In jazz, acting, and ‘The Eddy,’ André Holland listens for ‘the notes you don’t play’

Music comes before lyrics in the opening minutes of The Eddy, a new limited series from La La Land director Damien Chazelle on Netflix Friday. 

A character, shot first from behind, raps under his breath while fetching ice from the back of the modern-day Parisian jazz club around which the series is set. Even his shoveling of cubes into a pail carries a certain meter; but the show starts in earnest once he passes back through to front-of-house, the stage band striking up a lively swing ballad as he enters. Trumpet and saxophone melodies interweave, a piano player dances down sparkling keys, steady percussion and the rhythmic pulse of a double-bass lending the performance its backbone—and last comes the smoky voice of lead singer Maja (Cold War’s Joanna Kulig), serenading a faraway lover in English and French. 

But Chazelle’s camera only stops to watch this ensemble for a moment, taking in each player before turning away from the stage to push in on an especially attentive audience member: Elliot Udo (Moonlight’s André Holland), the Eddy’s co-owner, cigarette in hand and a pensive look on his face. Elliot’s business partner, Farid (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet), sidles up to remark that Maja seems tired; so does Elliot, for that matter. Well, responds Elliot, “I’m not trying to sing.” 

As The Eddy’s scope broadens across eight hourlong installments—Chazelle directing the first two to establish tone, before passing the baton to Houda Benyamina, Laïla Marrakchi, and Alan Poul, for two episodes each—Elliot remains its star player, and Holland’s understated performance its dramatic anchor.

Once a celebrated jazz pianist back home in New York, Elliot has fled to Paris following the death of his son, and his efforts to keep The Eddy afloat double as a way of keeping the grief at bay. But when Elliot discovers that Farid may have been involved in some questionable business practices under his nose, he soon has bigger issues to contend with than musicians having off nights. And after his estranged daughter, Julie (The Hate U Give’s Amandla Stenberg), arrives in Paris to live with him, Elliot’s past begins to collide fully with his present.  

“He’s a guy who’s had a pretty traumatic event in his life, and his way of dealing with that is to just throw himself into his work and his art, at the expense of all the other relationships in his life,” explains Holland, speaking with Fortune by phone. “That’s something I understood and Damien understands, so we spoke a lot about how one can find a human connection while also remaining connected to creativity.”

Across a series that features French, English, and Arabic, music is the universal language its characters all speak, though Elliot struggles at first to unlock what it is he has left to say—especially to those around him, from his also grief-stricken daughter to Maja, with whom he’s romantically involved. The first music audiences hear Elliot play in The Eddy comes once the club has closed, and the rest of the band has retired for the evening. As a lone bartender finishes balancing drawers and cleaning his space, Elliot sits down at the piano onstage and slowly, uncertainly, lets something subconscious—a memory, an instinct, seemingly out of focus even to him—guide his fingers along the keys. 

“He’s really in search of what his musical voice is now,” says Holland, 40. “What we learn about him throughout is that once upon a time, before the loss he experienced, he was a really famous musician and had a really good sense of what his sound was.”

The Eddy
Holland (left) with Kulig, who plays Maja, in “The Eddy” on Netflix.
Lou Faulon—Netflix

The Eddy flows between its players, with each episode told from the perspective of another individual in Elliot’s orbit; increasingly, this expands its world, with one episode focused on Farid’s wife, Amira (Leïla Bekhti), and another devoted to Maja. But as the series progresses, Elliot’s journey toward rediscovering his voice continues to be a major through line. “One of the things I was interested in and really pushed for was that we would get to see Elliot trying to reconnect with himself, with parts of himself that he’s locked away, through the music,” says the actor. 

Few actors are better than Holland at conveying in an instant the unsettled souls of their characters, who’ve learned to survive in the world by burying their feelings and vulnerabilities deep. It’s those expressive eyes and the quiet dignity with which he’s carried his parts—from an underestimated New York surgeon in Cinemax’s 1900s-set series The Knick to an unflappable sports agent in Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird—that most underpins his movie-star charisma. But he’s best known for his brief, unforgettable turn in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, playing a pivotal role in its third act.

“I heard someone once say, ‘In acting and in music, it’s as much about the notes you don’t play as the ones that you do,’” says Holland, of his approach to acting. 

