Corey Knight is not here to play games. Since landing on HBO as 20-year-old paratrooper Craig in the miniseries We Are Who We Are, the actor now lays down with tunnel vision and integrity his motives for being here.
Brooklyn born and raised, Corey is determined to raise up his community through art and be the voice of inner-city kids. The 23-year-old New Yorker’s tone rises and falls with passion as he shares the ways in which he has been moulded and moved by his environment. From his origins as part of non-profit youth theatre company Moving Mountains to his assumed college role as ‘the real quiet dude in the corner’, it is these experiences that have shaped him into the artist that he is today - which placed him on the radar of Academy Award-winner Luca Guadagnino before being cast in the anticipated coming-of-age drama, set in Italy.
We escape to the skyline of the city he knows and loves for these frames filled with Corey. Photographer Jill Greenberg presses pause on the crowds below so that we meet on more intimate terms this face of the future. Stylist Jamie Ortega dresses Corey with a statement: sharp looks for a man who knows where he comes from and knows where he’s going. Whilst his head is set on his career, on forging his path and connections in the industry, his heart belongs to his home turf, where he one day hopes to help change the lives of those who live there.
How has your morning been?
A morning… Wake up, do a workout, grab some coffee. I have to hit the office after this, and I think I’m doing another meeting tonight. Another day, another dollar.
Who is Corey?
Corey is a hard worker, man. I think he definitely gets it from his mum. My mum is a very, very big workaholic. It's always been my life: work hard. I feel like the 'work hard' wasn't really in school that much, it was more so in my creativity and those things that I'm honest with myself about. I feel like that's really what made me who I am. I was never a person of tradition, of just 'the way things are'. It was always for me, 'what is it that makes me happy? What is it that makes the people around me happy?', because I feel like we all have that time of our lives where we want to be so happy and we want to be so excited, but we're not. Something's blocking it. And I realised that in other people; I could tell through your smile. So, that's really who I am - I always try to just live in my truth and try to express other people's truths at the same time. As long as the people around me are genuinely satisfied, I think I'm alright.
You’re a Brooklyn native, born and raised. How has this shaped you as a person?
It's given me a lot of tough skin. I feel like there's not many situations that I freeze up in. In We Are Who We Are, that was one of my character questions: what is Craig scared of? And I think the more experiences that you go through where your adrenaline is pumping and it's fight or flight mode, after a while, you end up really being fearless. You still have the adrenalin and the traits of being scared, but for some reason, your mind is still aware of what's going on. A prime example, I would say, is with my car. I got in a car accident, and immediately my reaction was: one, am I dead? No, I'm good. Two, where's the car? The car was flipped over. Cool. Three, how do I get out? The window, got it. And it's just like that. You feel like you're in an action movie.
When was this?!
This was in 2015, maybe 2016. My mum is very spiritual, and when she woke up that day, she said that something was off. And that’s the day I call her and I'm like, 'mum, I'm in the hospital and I crashed my car. I'm so sorry.' But yeah, I think that's what Brooklyn did for me, especially in my area. My area was never the Washington Heights, it was never the Williamsburg. I lived in East Flatbush 53rd Street, and it was a pretty tough time. But I'm grateful to be alive at the end of the day, and it also shaped me into the person I am because all I could think about now is saving more lives. Mentally. Physically. My friends always think that I try to be Superman. I always try to discover, what are you capable of? What could you do? I’m like ‘okay, so you could do this, I'm going to draw you in this direction.’. Even in Moving Mountains, my theatre company, I was one of those inner-city kids. I was getting in trouble over and over again. I didn't realise that all I needed was a figure to look up to; something to inspire me to aim for more. That's just the person that I'm trying to be now and I just hope it works.
How do you think that experience feeds into your work as an actor?
