LAFF Interview: Play the Devil Director Maria Govan and Stars Petrice Jones and Gareth Jenkins

Play the Devil was one film at the Los Angeles Film Festival that really made me feel like I was discovering a new world and new talent. Set in Trinidad, it was a region I’d never explored. Also new to me were both the cast, and the sort of characters one would find in Trinidad.

When writer/director Maria Govan was in Los Angeles with her stars Petrice Jones and Gareth Jenkins, I got to speak with them about making the film. Jones plays Gregroy, a young actor in Trinidad. Jenkins plays a theater fan who may be pushing Gregory into a relationship he’s not ready for.

How did you discover Trinidad and develop this film?

Maria Govan: So I met Abigail Hadeed who by profession is a photographer. She took me through the backroads, the underbelly of Trinidad. We saw bird whistling competitions, we saw the Jab, we saw all these different cultural elements and so on. The Jab really struck me the most. I kind of feel like the spirit of the place knocked on my attention and said, “Hey, this story wants to be told.” The Jab was really my entry into the film. It’s an amazing ritual that is a pre Lent ritual that is very Afro sort of Catholic, sort of this fusion of African and Christianity. The idea of it is that the villagers sort of allow the devil his or her dance and the idea is they pay The Devil in the hopes that The Devil will leave the village alone for the year. So it’s a cleansing and it really struck me because I find in the west we don’t acknowledge the shadow whatsoever. We’re so afraid of anything we deem negative. We’re so taught to avoid and construct lives without suffering. We work really hard to work away from our own suffering but the shadow is a big part of life. If we don’t embrace it, it actually can wreak havoc in our lives. That’s really the premise of the film for me. It’s really inspired by that metaphor.

Was the Jab dance well choreographed or more spontaneous?

Petrice Jones: Oh, it could not be more spontaneous. It literally couldn’t be more spontaneous. We didn’t know what was going to happen on set because they were real people who did The Jab and they performed it. I was lucky enough to land at the start of the festival and see The Jab on Carnival Monday which is probably one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. They were the same people that I watched go down the hill, the people I went down the hill with. They are doing what they want and they have lost it. They are not themselves. I don’t want to call it the devil within but it is someone else. If you say it’s the devil, it’s only the darkest bits and the bad bits. It’s sort of everything.

Maria Govan: It’s primal.

Petrice Jones: It’s under that shadow.

Gareth Jenkins: What’s interesting about it is it is very primal and very raw. In a way it then begins to feel coordinated even though on a conscious level it hasn’t been planned. I think when you start to dig really deeply, there are things which connect all of us and start coming out at times like that.

The dialogue every once in a while gets subtitled when they speak the language of Trinidad.

Gareth Jenkins: English.

Maria Govan: It’s jus a dialect.

So that’s just a dialect of English, and they really mix it up like that, sometimes very clear English and sometimes very specific to Trinidad?

Gareth Jenkins: Oh yeah. I think that’s driven by class, so what you see in the film is a fairly accurate representation of how people speak. Some are better educated, more close to the approximation of international English. Less so the more it starts drifting into Trinidad.

Petrice Jones: That was a big thing for me as well, obviously being English, having to not only learn the sort of very raw what you probably wouldn’t have understood in the film, the language that would’ve gone past your ear, getting that and then getting the side where James and Gregory are speaking to each other. In the Caribbean, who you speak to sort of defines how you speak. There was a huge difference, quite a vocal difference between how I would speak to Devin and how Greg would speak to James. It was difficult to make that switch and having to enunciate more but still sound like I’m Trinidadian. We spent a long time working on the accent.

Did you indicate the more dialect portions in the script, or was it up to the actors?

Maria Govan: I think it was a combination. I think I wrote it to some degree, and I allowed if there was a desire to embellish it. I feel like I was conscious of of it in the writing of it.

Petrice Jones: There was a lo of clarity in the script as well so it wasn’t like it was fuzzy about how things all went and when things should be say, in what type of way. It was kind of you knew when you’re up in the hills of Paramin, you can hear it. And you know when you’re on the rich side of Trinidad in James’ house because you can hear it with his family and you can hear the difference there. There’s always a huge juxtaposition. There’s all these beautiful, amazing houses right opposite some of the most impoverished parts of Trinidad. It’s kind of ironic I guess.

Is there a film industry in Trinidad or is this a first?

Maria Govan: What I would love to say is that Trinidad is really trying hard to support a film industry. What they’re doing that’s unlike a lot of other places in the Caribbean is they’ve actually given support to indigenous voices as opposed to just developing a location destination. They offer a 35% rebate on Trinidadian spend to anybody, but we were given really significant support by the government. We were one of three films selected, so there’ll be two other films coming out of Trinidad this year really. Yeah, there’s a lot of amazing, amazing talent. Our crew was incredible. We made this film for very little money truthfully. Considering what we got, we had an extraordinary bunch of people. So yeah, I want to say they have a very thriving [industry]. I think the Caribbean in general, there’s an emergence of voices coming out of the region that I think you’ll start to feel in the next few years. That’s my hope because it’s a pretty disparate region, right? We’re separated by all this water and we don’t know each other and teach country has its own identity and the world sort of puts of in this cliche of beaches and blah di blah. There’s so much more to the region. It’s got an amazingly rich history so it’s exciting.

