LOS ANGELES – Morgan Freeman’s lifetime achievement tribute from the Screen Actors Guild last month was all the more remarkable when you consider the 80-year-old legend’s big-screen breakthrough didn’t come until he played an intimidating pimp in “Street Smart” at age 50.
But was it that unusual? Black screen stars Samuel Jackson, Laurence Fishburne and James Earl Jones didn’t get their due until they were approaching middle age — a point at which they were ineligible, by Hollywood’s unspoken code at least, to play romantic heartthrobs and action heroes.
At 31, Jason Mitchell is no kid, but he, along with Corey Hawkins (“24: Legacy”) and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), represents a new class of promising black actors who may change the way audiences picture the Hollywood leading man.
“You know how Tom Hanks is such an everyman that you can look at him and see yourself in it? That’s what Jason brings,” said Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe, who cast Mitchell as a morally conflicted chef in her new Showtime series “The Chi.”
In the past 12 months, Mitchell has had juicy parts in “Detroit,” “Kong: Skull Island” and “Mudbound,” with a formidable but unsuccessful campaign to snag an Oscar nomination for his role in that Netflix standout as a World War II vet who returns to Mississippi to face a different battle.
At the recent Sundance Film Festival, he received rave reviews for “Tyrel,” which is being described as a realistic version of “Get Out.” He’s also set to play the title role in a reboot of “Superfly.”
It’s the kind of hot streak that has Mitchell set up for an illustrious career — if he doesn’t burn out in the process.
“To be honest, I haven’t even stopped to look around and say, ‘What have I done?’ ” said the New Orleans native, leaning forward in a sharp charcoal suit inside a stripped-down hotel room. “I’m more of a head-down-and-keep-it-moving kind of guy who’s still at the beginning of the race. This is a marathon, even though I started off really fast.”
Mitchell gives credit to director F. Gary Gray for casting him in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” as gangsta rap godfather Eazy-E, who triggered more than a few tears as his life slipped away onscreen.
Common, a producer for “The Chi,” was impressed: “For me, it’s a joy to watch greatness, and I’m watching him. It’s like having LeBron James in his prime.” The Chicago-born rapper/actor makes a guest appearance in the series. which has been picked up for a second season.
Mitchell has avoided typecasting. He pines to do more comedy and dreams of playing a supervillain, in the spirit Vincent D’Onofrio brought to Netflix’s “Daredevil.”
“When you think about how you want to be remembered forever, that’s deep. I’m not going to tread lightly on that,” he said. “I don’t want to get pigeonholed as the young gangster type. I’m a 17-layer cake; I’m not just a guy with icing on top.”
Don’t expect him to take a long hiatus anytime soon. “If I had one wish, it would be to have a guy who could sleep for me so I could keep moving,” said Mitchell, who admits to getting only about five hours of shuteye a night. “Slowing down is not an option.”