I got into American Musical and Dramatic Academy which was a conservatory for theatre. I went to a performing arts high school, but that was nothing like this - nothing at all. The high school was more like inner-city kids, and it was like four schools rolled into one, so even though it was arts it was still a basic high school in Brooklyn. But when I went to AMDA, I literally opened the door into another world, just seeing the different personalities. I was always the real quite dude in the corner kind of taking in what's going on - and still am. I feel like what that did for my personality was make me a very big reader of energy - of all those unique characteristics and traits. Not that I'm going to try to judge you in a sense, but I just like to feel who you are, because it's clear that I'm from a different world than everybody else in the school.
I feel like the benefit of that is my subtleties. When I was in school, my teacher would pull me to the side and say, “You have this beautiful thing with your subtleties - subtle things that are very natural, it works for you”. And I would always take that note, because I'll hear it over and over again, like, “What you do is so natural, it's so minuscule”, and I think that people are just trying to give me good energy and love, but in my head I'm like, I wonder if it's just because I'm the quiet guy in the corner. I don't want to do a big performance. And so that's what I learned about myself and from my environment. That's what I try to hone in on.
So you tend to shy away from the spotlight?
I do. Usually, I'm the one filming. Before I got, We Are Who We Are, I was editing videos. I thought about getting into directing, I thought about writing my own stuff. I did write a couple of my own projects. But then, you know, I started to second guess myself and was like, maybe I shouldn't really pursue this part.
Before We Are Who We Are, I felt like anything I did wasn't good enough. I guess I didn't have enough trust and faith in myself. And I thank God for my team and people around me because they are the reason why I am still going the way I'm going. Before HBO and before all of this stuff was going on - these wonderful ass interviews - I felt like it wasn't going to happen for me. I was like, ‘I don't know if this is my path’. And when I left school - I was in a different school, I wasn't going to AMDA anymore - I was like I don't really see myself in front of the camera anymore. So I started writing my own stuff, but then I judged myself on that. Then I started directing my own stuff, and I was judging myself on directing. Then I started editing other people's videos, and I was like, maybe this is what I want. But my deepest love was for acting - not really about being in front of the camera necessarily, but having the experience of the scenes: the powerful back and forths. All of my scenes, I adore because of the craft that we put into it. I feel like, for some of the conversations that I've had since the project, it has been along the lines of “What was it like knowing Francesca Scorsese? What was it like knowing Chloë Sevigny?” and it's like, I love them now because that's my family now. But what really drew me to them outside of Hollywood is the love for the craft. I grew up for the love of the craft because I didn't have the ‘lights, camera, action’ around me. Godfather of Harlem was my first time on a production as big as this is, and instead of me even taking in my moment, the only thing I could think of was ‘okay, let me do my vocal warmups. What kind of camera are they using? Would I be able to buy that? Okay, too expensive. Whose production company is this? How do you get a production company?’ You know what I mean? My thought process wasn't on ‘lights, camera, action’. It was just on my admiration for the craft of acting.
How were you able to stay grounded on set through all of that, especially for We Are Who We Are?
It's a good question. I mean, I don't want to say it was just another project, because there is no way it was just another project. My excitement was always there, for sure. I guess I was more so looking forward to how these scenes would be with Chloë, with Jack, with Francesca. I was wondering, ‘how serious are they with their acting?’. What kept me grounded was my intent to learn so much from everybody else. I knew that I was one of the newest people there. I didn't want to embarrass myself.
Of course, the fear is ‘I hope they think I'm a good actor. I hope that they don't regret casting me for this.’ I said in my most recent interview that I had no idea how I ended up on the director Luca Guadagnino's radar. No idea. And when I got there and we spoke, and now watching the episodes, I see Craig in myself a lot more. I guess I didn't realise any of that because when I was there, I was just grateful for the opportunity, of course, but also what my mind was set on is what can I learn? How can I just get better? I guess that would be my grounding rather than hoping for another interview or something like that.
And how was the experience of filming? Was it what you anticipated it would be?
