“I grabbed Damien at a party and told him I really liked his films and that I hoped we’d do something together one day.”
When actor André Holland first met director Damien Chazelle, they were on opposing teams during a long, pre-Oscars press campaign – travelling the globe in support of two films that will forever be linked in movie folklore.
Holland was one of the lead actors in Moonlight, giving a stunning performance in a film that set out as a small, arthouse indie and became a critical and commercial hit that changed ideas around cinema forever with its elegiac exploration of black masculinities.
Chazelle, meanwhile, had reinvented and reinvigorated the movie musical with surprise box office bonanza La La Land.
A mix-up over the 2017 Best Picture award – won by Moonlight, but only after the cast and crew of La La Land had taken the stage after the wrong winner was announced by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – meant their participation in that year’s Oscars would never be forgotten.
Luckily, Chazelle held no grudges for missing out on the top gong. He called Holland a year later about The Eddy, a new Netflix series that, one could just about argue, combines aspects of both films.
Not only is it set around a jazz club and the lives of musicians, but it also looks hard at complex relationships and interpersonal dynamics rarely seen on screen.
All these notes combined into sweet, if challenging, music for Holland, who stars as previously successful US jazz pianist Elliot Udo who uprooted to Paris to open a jazz club on the ‘wrong’ side of the Périphérique.
“The character is dealing with an enormous amount of trauma which you find out as the series goes on,” Holland says.
“And he is trying to navigate that relationship with his daughter, Amanda, which was really attractive to me. I hadn’t really seen a film or series that dealt with a black father and a black daughter quite in the same way.
“And the story presented challenges like having to learn French in a very short amount of time, and also learn the piano. It was a big hill to climb.”
The series oozes class, having been created via a collaboration between Chazelle, Alan Poul (Six Feet Under, Tales of the City), screenwriter extraordinaire Jack Thorne and songwriter Glen Ballard (who has worked with Michael Jackson, Alanis Morissette, Ringo Starr and B*witched!).
After one establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower, to confirm the series is set in Paris, the action moves quickly off the tourist trail.
“My experience of Paris prior to doing the show was the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Couer and all the sites people take pictures of and put on Instagram,” says Holland. “I discovered a whole other side of the city. The one we don’t see in the movies, that includes really working class blue collar neighbourhoods.”
The series shows a discordant city, with clear division along lines of wealth and race. As with Moonlight, the chance to shine on important issues was vital for Holland, who confirms that social politics are a key driver in the roles he chooses.
“I don’t ever want to do anything that diminishes my culture in any way,” he says. “That’s hugely important to me.
“When I was growing up and started getting access to cinema and the theatre, I didn’t see myself reflected back in the way I wanted to be. I know black people. I love black people. And I want the images I put out to be a celebration of that culture. That is always very much in the front of my mind when I’m choosing projects.
“If it doesn’t feel like something that I will be proud of, and that my family and my culture can point to and be proud of, then I don’t do it. That’s not to say they’re always gonna be good guys, right? Elliot isn’t a good guy. But the overall piece has to have a positive impact or something important to say.”
I’m an old school theatre creature, man. The day after the Oscar thing happened, I went right back to work
After Moonlight thrust him into the spotlight, Holland returned to his roots in theatre. He headed to London and the Globe Theatre, where he performed opposite Mark Rylance in Othello. It was, he says, one of the most special experiences of his life.
“I first came to London at 19 and lived there for a year when I was 21,” says Holland. “I discovered the Globe and fell in love with it. I would pay my five pounds, stand in the yard and watch whatever play they had multiple times.
“I’m an old school theatre creature, man. The day after the Oscar thing happened, I went right back to work. So to do a play with Mark Rylance who I adore was super thrilling. On the closing night, my mom and my dad came over from Alabama.
“They saw the show and at the end of the performance, Mark gave a beautiful speech and said wonderful things about the whole cast and me personally. I remember glancing up and seeing my father in the middle gallery wiping tears from his eyes. That to me was the best moment of all.”
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If The Eddy also serves to highlight the uncertain life of the working musician, it is, Holland concedes, one that any jobbing actor knows well.
“The difficulty in maintaining relationships, the sporadic schedule and the equally sporadic income? Yeah, they sort of mirror each other in that way,” he sighs.
“There is another part too, which is the way we work. Good actors start by listening. And when I spoke to the musicians on set, they said the exact same thing – most of their playing is about listening to what everyone else is doing and trying to find and create that balance. That was a really cool discovery.”
Holland has continued piano lessons since filming ended on series one (yes, there could be more). And his love for jazz has only deepened.
“When you have the anxiety of knowing you have to get up on stage in front of some world class musicians and play the piano, that’s a little scary,” he says.
“But it’s always my hands on screen. And some of the playing is me. Where it was a bit too complicated, Randy Kerber – one of the greatest piano players alive – played on top of what I was playing and made it sound better.
“I grew up with mostly soul music and R&B. So I love Frankie Beverly & Maze, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Eddie Kendricks, Curtis Mayfield. I always appreciated jazz but didn’t know a whole lot about it. I’m still learning. But they are in a relationship, right, the soul I grew up with and jazz music? It was cool to get to inhabit that world for a while.”
So if he was putting a band together from the key players in his career, who would Holland want as his musicians?
“Oh, man, I would have to put together an orchestra. So many people have been inspiring and helpful. Everybody from Barry Jenkins to Ava DuVernay and Steven Soderbergh.
“We’re doing something really difficult, often under extreme circumstances, so it’s important to be kind and generous and a team player. But trust is also really important. It allows you to go further when you’re working with someone who understands you and who is there to protect you and protect your performance. That allows you to be riskier.”
And where would Chazelle fit in?
“Oh, I really enjoyed working with him and watching him create this world. I really admire the amount of trust he has in the actors,” says Holland.
“It was really cool. A lot of the time he allowed us space to create the scenes on our own and improvise.”
Surely the only way to make a jazz-based series…