“I’ve always been drawn to actors and performers who are able, who are brave enough, to sit in silence and find their way—emotionally, intellectually—without always feeling the need to do something,” adds the actor. “It feels good in the moment, when you’re performing, to play a character who’s always doing something—having a big fight, throwing a chair, whatever. But for me it’s actually much more satisfying to linger in the silences of a character. I think it’s more revealing, that way, and it allows the audience to weigh in.”

In the case of Elliot in The Eddy, Holland relies on expressive looks and body language—shoulders that sag ever-so-slightly downward, hands that can’t stay still—to communicate all that his character leaves unsaid, doesn’t yet know how to articulate, or can’t bring himself to admit. Scenes between him and daughter Julie, who’s grieving in her own sometimes volatile ways, are freighted with a particular melancholy.

“When you’re brave enough to sit in a silence, you allow an audience’s imagination to project onto you what their version of the story is,” he says. “But if you’re always doing something, you build this wall between yourself and the audience. For me, it’s all about finding ways to let other people into the experience I’m having.”

Without going into specifics, Holland says that he was particularly struck by similarities between his personal path these past few years and the one Elliot gradually is forced to travel in The Eddy.

“I’ve been in real pursuit of self-knowledge, coming into a better sense of understanding who I am, what I have to offer to the world, who I want to be in the world,” the actor explains. “That process for me, personally, has been a turbulent one. When I read the script for this as well as the script for Moonlight, I really connected to those characters. I understand what it is to be in that place of turmoil, and the hope is, anyway, that playing the part will teach me something about myself and my own journey.”

To that effect, Holland sought to bring his own background, growing up in the deep South, into the character. “It was important to me that whatever Elliot’s in search of, whatever his sound is at the end of this series, that it feel more black, frankly,” he says. “It’s something that needs to feel like it’s coming from a deeper, more historical place.”

Though Elliot’s dexterous skills as a jazz pianist are on full display in The Eddy, Holland says he was actually raised more on gospel and blues. “My grandfather was a preacher in a Pentecostal church, so we often had gospel music playing in the house and the car,” the actor explains. 

“When I listen to jazz, what I like feels similar to that,” he adds. “There’s a yearning, a cry or a call in it, that I recognize. People who are better musicologists than me can explain it better, but what I hear from my own layman’s ears is some of that call and response that was in the church.”

Amandla Stenberg (left) plays Julie, the grief-stricken daughter of Elliot Udo (Holland, right), in Netflix’s limited series “The Eddy.”
Lou Faulon—Netflix

Bringing his long-held love of gospel and blues into The Eddy was only one of many contributions Holland made to the series. But it was a particularly vital one, given that—even before Holland became involved—The Eddy’s path to production had started with its music. 

In late 2013, executive producer Alan Poul (Six Feet Under) had been approached by the six-time Grammy-winning musician Glen Ballard, perhaps best known for cowriting and producing Alanis Morissette’s 1995 record, Jagged Little Pill. Ballard had written a suite of songs and put together a band specifically to perform them, drawing inspiration from the jazz scene in contemporary Paris, where he’d lived on and off throughout his adult life. Would Poul be interested, he wanted to know, in building a series around the songs set in that world?

A few months later, Poul connected with Chazelle, then a rising star who’d brought Whiplash to Sundance and left with the festival’s top audience and grand jury awards. A blistering portrait of the relationship between a future jazz prodigy (Miles Teller) and his sadistic bandleader (J.K. Simmons) at an elite conservatory, Whiplash introduced Chazelle to the masses as not only a formidable filmmaker but one with an exceptional grasp of pace and rhythm. (By the time he cemented that reputation in 2016 with La La Land, reviving the movie musical in grand fashion with a tale of two lovers—played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling—chasing dreams in Los Angeles, The Eddy was already well into development.)   

After Chazelle saw Ballard’s original Eddy band perform, he quickly committed to the project; his family roots in France, where his father was born and Chazelle spent years living, made The Eddy an even more appealing proposition. Jack Thorne, the English screenwriter and playwright best known for his Tony-winning stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was tapped to write all eight episodes, strolling around various parts of Paris with Chazelle, Ballard, and Poul as all four traded anecdotes and story ideas that would later inform the series. 

It was important to all of them that The Eddy be set in the modern day, as opposed to at a point in history when American jazz musicians flooded Paris en masse. In the years after World War II, Paris played host and inspiration to many American artists, particularly black musicians drawn to the city for its thriving jazz scene, work opportunities, and relative lack of racism. Everyone from singer Billie Holiday to saxophonist Charlie Parker spent long stretches of time there, and the city’s scene swelled with an influx of influential figures, among them writer James Baldwin and jazz drummer Kenny Clarke.