Filming was definitely more than I expected. I was expecting to come here, do my thing, leave. And when I say do my thing, I really mean just put my foot down and let people know that Corey Knight is not here to play games. I don't come from a place where you get an opportunity like this when you play around: you take it seriously. It's a job. I always thought about the Timothée Chalamets, the John David Washingtons. I'm like, Oh, my gosh, these men are good. I just hope and pray that I'm one of those guys where it's like, “He's in this film with X, Y, and Z, but wow, he's really good”. That's my main goal: for people to see me as a really good actor. I feel like when people see that, it would give me more of the connections that I've built now, in order to open doors for other people, because I feel like that's my number one thing. I want to build up my community. Who doesn't want to build up their community? I know what kind of school I grew up in, I know what kind of school my sister and niece are going in. And I know at this time, I don't have the power to fix that yet. In order for me to do that, I need to hone my craft, hone my relationships, and just keep that tunnel vision. Keep going where I'm going.
What has this experience taught you about the world and about yourself?
Oh, wow, you're really hitting me with some good questions. I did learn a lot about myself through this series. And every time they say the title, We Are Who We Are, I'm like wow. The title itself speaks in such enormous ways to me, because as we go through it and I'm meeting other Italians and I'm getting into the culture, they're like, "Americans, you guys don't like to love, you don't love. That's a problem." We don't even know how to say good morning anymore. We rather do a handshake than hug our brother. And that made me think, like, when was the last time I hugged my little sister? My mother? I don't walk inside my house anymore and give my mum a kiss on the cheek and go do my business. You know what I mean? Going back to my childhood, my mum would wake up extremely early and go to work and I'll be asleep, but she told me that she would always come in and kiss me on the forehead. I would not even know that she did that. And I was just like, when and where did that love diminish? In Italy, even if I have a problem with you, I'm going to give you two kisses on the cheek - but over here in America, it's like two positives that just cannot come together. We miss each other. Over there, the love is amazing. You hug everybody, you kiss everybody. There's no judgement. My best friend is gay, his name is Andre, he's a dancer as well. And when we were growing up, when he came out to me, I was like, 'Listen, bro, I love you no matter what, it doesn't even matter.' He was crying because he'd been holding this in for so long, and I'm like, 'dude, I'm not going to stop being your friend. I'm not going to stop being your best bro. That's your life. That's how you're going to live it, and if you're happy, then I'm happy.' But even when I see him, and I give him a big hug and we're walking together, you just feel the judgement from strangers. Like, “Are they together? What's going on?” It’s like there's no way that two people of opposite sexualities could just be friends. Is that an American thing? Or is that just a universal thing of judgement? Because in Italy, that's not a thing that you think about. Truly, nobody cares. I feel like that's why it's such a creative place of culture - because the people there think about one thing: their happiness. You put your happiness into your art, into what you love to do.
I think beforehand I had this invisible wall up. But that experience taught me not to be afraid to really show your affection and appreciation for somebody else because you don't know when you're going to lose them. And that's what the show teaches, too.
What was the biggest challenge of filming?
Truthfully, it had to be the Italian lines. There's no doubt. Doing a scene in English, we could do back to back, because there are certain tones that we use; there's just something with the language that we can understand. But when it comes to Italian, and I'm saying *speaks Italian* and they're like, “No, it's *speaks more Italian*”. I wanted to sound as natural as possible. In English, of course, I'm going to play with my pitches and how you do a question versus a statement. With Italian, it's kind of hard to comprehend that. All I could do is really write that down over and over again, and call my dialect coach like, ‘okay, what is it again?’
I was also doing military training at the same time as everyone was doing the Italian classes. So, I was trying to get that curriculum and precision down at the same time. the military was a little bit easier because I feel like it's just muscle memory. Italian is another ballgame for me.
I want to touch on your mentorship role at Moving Mountains. What does this entail?
