The Evanston RoundTable recently chatted with Evanston native Kweku Collins about his debut role in the new feature film Dear Zoe and his evolution as an artist, from experimenting with different instruments at an early age to finding his voice on his new EP, Then Spring (Side A).
Collins graduated from Evanston Township High School in 2015 and is based in Evanston. His big acting break came out of left field when Dear Zoe’s director found his performance footage online and recruited him to write music for the film and act in it.
Gren Well’s Dear Zoe is based on the 2004 YA (young adult) novel by Phillip Beard. The story follows Tess DeNuzio (Sadie Sink, whose credits include Stranger Things, Taylor Swift’s All Too Well and The Whale), an overwhelmed teenager who seeks refuge with her estranged father after a traumatic incident leaves her suburban household in shatters.
The story is built around 9/11, drawing a link between a family’s personal loss and a drawn-out period of national mourning. The film begins with montages and monologues attempting to capture suburban dysfunction through Tess’ eyes as she battles her own guilt. It picks up pace with the introduction of her father Nick DeNunzio (Theo Rossi, seen in Sons of Anarchy, Vendetta and True Story), and Jimmy, Collins’ character, who becomes Tess’ love interest. Tess gradually recovers her mental health with the unexpected support of her father and the community in Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Collins’ performance, alongside that of Sink and Rossi, is the backbone of the film, while Sadie’s mom (Jessica Capshaw of Grey’s Anatomy) and stepfather (Justin Bartha, The Hangover) work the sidelines.
The teen romance, released Nov. 4, won over moviegoers, with a 93% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on critics’ reviews, it got a 67% Tomatometer score.
Zoë Rose Bryant of Next Best Picture offered, “What you’ll find is another example of one of our best and brightest young actresses demonstrating her dramatic depth, even when the material around her isn’t as fresh as her deeply felt work.”
And Elizabeth Weitzman of The Wrap wrote that Collins “makes a strikingly assured debut as Jimmy, and casting directors should take note for future projects.”
The RoundTable talked with Collins about the film, his music and his experiences growing up in Evanston. The following Q&A is an edited and condensed transcript.
How did you get involved in acting and music growing up here in Evanston?
I grew up in a very musical family. Outside of music, we’re just a very artistic family, some of us actors and storytellers, visual artists, and some of us lean more to the music side. That was always what I was into when I was a kid, just creative stuff, and music was the main thing that I was into. So then through high school, I was starting to experiment with rapping over beats and and trying to make my own beats.
I joined the poetry slam team, which really tied in that theatrical element. Write lyrics and then having to perform them, that’s the theater element there, right? So, after high school, acting never really crossed my mind until the director of Dear Zoe, Gren Wells, got in touch with me through the agency that we were both with at the time, and she said that she had found me online after Googling teen rappers.
She really liked my music but also from the way that I performed the records, she felt like I could act. And so she got in touch with me and said, “I would like for you to play this role and I want you to make music for this soundtrack, but I really want you to play the role of Jimmy.” I was kind of resistant at first, because I’d never done anything like that before.
The first time we read [the script], we got to this scene in the movie where Jimmy is telling Tess about his mom passing away and I was having a hard time getting into what she wanted out of that.
She said, “Don’t worry about the lines. You know what he’s trying to say. So just say it.” And it seemed like a light switch inside of me, and I flipped it and all of a sudden I just started crying.
What was it like working with Sadie Sink and Theo Rossi?
Me and Sadie got along pretty well while we were shooting. She’s really down to earth and a really hard worker. She showed up on point, every day and it was just her and her mom. They were both just really kind. We would hang out and play Uno and go get coffee and stuff and just kick it and talk about music.
Theo Rossi, he’s just like such a wise person. He said wisdom was “whatever’s pertinent at the moment” with me, which felt cool, and cool isn’t even a strong enough word. It was a great example of how an actor carries oneself, same as Sadie. Same with everybody [in the] cast.
Everybody was also super warm and welcoming to my family when they came into town one weekend.
How much do you identify with Jimmy? And what ways do you feel like he’s different from you?
Our life experiences are different. I still have both my parents here with me, unlike him. The neighborhoods that we grew up in are different – Braddock versus the south end of Evanston. But I also think that we are similar, in that we walk between worlds, in a way.
How it was presented to me was [like] an unsalted piece of meat. They were [saying], “Well, you have all these spices and sprinkle some of that on there.” I’m not saying that we’re the same. But it wasn’t like, “Oh wow, he’s doing a character.”
