Despite being just 19, Atlanta actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston carries himself with the gravitas of a much older actor, and that mature energy has translated into a number of dramatic roles.
Winston’s lead role in the family drama “We Have a Ghost” on Netflix, released on Feb. 24, is yet another step up his career ladder. He plays Kevin, an introverted teen who befriends a misunderstood, lost ghost with a terrible comb-over named Ernest played by David Harbour of “Stranger Things” fame.
Chris Landon, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, said Kevin was the most crucial role in the film and the one he cast first. Winston fit what he needed.
“Jahi is an old soul,” Landon said. “That’s what grabbed me. The kid feels like he’s from a different time. He’s not a modern kid. He’s not a TikTok kid.”
Winston said he just liked the idea of doing something “that was fun and not so serious with a sense of escapism. This movie is for everyone.”
The rest of the cast quickly fell into place, Landon said.
Anthony Mackie (”The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”) became Kevin’s dad Frank, whose career choices have led nowhere. He has moved his family for yet another fresh start into what he discovers is a haunted house. Even at the expense of his son’s trust, Frank quickly tries to leverage the ghost into fame and fortune.
“Anthony is so charming,” Landon said. “His character could have been so unlikeable. I needed someone who could counterbalance that side of the role.”
And the Atlanta connections on the cast go beyond Winston.
Decatur native Erica Ash plays Frank’s warily supportive wife. “I saw a lightness and humor and expressiveness in her,” Landon said. “When we met, we really hit it off. She crushed it. She was my secret weapon and made some of the other actors up their game.”
Winston’s oldest brother Fulton Presley, who is very much a social media fiend, is also played by an Atlanta native Niles Fitch, best known for playing a younger version of Randal Pearson in NBC’s “This is Us.”
Steven Coulter, another Atlantan, also shows up as a CIA official who wants to “study” the ghost, the ghost’s feelings be damned. “He’s such an old pro and brings really good energy to that role,” he said. “His character may be a jerk but he brings slyness and wit to it.”
He also nabbed Jennifer Coolidge, hot off the heels of her star-making role on HBO’s “White Lotus.” Donning an over-the-top wig, Coolidge plays celebrity psychic the West Coast Medium, a not very subtle caricature of Theresa Caputo of TLC’s “Long Island Medium” fame.
“The stars aligned and she had a little window,” Landon said. “She also happens to live in New Orleans where we were shooting. It took her just three days and she liked the script.”
As reflected in the lighthearted movie title, “We Have a Ghost” uses ghost effects largely for humor, not scares. Not that it was easy. It took Landon a full year of post-production to make Harbour’s ghost look just right, with the proper hue, transparency and a vapor trail representing his energy. “It was super complicated to design and pull off,” Landon said.
Winston said Landon “did an amazing job merging the supernatural with the grounded elements of the movie, which are friendship and family and the love shared between people.”
Landon said he tried to keep the ghost rules simple so “we didn’t go down any rabbit holes or need a long expositional moment that bogs it all down,” he said. “Kevin at one point just says, ‘He can touch us but we can’t touch him ― like a stripper.’ That cleared it up for me.”
And Winston was able to pull off an early scene when Kevin first meets Ernest and instead of freaking out, laughs at Ernest’s hapless efforts to be frightening and makes a video of him that goes viral. “Kids today are growing up in a very scary world,” Landon said. “They’ve been through COVID and all kinds of trauma. A goofy ghost isn’t going to faze them.”
Winston said working with Harbour was a joy. “One of the really special things about David is he has almost no dialogue as a ghost, but he wasn’t any less committed to the process. He gave it 100%. He shared a lot of insight into what the soul of the movie was.”
Winston grew up mostly in the Marietta area with his parents, who run a church. While he loves living in Atlanta, he hopes to move to New York, where he lived briefly as a child, to “experience (it) as a young adult.”
As for his career, he hopes to take on projects that challenge him in both acting and music. (Kevin sings briefly in the film to warm up to Ernest.) “I make a lot of alternative pop weird kooky music,” Winston said.
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
WHERE TO WATCH
“We Have a Ghost,” available on Netflix on Feb. 24.
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