Interview: Tosin Cole and Alana Mayo talk 61st Street, SXSW 2022, and on-set experiences

production still from 61st Street
Tosin Cole plays a crucial role in AMC Network’s upcoming crime drama 61st Street. Pic credit: AMC Networks

AMC Networks’ highly-anticipated legal drama 61st Street brings Doctor Who actor Tosin Cole to the forefront as leading character Moses Johnson. Moses is a young Black high school athlete who finds himself taken in by the Chicago police department as a suspected gang member.

He struggles through the investigation as the police force mourns the death of their fellow officer. It is clear that they’re seeking revenge and are acting from a place of unchecked bias. This is, unfortunately, a story that many Black Americans know all too well – so what makes this show any different from the rest?

“The first audition came, and I saw the breakdown was for a 17-year-old. I thought, ‘I’m a man; it’s time to try and grow a beard or something,'” recalled Cole. “But then I had a conversation with someone on the train, and he went up it, and he was like, ‘I think it’s good, it’s actually quite good.’ So, I went back, and I did a tape, and it was a pivotal scene that felt like a courtroom drama. It had some rhythm to it.”

Cole admitted his initial reaction was a fault, and the series has “a bit more depth” than he thought it would. He eventually was called back for a screen test – and clearly, he aced it.

“The thing that stuck out to me was his vulnerability. I wouldn’t class myself as a vulnerable person; I don’t really show that side to me. But this young man is just so vulnerable. He’s a fish out of water in the situation he’s in. All his life, he’s been straight and narrow, and just one night, one moment, one decision, his life is in jeopardy. His future’s in jeopardy; everything he’s worked so hard for is basically crumbling before his eyes. It’s just raw being in that position,” said the British actor. “How are you going to fight for your innocence in a world where people only see you as the suspect? As the villain?”

Monsters and Critics had the opportunity to chat with Tosin Cole and executive producer Alana Mayo following the series premiere of 61st Street at the 2022 South by Southwest festival.

Production still from 61st Street
Tosin Cole plays Moses Johnson in 61st Street. Pic credit: AMC Networks

Monsters and Critics: Did you have any expectations going into the in-person premiere at SXSW?

Alana Mayo: You try not to have any expectations. It’s a very vulnerable moment to show something that we’ve all been working on for so long in front of an audience that hasn’t seen it before. What was so amazing was not only hearing people’s reactions as we were watching it, but afterward, no one really asked a question – people just wanted to talk about how they related to the story. That’s really, ultimately, the goal.

M&C: What made you want to work on this project as an EP?

Alana Mayo: My family’s from Chicago, and I grew up in Chicago, so the first thing that jumped out to me was that it’s a story about a place that I know and love very well, but it wasn’t objectifying the city or the people that live in the city. Even though [showrunner] Peter [Moffat] is not from the States or from Chicago, it was clearly written by somebody who had spent a lot of time there and for whom it was really important to paint an accurate picture of what the city is like.

Then it had an amazing cliffhanger at the end of it. One of the things that works best about this story is that it’s about the coincidence of being in a place at a time and how that can alter the events of somebody’s life. Just reading one page to the next, wondering if Tosin’s character is going to be okay and how he’s going to get out of the situation, was incredibly riveting. It was just really well-written scripts.

M&C: Everyone has mentioned so far that they had been texting and calling throughout production. What was it like having Peter Moffat available to you, as a producer and as an actor, as well as knowing that he was genuinely taking your feedback?

Tosin Cole: Actors often wonder, how do you deal with issues? Sometimes you get on the floor, and it’s just not working. I spoke to a friend, and he said, “Sometimes things don’t work, and you can email the producer.” And I was like, “You can email the producer?” And that helps because then you’re not having to deal with the situation on the day of. Just having a team of Alana, David, and Peter appear so available just had me hoping to get out the cranks that can make the machine run a bit smoother. Sometimes it’s a crank that has an effect on other people. It’s like, it is working, but it’s not as smooth. It’s just kind of rigid, and you want it to be smooth.

Alana Mayo: It was an interesting tension on this one. It is a thriller. It’s a crime procedural. When we started, almost all the episodes over the two seasons were written. You have producer and writer responsibility to make sure that the thing that happens in Episode 3 of Season 1 connects to that thing that’s going to happen in Episode 7 of Season 2.

But we had this incredible group of actors that were not only real actors and brilliant creatives but also who really cared. I had conversations with all [the actors] throughout production about “Should your character be doing this? Should we be saying that? Is this honest?”

You don’t always get that, some people just show up, and then the check clears. But every single one of these actors calls me on their off time to talk through their character and to make sure that we’re seeing the truth of our people.

Check out our SXSW interview with the cast of the HBO Max series DMZ.

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

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