So there’s these themes in the movie brushing the surface of privilege, race and class. Growing up in Evanston and moving into the entertainment space, how does working on this film speak to you?
I’ve thought very critically about my experience as a person of color in what, to be honest, was a predominantly white production. Being a brown person in that space for a long time and giving so much creatively, I can’t help but think critically and comb through those experiences for any snags, and part of that was breaking through the plot and the movie.
What I noticed about the movie was like, OK, I’m clearly mixed. But we don’t know how, and we never see Jimmy’s father, who’s still around; we never see a picture of his mother. Nick, Tess’ dad, doesn’t want his daughter hanging out with Jimmy because he knows that Jimmy sells pot for him. They live in a predominantly Black neighborhood. So they live in this Black neighborhood, but what are their experiences outside of the story? What’s life like when she walks down the street, you know? I can’t answer those questions because I don’t write the story. And that was the interesting part about that movie, dealing with these class issues that were the highlight as far as prejudices.
It was a YA film. So it wasn’t getting super into that, but entertainment spaces can be really elitist and privileged. And then this movie, that’s kind of tackling all this stuff somewhat superficially.
Maybe it would have played out differently had the book been written different. I’m gonna keep it real: I haven’t read the book yet. I am almost certain that the character of Jimmy in the book was written white. OK, and had that been different, maybe there would be that element of, you know – he’s Black, he’s brown, he’s not white, but the dad isn’t so stoked on it and the family’s so stuck.
But I think that was part of it; there wouldn’t have been an issue if the white dad was seen with the grungy white boy. I think that inserting a Black character into that role and not making that adjustment, it was like a whole different thing.
What has it been like moving into the music world after growing up in Evanston?
On the hip hop side, the genre is predominantly Black, as far as the artistic workforce. You know, it’s not just Black – if you’re from Chicago, you’re from out south or you’re from out west. And you don’t come from the middle class.
I’m not saying that I came to this at a disadvantage because of the neighborhood that I come from or the color of my skin. I think that there were definitely certain people that saw me and saw the color of my skin, the way that I carry myself, where I come from, who were more willing to open doors for me because of those things. Would they have been for me if I was dark skinned and came from a neighborhood that was less safe than mine?
How have you evolved as an artist in your new EP versus your work from 2015?
I started making music in 2012. From 2012 to about 2017, 2018, I really struggled to find my true voice. And even outside of finding my true voice it took me a long time to realize what I liked about it and what I could capitalize on about it, what worked about it.
And then in tandem with that was figuring out what sound felt most authentic to me and what are the sounds that I dream of putting vocals on top of – what are the sounds that since I’ve been a child I’ve been craving to hear come out of speakers.
With the voice, it was moments of me trying to be conscious of how I was speaking. Especially in moments of comfortability or in moments of confidence while I was self-assured, [I would] listen to the inflections, listen to the timbre of what was going on and then analyze. I wanted to be as authentically me as I could. Because I knew that that was how I could push through whatever ceiling I had set for myself.
Then with the music, I got to a point with making stuff on mostly a computer, playing chords and then just making a drum loop on a keyboard and then boom, there’s my beat, let me go record it. It just wasn’t serving me in the way that I wanted it to creatively, having grown up playing all the instruments. I really wanted to get back to that and I wanted to form a group that I could travel with and perform with and we could take songs and turn them into 10-minute jam sessions, because I couldn’t do that with 10 minutes of a loop of me just dancing around.
So that was the kind of the pursuit, from about 2017 till now. Once I had the voice, then it was like OK, everything else has to catch up. You know, this is the first step of saying, this is the new precedent for me. This is the new standard. This is what I want people to expect from me as an artist.
Are you touring with this EP at all?
No, we’re not. We don’t have plans to tour yet. We’re opening up for this band called Bonelang on Dec. 30 at Schubas. Oh, and we have an Audiotree that’s coming soon. But hopefully we can get on the road in 2023.
So turning back to Evanston, how do you and your family celebrate your holidays, growing up and to this day?
I’m home right now. Me and my family, we just kind of just chill. We have a nice breakfast in the morning then just mellow out. I think last year we might have watched a little Star Trek afterward. When I was a kid, every year we would go back to upstate New York and go see my uncle, cousins, grandmother, grandpa. Yeah, so it’s always mellow around here.