Anguish. Pain. Helplessness. Sadness. These are the kind of emotions you can expect when you watch Ava DuVernay's When They See Us. Her scripted adaptation of the events that led to the arrests of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise—also known as the Central Park 5—is hard to watch. The teenagers were arrested following the brutal rape of a jogger in NYC's Central Park in 1989, and before any evidence had been presented against them, they were tried by the public, vilified by the media, manipulated by police, and ultimately convicted for a crime they did not commit. They spent years in prison before their sentences were vacated over a decade later after someone else confessed to the crime and it was found that their original confessions were likely coerced.
But for all the ways that When They See Us is hard to watch, it was just as hard—if not harder—to make; that was made clear to me after I spoke with 11 of the actors in the powerful, four-episode series. We spoke at a press event, and I chatted with them in three different groups: There was Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, and Marsha Blake, who play the parents of Wise and McCray; then, Blair Underwood, Joshua Jackson, and Chris Jackson, who play defense attorneys; and also, Jharrel Jerome, Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Ethan Herisse, and Marquis Rodriguez, who play the Central Park 5.
I asked each group a different question about their respective roles in telling this story, and they all gave very different answers. But the common thread was a series of extremely affecting examples of the actors bringing real and raw emotion to this project because it's simply what the subject matter required. On either side of the screen, looking away from the harsh reality of racism in America is not an option.
You all are growing up in a completely different generation than the Central Park 5. We have so much more technology and awareness. What experiences have you had that connect you to this story?
Marquis Rodriguez: Because of technology, we're seeing how bad it is all the time. It's always been this bad. It's always been terrible, but now we get to see it 24/7. What the five of these boys had is the unfortunate luxury of believing that the police were on their side in this moment, believing that saying what you need to say will get you home. The privilege that we have in 2019 is that I know what y'all are doing to us. I see it every day, so I'm not going to believe everything you're saying to me right now. That's the impact of technology on us.
Asante Blackk: There's also the fact that, media-wise, it was very one-sided. They did not have the chance to be portrayed as they should have been portrayed in the media, and we can see these things on our phones, and we would immediately rush to their defense.
Caleel Harris: At such a young age, they were forced to grow up, and they were robbed of their childhood, and they were forced to learn lessons that they shouldn't have to learn at that young age. I feel like just putting yourself into the mindset of still being young but figuring the world out at the same time and incorporating it into the scene helps it come to life.
MR: It becomes harder and harder to pick one moment out, because there are so many; and when I think about how large this system of oppression that we're all set up in, and all of the microaggressions, it just makes me angry to know how much time I've lost thinking about it. How much time I've lost worrying about it, worrying about when it's going to happen again. Worrying about what my response would be to it. All that anger gets me where I need to be for this role.
Jharrel Jerome: I grew up in the Bronx, so you kind of grow up fast because you have strangers all around you. When you're from a small town, you have friends all around you. Growing up, I took the train for the first time by myself when I was 11. You grow up with that mindset of look forward, be careful, don't say anything. There's that balance where I feel like I'm an adult because I'm on this train by myself and I'm 11, but I also feel four years old, because I'm terrified, and I've got to focus and stay safe. Growing up, it just stays like that, especially becoming an actor. I was forced to grow up quick at 18 when I did Moonlight. I learned a lot about myself. I left school and I left college when I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate. I still feel like I'm half a kid and half an adult. It's definitely a blessing to have some of that naiveté that I used to have before this project. But this project definitely knocked out a lot of the "I'm going to be good. I'm going to be safe." I might not be. I think you should always keep your youth and your childhood in you, because children are the most open-minded people. They don't have anything to worry about. They don't have those insecurities. At the same time, you need to be as grown as you can. At 11, that's where I was at.
AB: I feel like Black and Brown boys and kids, in general, have to grow up faster than anyone else in the world. I find myself at 17 years old noticing certain things when I'm out. I feel like I have to be a reduced version of myself sometimes. I don't think I can do the same things that my white counterparts can do because I don't want to be seen in a certain way. Something that one of my white friends might be able to do might be seen in a completely different way. Someone might call the cops because I did this one thing that's taken out of context. Black and Brown kids everywhere, by the time they get a sense of how this world works, they have to grow up quicker.
Ethan Herisse: I remember being invited to sleepovers and my mom would always say no, and I would never understand why. As I got older, I started to understand why. If they're doing something bad, even if I'm not doing it, I can still end up taking the fall just because of the color of my skin.
How did you manage the emotions required to play these difficult roles?
Blair Underwood: It was intense because of the subject matter. I will say because we enjoy each other, [and enjoy] the whole cast and crew that we worked with. It helps for everybody to get along. It helps to have everybody on the same page, on the same train, and doing the same work, which is intense. That said, when it's time to fellowship, have a release valve, and laugh, we did a lot of that. When it was time to go to work, you just dial in. I just felt like I was part of something special. At the time, this was these boys' lives. Their livelihood completely altered and changed. That's very real, and it's got a lot of gravity to it. But their story continues. The fact they were able to live on and they've thrived. They were exonerated. To play a small part in telling that story was just a great sense of humility and honor.
