For The People aires Tuesday (tonight) on ABC. Think of Grey’s Anatomy meets How To Get Away With Murder, with a little Scandal dabbed in the middle. If you’re fans of any of those shows, or love shows about lawyers, legal cases, and a little drama, then you will want to check out For The People. Read about my interview with the cast and producers down below.
ABC’S New Show For The People | Shondaland Creates Another Hit
ABC’s rolling out some new shows this spring, and this next one is produced by Shondaland, “For The People.” While in L.A. for the Wrinkle In Time press junket, we screened the pilot of “For The People” and sat down for a Q&A with actors Jasmin Savoy Brown (“Allison Adams”), Susannah Flood (“Kate Littlejohn”) Wesam Keesh (“Jay Simmons”) and Regé-Jean Page (Leonard Knox), along with Creator & Executive Producer Paul William Davies and Executive Producer Tom Verica.
Photo Credit: ABC
What is ABC’s show For The People about?
Set in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (a.k.a. “The Mother Court”), the new Shondaland series show follows six talented young lawyers working on opposite sides of the law and handling the most high-profile and high-stakes federal cases in the country. “For The People” stars Britt Robertson as Sandra Bell, Jasmin Savoy Brown as Allison Adams, Ben Rappaport as Seth Oliver, Susannah Flood as Kate Littlejohn, Wesam Keesh as Jay Simmons, Regé-Jean Page as Leonard Knox, Ben Shenkman as Roger Gunn, Hope Davis as Jill Carlan, Vondie Curtis-Hall as Judge Nicholas Byrne and Anna Deavere Smith as Tina Krissman. The series from ABC Studios is created by Shondaland’s Paul William Davies, who executive produces alongside Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, and Tom Verica.
Best friends Sandra Bell (Britt Robertson) and Allison Adams (Jasmin Savoy Brown) serve as public defenders alongside Jay Simmons (Wesam Keesh) and their boss, Federal Public Defender Jill Carlan (Hope Davis). They face off against prosecutors Seth Oliver (Ben Rappaport), Leonard Knox (Regé-Jean Page), Kate Littlejohn (Susannah Flood) and their supervisor, chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Roger Gunn (Ben Shenkman). Our lawyers are joined by Judge Nicholas Byrne (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who rules on some of the court’s most controversial cases, and Tina Krissman (Anna Deavere Smith), the formidable clerk of Court who keeps everyone in line.
These young lawyers will be put to the test both personally and professionally as their lives intersect in and out of America’s most prestigious trial court.
The idea behind For The People
Paul started out the interview by answering our question on how this show started. He had a few ideas he was tossing around, and took those ideas to Shonda Rhimes.
“One of them was a show set in the Southern District of New York the Mother Court, which in legal circles is kind of the- as the judge says at the opening of the show, it’s the highest kind of most- the highest profile most prestigious trial court in the United States. And I thought a show set in that court with the kinds of cases that come out of that court and the lawyers that work in that court could be really interesting. I also wanted to do something that showed the perspective of both sides. And not like in a formulaic way but just kind of in a way that you got a richer sense of how the law works and how justice is made in America. And so I thought having that dual perspective could be an interesting new way to approach a legal show. And so I brought those ideas to Shonda, and we talked them through and ended up combining those two ideas into what has become this show. So that’s how it got started.”
Paul also mentioned he is a lawyer, so he brings his experience and expertise to the table.
How the talent prepared to take on lawyer roles with no experience
Wesam: “I actually did shadow a public defender at the L.A. courthouse and that was an amazing experience, just what the public defenders have to deal with within a few hours, from like a bicycle theft case to a sexual assault case to somebody showing up for their prison sentence, to a juvenile trying not to get jail time. So they have to deal with a lot and yeah it was very eye-opening, there’s a lot of dark humor behind the scenes which, you know, plays into it.”
Jasmin mentioned that Susannah Flood did a lot a research, and provided quite a few of them with information on what they needed to know and what books to read. Almost like her character Kate on the show, Susannah is brilliant the group shared about their co-star.
