, as well as Chicago, where he films his leading role in the Showtime series “The Chi.”
Now 31, Mitchell didn’t start acting until his early 20s. After dismissing college because he didn’t want heavy student-loan debt, Mitchell worked at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant and Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House and washed dishes at the Ritz-Carlton.
But when Mitchell and a friend heard a radio commercial for Jaqueline Fleming’s Jaq's Acting Studio, the friend suggested he give acting a try.
“At first, I was like, ‘All right, whatever. I’m just trying to find some new friends,’ ” Mitchell recalled. “And I wanted to go somewhere a couple of times a week for a few hours and be somebody else. But Jacqueline was like, ‘Something about you is really dope. You could be really, really good at this.’
“So, I went there, and I just loved it,” Mitchell said. “I used to have people crying in class. Because I wasn’t afraid to hit the gas and see how far it could go. A lot of people don’t want to lose themselves in that sort of turmoil. They’re like, ‘Jason, where do you find the pain?’ I’m like, ‘Honestly, my lights been off. And for five years straight, we didn’t get Christmas presents. We didn’t have time to cry about it then.’ ”
Mitchell made his film debut in 2011’s “Texas Killing Fields,” a Louisiana-shot crime drama starring Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He appeared with Mark Wahlberg in two New Orleans-filmed crime dramas, “Contraband” and “Broken City.”
“Mark Wahlberg really took a liking to me and the fact that I was just myself,” Mitchell said. “Because so many people, they act as if they know how you want them to act.”
Mitchell played his first significant supporting role in 2012’s “Dragon Eyes,” featuring Cung Le and Jean-Claude Van Damme. His confidence grew on the set of the action-crime drama filmed in Baton Rouge.
Connections — from Fleming to talent agent Tosha Smith Mills to casting director Meagan Lewis — put Mitchell in front of “Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray. Mitchell auditioned dozens of times for Lewis with no success. But when the principal role of Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton” came along, she thought it could be his.
Lewis sent Mitchell’s audition tape for the part to Los Angeles. An invitation for a callback audition in L.A. followed, but the $1,800 cost for Mitchell to fly to California was prohibitive for him. He ultimately won the role via a Skype audition.
Mitchell’s innate ability to act naturally and summon emotion impressed the “Straight Outta Compton” director.
“Often (new actors) come in and they act with a capital ‘A,’ ” Gray told The Los Angeles Times in 2015. “I like people who just serve the truth. Whether it’s high or low, whatever you would do naturally. He (Mitchell) had that natural instinct.”
“I’ve been getting crazy, crazy, crazy opportunities,” Mitchell said of his career. “But it’s not about what I did, it’s about what I’m going to do next. I just try to stay humble and keep God in my life. This was not my life a couple of years ago. It’s a blessing to be busy.”