We’ve all come to know Brett Gray as the dorky, fun-loving Jamal on Netflix’s On My Block. As we’ve moved into the show’s second season, Gray has racked up over a million followers and a Teen Choice surfboard. Gray’s passions, however, don’t stop with On My Block. The 22-year-old actor has also played an emotional role in Ava Duverney’s When They See Us based on police mistreatment towards the “Central Park Five.” He has also opened up about his mental health, shared some of his journey, and wrote a song that’s featured in the limited series. We got the chance to talk with Gray about his projects and passions.
I always like to start out with some general information. Do you want to give me a bit of a rundown on yourself?
I’m from Philadelphia, which of course I consider one of the greatest cities to be from. I have always had dreams and goals way too big for my mind to think they would actually happen.
When did you decide to act?
I started acting when I was 7 years old. I used to do plays in kindergarten and stuff, and in middle school, when I was on stage was the only time I was cool. So I stuck with it.
Talk to me about your character, Jamal, from On My Block.
He’s crazy, and a joy. We very much have a love-hate relationship with each other. Sometimes I find myself like “really Jamal…” And other times I’m like “yeah bro! That’s how you do it!” It all depends on his shenanigans.
Do you have anything in common with Jamal?
We’re both pretty whimsical. I like to think that things other people can’t fathom to be true are real, and then go at them full force to see if I can make it happen. Like he did with Rollerworld. Also, we’re both obsessed with our friends.
You get to play a group of kids who are all from underrepresented groups. What’s it been like to get to be that representation for those fans?
It feels normal to me. It feels like that’s what is supposed to happen. I love being able to speak for kids who aren’t always heard, but at the same time I go “why aren’t they heard? Why aren’t there more shows like ours?” It’s been an honor to see the impact.
Jamal is also special because he doesn’t fall into the stereotypical role for a kid in his position. He fights against football and is kind of dorky (which I totally love about him). Do you think that’s part of what makes him so lovable?
Oh yeah. At that age, I was just like Jamal. And there are millions of kids like Jamal. But we love him because his heart is in the right place no matter what. I would love to see how the show continues and if any of his pressures will start to change him as well.
What has the fan response been like to your characters and the kinds of things they go through?
Man, it’s crazy, the response is overwhelming and very positive. Most of them are dealing with similar issues: confidence, relationships, and finding themselves.
Season one ended on a very dark note. What was it like to portray those scenes?
Well, I wasn’t there for the super dark stuff. I didn’t see the ending scenes until I actually watched the show. I was blown away. I have so much respect for my castmates and also Lauren Lungerich, who directed and wrote that episode. It’s tense up until the last second. What a finale!
Your character also tends to provide some comic relief. Is it fun to get to play that role?
It is! Sometimes it’s difficult because of the stuff I get to do, but for the most part, it’s very freeing to just jump in and make everyone smile.
In the second season, we got to see a little bit more of an in-depth view of the squad. Do you feel like you’re all falling more into your character and the On My Block world?
Absolutely! I love the second season because the world has to open up a bit. Seeing all of our characters interact more in different duos and in different settings is so much fun for me to watch.
Season two puts you much closer to Cesar’s gang affiliation. What do you think it is about Jamal that makes him want to get involved in a gang for his friend?
I don’t think Jamal wants anything to do with it. I just think his friend is paramount and that means doing whatever it takes. He just doesn’t want to die.
On My Block was the most binge-watched show of 2018 and voted best TV breakout show at the Teen Choice Awards. How did that feel?
Honestly, it took forever to really sink in for me. Everything happened so fast. But now I get it. It’s so ridiculous that I, a little guy from Philly, have a Teen Choice surfboard at my house! I mean, I grew up watching those awards and the people who won them, and now I’m one of those people for this generation. It’s crazy!
What do you think makes On My Block so bingeable?
I think it’s got heart! The characters and the story MAKE you care. And on top of that it’s so short they always leave you feeling like you didn’t get enough!
A lot of your fans feel like they can really relate to your character. What do you think makes them so easy to connect to?
I think it’s Jamal’s honesty. Not everyone is super hard and tough all the time so I think they’re refreshed when they see Jamal go up against a challenge. He has to use other tactics to get what he wants because he isn’t scary, or intimidating, and I think it’s fun to watch him figure out what he CAN use.
You guys just got picked up for a season 3. Congratulations! What can we expect from the next installation?
Thank you! And honestly, I have no idea! They don’t tell us anything!
What are your hopes for Jamal in the future?
I really actually want to see Jamal handle darkness. I wonder how he’ll react and get through it.
Aside from your work on On My Block, you also recently dropped your first EP and your new single, “Our Day”! Has music always been on the docket for you?
Nope! I fell into it completely by surprise and I’m having so much fun.
How does it feel to put your music out into the world?
Crazy. Like here you go, here’s all my hopes, dreams, fears, and heartbreaks…
“Our Day” delves a bit into your mental health journey. Do you want to share a little about that?
With the show, everything happened so fast. One day I was just a regular guy, and the next a huge Netflix star. I was having trouble handling it all. I was doubting myself, and my ability, and being reckless with money and not getting enough rest, etc. It was very weird. I was in a very dark place while all of this amazing stuff is happening to me. It took me a while to kind of get through it, and music was super cathartic for me. But what really helped was my fans. I had them send me emails about their own journey with mental health and I realized I wasn’t alone. That I could still connect even though my life wasn’t “normal” anymore.
The song also stemmed from your work with Ava DuVernay on When They See Us, which exposes the underbelly of the U.S. justice system during the Central Park Five case. What was it like getting to be a part of that?
One of the most incredible and fulfilling experiences of my life so far. So much happened. I met and worked really close with Ava, and all of the kids there were my age and black and it was like working with brothers. I would do it again over and over.
You have over a million followers on Instagram. How do you make sure you stay yourself with so many people following you and listening to what you have to say?
I think. I make sure I’m saying what I actually want to. And to stay myself, I have finsta pages where I follow all my friends and meme pages and satisfying videos. I think everyone should have finsta pages where they can be free, even if you don’t have lots of followers.
What kinds of messages do you like to send to your fans/followers?
Just have fun. Take it easy. There’s so much going on right now. I want you to be able to come to my page and just laugh and have fun and see what I’m up too.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Stream “Our Day,” it’s out on all platforms and get ready for On My Block season 3! I have a feeling they have something up their sleeve.
STORY GINA DECICCO
PHOTOS TED ELY
GROOMING BRENNA DRURY
STYLIST ALESANDRA THOMAS
STYLING ASSISTANT KEENAN JORDAN