The new film “O.G.,” which stars Jeffrey Wright and had its television debut on HBO this week, was filmed almost entirely inside Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Indiana. Wright plays a man who has spent decades inside but is about to be released, and in his final days he takes interest in a young man who has recently arrived. That young man is played by Theothus Carter, who is serving 65 years for attempted murder and other charges, and was incarcerated at Pendleton when the movie was filmed. This account of working on “O.G.” is adapted from interviews with Carter, as well as letters he sent to the film’s director Madeleine Sackler.
I heard about the auditions in early 2016 from a chaplain. A film crew was coming to the prison to make a movie, and they were looking for people inside to be in the film. He asked me if I signed up. He said it might be good for me.
I had never acted before. When audition day came, I woke up early—a little nervous. I had two small roles to read for, and I had read both so many times that I didn’t even need the script anymore. I leaned on my confidence, and it must have gotten me through, because by the end of the audition I had been asked to read for more characters, including a major part, “Beecher,” and the production people were kinda noticeably excited.
A few weeks later, I was called into the room where they usually hold parole hearings. Over Skype, the director, Madeleine Sackler, had me read some more and then asked if I wanted to play the role of Beecher. I was shaking inside. I was so happy, it was like being jolted alive back from the dead. I know I’ve never been dead before, but being dead has to feel like being in prison, because here it feels like you don’t matter anymore. This made me feel like I mattered again.
Beecher’s life was very similar to mine; it was like someone wrote a script about my life and asked me to play myself. Beecher got 50 years, and I got 65 years. We were both young, had both gotten into lots of fights in prison, had both been approached by prison gangs about joining them. In the original script, Beecher was younger, but once I was cast, I worked with the director and the script writer. We rewrote the dialogue to make it more realistic, to make it seem like Beecher had been in prison for a few years already, like I had.
I read the script over and over. I’m in an open dorm with a lot of people, and I tried to stay away from everybody. I didn’t go to the recreation building or the chow hall. I mostly ate commissary food. I didn’t want any trouble; I didn’t want to be the reason the project didn’t succeed. Still, word got around, and people started calling me, “Movie Star.”
I found that acting came naturally to me. When you go into a courtroom, you’re in front of a lot of people who don’t know you, and you’re often wearing a jumpsuit, which makes anyone look like a criminal. But you have to give these people a glimpse of who you are in a short amount of time to show them you’re not just the person the affidavits say you are. That’s a lot like acting.
Before the outside actors showed up, we rehearsed for four weeks. Madeleine, the director, didn’t want us to freeze once the cameras were on, so we didn’t rehearse the actual movie scenes—we rehearsed scenes from other movies, like “John Q.,” and did a lot of improvising. She asked us to improvise an opera about how we spent our morning. We pretended to battle with lightsabers. I told myself: There must be a reason for this. It was to make us comfortable, natural, so that it wouldn’t feel like acting once the cameras were rolling.
People are usually intimidated to meet me, but the actors who came from the outside weren’t. As we filmed, I got to know Jeffrey Wright, and I learned so many things about acting from him that are hard to put into words. I observed him closely, how he prepared for scenes, how he tried to bring out every little emotion. One time he told me to shake my leg during a scene, and it made it so much more intense. Sometimes people mistook Jeffrey for an actual guy in prison, which to me shows how much the outfits matter. That piece of cloth tells people you’re guilty. When we filmed the fight scenes, I had to unlearn some of the things I would normally do in a fight, because the stunt coordinator said certain things look better on camera.
Those 15 weeks were the greatest experience of my life, save for the birth of my son. Now I sit back and wonder: What if I had gotten this opportunity on the streets, when I was out, at an earlier age? I’m from Haughville, a neighborhood in Indianapolis where the schools never had plays or drama classes. I grew up around drug dealers, hustlers, crooked cops. Both my parents had drug habits. We were so poor that in winter we used our front porch to keep perishables from going bad, because we had no electricity in the house. Ten of us would gather around a kerosene heater. The allure of fast, easy money has a major pull when you grow up with nothing.
For many years, I thought the street life was the most exciting thing in the world. Until I met Madeleine Sackler. She discovered a talent in me that I didn’t know I possessed. Filmmaking occupied the space in my mind that was previously occupied by the street life; it was a breath of fresh air, and it gave me a sense of hope. That’s especially important in a place where most people lose their purpose for living. Making this movie showed that people are willing to give us a second chance. But you also have to be ready for that second chance, and take nothing for granted.
Shortly after we finished filming, my son was killed on the outside. I’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my life. I know he’s smiling down on me, and I want him to know that his mom and I love him and miss him. It’s powerful to know that I was able to do something positive with my life, something he could be proud of me for while he was still alive. I dedicated the role to him.
Theothus Carter is incarcerated at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana. “O.G.” is currently streaming on HBO platforms.