Jasmin: “Like Wesam, I also have a public defender that I Skype with who’s in New York and that’s invaluable. Even just while we’re Skyping, she got like five calls in half an hour and just understanding the nature of what that actually looks like and her critiquing the show, just from the trailer.”
Rege: “Like well I mean I got into contact with a couple of folks in this city and kind of went down to, I went to court in Compton, which is in experience. And I didn’t know before I started working this that everyone has the right to go and just watch justice be done like you can turn up and watch a case with very few exceptions which is incredible because it is so important for justice not just to be done but to be seen to be done. And just kind of being in that environment, in a courthouse environment and feeling people work at an incredibly high level, with people’s lives in their hands every single day is an extraordinary thing and something you kind of need to feel palpable before you can kind of take it on. Just the fact they walk into this courtroom every day, real people’s lives incredibly intricate complicated stories. And you have to boil that down and deliver it to the jury with all the technicalities involved and essentially either save lives or not and with ten other cases on your back and five calls coming in every ten minutes.”
They dig into some tough, real-like cases
In the first pilot, we see these six lawyers dig into some tough cases. The question was asked about some of those (real-life) moments being too intense.
Regé:“I think Paul and his team have a gift for making sure that they touch on the personal while you’re dealing with very large themes, and I think that very much comes through this. Certainly, one case that I dealt with where I kind of needed to detox my brain for a couple of days afterward, because they threw me a real heavy curveball. And that was again inspired, certainly drew some very close parallels to some real events. And you’re reminded that while we often keep it in a light tone, these are incredibly important things that we deal with. These are incredible.
Sometimes the world is a little bit dark, and you need protection from that, and you need people to be torch bearers in that world on both sides, in the prosecution and the defense. And so there are times when yeah the weight of the thing can get very-very intense, but I also think that’s one of the gifts that this team has is in managing that tone and presenting the real world in its lightness and its darkness as a complete package that you can digest and take on and grow from.”
Jasmin: “I found it really cathartic to be working on something that feels that it speaks to the times that we’re actually living in. I think a lot of people are walking around with a lot to say about a whole host of worthy issues and it feels like, it feels really timely to be in a conversation that feels like it matters. So I really- I don’t find it too intense at all really, I really love it.”
Don’t judge their characters from the pilot episode
It gets better with each episode, and you get to know each person. After watching the pilot, then watching an additional four episodes, I was able to get to know each character. You will also get more background information on each lawyer, helping you to understand why they are the way they are– so don’t judge the book by its cover. When we first meet each lawyer, some of their actions may rub you the wrong way. For example, Regé-Jean Page plays Lenard Knox, comes across like a serious jerk. But, after a few episodes, he starts to soften a little bit, and you learn a little about what he’s all about.
The question was asked, what would you say one redeeming quality of each of your characters is throughout the series?
Regé: “I think that there’s an absolute determination to do their jobs right and defend people, whether they’re prosecuting or defending, and I think certainly I would say that for Leonard and I would offer that for the other characters but I can’t speak for anyone else but that would be the one thing I’d offer. It’s a determination to defend.”
Getting into their character and owning the role
The question was directed to Regé about the process of taking on their characters and making the audience love them.
Regé: “I think there’s a certain weight to having a character that’s already owned by an audience particularly in the case of (Chicken) George (referring to his role in Roots). In that case by millions of people. My own mother was ready to disown me if I messed that one up and I wish that was a joke. And that kind of bugged me for a little while. And it’s the same kind of coming in and working in this country where I’m representing a culture and people that I haven’t necessarily grown up directly around.
And so you kind of have to do people justice in every sense of the word. It’s a bit like it’s a millstone around your neck, right; there’s this weight. I kind of tried to flip it backward so it’s on my back rather than hanging forwards because that way it’s getting momentum, you see what I mean, like that way can be a gift. The fact that it matters so much is a motivation, and it means that there are stakes to the work, it means that we’re not just going to go to work and playing around in the dress-up box and indulging myself, there is a reason to do this, there’s an important reason to do this.
