Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes of Ain't Too Proud Interview Each Other

Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes of Ain't Too Proud Interview Each Other

The two multitalents caught up with each other in the wake of the Tony's— just after their photo shoot in full Thom Browne looks.

The two multitalents caught up with each other in the wake of the Tony's— just after their photo shoot in full Thom Browne looks.

Photography: David Urbanke

Styling: Carl Latian

Text: Teddy Willson

Onstage, in their Broadway production Ain't Too Proud,  actors Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes have an undeniable chemistry—the kind that’s hard to find in real life. Offstage, the best friends are no different. Two Florida boys turned Big Apple stars, Pope and Sykes initially found common ground in their humble beginnings. Now, they’ve both got front row seats to the other’s rise to stardom, and right at the ascent of their careers, too.

Below, VMAN caught up with the two actors on Broadway life, their first Met Gala, and how they stay ahead of Broadway's wear and tear.

VMAN: So, to start can you just talk about how you met?

Jeremy Pope: Me and E, when I’m on the streets of NY I always get mistaken for E because people say that we look alike, so it started that way of people being like, “are you E?” and I’m like, “I’m not, I don’t know who he is,” but also, we would see each other at auditions a lot of times because normally for most gigs or Broadway shows there’s a handful of black people needed to be portrayed so it’s either me or him going in to get this job. So, I think it kind of started that way of just seeing each other around and dapping each other up and just being like, “I see you, bro. I hope you did it better than I did it.” So, it’s kind of cool now that we get to work on this project together.

Ephraim Sykes: Yeah, exactly what he said. I’d see him around at auditions and things, always up for the same part. That kind of set it off. We have a lot of close friends and a lot of mutual friends that we always hear about each other through and finally we got the chance to work together. He hit me up about this project he was still auditioning for and was like, “hey man, what’s going on with this? Is it good? Is it worth my time?” and I was like, “Absolutely, please come through.” I was really hype that he got the gig because I knew he would be perfect for it. I knew our energy would match immediately. We’ve been calling each other cousin ever since.

VMAN: Especially in a production with similar roles, is Broadway a very competitive landscape or is it more communal and everybody’s buddy-buddy? How do you guys each feel about it?

J: I think it can be competitive, but one thing about a lot of the black community and especially in the theater biz, it’s real tight. Because there’s a few of us working and then there’s a bunch of us out here hustling, so we’re always looking out for each other. So even like, an example with this project, I knew Ephraim was a part of it and they were looking for an Eddie Kendrick to play, so he was the first person I talked to. I said “Ephraim, do you know what it is? Should I be going in for this project? What do you feel?” And he was like, “I think you would really dig it.” He actually sent me the script off the record and was like, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m sending you the script. I need you to read the script and listen to the music as it kind of goes in order of events in the play.” I was then able to just get a better look at what our playwright, Dominique [Morisseau], was writing up. So, I think there’s always this competitive idea of you hope to get the job, but also in this case I believe, and I think Ephraim definitely does, that what’s ours is ours or what’s for you is for you, so you look out for each other.

VMAN: When each of you set this goal to be on Broadway? Why this, and when did that dream first come to each of you?

E: I actually never dreamt of being on Broadway. Never had any interest in it at all. It wasn’t until I had just finished dancing. I came across the concert dancer. I was really concerned and focused on concert dance, ballet, modern, contemporary, and of course started training with the school there. I just never really thought about Broadway at all until after I auditioned for a first company and I didn’t end up getting it, and I was really struggling because a couple of the companies that I wanted to be a part of, I wasn’t making it into them. At that moment, The Color Purple was on Broadway and that’s the only show that I, of course being a young black man, could connect with. It wasn’t until maybe a week or so later, one of the choreographer’s assistants that choreographed on me at Ailey – he happened to be the dance captain at The Little Mermaid on Broadway. He recommended me for this part to take over for a role of one of my other good friends. So that became my first Broadway audition, and therefore my first Broadway show.” I learned from phenomenal actors and singers, one of which was Derrick Baskin, our lead in the show [Ain’t Too Proud] as Otis Williams. Me and him, he’s been like my big brother ever since, and that must have been 12, 13 years ago, and we’ve done a number of shows since then.

