JaQwan J. Kelly of ‘The Post’ talks about his journey as a young Black actor
There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a Black man strive for excellence in a world that was built to work against him.
Kelly is no stranger to the camera and playing the pivotal role of security guard Frank Wills in The Post has been a major debut that the actor has been striving towards.
In an in-person interview with Kulture Hub, Kelly told us about the road he took to snag the part, his off-screen endeavors, and the motivators that kept his vision laser-focused on transforming his fantasy into reality.
We’re taught to never judge a book by its cover because you never know what the contents of a person’s interior may hold. But, with Kelly when he walked into our offices, prior to our interview, he gave off a certain aura that I couldn’t help but pick up.
His vibe was strong and he projected a sort of young wisdom. We commenced our 40-minute conversation and I was anxious to pick his brain.
Kelly and I discussed the reason why he gravitated towards acting, his mother, who has clearly had a massive impact on her son.
As a child, Kelly needed different modes of expression in order to combat the mental stress of watching his mother battle breast cancer while his father was away battling another kind of combatant in the US Army.
He expressed to me how acting helped fight off anxiety and how it was a means to find himself at a young age. Kelly said,
“When I was younger my dad was serving in the army fighting in Iraq and my mother was battling breast cancer. She would tell me there would be days when I came home at four years old and I would see her sick with her hair falling out because of chemotherapy and I would just pray for her. I don’t even remember that, but that was a part of my childhood. My mother would tell me she wanted to put me in something that would take my mind off of what our situation was and what our family life was like at home. She put me in something that would act as an outlet for that, allowing me to find different modes of expression…”
“I was a kid but I know that she sensed that I had a lot of fear, anger, and anxiety at a young age. Who wouldn’t with that type of situation going on? It was just a means for me to express myself and delve into something different.”
His mother definitely went against the grain, creating a different lane for him to cope with his mental health during that time.
Kelly’s mother getting her son involved in the arts was interesting to me because throughout my life I’ve seen many Black parents, including mine, place their sons in a physical activity, hiding behind the stereotypical Black bravado of sports.
“That bravado is a falsehood because we’re human at the end of the day,” said Kelly. Getting to know the different possibilities of human behavior through acting is what really aided him in gaining the mental strength he needed to push through difficult times.
His mother’s choice was very important to Kelly as he now spends his spare time giving back to the youth. He teaches theater and spoken word and coaches young Black and Latino children at Boys to Mentors.
When asking his pupils ‘What they want to be when they grow up?’ Most say they want to be a basketball player, a baseball player, or a football player. For him, this is not impossible as long as they put the work in, but he enjoys “exposing them to different avenues that they can consider.”
As a boy, he never had anyone that looked like him and told him that he could be an actor. Kelly was lucky enough to have the support of his family to guide him to where he thought he was destined to be. He also emulated Mr. Teacher, an instructor at the Harlem School of the Arts, who inspired him to be the actor he is today.
A lot of kids aren’t as lucky to have this sort of guidance and support. Kelly thinks that maybe he could be that spark to ignite these kids to shoot their shot and go for their dreams.
He told us,
“When you see somebody succeeding at something you don’t know how that can affect you. I don’t how it can affect them in a positive way and I don’t know what kind of spark can ignite them to go for what they want or to shoot for their dreams. So, I just try to use my platform to motivate, to inspire, and to encourage even if that’s through my field as an actor. If I can encourage anyone to work hard or to be the next LeBron James then I feel like my job is done.”
Kelly uses the cool ass commercial he did with Russell Westbrook as a motivator. Although he wasn’t a filthy basketball player he still was able to meet one of the best. As Kelly says in the commercial, “It’s all about getting wins.”
Although he’s humble about it, the Footlocker and Jordan commercial was his “holy shit” moment.
The whole auditioning process was brolic as hell. Especially after he saw the list of 30 other actors that were selected for the tryout. He explained how tough it is to make it as an actor and the importance of keeping confidence in a cut-throat industry. Kelly told me,
“I was like damn I’m not going to get this… When you’re in an audition room it’s really tough to be an actor. You need mental strength to really succeed in this industry. Not only do you feel like you’re battling against directors, you feel like you’re battling against the competition. Sometimes it can get the best of you… I kind of had those thoughts but I didn’t let it permeate.”
After pushing the whole audition to the back of his mind, because he never thought he nailed the part, Kelly’s manager hit him up while he was at work and told him he got it. The commercial allowed him to quit his job as a waiter and focus on his final student project while still attending SUNY Purchase.
Moving forward, Kelly now stands on the cliff of success and he’s ready to jump. His character, Frank Wills, in The Post is small but the most “insignificant, significant” part.
Frank Wills is the security guard who alerted the police of a possible break-in at the Watergate complex and whose actions led to the discovery of the Watergate Scandal and ultimately the resignation of President Nixon.
After four-plus years of hustling in his craft, Kelly was able to make it, giving hope to young actors wanting to get in his lane. He learned mostly through failure and to him, “you don’t have to be an elite or god type person to have a dream and just go for it.”
Kelly has stayed humble throughout this period by taking pride in the little milestones, being grateful for everything he’s accomplished to this point, and holding on to the dream. His goals have kept him striving. He told us,
“We don’t think in reality. If we all thought in reality we would all be dead. It’s our fantasies, it’s our dreams that keep us living. That’s why we wake up in the morning. That’s why we get dressed every day. That’s why we go outside. It’s all because of the dreams that we have… “
Kelly wants to push this same attitude onto aspiring actors, actresses, and creatives out there in the world that are doubting themselves. He said that the youth need to “focus on being great at what you do and the rest will follow… and to leave enough room for happiness.”
Truthful and inspiring words from a very wise young soul. Bless up and stay fly!