I'm just making sure everybody's okay. My little sister is in the theatre company as well, and I kind of use her as my connection with all the kids. Even before all this, I was teaching dance there. I was a choreographer and I had a group of about 30 kids. When it was time for me to go to school, my whole dance group left the company. Now it's a dance group of about seven to 10 kids. I want to try to get it back to where it was before, but that entails me keeping communication with the kids, with the parents; trying to bring in content for the company; trying to just get the kids involved as much as possible - especially now it's even harder because of what's going on. But work can't stop. The kids can't slow down. So, it really entails just me coming up with idea over idea of how could we get these kids out of their situations?
Especially having that insight into these kids that you look after, do you think the next generation of young men are becoming more open when it comes to discussing feelings?
Yeah, for sure. I have a lot of faith and I'm really looking forward to our upcoming generations. My little sister yesterday pulled the straw out of my cup, because she's like, “No, we need to use eco-friendly straws”. So, we bought some reusable straws. Certain conversations that I have with my kids now and with my little sister and my niece, I see more and more that we're going to cut out tradition: we're going to cut out what people say has to be the way of life. Even when I was growing up, it was just like, 'it's just the way it is'. And that was never something that was okay with me. And I don't think that it's something that's okay with this generation. Racism - if we see it, the response can't be, 'it's just the way it is'. It's like no, it's not and we're going to stop that.
The same thing with women's rights. I was raised by women. There were a lot of situations where my mum would come home and be like, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to say. If I say something I don't want to lose my job, but at the same time, I don't want to just be a quiet voice." And it's the generations now that are coming up and saying women have a voice; everyone has a voice and we need to be heard. That's the type of thing that I always held inside of me, but I was scared to push out because of the repercussions. Now, I just feel like I could be the voice of inner-city kids. I could be the voice to represent my sisters and my mum, the people that felt like they were repressed from giving their opinion. My mum is the only black woman in her job - now, thank God, her voice is heard - but growing up, it was a different story, and so I felt like I was always repressed also. But now, my little sister - you can't tell her to shut up. That's not going to happen. And that's something that I can't be mad at.
Do you have any advice for young males who are considering getting into the performing arts? Because, bringing it back to the status quo, that's not necessarily a path that boys feel is accessible.
I know, for me, growing up in the arts - it's not an easy road. If you're going to be an actor, you have to commit to it. You have to keep going and never give up. My mum hates this quote, but I post it every single day. It's 'another day, another dollar'. She feels like I'm chasing the minimum, because it's like, why are you going after only $1? But I'm, like, 'mum, you're missing the point'. The point is, you never give up. I got HBO and immediately afterward, the expectation was "Okay, you're going to book another one". I hope so for sure, but I don't count my chickens before they hatch. I still have a community to look after, and now that I'm on HBO, there are even more people looking up to me. I need to think of a way to still do what I have to do and not forget my responsibilities of being a mentor, and still being an inspiration.
My advice would be, 'another day, another dollar'. Don't give up. Keep it pushing, bro. When I meet young guys that want to be actors, their first thing is, "I don't want to do that. I want to be on TV but I'm not willing to do that whole weird vocal thing that you guys do. I don't want to shake my hands and go '8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1'." And it's like, my guy! If you want something, you need to see the world around it and you need to dive in. And if you're going to dive in, you've got to dive in headfirst. Don't ease your way in: go and do it. As a choreographer, there was no way in hell I wanted to get into ballet. Put me in dance tights?! There was no way I was doing it at all. But my mentor came to me said, "How are you supposed to be a dancer, and you don't do ballet?". And that made me go and look up ballet on the side. I was still in high school, so I didn’t really want anyone to see me looking at it… But then my best bro, Andre, of course, he’s a dancer, and he pulls me into class - and I loved it. I'm here for it. The judgement is what stopped me from wanting to do it, the people looking at me like "Yeah, bro you can't do that." So I feel like my advice to everybody else would be if you have a love for it, go for it. Dive in. Find the world and dive in headfirst. Don't be tippytoe into it.
