From director Reginald Hudlin and based on a true story, the inspirational drama Safety follows Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a Clemson University football safety who finds himself in the unexpected position of having to raise his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson). Through dedication, determination and persistence, his unwillingness to give up on his dreams and his desire to keep his family together help him succeed both on and off the field.
During the virtual press junket for the Disney+ film, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Jay Reeves about what most drew him to this story, telling a story that breaks stereotypes, the intense two-part audition process, how he approached the responsibility of leading a Disney movie, what he’s learned from the directors that he’s worked with, shooting at a real Clemson football game, and how he’d love to play a superhero villain.
COLLIDER: This film is a showcase of strength, drive and courage, all in the name of family. It’s a very inspirational story. What aspect of this most inspired you when you first read the script?
JAY REEVES: Man, thank you for describing this movie in such a wonderful way. I would say all of the stuff that you just said, like strength and courage. This movie just pulls at your heart with every aspect of it. The funny parts, the parts where you’re looking to grow, the love and everything just fit into this one story, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.
This movie also offers such a positive representation of young Black men. How did it feel to tell a story on screen that breaks stereotypes?
REEVES: It was a dream. So many times, we are stereotyped, and I have been stereotyped in my career. To break that mold and just play a character is what I had the most fun doing. I had this talk with Hunter [Sansone], who plays Daniel, and I told him, “Thank you.” He didn’t just look at me like a Black guy. He looked at me as his brother, and that’s how this world should be. We should just all look at each other as one. It’s great. I can’t wait for it to be seen.
I read that this was a two-part audition where you had to go in and read the scenes, and then you also had to audition on a football field. Which were you most nervous about going in, and which proved to be the biggest challenge?
REEVES: That’s a great question. I’d say maybe the football. I’ve played football a lot in my lifetime, but I wanted to be the best. I know the little details that make someone better at football. I knew going into this, “Hey, this is a Clemson project. They’re not gonna let you look sloppy.” So, I spent a lot of time getting my feet back underneath myself and just perfecting that. The acting, I do all the time, so that comes a little easier. I had to get back into the physical.
What are the challenges in being able to authentically pull off playing a character who lives and breathes training, while you don’t necessarily have time to do that because you’re leading a movie?
REEVES: Well, that’s the challenge. It’s not that you don’t have time, you’ve gotta make time. I remember while shooting this, I kept thinking, “Hey, this is bigger than you, so be bigger than you.” You can’t just say, “Oh, I gotta focus on acting.” I was given the task to do both, so I did everything that I possibly could have to make it happen.
With this project, you’re the lead at the center of a Disney movie. What does that feel like? What was your first day on set like and how do you get over feeling the weight of the responsibility of it?
REEVES: I tried to just be a captain about it. The captain is always poised and chilling. If there’s ever really some danger, you don’t know about it, so I tried to just remain calm and keep the environment around me great. One thing I learned from all the thousands of day jobs I’ve worked is [to] make the people around you look better and that’ll make you look better. So, a big thing for me was to just make everyone else shine around me.
You’ve previously talked about how you started out doing background work on shows on Nickelodeon, like iCarly and Victorious. What did you learn from being on sets and seeing casts work, and what stuck with you when you started doing it?
REEVES: One thing I learned from being in the back of those scenes was that the actors were having fun and owning the scenes. With Disney, I did K.C. Undercover. I had a really quick scene with Zendaya where I ran up to her, and she owned that set. And I saw that with Ariana Grande [on Victorious], and everyone. They would own their set. They would make it home. Once I got that instilled in my mind, there’s no way you can fail. There’s nothing that’s not organic if you truly believe this is your world.
What do you also feel that you’ve learned about acting from the directors that you’ve worked with?
REEVES: The directors I’ve been blessed to work with are incredible. There was a small window, before I booked Safety, where Rob Hardy, who does All American and Power, texted me and said, “Hey, you need to get escape velocity.” I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t know what it meant, at the time, so I had to look it up. Those small little things are motivation. I wasn’t even on that show anymore, but he was thinking of me and saying, “Hey, apply yourself.” And Reggie [Hudlin] is the same way. You have to apply yourself and believe in yourself. Reggie had the vision of me before I even saw it, which is great.
What sort of atmosphere did Reginald Hudlin create on this set?
REEVES: Reggie is a man of no stress, or at least no stress that I’ve seen. If he did have a lot going on, you wouldn’t be able to tell. He’s very organic and genuine. He knows actors. He knows when to leave us alone, he knows when to coach us, he knows when to be subtle, and he knows when to be loud. Most importantly, Reggie is very smart. He knows how to build a team around himself so that he can focus on what he’s there to do. It was great.
How was it to actually be at Clemson and shoot the game sequences?
REEVES: It was incredible. I remember thinking, “This must be what Beyoncé feels like,” having all these people screaming at you and you know that you’re the reason. Clemson is a big program and the community is affected by that program. At Bojangles, they have football biscuits. I’ve never seen anything like that. Football brings so much revenue to the town. It was just incredible.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next? How do you find the next thing after doing something like this?
REEVES: Right now, I’m not looking for the next thing, it’s gonna find me. Nah. You hope that’s what it’s like, right? I am looking. I’m just grateful. I’m enjoying it. I’m staying in this moment, right now, and just milking it. Whatever comes next, I’m pretty sure I’ll love it.
Do you have a wishlist of types of characters that you’d like to play? Do you have a secret desire to play a superhero villain?
REEVES: Yeah, you just gave me an idea. Let’s play a villain. I would love to play a superhero villain, maybe like Mr. Freeze or somebody like that from Batman. I love adventure movies, so I’d wanna do something [from] National Treasure or Indiana Jones. What’s funny is, every time we would do these career tests in high school, I would never pick anything because actor was never on there. I’m just glad I’m able to do this for a living.
Safety is available to stream on Disney+.
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