What's it like being slapped by a rapper or begging for food while living on the streets? Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks knows. He lived it.
In his new MTV series World of Jenks (Monday, 10/9c), the 24-year-old filmed the lives of 12 very different individuals, immersing himself in each of their worlds. Jenks spoke to TVGuide.com about how he was able to understand how someone like rap star Maino, who has spent time in jail and on the streets, become an inspiration to his hometown, or why a girl nicknamed Heavy D chooses to be homeless. Plus: Jenks reveals the toughest moment to shoot.
TVGuide.com: How did you end up on MTV?
Andrew Jenks: Someone at MTV had seen Room 335 [my film about assisted living] and called me up and asked if I wanted to come in and talk to them. The idea has always been I would be immersing myself in some sort of situation. I said, "What if I moved in with a rapper and that could be the whole first season?" They said, "Don't make it longer than five minutes." So I did it... it ended up being a 20 minute pilot. MTV decided rather than the rapper being the season I could just move into a new world in every episode.
TVGuide.com: Were you nervous about going mainstream with your work?
Jenks: That was one of my bigger concerns. I'm a filmmaker first, so the idea of being on what a lot of people would consider a reality show was a really scary thought. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with that, it's just not what I wanted my career to be about. But at the end of the day, I have the very unique chance to capture 12 individuals around the country and showcase that on a channel like MTV that goes out to millions of people. So it's like, "Good God. Who would not do that?
TVGuide.com: Talk about your confrontation with rapper Maino in the premiere. He slaps you.
Jenks: He does this thing where he sticks up his middle finger when people take a picture of him. I didn't really quite understand why he did that. I brought it up sort of casually. "How could you claim to be an inspiration to all these kids, but you stick up your middle fingers? What inspiration is that?" He just really took offense to it and said, "You need to come to where I'm from and you'll have a better understanding of why I do these things." I still wasn't totally convinced, but then I went back to Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn, NY), where he's from, and I met all of these guys that totally look up to him. To them, it's an example of someone who was in jail for 10 years, lived in the projects, and was able to get out. If he was very proper and walked around in a suit, then the people he was trying to inspire would feel like he's changed. He's no longer the Maino they knew. I thought that was an interesting perspective I certainly hadn't thought of. I think it was just something that I didn't understand. Maybe I judged him too quickly which a lot of people do, and that lead to going to his hometown. I wish the show was longer because it was just an unbelievable experience.
TVGuide.com: What was the hardest part of filming the series?
Jenks: Being homeless. That was brutal. When you're on the streets and you've had a tough day and you can't find food, people might be yelling at you or calling you names. Most people who have a bad day can go to their rooms or apartment at night. When you're homeless, you're back to the woods or back to a street corner and at any point someone can wake you up, a cop, a robber a rapist, it doesn't matter. That was by far the most outlandish lifestyle I followed.
TVGuide.com: Did getting to know Heavy D change your perception of the homeless?
Jenks: It didn't change my perspective as much as it made my perspective. Heavy D was incredibly articulate and funny and had so much going for her it was just so baffling as to why she was "houseless," as she put it. We take a journey back up to her hometown and meet her parents and you start to really get a sense of why she is the way she is. It makes sense in the end, why she is homeless.
TVGuide.com: What moment really got to you?
Jenks: There was this [abused high school] football player in west Texas... where football was a religion. Everyone looked up to him. I knew his mom was in jail, but I didn't know what [she] and his father had been doing to him. They'd get their belts and electrical cords and whip him whenever he was acting improperly. It got to the point where they were doing it every night, really abusing him. His father was put in jail for life and his mom, who he's forgiven, was still in jail. He gave me permission to go to jail and interview her and so that was probably the one experience where I was like, "Good God, I'm sitting in a jail right now talking to this kid, who I've really become friends with, talking to his mom and trying to figure out why she abused him in such a disturbing way."
TVGuide.com: What's the greatest lesson you learned from making the show?
Jenks: How much is at stake in everyone's lives, and how you never really know what someone is like or what they're about until you spend time with them. We followed around a poker player who was in Vegas, lived this playboy lifestyle but, after I got to know him, he was prone to anxiety and depression. He had a difficult life even though he had millions and millions of dollars. It's just unbelievable what you find out from people after you're with them for an extended period of time.
Watch the first episode of World of Jenks and tell us what you think of the series.