Says Thorne, speaking by phone: “The central premise was the idea that there was this American jazz pianist in our time—not from those years when so many American jazz musicians were going to Paris. So the question for us was: Why is he still there? And what is he looking for?”

Director Chazelle (left) on the set of “The Eddy” with Holland.
Lou Faulon—Netflix

When it came time to cast Elliot, Holland was high up on Chazelle’s list from the beginning. The pair had previously intersected in 2016 on the festival circuit, as each of them represented one of the two films that would reach front-runner status at that year’s Oscars ceremony. 

Moonlight and La La Land were reductively, albeit memorably, framed as adversaries in that year’s awards race by more than a few prognosticators. Moonlight’s focus on the experiences of gay black men led many to deem it the kind of story Hollywood rarely awards but should. La La Land, by contrast, was seen as emblematic of the status quo: a more traditional choice for a film industry inclined toward honoring itself (not to mention a movie about and directed by white people, competing at a historically very white awards show). 

When Moonlight won Best Picture, following a disastrous, much-publicized moment when La La Land was mistakenly called to the stage, it tied the two films together in an unusually fraught manner. 

None of this generated any ill will between those involved in the projects, says Holland. He’d been a major fan of Whiplash and told Chazelle as much whenever they were at the same parties and festivals. “I think I just came over to him at a party one time and said, ‘Look, man, I really like what you’re doing and would love to work together one day,’” recalls the actor. When Chazelle reached out in January of last year to arrange a lunch meeting, the stars aligned.

The Eddy
“We set out to create a diverse array of faces, sounds, and experiences,” says Holland of “The Eddy.”
Lou Faulon—Netflix

The Eddy marks Chazelle’s most headlong dive into the world of jazz musicians yet—no small feat, given that Whiplash and La La Land both explored the same style of music at length. (Even his first film, shoestring indie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, starred a jazz trumpeter.) In Whiplash, both student and taskmaster are white, within the hermetically sealed environment of their music college. In La La Land, it’s Gosling’s jazz pianist who bemoans the genre’s decline to other characters and becomes convinced he must single-handedly revive it. 

As the latter film picked up steam en route to the Oscars, some critics accused Chazelle of perpetuating a white-savior narrative, denying jazz some element of its rich, historical blackness through his choice of protagonist. In preparing for The Eddy, while Holland and Chazelle didn’t directly discuss the La La Land controversy, the actor says, with a small laugh, “I definitely made clear my feelings about white people teaching black people about jazz.”

Chazelle was open to that conversation from day one, adds the actor. All involved sought to convey the truth of Elliot as a character and include a multiplicity of voices in its depiction of a modern, multicultural Paris. “We really just scratched the surface, and there are so many more young musicians that deserve a place,” says the actor. “But we set out to create a diverse array of faces, sounds, and experiences.”

Holland worked closely with Thorne to share his thoughts on how best to capture the duality of Elliot on the page, as well as how to properly navigate the series’ discussion of black identity. “When André came in, he had loads of questions that he posed brilliantly, that we tried to answer,” says Thorne. “It was a very exciting thing, to work that closely with an actor and to have him provoke a discussion of who Elliot was and how he lived.”

Both Holland and Thorne were struck by Elliot’s lofty standards of musical perfection, a characteristic he’d feel more comfortable expressing among the artists of Paris than he did back home in New York. 

“There are maybe 150 people in the world who can tell a really good jazz drummer from a great jazz drummer, but there are musicians out there intent on impressing those 150 people,” says Thorne. “Jazz is a music so immersed within itself. Gaining perfection is such a lonely pursuit in so many ways, but it brings this group of people together.”

Across its eight episodes, The Eddy dives into the criminal underworld of Paris, hails the history of black musicians inhabiting the city, and later in the season explores the political attitudes governing contemporary France. But its thematic arc is most broadly about the comfort its characters find in making music at the titular club, the power it has to heal their wounds, raise their spirits, and unite them in a common place of refuge.

To Holland, a series that offers such hope and solidarity—not to mention an unabashedly romantic view of the arts—couldn’t come at a better time.

“These are the moments where artists are called to step up and create and interpret the moment, giving the world some art to look forward to,” he says. “I’m happy to be a part of that in any small way.”

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