Rookie actor Julian Walker is having the time of his life. Not only is the University of Southern Mississippi student close to graduating, he is also the breakout star in the poignant new film, “Blackbird.”
The coming-of-age drama, based on the 1986 novel by Larry Duplechan, tells the story of Randy Rousseau, a saintly choirboy in small-town America struggling to reconcile his sexuality and conflicting religious beliefs.
Walker nabbed the lead role after submitting an online audition tape. He had never acted before, and didn’t think he had a true shot at landing the part. But just weeks later, he suddenly found himself on set and in the presence of some of the most acclaimed names in entertainment.
“I was so scared,” Walker says about his first days filming. “But it was amazing. Everybody was so welcoming and kind.”
For a debut acting gig, Walker’s rising moment could not have gotten much better. Academy Award-winning actress and comedian Mo’Nique stepped onboard to play Randy’s despondent mother, Claire. And two-time Image Award winner Isaiah Washington took on the role of Lance, Randy’s estranged father. The Jackson, MS native was also surrounded by the likes of Terrell Tilford, Torrey Laamar, D. Woods, Gary L. Gray, Kevin Allesee, and Nikki Jane.
Patrik-Ian Polk, the film’s director, knew instantly Walker was the right choice.
“Even though Julian had zero acting experience and training, I could tell he was the real deal,” Polk says. “He’s a Mississippi native; he’s openly gay, which is so refreshing in this day and age. And he has an amazing singing voice! He’s like a black Chris Colfer!”
Polk mentored and helped the newcomer rehearse before production started.
Growing up singing in the church himself, Walker quickly identified with his character. The promising young actor, who has known he was gay since kindergarten, was able to draw from previous experiences dealing with his own sexuality. Those points in time offered a tangible reference. “It was a familiar feeling,” he says. “I thought something was wrong with me just like Randy.”
While relating his personal journey of self-acceptance helped Walker deliver a honest portrayal, he admits being vulnerable and open also proved to be one of the more difficult parts of the process. “Reminiscing about when I was having a crush on someone, or the nervousness of coming out to my family and friends, or being in denial [about being gay], that was definitely quite emotional for me,” he says.
Walker officially came out when he was 18. He was dating someone at the time and felt he was ready to share that part of his life. “It’s hard trying to hide who you are,” he says. “I wanted to be open, [so] I told both of my parents.” Fortunately for Walker, his parents were, and have been, fully supportive and accepting of his sexual identity. He hopes “Blackbird” will inspire others to do the same. “Everybody deserves to be loved,” he says. “[We should] stop judging others, and let people be themselves.”
He wants those who see the film and are grappling with their sexuality to know that comfort and support is always available.
“The internet is amazing,” he says. “When I was younger and growing up I thought I was alone. I thought nobody was going through what I was going through. [But] in this day and age, you can look up anything you want, or find stories of people going through the exact same thing you’re going through. There are answers out there. Don’t feel like you’re alone.”
Although sexuality is a prevailing theme in “Blackbird”, Walker believes the film addresses many other issues facing young people today. “[Randy] is dealing with so much that a lot of teenagers go through,” he says. “From his sexuality, his sister going missing, his parents’ separation, [to] teen pregnancy.”
Walker is looking forward to the next phase of his career. He is optimistic his performance will help open doors for future roles. He would love to be on Fox’s new hit show, Empire. But for now, the soon-to-be college graduate is eager to share his roller coaster experience with the public when “Blackbird” opens in theaters on April 24.
“I just hope more than anything people can look at the screen and see themselves.”
by Deon Newsom