J: The interesting thing about me and Ephraim is we’re both from Florida, and we both grew up with our dads as pastors, and I think we both came to New York with different visions of what our careers would be like. Like Ephraim explained, he went to school to be a dancer and was thinking company work was going to be where he was at. For me, I moved to New York just because I knew there was more for me to get in this environment. I moved out to New York to pursue musical theater. I think one thing that we’ve just realized through being in the business, but also being in this show, is just how important it is to see yourself—representation—seeing yourself on these platforms, in these spaces. As I was beginning to pursue this, I found it very difficult. I was like, “I don’t see many opportunities for me. I don’t see a lot of spaces and places for me.” How me and Ephraim met, we were at these auditions together and it was either me or him. I love that our show is creating so many spaces for people that look like us and they can just do their damn thing. They can be talented, they can have emotions, they can be high, they can be low. It’s such a well-developed, humanizing experience to see the incredibly talented, but human, people and hear their stories.

VMAN: If you’re in a film or something, it’s kind of said-and-done and then it’s there forever. How do you guys manage the physical demands of being on Broadway? It seems very demanding.

E: Well, one thing I’ll say: Broadway is about constant movement. The more you can be preemptive to your problems, the longer you will last, the more that you can be disciplined, not only the care you take on the outside like stretching and that kind of thing, but also what you put into your body is really what allows your body to produce each night. So, you’ve just really have to show yourself that you’re willing enough to take care of yourself. Hydration is key. The physical demands of the show, and not just physically but vocally on top of it—that’s probably one of the hardest things for us. It’s a matter of hydration. It’s a matter of making sure that every day before the show is building up toward something. How much rest am I getting? That’s a key element. I have to have my eight hours every night. And during the day, I’m light and stretching throughout the day. I use my whole entire day as a light warmup. Then when I get home, I’m watching Game of Thrones, stretching and rolling out on the foam roller. It’s constant maintenance to be preemptive.

J: What everyone’s not telling you is that we have all hands on deck. So, during intermission, everyone has a physical therapist that’s here stretching out our bodies. We get IV drips once a week because our bodies are so dehydrated. We have vocal lessons with a beautiful vocal goddess named Liz Caplan who basically helps us maintain. While it’s a blessing to be doing this job, it’s hard. It’s eight shows a week. It’s fuckin’ entertainment. It’s little things like that that keep us extra hype right now. Again, I don’t think I could do this show without my brothers, the five of us, without Ephraim. It is a relay race that we are kind of passing the baton on to each other at different moments in the show and in this life. Just being there for each other and holding it down so that we can get through this amazing time in our life.

VMAN: What does the day-to-day or general schedule look like? The average person works 9-5, works for 8 hours, goes home, they stay at their job for 2-3 years. For you guys, what is it like? How long is the actual show going on? How many days off do you get?

J: We do eight shows a week, right? So, you’re like, “How is that possible? There’s only seven days of the week.” Well, that means we do double Wednesday, double Saturday and we have one day off, Monday—A.K.A., the day for you to do any personal things, but also to try to get as much rest as you can. The matinée crowd is usually the grown folks, elderly folks, who have time to come hang at two o’clock on a Wednesday, so we try to give them what we’ve got, which is sometimes scraps.

E: We’re together all day, every day. Showing up looking raggedy, pushing each other through it.

J: Sunday was kind of like the big finish line of a big journey. We’ve been on this show for two years. But one thing that I think was really cool outside of the Broadway scene was that we got invited to go to the Met Gala and what I appreciated and loved so much about Anna [Wintour] and the invitation from Vogue was that we got to go as The Five. It was so dope that we were in this incredible room. We’re wearing Thom Browne. We felt so swag. We’re getting so many compliments and I’m there with Ephraim. It was the best night. We did sleep a lot the Tuesday before our show. It was one of those moments, I remember looking around the room and looking at Ephraim because we couldn’t really believe it. Twenty-four hours ago, we were on stage hitting the Temptations set and here we are, Thom Browne’d out in a room that we share with Celine Dion and J. Lo and Michael B. Jordan and Lupita [Nyong’o], all the homies—our personal homies and all the people we look up to and people we never thought we’d be in the same space with, breaking bread and eating dinner with, all thanks to Anna.

