Interview: Courtney B. Vance and Peter Moffat talk 61st Street, creative risks, and new perspectives [SXSW 2022]

production still form 61st Street
Courtney Vance plays a lawyer in AMC’s new legal crime drama 61st Street. Pic credit: AMC Networks

Tony and Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance will lead AMC’s upcoming crime drama 61st Street – which received a two-season order from the network. Taking place in Chicago, the series unfolds a corrupt criminal justice system after Black high schooler Moses Johnson is pulled away from his straight-laced life and accused of being a gang member.

Vance will step in as Moses’s lawyer, Franklin Roberts. This stirred things up in his personal life as he was set to retire and spend more time at home. However, the public defender realized that this could be the case of a lifetime. Following the series’ premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest festival, Monsters and Critics had the opportunity to chat with Vance and 61st Street showrunner Peter Moffat.

Speaking about Vance’s casting, Moffat said, “I was profoundly happy that he said ‘yes.’ He was the guy.”

The showrunner continued, “I don’t write with somebody in mind, but the great privilege is that when you have Courtney B. Vance in your show, and you’re writing new material and you’ve been watching Courtney B. Vance play Franklin Roberts – you’re seeing the little things that he’s doing, and the touches, the textures, and colors that he’s bringing to the role. Suddenly, you find that as a writer, you can use that stuff to think about the character more deeply. It’s a great luxury.”

Monsters and Critics: As the creator of the show and executive producer, what do you think is the biggest creative risk you took?

Moffat: Okay, so I’m going to be a bit pompous. I think this is important stuff. We’re asking really big questions. We’re asking, “What is it like to be a young Black man living on the South Side of Chicago when you encounter the police and you don’t know what to do with yourself?”

I’ve talked to lots of people on the South Side who say, “When a police officer approaches me, I actually don’t know what to do and I’m literally frozen.” Which, another way to put it is that your humanness has gone. So what are you to do? Do you run away when you’re in a situation like in our story? The answer, in our case, and in many cases, might well be yes, you should run.

And if you’re then apprehended, should you resist arrest? And the answer might very well be yes. Because we all know what can happen in those situations – that happens way too often and continues to happen. Both of those things were running away and resisting arrest – which is against the law, it’s unlawful.

So here’s the first big question of about 10 that we’ll ask: Is the law and morality the same thing? And his [Franklin’s] answer to that question in the show is no, they’re not [the same]. But, am I going to say that to a jury? Am I going to ask a jury to understand that the law is wrong here? That self-defense shouldn’t be limited so that if a police officer is on top of you, you can’t defend yourself.

All of your history, everything you know, about your life tells you that you should resist. Because you’re in danger here. And by history, I mean, your own personal history, and 400 years back. And that’s the second question, and suddenly we’re getting way bigger. In the context of that profundity is a thriller – which is exciting, and has twists and turns and unexpected moments.

production still from 61st Street
Courtney B. Vance and Tosin Cole – who plays Moses Johnson. Pic credit: AMC Networks

M&C: You mentioned that there’s been this long history of police violence and marginalized communities being mistreated by law enforcement – what new perspective does 61st Street offer?

Peter Moffat: In the first episode, normally what the television story shows is that there’s a Black body or a Black victim, something that happens, and then that’s the story. This is not that. The guy that’s dead is a white police officer. So the questions that you then get to ask is why did that happen? How did that happen? That isn’t something that I’ve seen on television before.

I’m going to call it a jurisprudential look from right inside the law firm. I’ve been to 26 in California, in Chicago, in courthouses. It’s a factory. It’s a conveyor belt of people being processed, put downstairs, and put in cages. I’m a criminal lawyer, myself, I used to be at the bar in the UK. And I can’t stop being shocked by what happens here.

And somebody like Franklin Roberts gets three minutes to five minutes with his client. He’s doing his best, but his best is never going to be good as a public defender.

Courtney B. Vance: That’s a question that I said in the show, “What difference have I made?” Yeah, I’ve represented hundreds of people in 30 years? But have I done anything as a precursor to what happens in the show? I’ve made peace with that, we had a scene and I made peace with it.

We’re eating something and my son is there on the couch, chilling. And I’ve made peace with it and this happens out of the blue with Moses. Everyone knows Moses is untouchable. He’s the one person in the community that we’ve all said we’re gonna make sure gets out and represents us out there. So when this happens, everything is off the table. My family is off the table.

Peter Moffat: The answer to your question about how is the show different from other things, I think most other shows in this subject area, have said, “This is what is happening. Pay attention.” And we’re saying “Why does it happen?”

M&C: Courtney, given the intense intensity of the show – How did you unpack as an actor at the end of the day? And what are the challenges you face getting into character?

Courtney B. Vance: I come right out. I go, “What’s next? What am I doing? I’m gonna go for the background. I gotta go get my groceries.” I got to decompress. I go right back in with the next day’s work. Or I’m prepping scenes. At the tail end of the second season, I was prepping eight scenes at a time. So, over the weekend I’m prepping for the next week’s stuff.

It’s a whole process that in order to get everything that when I go to the set in three days, I’m not scram, I’m reviewing which gives me a fighting chance to be able to do the work of that day. Most of the time it really worked out well. It’s the same with Peter, I’m sure he sets himself up so that when all of us are coming at him with notes, he’s able to process all that and go, “okay,” meanwhile, he’s thinking three or five episodes a season ahead. It’s very organized, chaotic…

Peter Moffat: And fun.

Check out our interview with 61st Street’s Tosin Cole and Alana Mayo.

61st Street debuts Sunday, April 10 on AMC+ and ALLBLK.

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