Emily Rios plays a small but pivotal role in If Beale Street Could Talk. In fact, her character Victoria, is the reason Tish and Fonny, the two lovers at the heart of the warm-hued film, are torn apart. It is Victoria, a young Puerto Rican woman living in Lower Manhattan, who accuses Fonny of sexual assault sending him to jail. Just as in the James Baldwin novel of the same name, it’s clear Fonny couldn’t have laid a hand on Victoria: he was with Tish the night of the alleged incident. It becomes obvious the young Latina has been coerced to testify against Fonny by a vindictive cop. But, speaking to the complexity of the movie at hand, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight never turns Victoria into a faceless villain. Instead, both Tish and her sister agree that the distraught young woman was most surely assaulted. Only, she would rather play along and accuse Fonny than continue reliving her traumatic experience.
“With the #MeToo movement and the asshole who just got voted into the Supreme Court,” Rios told Remezcla, “it was important to show that, regardless of who the attacker is, somebody is suffering and we have to show some respect and some level of compassion towards the survivors who are willing to bring these stories to light and tell more women: ‘Hey, this isn’t okay,’ and bring up those topics of conversations today. It’s usually the victims who feel embarrassed and ashamed. It’s infuriating.”
Such a tricky part required a capable actress. And Jenkins admitted to Rios he had a hard time casting it. “You saved us,” he told her at the after-party following the sold-out screening of the movie at the famed Apollo Theater. He was so certain she could pull off her big emotional scene that he’d offered her the part without auditioning her.
That one scene has Victoria face off against Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King). All Sharon wants is for Victoria to reconsider her testimony and return to New York to help Fonny be released so he can take care of the baby Tish is now carrying. The exchange between these two mothers is one of the most heart-wrenching sequences in the film and a perfect example of two generous actresses demanding the best of one another.
“You know, Emily, you’re a real motherfucker,” Rios remembers King telling her while shooting that scene. “And I took that as the ultimate fucking compliment because I feel the same about her. It’s so rare to find someone in this industry who all they give a fuck about is the work.”
It might have been a brief shoot but Rios was all too happy to contribute to such a loving film. “That day could hold me over for the rest of my life. That scene is what I got into acting for. If the audience feels an inch of what I felt in that day, then I’ll feel happy.”
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on December 14.