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Actor Jaden Michael on playing a young Colin Kaepernick

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even if you don't know any other NFL players, you probably know Colin Kaepernick. But long before he became an NFL star and became a national and deeply polarizing cultural figure for taking a knee on the field to call attention to racial injustice, Colin Kaepernick was just a kid, a gifted high school athlete and racially confused teenager living with his adoptive white parents in a largely white town.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK & WHITE")

JADEN MICHAEL: (As Young Colin Kaepernick) Sometimes I just feel uncomfortable.

MARY-LOUISE PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) I don't think anyone's trying to make you feel that way. But when you do, just say something. You can always talk to me, but you have to talk to me.

MICHAEL: (As Young Colin Kaepernick) What is that supposed to mean?

MARTIN: That's a clip from the new Netflix series "Colin In Black & White." It's a coming of age story, as you can hear, but it's also an examination of race in sports and, in many ways, an explanation of how Colin Kaepernick became Colin Kaepernick. Eighteen-year-old actor Jaden Michael plays the young Colin Kaepernick on screen, and he is with us now to tell us more about it. Jaden Michael, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

MICHAEL: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I love NPR (laughter).

MARTIN: Well, we're so glad to hear that. OK, now I hear that you really weren't that into sports before you took this role. Is that true?

MICHAEL: Absolutely. I knew nothing about team sports before taking on the role. My uncles had always tried to convince me to play baseball or basketball or, you know, do some kind of team sports, but it really wasn't my thing. I think I just found it all too plain, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, I take it you got some coaching in order to do this role. But before all that, did you know who Colin Kaepernick was when you were thinking about this role or what did you know about him?

MICHAEL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. For me, he was a role model. I'm a biracial teen living in America. And watching him take a stand and a knee for matters that are bigger than himself, to risk it all, I found that deeply, deeply respectable. And I - He was a role model for me and still is.

MARTIN: So what made you want to take this role?

MICHAEL: It's a story, it's a conversation that needs to be had. It's a conversation that we've tried to have behind closed doors. It's meetings we've tried to have through protests, through riots, through tweets. And, you know, the next step is, you know, putting it on screen and hopefully reigniting this conversation so we can have a better Black environment in America.

MARTIN: So as we said in the introduction, the show explores some of Colin's racial awakenings amid growing up as a visibly African American kid in a household with two white parents who seem to mean well, but they don't get it, if I can put it that way. And I just want to play a clip from the first episode where Colin is getting his hair done up in cornrows. And he has a conversation with his parents, who are played by Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman. Let's - I'm going to play that clip, and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COLIN IN BLACK & WHITE")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) You have to cut your hair if you're going to stay on the team.

MICHAEL: (As Young Colin Kaepernick) Oh, you're joking, right? This is about your brain energy thing or whatever?

PARKER: (As Teresa Kaepernick) It's a team rule, Colin.

MICHAEL: (As Young Colin Kaepernick) What? A team rule?

OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) It makes sense. Truth be told, you do look unprofessional.

MICHAEL: (As Young Colin Kaepernick) Unprofessional? Why am I supposed to look professional? I'm 14 now. I'm a kid.

OFFERMAN: (As Rick Kaepernick) OK.

MARTIN: I mean, that clip is so painful on so many levels. First of all, the politics of hair, recognizing that you grew up in New York City, which is a lot more of a diverse environment than the town that Colin Kaepernick grew up in, which is a mostly white town in California's Central Valley. But I was wondering about that, like, is that something you had experience with I think what we would call microaggressions?

MICHAEL: I have felt similar feelings of lack of control over your own body, but for different reasons, sort of the opposite reason. Colin was struggling with not being able to get his hair done the way he wanted it. And for me, being someone in the entertainment industry, going to auditions, I was worried of how casting directors would view me if I chose to come in with cornrows or, you know, how I may be viewed, what kind of roles I would be able to go up for if I looked like, as my mom says or Mary Louise says in the show, as like a thug. So I always kept my hair the same way. So I couldn't, you know, ruin my image, I guess.

MARTIN: And what about that feeling of just uncomfortableness?

MICHAEL: I think it's a really great word to use because there really is no word for how it feels to be black in a white environment. And the entertainment industry is a white environment. And that's not to say that there aren't wonderful people. Some of my greatest friends and mentors in the business are white, like Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver. But there is a sense of lack of understanding from the other side in certain aspects, such as hair and how much hair can mean to you, especially as a Black teen. And so it can be quite uncomfortable to try and have to explain how you feel to another group.

MARTIN: So there are some tough messages in this series. It's very watchable, don't get me wrong, but I do think there are some things in it that will be fairly shocking to some people, depending on, you know, what their background is and how much they've thought about it. Like, one of the first episodes where Colin Kaepernick - this is him for real, the real Colin Kaepernick - talks about the combine. And a lot of, you know, fans watch the combine where the athletes, the potential recruits kind of line up and show their athleticism. And he compares it to a slave auction. They are inspected physically. They're wearing very little clothing. And I think there's some tough messaging here. And I just - so my question to you is, is there some group of people who you particularly hope will be drawn to this, who will see this?

MICHAEL: Yeah. So while I was preparing for the role, I was focused - I was trying to think about who the audience was. And at first, I thought it was Colin's fans. But thinking about it, I realize, you know, Colin's fans are always going to love Colin. The true audience is the miseducated or those who are misunderstanding his message, and that's who I hope I can connect with. And that's how I sort of approached young Colin was, how can I make this character most understandable to those who may not understand what it is like to be in a Black environment or to be in those shoes? And he wears like a size-13 shoe. It's ginormous.

MARTIN: Does he really?

MICHAEL: We did a photo shoot. And I think I'm pretty tall. I'm like 6'1", you know. He sat down, and he was still taller than me while I was standing up.

MARTIN: And he had the big fro too, right? Did he have the big fro? That adds some yards.

MICHAEL: (Laughter) It does.

MARTIN: Sorry.

MICHAEL: It's huge. I told him. I was like, wow, how long have you been growing it out for? He's like a long, long time. So I started to - I fro'd (ph) my hair yesterday for the premiere. And I think I got to like 75% Colin-ism. It was good.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was Jaden Michael. He stars as a young Colin Kaepernick in the new Netflix series "Colin In Black & White." Jaden Michael, thank you so much for visiting with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.