And there are quite literally millions of people relying on you giving them something with nutritional value. And so that’s kind of how I try to approach that both through George and with this because I think this is incredibly important. I think that it will always be relevant but certainly at the moment how you react in a human, how you interact in a human way with the institutions that prop up and create this country and what does actually make it great is incredibly important.
And humanizing that and delivering that and having a conversation about that and being able to keep that in the forefront in people’s minds is important, and when it’s important, then it’s easy to go to work.”
On friendships, romance and a little more
Paul: “I think the easiest way to keep it fresh is that I’ve got this incredible cast and it’s one thing when I wrote the pilot, there was nobody, I tell you, it was just a dream of some people populating this at some point. But once they came aboard and Tom started directing it, it makes it so much easier. It’s a lot of hard work that goes into it but when you hear these voices, and you see what they do to it, and I just look down here, and I think of all these episodes, what Wesam does in Episode two and Susannah in episode three Jasmin in episode six, and Rege in Episode Seven, each of those are the ones that they’re kind of highlighted in, everybody is in every episode- it’s just phenomenal work. And so just once we got going on the pilot and I could see who they were and what they would bring to it and what their voices were, I started to just see all kinds of connections I had dimly thought of, prior to that point.
And it made so many of these intersections that you’re talking about just feel so much more organic and fertile. And so relationships that I never really knew would take off all of a sudden I was like ooh I can do that. It’s almost, you know, it’s difficult in a different way in the sense that you’ve got an embarrassment of riches so you’re like I’ve got to decide something here, because along almost any line that I can draw between any two characters or three in some cases, there’s kind of funny triangles- they’re great. And they bring so much to it.
And I think the workplace to me was such a- it’s such a fun environment to be able to work with that. Because again it feels organic, it doesn’t feel false, I mean obviously Jasmin and Britt live together but aside from that, and we do go home with folks from time to time, but it’s really about the relationships that they’re building at work. And yet to me, it feels deeply personal.
Because you do spend so much time with people at work and those personal, professional kind of lines fuse at some point. And that to me was exciting, and they brought it to life.”
Is there a case you don’t want to take or ask for a rewrite?
Jasmin: “I’m saving that for like the one time I really need it, it hasn’t happened for me yet.”
Regé: “I think those feelings certainly exist there are times when I’m like oh come on, this can’t, please just let this happen. But also I think we just have such immense respect for the depth and the structure that Paul and his team bring to this, to the point where we wouldn’t knock on the writers door- we’d have that conversation with ourselves have a little cry in the corner, get over it, and move forward, but you know that you’re certainly on the right course, so we’re generally pretty good with that, I think.”
On working together
Being able to interview four out of the six talent, we were able to get a great feel for how well they work together. They all mentioned it has been a dream to work together, and they have a lot of fun on set. They have formed friendships on and offset that will last past For The People. I’m hoping they get to work together for several years. Tom wrapped up our conversation talking about their relationships on and off-screen. “It’s not always prosecutors against defenders. I think there are, we delve into stories and Paul you can speak more to this, of inner office conflict and what the straddling the lines of morality or why one does this and should we be doing this. It’s not always the classic, you know, defense against the prosecution. There are within their own clients that they’re defending, there are conflicts.”
Paul: “Yeah no I think that’s right and I think, you know, especially for the first season, I really wanted to stay focused on our core group. We’ve got ten incredible actors, and it is a true ensemble to give everybody an opportunity. And again it’s in every episode, everybody is there, and they’re doing great stuff. But to really be able to focus on some of the individual characters through that first season. And that will probably be true through at least a portion of season two if there is one, which I hope there is. And then I want to continue to grow the world so that there are defense attorneys that are out in the- we use a little bit of that in the first season, but it really is focused on our core characters. But there is a lot of room to grow and to bring new people in.”
Considering that everything Shonda Rhimes puts her hands on is a success, I think this show will do well! This is one of my favorite *new* shows. You can catch the pilot episode airing tonight on ABC at 10/9 p.m. EST. Get active on social media using hashtag #ForThePeople
Check out a sneak peek below:
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