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Interview: Mark O’Brien and J. David Shanks talk new drama series 61st Street [SXSW 2022]

production still from 61st Street
Mark O’Brien stars as a police officer in upcoming legal drama 61st Street. Pic credit: AMC Networks

AMC’s forthcoming legal drama 61st Street tackles the intense subject of racism within policing and actor Mark O’Brien is at the frontline as he steps into the role of Officer Logan.

“I play Logan – a police officer who is a generational cop. His whole life is growing up in Chicago and being a police officer and his world is turned upside down once his partner dies,” O’Brien explained. “When you’ve grown up believing certain things and then that’s tested, or strained or questioned, it makes you question everything.”

The actor continued: “He has no one to turn to once his partner dies. He’s left on an island and it leads him to really dark places because he’s not capable of handling it.”

After Logan’s partner dies, the police force turns against a Black high schooler and begins to question him about gang activity. This frightens the growing athlete as it begins to throw a wrench in all of his hard work and accomplishments. Monsters and Critics had the opportunity to chat with the cast of 61st Street following its premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest festival.

In this conversation with O’Brien and executive producer J. David Shanks, we talked about their favorite on-set memories, challenges they faced during production, and the messages they hope viewers take away from the series.

Monsters and Critics: What is your favorite on-set member?

J. David Shanks: It was probably the very beginning. Tosin Cole who plays Moses Johnson does a lot of running. Every take, back to one, back to one, back to one.

One day, he pulled me aside and said, “I knew there’d be lot of running but I need some oxygen or something, so I can breathe.” So, I’m just watching him ride it out because Tosin and I are the wacky ones and I tease him. It became my running joke between him and I. It was just fun watching him commit himself to it and the poor guy pulled both hamstrings.

production still from 61st Street
Set photo for the upcoming crime drama 61st Street. Pic credit: AMC Networks

M&C: What were some of the challenges you faced during production?

J. David Shanks: We shot during the pandemic, so we were testing three times a week. There were masks. Sometimes, we couldn’t really communicate – we wouldn’t hear what everybody says. With so many people, at any given time, it was a lot of demands and protocols which made everything really, really complicated and the intensity of some of the work was emotional.

Then shooting in Chicago, which is not the most production-friendly area. We were literally always running against the clock. We had a company mandate where we were only doing 10-hour days. Which really worked because everybody could go home to their families, they can have dinner, and they’re not driving at three in the morning trying to get to and from set which can be dangerous.

Mark O’Brien: Those short days actually upped the intensity. I hate sitting around. I’m not at all a method actor but there was a period during this because my character really has internalized everything and he doesn’t say much, which I always liked about him. It’s nice to play a character who’s trying to figure it out. But it was so tight, it was very tricky physically.

I had headaches for three weeks straight. At one point, I had to go to the emergency room and get a scan done. I got a CAT scan done because I didn’t know what was going on. The doctor was like, “It just sounds like your body is physically tightening so much that you’re giving yourself headaches.”

M&C: Can you tease Logan’s journey throughout the series?

J. David Shanks: Mark’s character, Johnny Logan – from the writer’s perspective – is going to be the conscience of injustice, and the personification of if somebody said, “You know what, that’s not right.” And this is the beginning of a conversation. He’s the one who articulates that and it comes from a place of great guilt, and a struggle to evolve. Over the course of the 16 episodes, we really get a chance to unpack it, but we do it in Johnny Logan’s respect.

Mark O’Brien: You make a good point saying guilt because it’s good for my character, immensely. But throughout the whole show, I think even viewers are going to be feeling some of that. Guilt is not something that’s unpacked very smoothly. It is the end product of like “Well, that’s what it was feeling- it was guilt all along!” The show is going to reveal some of that for a lot of people, including the characters and maybe the audience itself. I think it can help with an unburdening and liberation.

M&C: What are you hoping the audiences take away from the series?

J. David Shanks: I just want people to begin to have an honest conversation about the relationship between the community or marginalized communities of color, and law enforcement, [the] police department, and the whole social justice system. 61st Street should prompt a lot of real conversations. I think that’s our job to begin the conversation.

Mark O’Brien: Being a white actor on the show, it’s a different perspective for me. It’s honestly not something you can fully understand if you’re not in those shoes. So, it’s just about listening and watching, and hoping you learned something. You can’t fully understand until you’re in those shoes, but the closer you can get to that… maybe we can all just get along.

Read our 61st Street interviews with Tosin Cole and Alana Mayo and Courtney B. Vance and Peter Moffat.

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

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