‘I’m a Virgo’ Star Jharrel Jherome Was Grabbed by Prime Video Show’s Wild Premise ‘Immediately’

“The first time I heard of the project, Boots [Riley] personally emailed me. And the title was ’13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland,'” the actor tells TheWrap

Jharrel Jerome in "I'm A Virgo"
Prime Video

There is simply nothing else on TV like “I’m a Virgo,” the new seven-episode series from creator Boots Riley for Amazon’s Prime Video. And that’s the point.

“The first time I heard of the project, Boots actually personally emailed me. And the title was ’13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland,’” series lead and executive producer Jharrel Jerome told TheWrap. “Like anybody else, when you read that you’re just immediately intrigued and curious. I just knew that this was something that was going to not only challenge me but challenge the audience.”

“I’m a Virgo” was actually the first idea for a TV series Riley pitched to Michael Elleberg, executive producer, founder and chairman of Media Res Studio. The show follows a 13-foot-tall Black man who leaves the house for the first time at the age of 19. Starring Jerome as Cootie, “I’m a Virgo” starts as an absurdist comedy that fits in perfectly with Riley’s wild world. Yet as the series unfolds, it skillfully mixes themes of anti-capitalism, police brutality, racial injustice and the journey from childhood innocence to maturation.

Ellenberg first learned of Riley’s work during the Sundance premiere of his surrealist comedy, “Sorry to Bother You.”

“There are so many ideas in ‘Sorry to Bother You.’ I thought any number of them could have been episodes unto themselves. So I chased the hell out of him and was like, ‘You should do a show,’” Ellenberg said.

According to the executive producer, no part of Riley’s vision was compromised in the finished product and nothing was tweaked to make the series more “palatable to these streamers.” “This is as pure an expression of him as as anything I could imagine. You’re seeing the real Boots Riley in this series,” Ellenberg said.

In order to create this odd world filled with giant teenagers and folk legends turned real, “I’m a Virgo” stayed away from CGI as much as possible and largely relied on practical effects. This was to ensure that no matter how chaotic the series became, it remained rooted in authenticity.

Allius Barnes (left), Brett Grey and Kara Young in “I’m a Virgo.” (Prime Video)

To achieve this, smaller versions of common items, like utensils, were created so that they appeared tiny in Jerome’s hands. The costume department made Jerome special clothes that intentionally looked patched together as if a real giant wore them. If a scene called for Cootie to be inside, Jerome would have to act in a smaller scale version of the set, or a fake ceiling would be implemented. When it looked like Cootie’s head was touching the ceiling, “really it was just me standing on a ladder, and there would be a ceiling hovering above me,” Jerome said.

“It was all just, honestly, the perfect definition of movie magic,” Jerome said. “It was special because CGI, we know how powerful it can be, and we know how cool it can be. But CGI always takes the audience a bit away from what you’re watching. You know it’s made up, you know it’s fake. And so doing the practical approach kind of centers this fantastical story and a reality that people can latch onto a bit more.”

Jerome joked that Riley made the actors do acid before every take. “That’s exactly what it feels like. Boots is able to paint so many colors all at once, and it can be a tricky thing to grasp as an actor,” the star acknowledged.

Though the series required a great deal of “patience” from everyone involved, Jerome has the sense he is now part of something great.

“It definitely felt like we were making the next ‘Lord of the Rings’ with how epic everything felt,” Jerome said. “I think that’s a testament to how Boots is so early in his film career that he can helm a project like this and do so well.”

But big ideas, hopes for a big audience and practical effects require a big partner in the world of television. That’s why Prime Video was a natural fit for the series.

“Amazon went nuts for it from the jump. They demanded we have multiple meetings. They kept sending new people to talk to us, tell us how much they believe in it and how much they’d be behind it,” Ellenberg said. “This is obviously bigger than ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ and the visual ideas are quite complex. So we wanted to both have adequate resources to create and render this whole world.”

Amazon’s history with other prestige projects from Black creators also played a role in why “I’m a Virgo” went to the platform despite having many other interested parties. Earlier this year, Prime Video released “Swarm,” the first series in the streamer’s exclusive deal with Donald Glover and Janine Nabers. The streamer is also home to Little Mervin and Lena Waithe’s “Them” and Barry Jenkins’ miniseries “The Underground Railroad.”

“It didn’t seem like a one-off interest of theirs. This was something we saw that they were investing in: major Black artists. Of course that was a draw because you never want to be the only one, right? You want to feel like you’re tapping into an audience that’s building over time,” Ellenberg said. “We’re quite pleased that there’s now an audience that’s been built in Amazon, both that is indexing towards these kinds of creators, and we were equally drawn to the fact that they have ‘The Boys.’”

Jharrel Jerome in I'm a Virgo
Jharrel Jerome in “I’m a Virgo.” (Prime Video)

Despite existing in an absurdist world where a waitress has the powers of The Flash and time can fracture at a moment’s notice, “I’m a Virgo” is at its core about one young man’s journey to adulthood in a hostile world.

“I think for me, and even for Boots himself, it’s safe to say Cootie is just a life-size version — not a life-size version, a larger-than-life-sized version — of a Black man in America and the plight that a Black man goes through, someone who is full of soul and and bright ideas and a future that’s sort of unclear. But the second he steps outside, who knows what the world may view him as? He might be villainized immediately. He might be seen as somebody who’s a monster,” Jerome said. “What’s cool about him is that he’s a giant, but really, he’s a small guy. He’s a very small, meek person who has a lot to learn. There’s a beauty in that, and I think we can all relate to that no matter who you are, latching on to a character who is just different in their own way and owns it.”

All episodes of “I’m a Virgo” are now streaming on Prime Video.