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In the July/August issue of ESSENCE, we gave you a small taste of rising screen king Aaron Pierre, but now we’re introducing you to the whole platter by way of the English actor’s background in theater and his breakout year in Hollywood.

Raised in West Croydon, South London, as a kid, the budding track and field star initially thought he’d be a professional athlete, but around the age of 13 he began to set his sights on the stage.

“I just had this real interest in telling stories and hopefully sort of affecting change and encouraging conversation and evoking thoughts and feelings from people that would hopefully have a positive impact in some way or another,” Pierre tells ESSENCE.

This past spring, he certainly achieved that goal in the role of Caesar in Barry Jenkins’ limited series The Underground Railroad based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name. Echoing sentiments expressed by the series lead, South African actress, Thuso Mbedu in our May/June issue, Pierre said the part deepened his understanding of the African-American experience as it pertains to race relations.

“I of course understand entirely what it is to be a Black person in this part of the world and what that experience is like. And there are certainly parallels, but there are also differences, and that’s where my knowledge deepened for sure –understanding that and empathizing with that. And I think it just gave me a deeper understanding and connection to it.”

In Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Pierre plays an altogether different type of character — a rapper named Brendan to be specific — but this role, too, led the actor to ponder some deeper questions.

Calling the film “terrifying,” he explains, “It’s eerie and it makes you reflect, all at the same time because it’s this family that goes on this holiday, and that’s all they’re anticipating, but then they end up in this place where the adults and the kids begin to age rapidly and it reduces their lives to essentially a day. Even though I was part of the movie and I’d read the script however many times, even until the last day of filming I was sort of asking myself questions, like if days became minutes, what becomes important to you?”

As for what conclusion he came to while pondering that thought, Pierre adds, “I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don’t. I think maybe what I would do differently is try and be more present. I think that’s the hardest thing to do in this day and age, especially when things move so quickly nowadays. You’re always sort of one foot in the future, one foot in the present, so I think I would probably just try and do that more.”

Check out our full interview with Pierre in the video above as he talks about following in his dad’s footsteps as an actor and what makes him passionate about his craft.

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