The last time we saw Jermaine Crawford, his hair was an unkempt mess and his face was riddled with the pains of a drug-addicted homeless teenager. That was some 10 months ago when Crawford closed the storyline for Duquan "Dukie" Weems, his character in the final season on the critically-acclaimed HBO crime drama, "The Wire".
Crawford has been up to a lot since the lauded cable show's closing music followed his fictional character and his unhappy ending into the darkness of an alleyway full of junkies.
Today, the lanky 6'1" teen actor is clean cut. His wide-eyed face tells a different story. He's hungry. Not having eaten all day, Crawford buries his face inside the menu of a hip bohemian restaurant called Busboys & Poets, in Northwest Washington, D.C. He's trading menu suggestions and inside jokes with his mother, Wanda Crawford, with whom he has a very close knit relationship.
They settle on buffalo wings and Maryland crab cakes before talking about a new documentary film project that has him working on the opposite side of the camera lens.
"My character really motivated me," Crawford says. "My character was homeless. No one was really there for him except for his friend [Michael Lee]. His parents sold his clothes for money…"
After spending the Wire's last two seasons playing the fictional abandoned youth named Duquan Weems, Crawford thought it was time that somebody told the story of the "real Dukies" of America.
"Teenage and Homeless in America: Change is Gonna Come" is, as the title suggests, Crawford's documentary about teenage homelessness. The one-hour television project will focus on the lives of five young "sofa surfers"- kids who live anywhere they can lay their heads.
"The idea to do a documentary came up not long after the show ended," he says. Crawford shares that he and his management were exploring the young actor's different post-show opportunities. He thought it would be interesting to document the lives of teens who really had to go through what was scripted for his character.
"[Being in Baltimore,] we were actually filming the show in a place where a lot of people go through this sort of thing," Crawford says.
Many of the documentary's subjects, whom they refer to as "the five heroes", will parallel Dukie's hard knock upbringing. But, unlike the HBO show, these kids have yet to face the anecdotal dark alleyway.
"The way we selected our five [subjects] was when we were listening to their stories we tried looking at their hearts," says the native of Mitchellville, Md. "We just went with the most touching stories."
In order to find his "five heroes" Crawford dug deeper with his research- starting with a simple Google search and ending at the Sasha Bruce House on Maryland Avenue in Northeast Washington.
The Bruce House, which is operated by Sasha Bruce Youthwork, is renowned short-term emergency shelter for homeless and runaway youth in the DC area. After Jermaine's mother talked with Sasha Bruce Youthwork about what her and her son wanted to do they agreed to open their doors to support the project.
"There was a room full of kids and we just talked. It was really powerful stories," Crawford shared about the sorting process. "It's astounding because people actually go through these types of things, and the Wire was just a description of what people go through."
The five that Crawford and his production team selected include Derek, a 17-year-old that has dreams of becoming a fashion designer but abuse from his schizophrenic mother has driven him to different shelters and drugs, which he uses and sells to support himself. Derek's only escape has been his art and design.
Eighteen-year-old Stewart is another young man being profiled that uses art to break away from his abusive childhood. Stewart describes that the abuse in his household was so bad that it made him "numb to emotion". After finally running away with his younger brother, Stewart, turned to rap as a way to deal with his pain. He sees rap as a way to tell his story to the world.
A third hero is Vincent. With his father having been murdered and his mother strung out and incarcerated, the 16-year-old lives on the streest because he has no place permanent to go. He robbed and sold drugs to get by but after getting shot in a botched car theft, Vincent wants to become a truck driver just so he can see the world beyond his unforgiving streets.
Being 16 himself, Crawford is able to relate to the teenagers he's documenting.
"It's like, I'm the same age as these guys," Crawford says. "All it takes is one mistake, one slip up and I could be right in their position. Kids are one mistake away. Parents are one pay check away. It's not impossible to end up in their situation. And so, I'm just really grateful."
The National Runaway Switchboard estimates there are between 1.6 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youths in America. The non-profit also estimates that one out of every 260 homeless youths will die due to drug overdose, murder, illness or suicide.
Reasons why youth become homeless vary. But the The Young Adult Guidance Center, an Atlanta-based youth outreach organization, states that the root causes fall into three distinct yet interrelated categories – family problems, economic problems and residential instability.
"Many homeless youth leave their homes after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member and parental neglect," the website explains.
"When you see somebody and realize that could've just as easily been you it's very humbling," says the first time director. "It's like a wake up call. It's like, 'That could have been me. That could have been my mom or dad on drugs."'
Crawford is counting his blessings that he is even getting entrusted with a production budget. He's even gotten a nod from noted Hollywood veteran Nigel Nobel to take the lead in this project. Nobel, who serves as the documentary's executive producer, is an Academy Award-winning film and television producer and director. He lends instant credibility and direction to the upstart project- direction in which Crawford latched onto wholeheartedly.
"I prepared myself by listening to the producer, Nigel Noble, and following the pointers he gave me," Crawford says. "I really just tried to follow his direction and absorb the things I've learned as an actor on the opposite side of the lens."
He envisions making impact on the lives of people.
"I just want to be rested so I can be full of energy and full of life so I can motivate people around me. That's really what I want to do as a director and an actor. I've always wanted to be that person that brings the best out of people."
His mother interjects.
"This documentary isn't just to expose these kids and their situation. But rather, if you lend a hand you can help them," says Wanda Crawford. "It's just not the kids' journey, but it is also Jermaine's journey and responsibility to help these children get to the next level…I always taught Jermaine to be grateful for what you have. Life isn't just about what you can get, but what you can give. And with this documentary, Jermaine has to give himself."
Spearheading a documentary is time consuming. Jermaine balances the demand of Hollywood with the demands of being a teen, which means making time for school. He's home-schooled, which gives him that flexibility to manage his time. A graduate student from the University of Maryland comes in and teaches Jermaine his curriculum. His mother stays at home and works as his manager.
"It's a full-time job," she says about the workload her son's job requires. "With acting, typically you'll only get a day's notice for anywhere you need to be tomorrow, so, it's very demanding. Jermaine's dad and myself, we believe in his dream a lot. For a parent, the most beautiful thing in life is seeing your child reach his dreams. It's demanding, but we're willing to make the sacrifice for it."
Mrs. Crawford says that it's a challenge raising a child actor because the entertainment world has a way of making kids adults.
"Like when you go check into a hotel, you go check in under Jermaine Crawford's name," she says. "It has a way of forcing adult things on you. And sometimes we have to say, "Jermaine, you have plenty of time. Don't rush your life. Enjoy where you are right now, and what you have. We keep him humble that way."
Despite all of his successes as an actor and now a budding film-maker, that humility comes out in his honesty as he enjoys life and experiences all the real life lessons that come as a teen:
"You're 16 now. Did you treat yourself and buy a car?" the reporter asks.
"No. I failed my permit test," he says. Chuckling and speaking playfully in teen colloquialism, he concludes, "I won't be buying no car no time soon. I have to go retake my test."