How did each of you land the roles? Were they tough auditions?

Petrice Jones: I’d just come out of a very long audition process for another project. So I know what it was like to go through long, strenuous audition processes. Then I read this script. I think my first audition I hadn’t read the script, had I? I don’t think you had sent the script out at first. My first audition was a self tape and Maria immediately got back to my agent. We talked on Skype for a while. She said, “I love what you did. I’d like to send you some more scenes with some more range in them and just go from there.” So that’s what we did. I sent the tape off a couple days later and she’s like, “Let me think about it over the weekend.” Come Monday, I had the lead in the film. It didn’t feel like it could ever be that easy. Not easy, but that great and come that soon and that quick.

Did you end up getting the part you had a long audition process for?

Petrice Jones: I didn’t in the end and the dates actually clashed with this, so I felt like it was kind of meant to be. I know if I had the choice I would have chosen the better project which was this one for sure, no doubt in my mind.

Gareth Jenkins: Mine was an interesting journey. I’m not a professional actor. I’m actually a design consultant. I’ve known Maria for a long time and it turns out that they were having a lot of difficulty filling the role of James for a couple of reasons. The main one was that it’s the type of role and the fact that it’s essentially a gay man’s role. It wasn’t possible to fill that in Trinidad because Trinidad’s quite a homophobic society. So straight men wouldn’t touch it and gay men were worried about taking on the role because it might lead to them being outted. So it was a really unfortunate situation. Maria said, “Hey, why don’t you come and do a screen test?” Up until that point, it had never crossed my mind that I could act. I never even considered it. I said, “Why not? You should try everything once in life.” So I went along and sat in front of this camera thing, read a few lines. Maria’s partner started to cry and I thought, “Well, I really suck.” Then kind of went away thinking it’s been an amazing experience, thought nothing of it until I got a call a couple days later saying, “We sent it off to X, Y and Z and they think you’re the right person for the job.” Within two weeks or so we were on set. I never saw this coming.

Did acting come naturally to you? Would you want to do it more?

Gareth Jenkins: I really enjoyed it. I have to say it was definitely one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done in life. I feel like the kind of doors that you need to open inside to be able to convince yourself, I’ve never had to do that. I really enjoyed it and I’d love to try it again.

We’re finally starting to talk about the challenges facing female filmmakers. Did you feel you faced those getting into the industry, Maria?

Maria Govan: Truthfully, I don’t. I’ve never really been a part of the industry. I left college and I moved to LA when I was 19 and worked as a PA for four years. It was an interesting time. I worked with really big people on big productions and I was a runner. Then I went home because I had a really uncomfortable situation with a producer that was pretty cliche. I bought a camera and I taught myself by making documentaries for a decade. I did everything imaginable, I read books, I took workshops. So I’ve never been a part of the industry. My path has been this crazy ride so I don’t feel so much that my being a woman has affected my work. I feel it’s very difficult being from the Caribbean sometimes because there’s not a lot of support for us and we have to really hustle. My first film was very female. All the characters are women, I have one male character and I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t write men. He’s not that interesting. He’s kind of wooden.” Then all of a sudden this film came through me and it was all these male characters. It was very strange. I really feel like good work is about empathy. A good writer and a good director, a good creative is just about somebody who can literally empathize and put themselves in the heart and soul and shoes of somebody else.

If I watch that first movie, will I be able to tell it’s from the director of Play the Devil?

Maria Govan: I do think so, yes. I think it feels connected.

LAFF Review: Play the Devil – A Real Discovery

Play the Devil is the kind of movie you get to see at a film festival where you really feel like you’ve been brought into a world you wouldn’t otherwise see, and discover new talent that Hollywood may be overlooking. Hopefully playing at the festival will allow more people to see it.

Gregory (Petrice Jones) is an actor in Trinidad. A wealthy theater fan named James (Gareth Jenkins) approaches Gregory after a performance and they hit it off in a culture where being openly gay is not tolerated. Meanwhile, Gregory’s family struggles and his brother Fayne (Nickolai Salcedo) is a drug dealer.

In the very first scenes of Play the Devil, you are totally in this world. You’ve experienced all segments of society: the wealthy art lover, the middle class trying to get by, and the street where crime is the most lucrative prospect. You also quickly experience the extremes of nature. It’s exotic to those of us who live in cities.

Writer/director Maria Govan presents all of this as a way of life, not an expose. We are witnessing believable characters dealing with pressures of life and society, and they are understandably overwhelmed. Gregory’s relationship with is grandmother (Penelope Spencer) is touching, but not easy. With his friend Dev (Akil Nickolas) they often speak in a dialect which presents subtitles, because it would be too foreign for us to pick up in only 90 minutes, but we get to experience it the way they live it.

Gregory and James bond over photography. It is so human, so gentle. The performances are professional grade. Jones and Jenkins anchor the film in well-intentioned conflict. Nickolas, Spencer and Salcedo all feel like real people. Even as a drug dealer, Salcedo doesn’t play Fayne as a raging criminal. He’s just a guy trying to get by.

I look forward to seeing more from Govan. She has a way of presenting culture as real, but still cinematically stylish. Wait until you see the climactic Jab ceremonial dance. Hopefully this also opens more doors for the Trinidad film industry.