Jeremy O. Harris Wants to Match the Internet’s Freak

With an experimental new documentary about his Tony-nominated Slave Play, the multihyphenate goes deep on process.

Jeremy O. Harris
Courtesy of HBO

There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way into Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play., a new documentary from HBO, in which the playwright Jeremy O. Harris sits at a desk with a video editor, looking at a computer monitor and editing footage. At the same time, a screen on the wall above them plays a scene of a conversation the two had just seconds before. The result is a highly meta moment where we, the audience, watch Harris watching himself—which is also, in broad strokes, the premise of the entire film.

Slave Play (the movie), which premiered this year at Tribeca and will stream June 20 on Max, is Harris’s experimental take on Slave Play (the play), which received 12 Emmy nominations for its 2019-2020 Broadway run, and made a star of its creator. As the provocative—and, at times, controversial—show debuts at London’s Noël Coward Theatre on the West End this month, Harris uses this documentary to revisit its impact and the process that led to its creation. To do so, the Yale alum enlisted a group of acting students to complete a taped reading of Slave Play’s script. As the group progresses through each scene, Harris gives notes and feedback, sharing insight into the meaning and inspiration behind each line, character description, and stage direction.

O. Harris in a scene from the documentary

Photograph by courtesy of HBO

Since Slave Play’s breakthrough run (which saw Rihanna sitting front row,) Harris has become a cultural figure himself, making his mark on seemingly every medium—whether that’s entertaining his Instagram following with his kaleidoscopic “Coronavirus Mixtapes” series, starting a writer’s residency with Gucci, making a cameo on Gossip Girl, or adapting a viral Twitter thread into 2021’s Zola. The 35-year-old is currently one of the producers behind the Off-Broadway production Invasive Species, and tells W that his Emily in Paris character, Gregory, will indeed return for Netflix’s fourth season of the series later this summer. (When asked about the long-awaited return of Euphoria, on which he is also a producer, he defers to HBO CEO Casey Bloys.) “I’m polyamorous,” he says over Zoom one recent June morning. “I want to make films, TV shows, docs, everything, while still making a lot of theater. I’m trying to match Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s freak. He made, like, 40 movies before he was 35.”

Why did you feel that now was the right time to make this documentary?

This was less about Slave Play and more about learning a new form. And also, sharing with future generations a type of theater ephemera that we don’t see very much anymore. There used to be these amazing videos of Uta Hagen with her acting students. Inside the Actors Studio was something I grew up watching. Even those amazing docs, like the D.A. Pennebaker Company doc, don’t happen as often.

You mentioned a Portrait of Jason in the film—were there any other documentaries you had in mind while making this?

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was a huge one for me. Michael Almereyda did a lot of great artist docs that are really beautiful and simple. Camille Billops is a queen for me. When I was on the Sundance jury, The Square creator Karim Amer and Alexander Nanau, who made the Oscar-nominated doc Collective, were bemoaning the fact that documentary filmmaking had stopped being cinema and had become relegated to infographic journalism. They were saying, “Make sure you are meeting this like an author. Make sure you’re meeting this like a filmmaker.”

What are you hoping for or expecting from the London audience?

The audience I am most excited by is me. As Charli XCX says, in the perfect track, ‘Club Classics’: ‘When I go to the club, I want to listen to me.’ I know I’m going to get a kick out of listening to my words with a lot of Brits around me.

There’s an interlude in the film where you show how your Internet use affects your writing process. Why was it important for you to include that detail?

The girls have to know that my process is ADHD down. It is 75,000 tabs open at all times, computer constantly out of hard drive space, out of memory, constantly having to do that clean to get 2 percent more RAM because you’ve used every browser wrong. That’s the truth. And when you do a documentary, you shouldn’t hide. You have to be naked.

The Coronavirus Mixtapes—how do you decide what makes the cut, and do you think you’ll ever stop doing them?

When they finally find the cure for Long COVID, that’s when the Coronavirus Mixtapes will stop. What makes the cut is whatever I hit save on. There’s no true rhyme or reason to it. We’re a hundred years out from the 1920s, I think it’s okay for Dada to come back.

Let’s get into the Social Q’s questions. What were your early social media experiences?

I was on AIM and MySpace. I was on Tumblr a lot. My name on AIM was JamesProngs101 because I loved Harry Potter. I was really big into Live Journal. I was a Xanga boy. Any place I could really express my freak and find people to match it, I was there. I really cry about the fact that I was a Neopets billionaire. The Sims kind of knocked Neopets out.

Do you look in the DMs request folder on Instagram?

I do, mainly because I found out that Missy Elliott had messaged me and I had missed it. And when Nicole Richie mentioned me in a story, I didn’t know that it had happened. I should have already been following Nicole Richie—that was on me. So now I check it almost daily.

Do you ever unplug and take breaks?

I try to. When I write, I have to put my phone away and turn on airplane mode. Although sometimes, I do write on TikTok Live. When I do that, I feel if I fail at getting something down, the kids will see and they’ll be like, “Oh, writing’s impossible.” So I’m like, “No, I can do it for the kids.”

What is your favorite platform at the moment?

The minute you’re about to get any level of celebrity, someone should be like, “Sorry, it’s illegal for you to have Twitter now.” It’s so bad to have that many people able to comment on you in really vile ways. That being said, I think that because I’m a wordsmith, I can’t lie about the fact that Twitter—I will never call it that other name—will still have a chokehold on me.

Are you offended if someone blocks you?

I am offended when people block me. The only time I ever get upset is when someone is being ungenerous in a representation of a moment that was real, and using the platform they have to fully lie on the Internet in a negative way about me or any of the work I’ve done. That makes me feel crazy. If someone gives a really funny read, only an uninteresting gay person would be offended by that. I would like to think that people know that I’m an interesting gay person, so I don’t mind if you read me a little bit. It’s funny.