Promoting a movie is hard enough in the best of times. Doing it in the midst of a pandemic is even more challenging. Still, actress Celeste O’Connor, in one of her first ever promotional runs, recognized the importance of doing so over the phone instead of in-person.
“It’s a cool first experience, definitely different than it would be otherwise," she said. “But it’s so important for everyone to do what they can to stay inside and stay safe, so I really understand and respect the way that people have been able to adjust their lives so quickly.”
In what promises to be a breakout role, O’Connor portrays high school student Paloma in the independent drama “Selah and the Spades.” Filmmaker Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature follows title character Selah (Lovie Simone, “Greenleaf”) at the elite Pennsylvania boarding school where she and Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, who won an Emmy for his performance in Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us”) run a drug ring. Paloma is the new girl, a curious photographer who falls under Selah’s sway. Their relationship drives much of the film’s most engaging scenes, as Paloma starts asking tough questions about Selah’s role in the school’s hidden party scene. The movie premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is available on Amazon Prime Video starting April 17.
To prepare for the role, O’Connor drew from character backgrounds that Poe developed in short stories about each character. She also referenced her past as a student at Notre Dame Preparatory School, an all-girls Catholic institution in Towson.
“Obviously, this story’s a dramatized version of it, but a lot of the social hierarchies and dynamics were really familiar to me,” she said.
O’Connor added that her character acts as the eyes for the audience, witnessing these dynamics play out as Selah takes the initially naive Paloma increasingly under her wing.
“Throughout this journey and story, she starts out as someone who is vulnerable and kind of being manipulated, but turns into a person that comes out stronger and more confident because of it,” she said.
In reality, O’Connor balances acting with studies at another top school: Johns Hopkins University, where she’s a junior majoring in public health and pre-medicine. She hopes to keep this balance going forth.
O’Connor initially got into acting through music. She studied singing and violin through the Peabody Institute’s preparatory program. In fact, she only considered acting in her teens, when a casting director approached her at a talent showcase and said she should try it. Since then, she’s also performed in the movie “Wetlands" while balancing her scholastic work.
“I was really grateful and lucky that someone kind of noticed this potential in me and said, ‘Here, you should try this,’” she said. “Once I did, it really developed into something that I’m super passionate about now, even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for it before."
The film’s predominantly black leading cast, which also includes “Suits” actress Gina Torres and “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams, separates “Selah and the Spades” from other high school-set movies like “Brick” and “Clueless" — both of which Poe told Yahoo! Life inspired the movie. O’Connor said that issues of diverse representation in entertainment matter to her, especially since seeing movies and TV with black characters made her feel less alone while growing up in a mainly white community.
“Hopefully, my work will help other young black kids in the same way that the movies and shows that I watched growing up [helped me],” she said. “But on the other side of things, in terms of my work in public health and political beliefs, I think that not only is representation important, but it’s also important for me to use whatever platform I have to actually, materially, impact the lives of the people in my community.”