Blackk didn’t know why.
“She said, ‘Congrats on your nomination’ and some other stuff,” he says. “I was super confused.”
Blackk, 17, a D.C.-area native who graduated in May from North Point High School in Waldorf, Md., had expected the four-episode show — which dramatizes the wrenching story of the real-life Central Park Five, a group of Harlem teens who were imprisoned on assault and rape charges and later exonerated — to be nominated for outstanding limited series. He assumed his colleague Jharrel Jerome would get a lead actor nod. But he hadn’t even considered that he might be recognized in the best supporting actor category, where he’s joined by his “When They See Us” co-star Michael K. Williams.
“I ran out of my room and told my aunt, ‘I think I just got nominated for an Emmy,’ ” Blackk says.
The seeds for Blackk’s Hollywood breakout were planted at Henson Valley Montessori School in Prince George’s County, where he played Mowgli in a second-grade production of “The Jungle Book.” Blackk took every acting opportunity he got, eventually realizing he wanted to do it as a career.
That moment arrived around eighth grade, when Blackk acted in “How I Learned to Be a Kid,” part of a children’s theater workshop at The Howard Theatre in D.C. “When I did that play, my mom, when she came to see it, said she hadn’t seen me light up like that in a while,” he says.
He hooked up with an agent and started going out for auditions. He noticed people struggling to pronounce his given name, Asante Ma’at, so he decided to come up with something easier. He thought to himself, “What sounds cool?” and landed on Asante Black. But that name had already been claimed on Instagram, so he added another “k.”
Blackk traveled with his uncle to New York City for his first audition for “When They See Us.” He initially tried out to play the younger version of Jerome’s character, Korey Wise, before DuVernay decided to cast Jerome as Wise at both ages.
“I actually did so bad. It was the worst audition I’d ever done,” Blackk says. “I came out thinking, ‘It’s another one I didn’t get.’ But they called me back.”
Blackk was cast instead as Kevin Richardson, and says he ended up feeling a closer connection to Richardson — who was 14 when he was arrested — than he had with Wise.
In 1989, the real-life Richardson and the other four teens were charged in the rape of a female jogger in Central Park. Years later, a serial rapist confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence cleared the five teens.
DuVernay advised Blackk to focus on capturing Richardson’s innocence, he says. The environment on the set re-created the details of Richardson’s life so thoroughly, Blackk says, he had no trouble relating to Richardson’s fear and desperation. Getting to meet the real-life Central Park Five, who served as consultants on the show, also helped Blackk develop his portrayal.
“The real men were saying all the time on set, ‘That’s exactly how it was,’ ” Blackk says. “It felt that way [to me].”
The day before the show’s May 31 premiere, Blackk attended his high school graduation. Since his return to Maryland, much of his life is the same. He still hangs out with friends at the St. Charles Towne Center mall and does his “regular teenage things.”
That may change soon, though — this summer, he’s relocating to L.A., where he’ll be attending the Emmy Awards on Sept. 22. Another new experience: Fans frequently come up to him for a picture or to share how Richardson’s story resonated with them.
“Some people will tell me that I’ve inspired them,” Blackk says. “It’s so crazy to think about because I never thought that this early in life people were going to be looking up to me. That’s kinda weird.”