Moses Ingram Knows You Wanted to See More Jolene

Moses Ingram Knows You Wanted to See More Jolene

Voting is underway for the 73rd Primetime Emmys, and this week we’re talking to several first-time Emmy nominees. The awards will be presented Sept. 19 on CBS.

Moses Ingram realized how big “The Queen’s Gambit” was going to be when somebody tattooed her face on their body. Netflix released the series on Oct. 23, and by around November, a Brazilian man had sent Ingram a picture of his new tattoo.

“I mean, I know it’s not about me; it’s more about Jolene,” Ingram said. “But it’s still my face. So it was like, ‘I’m happy you’re happy with it?’”

Ingram plays Jolene, a rebellious teenager at the Methuen Home, an orphanage for girls, who becomes the closest childhood friend of the protagonist, Beth Harmon (played by, at different ages, Annabeth Kelly, Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy). The performance earned Ingram an Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a limited or anthology series or movie, her first nomination for a major award.

She said she was shocked when she got the call about the nomination. She wasn’t watching the Emmys announcement, nor did she know it was happening that day. She was just on her way to work.

Her reaction was perhaps best captured in her Instagram post from that day: a throwback photo of Ingram as a child, looking absolutely flabbergasted, with the caption, “They said I’m what 🤯.”

Ingram attended Baltimore School for the Arts, and class trips to local productions of plays like “A Raisin in the Sun” showed her that acting could be a career. After earning an associate degree at Baltimore City Community College, she attended Yale School of Drama. She auditioned for the role of Jolene fresh out of drama school.

While viewers were drawn to the character, many wanted more of her — and more nuanced story lines. Some critics viewed Jolene as veering “dangerously into ‘guardian angel’ and ‘magical Negro’ trope territory,” referring to Black characters whose only apparent purpose is to aid and enlighten white protagonists.

A monologue in the last episode seemed to anticipate this criticism. As Jolene offers to loan Beth the $3,000 she needs to travel to a chess tournament in Moscow, she explains: “I’m not your guardian angel. I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me. I’m here because you need me to be here. It’s what family does. That’s what we are.” But some viewers still saw a Black woman given too little screen time and not enough character development.

Ingram has stayed busy since the release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” scoring roles in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (debuting at the New York Film Festival this fall), the Michael Bay-directed action thriller “Ambulance” and the “Star Wars” mini-series “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Speaking on her way to the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” set in Los Angeles, Ingram discussed her first love, her first audition and her first major role. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You have said that plays like “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Hurt Village” made a strong impression on you in high school because they made “the hood beautiful.” Did they change your view of acting and drama?

Definitely, because I had never seen plays. It wasn’t something that was normal to me until I went to a school that made it a point for us to go and see live performances.

And up until that point, everything I had seen was white people. It was like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Tennessee Williams and all of those kinds of things. So seeing people that looked like me, just looking like they were just living onstage — I didn’t even know.

I mean, I knew I liked acting, but I didn’t really know it was a possibility until I was like: “Oh, people really do this! I could do this.”


July 13, 2021, 11:06 a.m. ET

How was the transition from Baltimore City Community College to Yale? Did you feel any impostor syndrome?

Absolutely. For the longest time, I walked around just sort of like, — I don’t know, I just felt like I had to work super hard. And I think I put more stress on myself than I needed to because I felt like I had to prove my worthiness of being there. Like, anything I was offered, I had to do because I had to be grateful.

So I spent a lot of time that first year — and second year, honestly — just very drained. Because I was pushing way harder than I needed to. But I also had fun, so it wasn’t all bad.

“The Queen’s Gambit” was your first audition after drama school. How did it feel to find success so quickly after such a hard road to get there?

I felt really blessed, and I felt really relieved. Obviously, I had no idea what the show was going to do. I was just really happy to have a job and to be working, and to get to go to Germany on top of all of that. It felt nice to not have to worry because I spent a lot of time worrying about going backward, back to where I was before. So it really freed my mind up some, for a little while.

The early part of the show is set in Kentucky, and Jolene has a very distinctive voice — literally and figuratively. Did you have any models or study anything to make it sound more authentic?

One of the main things our vocal coach wanted to push, at least for me, was opening up the vowels more. But it wasn’t something I had to think super hard about because my natural tendency draws south. So she just wanted to take it from south to west.

Unlike Beth, Jolene is played by the same actress from start to finish. What did you do to reflect her advancing age?

I think especially with young Jolene, it was more about the freedom: freedom of what you say and your mouth and how you think. Really just unrestricted. And then also freedom in the body, just loose.

Having no real structure, you’re hunching, you’re leaning, and you don’t really know what it’s like to be really in your body yet. So I think the main distinction going into adult Jolene was really solidly and firmly being in that body and confidently being woman.

Do you see any of yourself in Jolene?

If anything I probably see myself more in young Jolene. At least at a period in my life. Just sort of rough around the edges. And, like, even if your way of doing things does not seem like it’s the best way to other people, it’s like: “Well, it’s my way, and it’s working for me now, and I’m going to let it work until it doesn’t. And that’s going to have to be fine.” I think, at a point in time, I very much was that younger version. I think I’m still working toward older Jolene’s pizazz.

People have very mixed feelings about Jolene. You’ve acknowledged in previous interviews that she is a supporting character while also saying that we still need more stories where actors of color aren’t just supporting. Have you found that in any of the current projects you’ve been working on?

It’s hard for people to accept that Jolene is a supporting character, I think because she is Black. If Jolene was white, I do not think it would be as much of a talking point. I think because of the story that my skin tells, there just naturally has to be an extra layer of care around storytelling, and what certain things look like. Optics play a huge role because when I walk into things, there are just certain realities.

This is not me saying that supporting characters are not appropriate for people who look like me. That’s not what I’m saying. But the point — which with time I’ve been able to articulate better because I’ve been just watching that whole thing unfold — is that there has to be extra care around storytelling with Black bodies.

Since leaving drama school, it’s been one series or movie after another for you. Do you plan to return to theater at some point?

It’s absolutely my first love. And when I started, it was my only intention. It wasn’t until I got to school that I was like, “Oh, there are more” — I mean, obviously, I watched TV but my way in, before going to school, was theater.

So I love the theater. It’s my first home, and I hope to get back to it sooner than later. I don’t want to get too far away from it. I think I’ll get scared if I wait too long.

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