BEST PERFORMANCES

Danielle Deadwyler Takes on Her Biggest Role Yet

The Till star discusses finding light and balance while telling one of America’s darkest stories.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Jamie Hawkesworth
Styled by Sara Moonves

Danielle Deadwyler wears a Valentino gown; Assael necklace; stylist’s own gloves.
Danielle Deadwyler wears a Valentino gown; Assael necklace; stylist’s own gloves.

In the biographical drama Till Danielle Deadwyler plays Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered by white supremacists in 1955. Out of Till-Mobley’s bereavement and anger comes a determination to keep her son’s memory alive in order to combat racial prejudice. As the pivotal center of the moving film, Deadwyler delivers much of the role’s intensity with her eyes alone, conveying a devastating range of emotions with just a few facial expressions. After critically acclaimed turns in Station Eleven and The Harder They Fall, the Atlanta native is predicted to receive her first Oscar nomination for the Chinonye Chukwu-directed film.

How did Till come to you?

Till came into my life in 2021. I was working on a television show, and my reps sent me the script, and I submitted a self-tape. I did a bit of the courtroom scene where she is warning Emmett about going down South, and I did the Harlem Rally speech. Then we did a director session for the funeral home scene, where she witnesses his body and remembers his life. They called me and they said, “You can do it.” And then I said, “Yay!” And then I said, “Yay...responsibility.” [Laughs]

Did you try to stay in character throughout filming?

I did not. The weight of the material was always present, so it was imperative for us to counterbalance the great mother lode with levity. We were laughing all the time. I was singing gospel music, and I am not a gospel singer. We were playing jokes and just cracking on each other. It was really beautiful to have both, because Black life can’t exist without the balance. Whoopi was cracking jokes all the time, in between takes, and all that good stuff.

Do you ever get starstruck?

No. I see humanity. Stars also get lipstick on their teeth or get toilet tissue stuck on their shoes. Those little flaws are the things that bring you out of being starstruck. And they also give people a little more depth.

Danielle Deadwyler wears a Valentino gown; Assael necklace; stylist’s own gloves.

Were you a theatrical child?

Born and raised, born and bred, since I was like 2 years old. Dance was my first medium, which was a natural segue into theater and all of the other weird things that I’ve done. Theater has always been a part of my life.

Did you know that you wanted to be a performer?

Not in the least bit did I know I wanted to be a performer. It was like breathing. It’s just an aspect of your life that you have. But I always thought I was going to do something else, go into academia. And then I was going to get a doctorate. It didn’t pan out. Taught for two years, realized this is not it. Right after two years of teaching, I went straight into working. And it’s been a hard-core press ever since.

Hair for portfolio by Anthony Turner at Streeters; makeup for portfolio by Lucia Pica for Byredo at Art Partner. Senior style editor Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor Jenna Wojciechowski. Manicure for portfolio by Michelle Saunders. Set Design by Gille Mills at 11th House.

Produced by Connect the Dots; executive producer: Wes Olson; producer: Zack Higginbottom; production manager: Nicole Morra; photo assistants: Cecilia Byrne, Jack Buster, David Gurzhiev; retouching: Simon Thistle; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Tori López, Jacqueline Chen, India Reed, Nycole Sariol, Derek Ezra Brown, Karla Garcia, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Khari Cousins, Tchad Cousins, Kelsey Swope Romero, Mateo Calvo, Juan Calvo, Rayon Pollard, Gina York, Peter Ditzler, Nico Robledo; hair assistants: John Allan, Dylan Michael, Ramdasha Bikceem, Malika Palmer; makeup assistants: Kate O’Reilly, Lilly Pollan, Bailee Wolfson; manicure assistants: Pilar Lafargue and Victoria Valenzuela, Jolene Brodeur; set assistants: Cory Bailey, Dirk Knibbe, Joel Garcia, Matt Day; tailors: Irina Tshartaryan, Ripsime Vartanyan at Susie’s Custom Designs, Inc.