Breaking actress Nicole Beharie was only recently informed that a clip of her in the Black Mirror "Striking Vipers" episode keeps resurfacing on social media three years after the episode first aired on Netflix. When asked about it during the press cycle for her latest film, she seems stumped about what draws fans to this particular performance.
“I don’t fully know. I’m just really humbled. I just do the work. I don't even read reviews and get too tied up in what happens after,” she tells xoNecole. “I got into this work because I wanted to connect with people and understand things about humanity. If people are connecting with something so small that means the world to me.”
Perhaps what people are reacting to in the "Striking Vipers" scene is the subtle but powerful decisions Beharie makes in portraying a wife whose husband seems to have inexplicably emotionally checked out of their family life. She embodies both the measured frustrations and empathy of someone seeking honesty from their partner. It’s a master class in acting, but it’s also fairly common of Beharie’s acting performances.
She brings this same nuance to her role as Estel Valerie, a bank manager who is held hostage by a veteran who is seeking money owed to him by Veterans Affairs. John Boyega stars in the film as the veteran, Brian Brown-Easley, while Rosa Diaz plays another terrified bank employee and the late Michael K. Williams portrays a negotiator. Breaking is based on an article about the real-life story of Easley, who took two hostages in a Wells Fargo in metro Atlanta in 2017 claiming the V.A. owed him $892.
Beharie says she didn’t know much about the story when she originally read the script, but she eventually did a number of things to prepare for the role, including traveling to Marietta, Georgia where the bank was located. (The branch was permanently closed following the incident.) “I had to sort of figure out what the protocol is for being a bank manager,” she says. “What’s the day-to-day and then what are you taught to do when there’s a robbery?”
The actress says she reviewed “police statements, written statements, CCTV footage, footage of outside of the bank and lots of photographs” to learn about the woman her character is based on, but she ultimately decided not to reach out to the woman herself out of respect for the trauma she endured. “I felt like it was kind of close to home and we could take care of it without having to bring it back up for people,” she says.
Throughout the film, Beharie brings nuance to a character who has been placed in an unimaginable situation. As Estelle Valerie, she is both compassionate for Easley, resolute in trying to protect herself and the others inside the bank, and outspoken about her frustrations with the police department for the way they are handling the hostage negotiations.
Embodying a character who is navigating a traumatic situation is not easy. “Maintaining that level of fear, having that fight or flight response in your body for 12-14 hours a day for a few weeks can be a lot,” she says.
Still, she’s quick to praise her fellow cast members for their work on camera and behind the scenes. “[Boyega] just absolutely came in kicking the door, waving the 44. Total commitment, full energy, focus, and clarity,” she says of the lead actor.
She’s more solemn when reflecting on WIlliams’ role. It’s one of the final projects the celebrated actor worked on before he died last year. “This has been a weird last few days, having this movie come out and seeing his face, and him not being a part of the press junket,” she says.
Most of Beharie’s scenes take place inside the bank with Boyega and Diaz, but she has one off-camera phone call with Williams. The late actor was scheduled to be off work the day Beharie filmed the scenes, but he showed up to read lines with her. “I don’t know if people who are not in the business know this or not but that’s sort of an unheard of thing. That’s a very, very, exceedingly generous thing to do,” she says. “That’s the kind of thing I want to take with me. That’s the kind of person I want to be when I’m on set.”
Ultimately, Beharie says these moments with the rest of the cast, and the overall message of the story is what made the challenging role worthwhile. “Brian went through all that he went through so that he could be heard, and so that what was really owed to him would be his. That’s what I took from the story.”
Breaking is now in theaters.
Featured image by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images