Actor Telvin Griffin is making his big screen debut alongside Hollywood’s biggest stars like Margot Robbie and Jean Smart. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Babylon captures the rise and fall of industry players during the movie business’ transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s. Among a story characterized by outsized ambition, outrageous excess and unbridled decadence and depravity is an unexpected rivalry between straight-shooting saxophone player Reginald, played by Griffin, and trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo).
Ahead of Babylon’s premiere, Griffin spoke with Los Angeles Confidential about the film’s plethora of Golden Globe nominations, working with Chazelle and being inspired by Bill Clinton.
Congrats on being part of a Golden Globe-nominated film! How did it feel to see all the nominations?
Oh my gosh, I woke up this morning and I had a bunch of text messages. I’m like, “Holy cow!” It's so exciting. It is. It just speaks volumes to Damien and everybody that was a part of this project, man. We really just laid it all out there, man, and just really wanted to put everything we had in it. And it's so amazing to see the fruits of our labor coming to fruition.
It was among the most nominated films. Why do you think Babylon resonated so well with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?
I think that people really enjoy history, and they enjoy it in a way that allows them to really see the authenticity of how things really were. A lot of times, we go through things and then later down the line, we look back on and we laugh like, “Holy cow. Is that really what happened back then?”
Can you tell us more about joining the film and any insight into Reginald’s rivalry with Sidney?
I came on the project last year, and I just happened to not even realize that my character will be playing the saxophone. And so I ended up getting a saxophone and refreshed my memory on how to play. Fast forward to us getting on set and I get a chance to work with my co-star Jovan and he and my character, we just, we just go at it. We're both in the band, and we're trying to find our way— without going too far and exposing too much of the script— but we just have fun with what we're doing. And at the end of the day, we're both just two guys in this transition, trying to find our way as well. And I think that's something that you will discover with every character in this film is that we're all trying to find our lane and trying to find that way. And then sometimes you find it, but then sometimes you don't find it and ultimately, it can be the demise of what you're trying to do in this industry. I can't speak volumes for how fun it was to really just let loose, you know what I mean? And I think that is what's going to really have the audience laughing. It's a lot of fun moments. It's a lot of serious moments. But at the end of the day, it's a joyous ride that I think people are going to enjoy and you won't even know that you're in the movies. It's just going to be this entire experience.
What was it like to work with Damien Chazelle?
Since day one, Damien made us all feel like we were all collaborators with him on this project, even from the audition process and the chemistry screen test. And even after we would do the first take and we would have it in the can on the first take, he would say “OK, let's do something fun. Y’all want to do something else?” To me, that made all of us feel so good as artists because one, he knew what he wanted and two, we shot this thing at such a pace, and you'll see it when you watch the film, that everything is just full of energy. Damien is one of those guys where he knows what he's what he wants, and he's such an actor's director, if that makes sense. I just can't speak volumes for him. I mean, the guy won the Academy Award for La La Land and it's a reason why he won that. From the pool things to the scenes with Margot, everybody felt as though they were special on that set. And it all started with our director from day one. Damien is by far a genius in my books.
You mentioned refreshing your memory for playing the saxophone. When did you first learn to play?
I played the saxophone in the sixth and seventh grade. I joined the band at my middle school, and I just started learning how to play and never knew that I would end up having to use those skills 10, 15, 20 years down the line in a film that I would be doing. And so that was really cool getting to play the sax, getting to reteach myself all over again how to play. I think I just taught myself how to play “My Girl” just to make sure that if Damien said, “OK, to play something for us,” I had a song ready. But no, all jokes aside, it was cool especially when we got to set and I had my sax on my hand and the guys were like “Oh, dang you can really play.” I said, “just a little bit now. No professional, just a little bit.”
I actually fell in love with the saxophone because of President Bill Clinton. He's from Arkansas, which is where I'm from. He's from a town called Hope, Arkansas, which is about 10 minutes from my hometown of Texarkana. I saw him play the saxophone at the White House one time on TV, and I was like, “Holy cow, I want to play that. I want to play that.” And my mom was like, “Okay, well, we'll put you in band.” And long story short, I got in band and fell in love with the sax.
You studied broadcast journalism in college. Is there anything you learned from that time that you apply now in your career as an actor?
I learned how to be comfortable in front of a camera even more. I was always comfortable talking in front of people. I used to in my grandparents house, I would go into their little study and I would pretend I was talking to an imaginary audience. Once I got to college, I became a journalist. I was doing broadcast on television. And I just fell in love with the aspect of being in front of the camera and being able to be in people's homes because even in college we had our own TV station, so we were able to do the nightly news and sports and all that. But there was something that was missing, and so I wanted to do more and so I fell in love with acting in 2012 when I graduated college. I really think that that really prepared me for being able to feel more comfortable and really be comfortable talking to people like the press and regular people and even talking when I’m on set to people. It just gives you that comfortability that you need whenever you're getting ready to tell a story to somebody and you don't feel nervous. I think that played a huge role in what I do today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Photo by Eric Charbonneau for Paramount Pictures