The 2018 version of Paul Newman in “The Verdict” may be Clare-Hope Ashitey in the new Netlfix drama “Seven Seconds.” At the very least, it was an inspiration for director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”), who told the show’s star to watch the 1982 film in preparation for her role as KJ Harper. “It was interesting to look at a film that was about a flawed person and how they dealt with a situation,” she told IndieWire during a recent press event.
In the dense Netflix crime drama created by “The Killing’s” Veena Sud, the character of KJ definitely has no shortage of flaws as a prosecutor whose determination to get justice for a black teenager is held back by her struggles with alcoholism as well as the chaos that is the American legal system. It’s a complicated character that demands a complicated depiction: “If you are watching a fairy tale, that’s why you go to fairy tales, you want these uncomplicated stories and uncomplicated characters,” she said. “But if it’s meant to be real life, you want there to be some reflection of your experience, and have something you can hook into.”
The character, Ashitey said, was “something I immediately felt very passionate about. Before I got the job I only had the pilot script and that was all that I had read, but it was enough. I read it and knew immediately that I loved it, and I thought the characters were interesting. I thought the topic was important, and I felt invested in it very quickly. So, yeah, it’s a dream to be involved in.”
Because Ashitey is a British actress, there are things about the American legal system that she finds “bizarre” by comparison. “It’s just so alien to me. I think the biggest things was that everyone who has a contact with the police is arraigned before a judge, which makes no sense to me at all. From the smallest misdemeanor up to the biggest crime, everyone is brought before a judge. And that means there’s a huge backlog in the American legal system. There are prosecutors and public defenders and judges who are trying to keep their head above water in the tide of this bureaucracy and red tape,” she said.
Ashitey also noted that her research for the role included films like Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which took on the issue of institutionalized racism in America today, as well as a visit to a New York courthouse, late at night. “It must have been past midnight, and court was still going on,” she said. “And they’d bring these cases in, one after the other, one after the other. And you have these prosecutors, it’s the middle of the night, who are exhausted. And these public defenders in the middle of night, exhausted.”
Her takeaway? “When you have people in that situation, and they’re in charge really of making decisions that affect these people’s lives, and it’s the middle of the night, and they maybe haven’t eaten since a certain time, and they’ve had to miss such and such thing because they had to be here tonight, and you start to introduce all of these other things into the system that shouldn’t be there, like personal biases and personal animosities…” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to hamper a system that’s already dealing with so much with something like arraigning every person basically who a police officer speaks to. It’s insane to me.”
Ashitey said she was a fan of crime dramas, though, “I don’t automatically watch them. There has to be something good about them, and I very quickly will turn off a series if I don’t think they’re being honest about the way that people are, because I feel like I’m very sensitive to it, and I can hear it. When people start saying things that nobody ever does and says, I just move onto the next one.”
For her, the reason for their popularity is that “we like things to be in the lines they’re meant to be in. And when you have cases like this… you do know what’s happened from the beginning. Well, not necessarily all of it, but whether you do or you don’t, in that kind of situation when there’s no justice and there’s no clarity everything is out of order. And I do think there’s something in us that wants to watch people solve cases.”
Right now, there’s no official word on what Season 2 of “Seven Seconds” might look like, but Ashitey is on board in any form it might take. At the time of our interview, she said that a reason the cast doesn’t have real answers is that “at the time it was so involving doing this season and keeping our heads wrapped around this season that you almost can’t see wood for the trees — because you’re so focused.”
But that said, Ashitey said that she would “love to explore what happens to K.J. next and where she goes after this and see what happens to Fish next, and where it goes after this. I’d love to be involved in the second season. That is entirely out of my hands, but regardless of whether I as character am in it, or not, I think this kind of storytelling is important and should continue.
“That is entirely out of my hands, but I think this kind of storytelling is important.”
“Seven Seconds” is streaming now on Netflix.