'You can’t walk away from these roles’: ‘Jane and Emma’ star knew little about black Latter-day Saint trailblazer, but she’ll never forget her

Atlanta-based actor Danielle Deadwyler is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and knew little about the faith’s past — especially its tortured racial history — before arriving at This Is the Place Heritage Park in March to star in a film that would highlight those tensions.

So Deadwyler, who has had TV and movie roles — including in “A Cross to Bear” and “Gifted” — dug into all the background material she was given or could find on her own.

She was stepping into the shoes of Jane Manning James, a fiercely faithful black convert during the church’s 19th-century beginnings. James moved her family from Connecticut to Nauvoo, the “City of the Saints” along the Mississippi River, in the 1840s to be near church founder Joseph Smith and ended up working in the Smith household and forming a strong bond with Emma Smith, the prophet’s wife.

The film “Jane and Emma” tells the story of their unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Smith’s 1844 murder at the hands of a mob.

In a phone interview — edited for clarity and length — Deadwyler talks about the project, her impressions of the Utah-based faith, and why she thinks “Jane and Emma,” which opens Friday in Salt Lake City, is not just a Mormon film.

What, if anything, did you know about Mormonism before accepting this role?

I wasn’t that versed on Mormonism. I knew about Brigham Young University and Brigham Young but I didn’t know anything about Joseph Smith at all. Strangely, I had read a small blurb about Jane Manning James. It’s kind of uncanny. It was like, “I know about this woman.” I had encountered a small inkling of who she is in written form on the web two years prior. It didn’t click for me until I was sitting in a hotel on a short film — before I came to do “Jane and Emma” — that I did encounter her. I was flabbergasted. Then you start delving into it. They sent me a crazy amount of Google documents. It was slightly overwhelming. I didn’t feel bombarded, though. I felt like if I know her in this little bit, I can go forward and step into these shoes for this time.

I knew nothing of Emma Smith.

Were you or are you in a particular faith?

(Photo courtesy of Excel Entertainment) Danielle Deadwyler and Emily Goss portray Jane Manning James and Emma Smith, respectively, in the film "Jane & Emma."

No, I was raised Methodist. I’ve delved into different spiritualities, an amalgamation of things that are important to me — an avid practitioner of meditation, Taoist and Buddhist practices, Eastern philosophy, African spirituality, and, of course, I love gospel music. I’m a bit of a blend of those things. But I definitely have an appreciation for everybody’s independent leanings.

It took a bit of questioning like Jane. “What are certain aspects of the qualities of Mormonism? What does that mean for families? What is the afterlife like?” Those things were confusing for her, and I’m in the same boat. It was a constant education on what the LDS faith is and a constant education on the emotional journey of Jane, too.

Did you know about the church’s ban on black men and boys being ordained and women and girls entering the temple? [That ban was in the place from the 1850s until 1978, when it was lifted.]

I didn’t, but these limitations and marginalization practices have been rampant in other religions and cultures. It was not a surprise.

What did you do to prepare for the role of Jane?

(Photo courtesy of Excel Entertainment) Actors portraying the Manning family are seen on the set of the film "Jane & Emma."

For anything, especially historical work, you have to dig into the times. You are always questioning: Who is this person? What does it feel like to undergo these experiences?

The role I had prior to getting “Jane” was based in the 1860s, so it was really easy to jump into the period. Beyond that, I just really delved into the Google documents and my own research.

I was always on set having conversations with others, a lot of the people who were crew or cast were practicing LDS or nonpracticing or former LDS.

I was always digging into what is the experience of these people as individuals and what was the experience historically. I took an anachronistic approach to blending everything, and then getting a more specific racial and gender perspective from Tamu [Smith] and Zandra [Vranes] [black Mormons who were consultants on the film].

They brought a historian on set to help us understand other aspects of the culture and faith and what it meant to live in that time.

For me, I am falling headfirst into everything I do, especially when it’s a long-term project like Jane. It was a three-, four-week shoot. It was being entrenched, a literal delving every day, 12 hours a day, maintaining a journal, and maintaining a curiosity, an ongoing question-and-answer-seeking process with Chantelle [Squires], the director, and within myself.

I was logging who this person is across all these experiences, these travails, that she triumphs over at various levels. She didn’t puncture the people of the time so she could receive her [temple sealing] to the Smiths. But her steadfast, unwavering perseverance, that conviction, you can’t buy that. To encounter somebody so intense, so full of intention, you have to constantly dig into: “Where did she come from? What is her family like?” Reading her words, reading letters, reading the gamut of her life so that I could understand what that is within the plane of where I am for that role. It is a constant curiosity, constantly seeking valid information.

Did you come away admiring her?

Oh, yes, indubitably. Black people talk about “How can you be lazy?” or “How can you not continue to strive for your goals?” when people such as these existed?

Regardless of faith, Jane is like — we are talking about someone who walked 800 miles in 1840s, finding in her body a black woman? She could have been killed. We see that in certain experiences that she had.

“Who are you to be so brave?” Then you go, “Who am I not to be, too?”

She’s on my mind often. You can’t walk away from these roles, and why would you want to? I want to be changed as a result of an experience, too, and that’s what this experience was, is and continues to be.

Did you draw on any of your own where-is-God moments for the film’s climax?

Every actor has a where-is-God-in-all-this moment. There is a wilderness that I was going through and that I am constantly trenching through.

I’m a mother and being away from my son — he’s 8 — for a long time was hard. It was the longest time I’ve been away from him. You draw from those kinds of things or of being lost without him. You know you are going to be fine, your child is fine, but when you are not with him, there’s a part of you that is out of sorts.

That’s what Jane was going through as well. She was away from her child for a long time, but she was still in that wilderness and thinking, “I have lost a leader [Joseph Smith] and an idol for me. What do I do now?” Those are interesting parallels I didn’t necessarily think about but was experiencing at the time.

After working on this movie, did you think differently about Mormonism?

(Photo courtesy of Excel Entertainment) Jane Manning James sits with the Partridge and Lawrence sisters in a scene from the film "Jane & Emma."

It is valuable to be forthcoming about challenges in your history, I value and respect that. Everyone involved was trying to have a conversation. I don’t think film is an answer to anything; it’s about instigating a dialogue about where we have found ourselves making errors. These errors have taken place for a long time. It is past time to amend ourselves.

For them to be forthcoming in saying, “Let’s make a film about a racial and gendered understanding of what it means to be Mormon,” I think that’s valuable. That’s different than what I’ve seen in other faiths, which are less inclined to be forthcoming with things they’ve done in the past.

For them to be willing to bring this forth in this narrative — and to have a black woman lead in calling out those challenges — is a big thing. You have to continue with that. What is the experience of black men, not being able to do things? What are other experiences of Jane Manning? She never got to be sealed [to her husband in her lifetime]. She continued to fight for it for the rest of her life.

Do you think this film will or should have interest beyond Mormonism?

I have always thought that. If I came into this saying I was going to make a Mormon film, you can’t do the human aspect justice.

It happens to be about about somebody who is Mormon, but it’s about a black woman’s experience of developing a relationship with a white woman, calling out the things that have been challenging and having lost someone who is very important to them. You can remove the faith and insert yourself. That’s the experience of moviegoing — you see yourself in the people who are being portrayed.

Everyone has the experience of being lost in the world and not knowing what to do, or of losing someone important to you and you having to reconstruct what life means for you. Period. Mormonism does not have a monopoly on that experience.