When Nicole Beharie auditioned for Miss Juneteenth, she was initially skeptical of a film centered around a beauty pageant. But in playing Turquoise, a single mom keen on entering her rebellious teen daughter into the local Miss Juneteenth competition, Beharie brought a softness to the role that tempered her character’s tough exterior, and in the process made a movie that was not just about a beauty pageant rivalry, but about the complexities of Black life in the South. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, the actress talks about the increased national interest in the Juneteenth holiday, her surprising cinematic crush, and “existential” karaoke songs.
In Miss Juneteenth, for which you won the Gotham Award for Best Actress, you play the winner of a local beauty pageant.
I was expecting it to be like the Trump beauty pageants, but this is a nontraditional beauty pageant based on merit and positivity for young girls. I don’t think I’d be winning anyone’s beauty pageant if it was along the lines of Miss Universe.
There is now a strong movement to make June 19—the day in 1865 when enslaved people in the United States were emancipated—a national holiday. When you made this film, in 2019, did you ever think there would be a surge in interest in celebrating Juneteenth?
There is no way we could have imagined that Juneteenth would enter the collective consciousness. But with the world being upside down and all the social unrest, it is not surprising. The country has to recognize all aspects of our history in order to move forward and create a fantastic future. It should be a national holiday. Juneteenth is June 19, 1865, which is two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—when Abe Lincoln technically freed all enslaved African-Americans. But there were some people in Galveston, Texas, and other surrounding areas that hadn’t been informed. Union soldiers went down there and let them know that they were, in fact, free. It was a delayed freedom, which is interesting because we’re all sort of experiencing that [delayed awareness] right now in a way. I love that theme in the story. I knew about Juneteenth from mom-and-pop stores growing up. There were little community places that would celebrate Juneteenth, but it’s definitely not a widely celebrated holiday in the States yet.
How old were you when you started acting?
I’ve been acting my whole life—for attention! And now that I’m acting professionally, I think I take myself too seriously sometimes. I was actually more fun as a child. I started doing little plays in the yard and bossing around my brothers and sisters. We had a traveling family, moving around to different neighborhoods and different countries. My father was in the service. We had to entertain ourselves with very little, and that’s kind of how it happened. My first job was in a sports film called The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. I’ve done three sports movies, and I must confess, I’m just not into sports. I swim and dance, but I have no interest in sports.
Do you have a cinematic crush?
Bette Midler. I loved her in The Rose, in The First Wives Club, in Stella. I just love that woman.
Do you have a Bette Midler karaoke song?
No. My go-to karaoke song is “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin, and “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell. People are like, “Nicole, why are you singing ‘Both Sides Now’? It’s so depressing and meta and existential.” And I’m like, yeah.
Did you develop any quarantine hobbies?
I started dancing a lot, writing. I did start cooking a lot more than usual, but I was already a good cook. This is true. I can actually cook.
What’s your signature dish?
The go-to dish is Jamaican escovitch fish. But the easy dish is salmon with fennel, basil, and asparagus. You could just pop that in real quick, and everyone’s impressed—and it’s delicious.
What was the film you saw when you were a child that made you want to be in movies?
One was called Lorenzo’s Oil, with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. It was so sad. I remember being a little girl, crying about this kid’s journey and wanting him to be healed. The other one I’m thinking about is Little Shop of Horrors. I love a musical. I love a little darkness. There were so many great movies back then. I’m an ’80s baby.