If you attended opening night of the Boston Underground Film Festival— or if you followed along with the Hassle’s Festival coverage over the past weeks– you’re already familiar with the electrifying My Name Is Myeisha. The film, based on the play Dreamscape by Rickerby Hinds (which itself was inspired by an actual incident), tells the story of a young black woman gunned down by a police officer while passed out in her car. Yet the film itself is as exhilarating, funny, and life-affirming as it is devastating, thanks in large part to the dazzling work by director Gus Krieger and an absolute powerhouse performance by newcomer Rhaechyl Walker. I was lucky enough to speak to both Krieger and Walker the morning after Myeisha won the BUFF Directors’ Award for Best Feature, about the film’s origins, its significance in our particular cultural moment, and what the future holds.
BOSTON HASSLE: First of all, I want to say congratulations on winning Best Feature at BUFF!
GUS KRIEGER, director: Yes, thank you! I just found that out about ninety seconds ago.
RHAECHYL WALKER, star: Yay! [laughs] So cool!
BH: The movie was based on a play, Dreamscape by Rickerby Hinds. How did each of you come to be involved with the play, and getting it made into a movie?
RW: I’m a UC Riverside alum, and I was in two of Rickerby Hinds’ earlier works. Once I graduated college, he gave me a call about a year later, and asked me if I was still acting. And I really wasn’t. But he said he wanted me to be a part of [his new play], he thought I’d be good at it. He said, “Come in and do a read. If you like it, cool, if you don’t, no worries.” And that was in 2011, and we ended up doing the stage play that year, and continued to do it for about five or six years.
GK: I picked up with it when these guys were performing in downtown Los Angeles, and I went really just to support Kirb– I had an existing relationship with the playwright. I really was just so moved by the piece, and I very quickly saw the path, the route that I would take to make it into a film. It involved staying very loyal to the piece, and to the text. I pitched my take to Kirb like a week after I had first seen the show, and he was on board with my take on it pretty quickly. And we were off and running from there.
BH: Did you have to adapt the play at all to get it to fit the screen, or was it more of a direct translation from page to screen?
GK: Yeah, you know, it’s weirdly a combination of that. We changed almost nothing in terms of the original text of the stage play. The adaptation was all about creating and applying a visual language to the piece, because the stage play was two actors in a bare black box space– very minimal props and outside accoutrements. So the adaptation all really came in the cinematic adaptation, as opposed to the verbal adaptation. So it’s both very much its own thing and very loyal to the stage play.
BH: The other co-lead, both in the movie and in the play, from what I understand, is beatboxer John Merchant, who also gives a really great performance. Could you tell me a little bit about his background?
RW: Sure! As far as I know, he’s been beatboxing since he was about twelve or thirteen years old. And Rickerby had known him for almost ten years before this play came along, and they had always been wanting to work together. And one day Rickerby had seen him at a restaurant where he was working, and asked him to come in and read for Dreamscape, because he thought he’d be a perfect fit, and that was that day that I came in– that wonderful day in July of 2011! [laughs]
BH: Rhaechyl, how did you go about developing the character, first on stage and then for the film?
RW: It was a really big struggle for me at first, because I had been dealing a lot with personal identification, and how Rhaechyl Walker kind of identified herself. I was in that stage of my life. And so, because of dealing with that growing up, and not really having a place where I would identify within a culture, when it came time to do this hip hop musical, I was– I felt like an amateur. Hip hop culture really wasn’t huge in my life at the time, until this play came along. And Myeisha is enthralled, and embedded, and made of, if you will, hip hop culture. She is a representation and an embodiment of it. And so I feel I took more that route, and in trying to embody her, I would say hip hop culture was the main thing that really helped me to get her to where she is today.
BH: Did you have to adjust your performance or your approach at all when it came time to make the jump from the stage play to the movie adaptation?
RW: Yes and no. It was very natural, because I knew her, and I knew the lines in and out. We had been doing the stage play for six years, so it was in me. It was ingrained in my brain. And the whole team just made it really, really easy for me to make the transition. They allowed me to be who I needed to be, and they made it feel really natural to me. So it wasn’t too difficult, actually. Surprisingly!
BH: At the end of the movie, there’s a title card that says, “Based on true stories.” I know that this was based on one specific true story, but that does feel like a very intentional statement about the universality of the story– and, of course, it’s become more and more relevant. What was your approach toward the whole cultural moment that’s happening around that?
GK: I mean, it’s one of those things where I wish, in a way, that the story wasn’t so relevant, and pertinent, and all the rest, you know? Rickerby wrote the stage play a decade ago, and it’s no less vital– if anything, it’s become even more so. So the fact that we happen to be in the middle of what seems like a moment of heightened awareness, or whatever you want to call it, is great. It’s great that people are talking about it– and, of course, terrible that we have to still be talking about it. And that’s where “Inspired by True Stories” comes from. The fact that this is really not one person’s story. It’s the story of a people, and a culture, and, you know, America to a larger degree. It’s something that we, as a country, are still very much dealing with and very much in the middle of.
BH: Did you have any contact with anyone who was involved with the specific story that it was based on during the production of the film? Do you know if they’ve seen it at all?
GK: All that was kept to a minimum. We were trying consciously to sort of distance ourselves from any literal adaptive elements. I know that some family members have seen the stage play when it was initially running.
RW: Yes. There was another cast before John and I came along, and they said that some of the family members had come out one night. In particular, one comment that was made that will always stick with me was from the grandmother of the young woman. She said that she never thought about how many times she was actually shot. As far as I know, the family was appreciative of her story being told.
BH: In addition to BUFF, the film has already played at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won some awards. Has it played at any other festivals so far?
GK: Yeah. We’ve done Slamdance, and the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in Alabama, and Omaha, and Boston, and the North Hollywood Cinefest, which is going on as we speak. And then we have a couple more lined up, which we’re not quite ready to announce yet, but you can follow us on social media for upcoming announcements.
BH: Are there any distribution plans in place so far, or is it also too soon to talk about?
GK: Yeah, it’s a little too soon. We have an excellent team, and are out to many people at the moment. We have some very good leads and prospects, so hopefully we’ll have an official announcement about that in the coming weeks and months.
NOTE: Shortly after this interview, My Name Is Myeisha was announced as an official selection in the Riverside Film Festival in Riverside, California, which runs April 17-22. Gus Krieger and Rhaechyl Walker have been nominated for Best Director and Best Actress, respectively.
For further updates on My Name Is Myeisha, check out its official website, or follow the film on Facebook or Twitter