Chris Jackson: I have a 14-year-old son who is autistic. One of my biggest fears is that a traffic stop turns into god knows what because he doesn't understand simple commands. And he certainly doesn't understand when someone is yelling at him, I can tell you that [laughs]. I'm playing a role that is defending another 14- or 16-year-old kid. The level of innocence that exists there, and the level of innocence that exists as a parent to what is possible—good and bad—is the reason why I couldn't pull out of the parking lot the day after we shot the verdicts. I didn't have to know what was happening in real time when I moved to New York in '93, or back in Illinois. As an actor, it was just about giving what you're given. Ava did such an amazing job of saying: "Here is where we are." This is the courtroom. This is who we are defending. She didn't have to put anything else there in terms of manufacturing subplots. Some things are so dramatic that you don't have to assume a role that is greater than what you already know and what you already can embody. Even if you're not conscious of it, it's already in you. It took me 14 years to have a 14-year-old son. It only takes thinking about that next missed Christmas after that verdict was read. For some reason, that's where I took it. I was able to breathe in the anguish of that. Relief was welcome and very necessary. We found it on a daily in the coming and goings of that shoot.
Joshua Jackson: I'm not a father. But I've been doing this for 30 years now, and I can't tell you the last time I've been on a set watching somebody else working and I was uncontrollably crying. This is not my normal Tuesday. I'm sitting there, and I'm seeing myself. I'm remembering myself at that age. I couldn't have survived that. Or maybe I could have, because you find strength inside yourself. But I'm looking at the faces of these young men as this inarguable moment happens. There's no getting out of this. You can't negotiate with it. There's nothing to be done. The injustice and the pain of that, and the pain of growing up to rely on [authorities]. You're supposed to be able to trust them. They're supposed to protect you. In this moment, not only did they fail you, they actively tried to hurt you—and did. They stole these children's innocence. That was the point for me. If something like that happened to me at that age, I don't know how I would have lived. I don't know how I would have made it. To have had the previous experience of meeting the [Central Park 5] and seeing them on the other side of that. I don't know them well enough to look inside and see the pain of [how] they're still dealing with this, but [instead see] their outward presentation of being functioning, happy, engaging, gregarious, and their willingness to tell this story. It takes incredible strength to want to go back in, to relive this darkest moment of your life and be willing to share that with strangers, not knowing how they'll receive it or if they'll treat it with the same care.
As parents, what did it feel like to be in a situation where that protection that you want to provide is taken away? What resources did you use to both pour into the role and come back out and take care of yourself?
Marsha Blake: I have younger children. I don't even know if it makes a difference if they're young or older, I just know that after we shot just about every scene—I don't know if I have a scene that's light—no matter what time we wrapped, I couldn't go directly home. I didn't want to take that energy home with me. I had a lot of anger sometimes. Sometimes I'd leave, and I'd be mad at the world, and it would just come out. The first couple of times I went straight home, and my husband was like, "What is wrong with you?" And I realized I was still in it. I would have to give myself just an hour to just go walk or roam around until I could start breathing again and just take it down. It was always present; it never went away. But that idea of helplessness, and anger, and feeling like the world is unfair is great performance-wise. It helps your performance, but it's hard to pull yourself out of. I don't know that we ever do. We talk about this, and we're right back in.
Niecy Nash: As a mother, you have such a sense of responsibility because this little face looking back up at you is only looking at you for everything they need. Food, shelter, protection, love guidance. You're providing provisions for the vision. The minute you feel like you cannot or you're ill-equipped, you feel lost. That sense of hopelessness was palpable in the courtroom scene. When they took all those babies away from us, you're sitting there with a sense of hope that they're going to get it right and then realize they do not. Those children are ripped away from you. You're saying, "How do I recover from this?" You feel like a failure, you feel guilty. Jharrel Jerome plays my son, Korey Wise, and it was difficult to look in his face and not see my own son. You want to do the thing as a parent that you're supposed to do. But when the wheels fall off of it, there's a brokenness that sets in that's hard to recover from.
Michael K. Williams: I had to walk, too. I was just out of it. My son and I just walked. My family and my coach saw me slipping into a little bit of a depression. Where Marsha felt rage, I went into the helplessness. I was dealing with something with my own son prior to this. How do you process all of these feelings knowing that [Bobby McCray, the father of Antron] had a hand in sealing the coffin by making his son sign the statement? Where does that guilt go? That self-hatred of I messed up big time. It drove him away from his family. I think one night they saw me slipping into that, and they were like, "Let's go for a walk, Mike." [laughs]
NN: The truth of the matter is that our art is in the same vessel as our being. So when those two things collide, it can cost you something emotionally—and thank god that Ava and Netflix had the foresight to provide a crisis counseling number we could call if we needed to at the end of the day and it had just gotten too much. I know I would find myself calling my children after I got off work, like, "Where you going? What you doing? Who all over there? Let me speak to somebody's mama." You're overwhelmed. But there is such a responsibility that you can't tap out. What you lean into is that only the media and news outlets have told these men's stories. Now, these men have the opportunity to tell their own stories, on their own volition, through their own lens, and through the lens of their family. Our responsibility is to carry that torch.
When They See Us premieres May 31, on Netflix.