Long before winning an Oscar in 2014 for his adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley was approached by ABC to create a dramatic series about how different people in a community react to a brutal murder. It’s been compared to such racially charged films as Crash and Traffic, but there’s something more raw and nuanced about American Crime, from its headline-mirroring plot developments, to scenes in Spanish that aren’t always subtitled, to Felicity Huffman’s lead character being cast in unflattering light, literally. It’s a far cry from the glossy procedurals and melodramas we typically see on network TV, which is a surprise even to Ridley—“I don’t know why we’re on the air in any regard. It’s been a very, very odd journey,” he acknowledges, while being coy about the Marvel series he’s also developing for ABC (don’t expect any answers on that one). American Crime’s season finale will air Thursday, May 14 at 10 p.m./9 p.m. Central on ABC.
American Crime is ambitious in its scope. How did you prep for the show?
A lot of that was about the writers room. Certainly in writing the pilot I had an idea that I wanted to make sure we had black, white, Hispanic, Muslim, Christian, Catholic and all of these different elements represented that you normally don’t see on television. People like to use the word diversity. I think diversity is a very 1970s idea. It’s reality now. I had to make sure that we had a writers room that reflected reality. All of these perspectives have some kind of weight and value in the room. Like any show if you get past a certain number of episodes, you’re really very fortunate. If you get past a first season, you’re fortunate, so I really wanted to try to create a space where we could to speak to as many different points of view as possible. Are all of these elements represented? Can we get enough people in the room that they can do justice to these ideas? It was absolutely a plan, it was absolutely a desire, but if it’s working in any regard it’s because of all these other individuals who then came in and added to the story and continue to add because our universe kept expanding.
How did you find your writers?
There were a couple of writers who I had worked with in the past. There were a couple who added not just merely ethnic diversity or gender diversity but diversity in terms of writing. We had TV writers, TV showrunners, a playwright from New York, a playwright from Chicago, one writer who never had written before, another who had been with Shonda (Rhimes) but had not been in a writers room long-term. Are people coming in from different parts of the country? Are they coming from different perspectives? Are they coming from different disciplines? It extended to directors—those who direct a lot of television, those who direct indie films, documentarians. Rachael Morrison had been a D.P. on Fruitvale (Station) and had not directed before but clearly had an understanding and an eye. It was a very interesting mix.
You’re a TV and film veteran, but did you still learn things on this show?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned at all it’s that you cannot just be beholden to the word on the page or the idea that you have. You need to create a space where anybody can come up to you and say, “You know what? I was thinking this or that.” There are days where it gets a little tiring, you know, people coming up to you, but there are also days when somebody says something that you never really thought about and it’s not just a good idea, it’s not just an interesting idea—it really works for what’s going on in that moment.
Were there any characterizations that were trickier than others?
One thing I knew was going to be a slow burner was the Hector character (played by Richard Cabral). ABC very graciously allowed us to go out and screen these episodes. We went to the Shabazz Center; we went to Homeboy Industries. We went to people who were likely going to be interested in or affected by the storytelling. With the Hector character there were people questioning, “Is he just going to be the thug?” We’re two months in and now we see the rise of Hector. If you’re going to pitch that to a network and say, “We’ve got a character and for eight weeks not much is going to happen but over eight, nine, 10, and 11 episodes he’s going to become one of the central characters,” back in the day the networks would say, “That sounds good but you’ve got to do that by episode three.”
You didn’t get that?
No. That was one place where I was nervous there was a master plan for this character. It was a really large arc.
The show is less a procedural than a character study and yet there’s suspense every week. How hard was that tension to maintain?
Initially I think it was tough. In the first couple of episodes everything is very theoretical. You’re still trying to explain to everybody involved—whether it’s the network or the other writers or the actors—that we don’t really need DNA evidence this week; we don’t really need a surprise witness. The things that were going to drive the show were more about these characters finding out truths about each other. It was about the little crimes. It’s about the lies, the denial. It was our desire to every week feel like there was a sense of something revealed, something answered. Sometimes it was painful. Sometimes it was very beautiful. It was getting away from that sense that it had to be a big moment.
The sparseness and realness of the show seems unusual for network TV…
There’s nothing about the show, even right now, I don’t know why we’re on the air in any regard. It’s been a very, very odd journey.
Were you ever concerned about how audiences were going to react to this realness? Characters are painted in unflattering light, literally. Many characters are hard to root for.
People would say, “I read the reviews but I’m worried about it. I heard it’s really painful.” I think part of it was that they were expecting it to be graphic in terms of its violence and it’s not graphic in terms of its violence, but it is graphic in terms of its portrayal of emotions, all the way across the board. You see Russ (Timothy Hutton) in a bathroom absolutely breaking down. You see Felicity (Huffman’s character) saying, “I know they’re going to say I’m a racist but I’m going to do what I do for my kids.” I think people who haven’t seen the show are thinking it’s going to be people getting their arms cut off and beheadings. In every regard—we have Mark Isham doing the score, we have Walt Newman doing the sound, we’ve got phenomenal, hair and makeup people—but we had to say to all these folks, “We’re going to do as little as possible.” People have noticed that we don’t have a lot of music. People notice that we have a particular kind of cutting style. So there were choices that we made but the choice was always to be minimal with the show—try to be observant, try to be patient—and I’m very happy that people have responded in a largely good way.
How did you cast this show?
I’m still not quite sure why, but people were really interested. I think the script turned out really well and the lead characters are people of a certain age that aren’t, unfortunately, offered, especially good, meaty, interesting, challenging roles. Tim (Hutton) lives in New York and he got in touch with us, not just through his agents, and offered to fly himself out here. This is a guy you’ve grown up with and you’ve seen him do amazing stuff. He comes in and he was just…whether he planned this or not, he was Russ. He was very respectful. He didn’t quite know what to make of us, or me. This was before 12 Years (a Slave) came out. This was before Always by My Side. That impression that he left, we could not shake it in any regard. Felicity came the other way. She was in a deal with Warner Bros. We talked to her and she loved the script and we almost literally could not talk to her. It was actually the morning after the (2014) Oscars that legally we could sit down and talk, and we had a week to go before we started shooting. I met Felicity that morning and then I was on a plane to Austin and then a week later was our first day of shooting on American Crime. For the rest of the cast we had an amazing casting director, Kim Coleman. Richard (Cabral) had done a little acting and had come out of Homeboy Industries. I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. I mean, I kind of knew, but he’d been in jail, he was in gangs. He’s the sweetest, hardest working guy. Johnny (Ortiz) had been in trouble. Benito (Martinez) had been doing everything. I don’t know how we got him.
How have you balanced this larger discussion about diversity on TV with the creative vision you had for the show?
They certainly are not separate. If there was one thing that I really hoped to do—because, look, it’s about race; it’s about faith; it’s about communities—I really didn’t want to write a show that on a weekly basis came in and preached and proselytized. One thing that we did very, very well was try to just reduce, reduce, reduce in terms of the preaching. We get to moments that are very big and unfortunately are very immediate. We never wanted to feel like we were exploiting things that were going on, but we also did not want to ignore things. When Ferguson happened there were moments where we had to go back and reorient ourselves. I’ve got two young boys and I want them to see the show and I want them to think that maybe we’re moving in another direction. But at the same time, without scaring my children, without trying to insert bias into them, you have got to be realistic and say, “This is what’s happening right now in our world.” There are things coming up with the show that people are going to be unsettled by, but we need to be unsettled sometimes.