Amen. Can you tell me about your upcoming role in the short film Not Black Enough?
I kind of play the bad guy, the lost soul. Like I said, even with We Are Who We Are, these projects both intertwine with each other in the sense of 'finding out who you are'. In Not Black Enough, that discovery sits on the inner disputes between black and black men. You can have one black man that loves ballet, that loves to wear Capri pants with a cardigan and hold a man purse. Then you have the other guy that wears Ferragamo belts with big baggy pants and a baggy shirt. In the African American community, you would go to that second man and say, 'okay, you're a black man'. But to the first man, 'oh, you're wearing man purses and Capri pants. Yeah, you're not black to me'. And you're like, what?! Because of what I love to do or how I love to dress, I'm now not even approved in my own community, in my own skin?! Not Black Enough explores the constant bickering between those two worlds. You know, "I'm black and you're black. But to me, you're not black." And so now you're fighting the race that you're not in, and the race you are in. My character is the character that is explaining to him, 'you are not African American, you are not black to me. You may be black to yourself, but you're not black to the world around you', and my co-star, of course, is the opposite of who I am.
How did you prepare for that character?
Preparing for that was relatively easier than preparing for Craig. I literally just looked at the guys in my neighbourhood. That wasn't hard at all - just people watch. Because we're surrounded by judgmental people.
Do you see that culture of judgement within the black community, especially man on man, changing?
Yeah, 100%. Like I said, I've got a lot of faith in this upcoming generation. I feel like the arts are definitely taking hold of the reins. I feel like in the schools, now arts are pushed more. We're fighting for people to be creative. I feel like now we're fighting for the liberal arts a lot more, not only in Brooklyn but across the world. Everyone realises the power the arts have, the power in just speaking to a person face-to-face. We're in a technology-based world now, but how much power is in a handshake or a hug. I think that we're coming out of a very traditional world, and I'm here for it. I'm here for a better ecosystem, a better climate. I learned today, because they've just put it on the clock in Union Square, that it's seven years until I think another hole is burned through the ozone layer and we'll get more forest fires. I know a couple of politicians that have said over and over that climate change is not real... So just watching that and then watching a new generation, I'm like, God, please give us somebody with some sense! We need to take climate change seriously because it's very serious. We need to know that it's not okay to shoot a black man seven times in the back. There's really no way of explaining it. There are things in this world that are not okay. Before we were scared to voice that and now it's kind of like the trend to say it's not okay. But I'm here for it.
Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
I've been thinking about that so much. In ten years I'll be 33. That's something that my mentor always asks me: where do you see yourself? And, you know, it's kind of hard to say because as a youth, I feel like everybody around you goes. A lot of people that I grew up with are now on the other side or having life behind bars. And so it became really hard to see myself 10 years from now, or five years from now because this is the life around me. You grew up in that. So you take in the moment, rather than think about 'oh, in the future, I'm going to be this, I'm going to be that', because you really don't know when your time would come. My thought process was always, 'I don't know when my time is going to come', So I just lived in my moment. But now, the way everything is turning out, I definitely see myself in 10 years continuing Moving Mountains, my theatre company. That literally started when I was 14. I see myself having my own production company that raises voices, but not only black voices - women's voices, the forgotten voices, the worlds that we're not a part of.
And, you know, in 10 years, I also see myself as an amazing actor, of course! Hopefully doing a scene with Denzel or Robert Pattinson or Timothée Chalamet. But I just hope that I'm continuously raising my community, giving people homes, helping the Board of Education, the school system, and just trying to try to make change really before my time comes. I feel like that's what Chadwick Boseman did. He changed something, put a little fire in somebody's heart. That's it, just a little fire. So that maybe the new kid that's coming up who wants to do everything that I did, who might want to try ballet or might be fighting or questioning his sexuality, he just gets that fire and says, 'I want to do what makes me happy.' You know? That's what I hope that I can accomplish: put that little fire in somebody.