Name: Jay Will
Sundance project: The young actor stars in “Rob Peace” as the titular role. The film is directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and adapted from Jeff Hobbs’ book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.”
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Notable past projects: Taylor Sheridan’s crime drama “Tulsa King.” He graduated in the Group 50 drama class at Juilliard.
For Jay Will, the highlight of his first Sundance Film Festival was getting to take it all in: the interviews and press, the parties, the joy of sharing independent film with a live audience.
“The highlight for me is seeing the work that I put in reflected back to me through people’s opinions about the film,” says Will. “Going to the film tomorrow is going to be a good opportunity to get those live reactions.”
The film, which marks Will’s first movie and first onscreen leading role, premiered at the festival on Monday. The film is adapted from a biography written by Peace’s roommate at Yale University, where he studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry and graduated with honors in 2002. Several years later, back living in his hometown of Newark, N.J., Peace was murdered in a drug-related shooting.
“While reading the script I’m like, ‘I know this guy. I know who this is. I know what it means to have a specific loyalty to my family, no matter what the cost is,’” says Will of the story’s resonance. “He’s a real human being that could be any one of us. And I really wanted to honor that.”
Peace’s mother and family were in Park City for the premiere, and Will was particularly excited to share the final film with them. Before signing on for the role, Will reached out to Peace’s family to seek their blessing, and met them at their home in East Orange, N.J.
“I’ll never forget that day,” says Will. “I knocked on that door, I walked in and I sat on his couch that he grew up with. I saw his bedroom that he walked in every day. The real house,” he adds. “And I sat across from his mom and I looked her in the eyes and I said, ‘I understand that this might be a very sensitive thing right now and doing this movie might be a lot…but I want you to know that I have your best interest in telling the truth and memorializing the life of your son.’”
Will credits his director and costar Ejiofor for giving him the room to explore and deepen his portrayal, rooted in sincerity. “Chiwetel took my acting to the next level, because it got so specific, just bringing it back to the truth,” he says, also praising fellow costars Mary J. Blige and Camilla Cabello.
Ahead of the festival, Will screened the film for a small group of drama students at Juilliard, his alma mater. “It was a full-circle moment to go back to the studio where I first started to craft my art as an actor,” he says. “It was a really surreal moment. I kept it cool, I played it cool, but when I got home I had a little tear in my eye thinking about it.”
Also a rapper and musician, Will is looking forward to working on his first album this spring back home in New York. “I write it all, mix it, master it, make the beats, everything,” he says. “I’ve been curating a specific sound for my music for two years in private. And I think now it’s time to go ahead and give it away.”
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