Rising acclaimed actormust have been born under a lucky star. The young actor literally had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time and it scored him the role of a lifetime — a chance to work in the new film DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. Having won awards at both Sundance and the Palm Springs Film Festival, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE offers a satirical look the life of four young black students at an Ivy League school who take affront to the school hosting an African American themed party; and Justin portrays a young white man swept up in the events due to his personal relationship with one of the girls affected.
In a recent exclusive interview Justin Dobies talked about this amazing opportunity to work on his first feature film and how much fun he had working on DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.
How did you first hear about this film and what drew you to it?
JUSTIN: I had been doing almost exclusively classical theater in New York, but I did not have any representation at the time. So I had seen that DEAR WHITE PEOPLE was casting in New York and L.A., but had forgotten about it. Then later I was visiting my family in Minneapolis and I saw that it was still casting. So I walked into a commercial casting agency there and asked them if they would be interested in representing me for the couple weeks I was in Minnesota, and they put me up for the movie. So I auditioned on a Monday, then did a series of call backs each day, got the role on Thursday, and then was shooting the following Tuesday. It was the craziest. It was very much the “right place, right time” scenario. Thankfully, it was a project that was close to my heart and, as an actor coming right off the dramatic stage, I was really comfortable. So I was able to just hop right on that train.
How would you describe your character Gabe in the movie?
JUSTIN: Gabe is the secret lover of the main female protagonist Sam, who is played by Tessa Thompson. We see him primarily in scenes just with her. On one level, he is kind of an avatar for understanding and, hopefully, reconciliation among viewers. He is a force of understanding and he’s very much smitten too. We watch them navigate their relationship, which is very much a physical relationship to begin with.
Is Gabe falling in love or do we meet them in the midst of their relationship?
JUSTIN: We meet them in the midst of a hooking-up sort of situation. Sam is in it for different reasons than Gabe is.
This sounds like a very modern take on a relationship.
JUSTIN: (Laughs) To be honest, it is very representative of a lot of college relationships.
So is their relationship purely physical or are Sam and Gabe searching to get something out of the relationship?
JUSTIN: They are both definitely searching for something. They are both very physically attracted to each other, but Gabe also very much appreciates Sam’s mind and ideas. I think that is his major draw to her. She is someone he wants to get behind and support, and we only really see him in relation to her. In some sense, Gabe is Sam’s traditional movie “girlfriend.” So he is not just there to be a force of understanding and reconciliation, but to spurn her to be the best version of herself and the most true version of herself that she can be — which as the movie progresses feels muddled by the uproar on campus.
The film is called DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, which is very provocative. So there must be some kind of message it wants to convey. Is there something about Sam and Gabe’s relationship that the film is trying to highlight or explain?
JUSTIN: The title comes across very singular, like there is only one message to be portrayed. But so much of the film is an exploration of the multi-facets of identity in this very modern, digital era. So all the characters are navigating parts of their identity. To see these two people in a relationship that is safe and very loving, more so for one than the other which you will see as the movie goes on, was very exciting for me (both as an actor and as a viewer). Justin Simien, the writer and director, created this space for a dialogue in a loving relationship, which is a different conversation than you would have in a public square.
What was it like working with your co-star Tessa Thompson?
JUSTIN: Tessa was lovely to work with. She is someone who I consider a good friend now and someone who I relied on because this was my first feature film. I had a great time and felt very comfortable, but was always asking, “Is this normal? Should I do this?” She was great about that.
Was there anything that surprised you while working on the film?
JUSTIN: I had grown up making movies and I ran a theater company in college, so I was very comfortable with all the production elements, and while there might be different rules, in the end everyone is really there to make a great film. It was really a passion project for everyone involved and we were having fun. So it is not all that different than making films with your friends — everyone just wants to make something great.
How long were you working on the film?
JUSTIN: I actually came in late in the game. So we filmed for about 3 weeks and then at the end I did some work as a stunt coordinator. I was actually brought in as a fight coordinator for this frat party that kind of gets out of hand in the film, so that was for another day or two. It was so much fun getting to do that. It was great to be able to offer another creative outlet and something I knew would be great to add to the film.
What do you hope viewers will take away from DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
JUSTIN: The coolest thing that I have witnessed so far was the amount of conversation it has stirred. It doesn’t give you a simple answer. It offers so many perspectives from all these different people. It is about what each of our experience is of race in America and how that does, or does not, factor into our identity and how we choose to represent ourselves.
How has this film impacted your life and/or changed it in any way?
JUSTIN: It’s been very big. It’s been incredible. I have been lucky to work with these incredible people — artists who I really respect and who man of whom have become good friends. They have helped me with other cool opportunities and now I’m out in L.A., where I have been living on couches for about 5 months. Which is just a ridiculous experience of going to a premiere and having this awesome red carpet experience and then waking up the next morning eating black beans out of a can on a couch. (Laughs) So it’s a wonderful, laughable, dream-like experience of living with these two extremes.
To join the conversation and see Justin’s break out role, be sure to check out DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, which opens in theaters across the U.S. starting October 17th.
Justin Dobies on Twitter @JustinDobies