Ron Cephas Jones has a reputation for dependably playing somewhat unstable characters. Whether it’s Mr. Robot’s overly fame-hungry tech criminal Leslie Romero or his Emmy-winning turn on This Is Us as William Hill — the estranged, drug-addicted, bisexual father of Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson — Cephas Jones never shies away from complicated, multifaceted roles. His character in Truth Be Told by Apple TV+ is no exception.
Portraying Leander “Shreve” Scoville, Cephas Jones takes what could be a very two-dimensional character and infuses him with unexpected grace and vulnerability. The series stars Octavia Spencer as Poppy Parnell, a true-crime journalist who hosts a weekly podcast called Reconsidered. Each season focuses on a story Poppy reports that ends up having sometimes life-threatening consequences for her and her loved ones. We also see inside her terse family dynamics and tenuous friendships.
Poppy is successful, but her past haunts her. She uses the last name Parnell to pay homage to her mother, who died when she was just a child. Due to some family issues, she was forced to stay in an abusive foster home, the terrors of which she’s kept secret for decades. Her family members, especially Cephas Jones’ Shreve, seem to be both her sanctuary and her undoing.
Shreve is an aging biker who has had history with the law in Oakland, California. He runs a biker bar and has earned the respect of the streets over decades of backdoor service to his community. He’s trying to stay clean and be a leader, but his past life as a boxer may have caused an ailment that is slowly taking his mind. In Season 1, we see Shreve receive the diagnosis, and in Season 2, we see the successes and pitfalls of his coming to terms with it.
I had the pleasure of chatting via Zoom with Cephas Jones about the importance of the role in today’s landscape.
When you hear that there’s going to be a father figure, you tend to think of a doting father. But Shreve has a really strained relationship with Poppy. Can you talk us through how you prepared to play this character?
He’s very complicated and layered, and one of the beautiful things about this character is that relationship. Shreve has been absent for a large part of Poppy’s life because he was incarcerated. When he gets out, he becomes a power figure in Oakland as head of the motorcycle club. He’s got tentacles in the underground, but he’s also a legitimate businessman. He’s very shrewd and powerful, but he has so many emotional and psychological scars.
We see that played out through his daughters and new wife.
And Poppy — the oldest daughter — in particular. She’s so successful in her own right as a podcaster and journalist, but the idea is that they’re coming back and reforming their relationship based on their past. So there’s a lot of reconciliation and a lot of pain. And the resentments and lies and misunderstandings have to come together so he can find redemption — so he can redeem himself. Poppy is trying to redeem herself as well. All the elements she brought to her romantic relationship were in part based on the anger, fear, and anxieties in her relationship with Shreve.
Is it as simple as love healing all wounds?
There is this intense love between father and daughter, and it’s part of what drives them back together. As Poppy finally sees and really understands how much Shreve loves her, they start to bond in a way they hadn’t been able to before.
There’s definitely anger between the two of them; at one point, Shreve even lays hands on Poppy. But when it comes down to Shreve’s health and the realization that he may be suffering from connective tissue disease, she’s the one who makes him go to the hospital. She’s the one who works to get him into the trial. And this is someone who has legitimate grudges against Shreve. How did you and Octavia go about forming that dynamic?
It was very, very intricate. It was important to be able to tap into what the writers were trying to do. Everything starts with the writing. We had the opportunity to discuss the arc of where our characters were going and make sure we were on the same page. I think you make a great point about the fact that Poppy starts to realize in Season 1 that a large part of Shreve’s reactions are based on something involving his mental health.
That’s still a very taboo issue.
Especially for Black men. They just don’t want to deal with things like that, and they sweep it under the rug. But it’s become a bigger issue now with people taking care of their mental health, and we really bring it to the forefront.
The initial denial affects not only them but the people around them. The two youngest daughters, Desiree (Tracie Thoms) and Cydie (Haneefah Wood), have a completely different relationship with Shreve and seem reluctant to see flaws in their hero. And his young wife, Lillian (Tami Roman), is more like, “If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not really happening.” Poppy was the one to say, “No, no, no! We need to get through this together!”
It’s interesting because Poppy’s husband, Ingram (Michael Beach), confronts Lillian and says she needs to get Shreve help, so he’s a different type of man from Shreve. You also have Mekhi Phifer’s character. All three of them present solid elements in Poppy’s life, and now one is not so solid. There’s beautiful art that goes on in Season 2 with that.
Did you do anything special to flesh out Shreve?
I read a lot of those books about Black psychology by Dr. Molefi Asante and also Black Rage [by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs], and I realized that Shreve has layers underneath. When we see his monologues in Season 2, you’ll see he has this rage that [Black men] have had for years that we don’t have a lot of psychological studies on and that we don’t get to the therapist to talk about. So we see it play out in our children. I think [show creator] Nichelle Tremble did a tremendous job of bringing out that element, and I kept pushing it and pushing it and hoping they would give me the opportunity to show it as I found the balance.
In Truth Be Told, Ron Cephas Jones’ Shreve goes on a journey of vulnerability, stubbornness, humility, and pride, and this gifted actor makes the complicated character accessible and relatable.
Season 2 of Truth Be Told is airing now on Apple TV+.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com