VMAN: Both of you are multitalented and do a lot of things. I wonder if there’s stuff that you guys see that you’re maybe not doing now that you’re interested in doing more of in the future, whether its writing your own stuff, choreographing more...?

J: I’m going to answer for Ephraim and Ephraim’s going to answer for me.

E: Haha, okay!

J: What I see from Ephraim is that he’s really grown and he’s just so incredible at what he does. What’s been cool watching this moment is that he’s a trained dancer, he’s done a lot of Broadway shows where he’s been a dancer at a featured moment, but this is the moment where he gets to just shine in such a way that people didn’t know. It’s cool to see people’s mouths drop and can’t believe he’s able to do that for eight shows a week. So I really just pray and I believe that there’s so much greatness out there for Ephraim. I see him doing movies. I see opportunities coming around and I think each of our journeys is going to be unique and special. I do think it’s really dope that a Florida brother of mine is paving the way, making shit happen and knowing that we weren’t crazy for leaving home, for coming to New York and pursuing that thing and maybe not necessarily having all the answers. So, that’s where I see Ephraim. Ephraim, where do you see me?

E: Me and Jeremy both came out of Florida and, for some reason, Florida has a special kind of energy behind it. Florida is actually a very creative place. I remember being in high school and even in middle school, me and people like Jeremy, we did everything we could put our hands on. Jeremy—I’ve always called him a Renaissance man—he’s the youngest, most hustling man I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s like, “not only will I sing the most, I will also produce music. I’ll also create costumes. I’ll also dance. I’ll help you choreograph this. This is what the shoot looks like. I picked up a camera and did my own photoshoot.” That’s how we trained as kids. We had the opportunity to grow up in a place where he was close to Disney and I was in a town that had an arts program that they gave to inner-city kids that gave me the chance. I had an instrument. I played the drums. I played the saxophone. I was in the marching band and ballet at the same time while playing football. You know what I mean? So, us both coming out of a place that encouraged us to hustle at everything that we love—the sky is the limit. I would dream a lot because I could do a lot. And then God creates the path and puts the dreams together, which is how we jumped to Broadway. So that’s the kind of personality that I know Jeremy is cut from. He’s already released an EP and has a single that’s out on iTunes that’s actually slapping all the time. He’s already got videos out. He’s already got things coming up that you will have on your TV screen. He’s got the prettiest eyes on Broadway. You will see his face all over. Jeremy shows up, he says, “this is my business. This is my dream.” And he will get up and 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock in the morning and actually work to make it happen, nonstop. So, yes, you will be coming out with an album. Yes, you will be on tour. Yes, you will be in the next film and TV shows working with all of who’s who. We went to the Met Gala and he’s the one who introduced me to Tracee Ellis Ross because she’s in love with him. He has a real star quality to him and a hustle to him that is unmatched and that is the thing for me. We’re always taught that your talent doesn’t take you but half the way. It’s your hustling and your work ethic that takes you the rest of the way. Beyond that, it’s how you treat people that take’s you the furthest. We both had the pleasure of being a part of this show and he was in Choir Boy before this that spoke to the LGBTQ movement and he brought light to it. So, we both have our hearts in the community in that way of social activism and I think that’s going to be another huge component of our lives going forward. I’m starting a scholarship fund to give more opportunities to kids coming from my hometown. He’s continuing to be outspoken for the community of young black men but also young gay black men and things like that. We’re going to bust down the walls of this culture and hopefully…

J: …help change the world.

E: Exactly. We both see ourselves as leaders. We know we can do it. We don’t always know how, but we know that that’s what we’re setting out to do and both of us don’t mind hustling to get it done.

See images of the actors in full Thom Browne looks below.

Jeremy and Ephraim of "Ain't Too Proud" both wear full looks Thom Browne
Credits: Photography: David Urbanke Styling: Carl Lation Hair: Valjean Guerra

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