A version of this story on “American Crime” first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy Issue.
Initially, I didn’t think it through very well,” said John Ridley with a laugh. The creator and producer of the ABC anthology series “American Crime” was thinking back to the planning stages of his show’s second season, which he decided should focus on the aftermath of a sexual assault at a high school whose parents and staff were played by the formidable likes of Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor, Regina King, Hope Davis, Andre Benjamin and others.
“I had the idea of taking a big chunk of the storytelling, very mature storytelling, and putting it on young people,” he said. “And then I lined them up opposite some of the best talent around — Oscar winners, Emmy winners, Grammy winners, Tony nominees.”
He ended up with actors in their late teens and early 20s, and shipped them all down to the set in Austin for months of shooting. “It was a lot to put on them, especially after putting them in a new environment, away from their normal support structure,” said the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” whose series landed 10 Emmy nominations (and a win for Regina King) in its first season. “I had high expectations, and every one of those folks delivered.”
Ridley’s show, one of the boldest and most daring on broadcast network television, shifted its setting in Season 2 from Northern California to Indianapolis, and its subject matter from racial tensions to sexual identity, with the first season’s class conflicts also thrown in. In the first episode, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) confides to his mother (Taylor) that he was sexually assaulted by a member of the basketball team at a team party; the other boy, Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) says the alcohol-fueled encounter was consensual, but the repercussions make both boys outcasts and threaten to bring down the private school’s administration, headed by Leslie Graham (Huffman), and its basketball coach, Dan Sullivan (Hutton).
“The way that John and his team approach the show is very serious and the show is very serious and very focused,” said Connor Jessup, a 21-year-old actor from Toronto whose previous work includes the TNT series “Falling Skies” and the upcoming film “Closet Monster.”
“It can be hard-hitting, obviously, but underneath all that, there’s an enormous empathy for people in disparate situations. The way that the show feels equally for all these people who are often at odds with each other is incredibly rare and incredibly appealing. Basically, no matter where you’re coming from, you can come to the show and feel understood and represented.”
Like his fellow young actors, Jessup hadn’t seen the entire first season when he got the job–and when he watched it, the prospect of joining Ridley’s all-star cast (returning in new roles) intimidated him. “It was terrifying,” he said. “The cast is the best cast on TV, I think. And to join that mid-flow, to try and jump in and maintain balance, is very scary. The first couple of weeks, there were a lot of restless nights.”
In fact, he added, he rarely felt comfortable at the end of a shooting day. “You go home at night thinking, ‘What am I doing here, why did they let me do this?,'” he said. “‘Tomorrow I’ll get it right.’ And then you come home the next day thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ Sometimes when you’re between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ you feel good, you feel like something’s working. But then the world comes along afterwards and starts to pull at you.”
Like his fellow actors, Jessup had an unusual high-school experience: He went to school for the first two years, then began working as an actor and only attended sporadically during his junior and senior years. Joey Pollari, who plays his nemesis Eric, went through something similar: a year of public school, then a year of private school, then two years of online schooling.
“That experience of being in high school and wanting to fit in — I think some of those residue feelings are with you forever,” said Pollari, 22, who also appeared in the Disney movie “Skyrunners.”
“Masculinity, especially revolving around sports, wanting to be seen as an alpha dog, I think that’s a universal experience.”
Like Jessup, though, he admitted that watching the first season left him thoroughly intimidated. “It scared me to death,” he said. “Long close-ups, long scenes of dialogue, thematically intense. And what it asks of actors, it’s an immense amount of emotionality.”
Pollari and Jessup roomed together in Austin, sharing their fears at night and going out on the weekends. “Those two characters were opposed to each other to their last breaths,” said Ridley. “Their characters’ whole attitude toward each other was ‘He’s lying,’ and they were amazing when the camera was rolling. And then they’d hang out on the weekends and see obscure indie films or artists you’ve never heard of — stuff where you’d think, ‘Are you sure you’re only 20 years old?'”
Trevor Jackson, meanwhile, was having his own learning experiences playing the star basketball player whose behavior creates problems for his high-powered businesswoman mother, played by Regina King, and father, played by Andre Benjamin. Jackson, 19, whose previous work included the Syfy series “Eureka” and a series of singles, EPs and mixtapes, said he loved the basketball scenes, joking that he almost had to tone down his real hoops skills. But he had to adjust to life on a dramatic series.
“I’ve done guest spots on shows before, but doing it every single day and always being ready was tough,” he said. “Some days I’d wake up and think, ‘Let me have a good day.’ ‘No, Trevor, you need to cry, because that’s the scene today.’ That was probably the hardest part.”
Still, he identified with his character. “I feel like if I wasn’t entertaining, I would definitely be playing basketball,” Jackson said. “He’s a ladies man, I wouldn’t call myself necessarily a ladies man, but I like ladies. And also, I feel like we’re in the same space in our lives, transitioning from a boy to a man. You have to take on responsibilities and make the right decisions, and I feel like I connected with him in that sense.”
As Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy, 22-year-old Angelique Rivera faced one of the biggest challenges, because “American Crime” was her first professional acting job (if you don’t count stage roles, or playing Princess Jasmine at Disney World). She landed the part of Evy six months after moving to Los Angeles.
The role of a withdrawn, quiet girl questioning her relationship was was different for Rivera, who’d been Homecoming Queen, captain of the cheerleading team and president of the drama club at her own high school in Florida. “But I did have family issues at home, and that was something I related to with Evy,” she said. “I related to having to grow up pretty quickly because of circumstances, and I know what it’s like to have a lot on your plate and to find a way to keep going.”
Still, she admitted, “There was a lot of anxiety going into it, just because I’d never been on a set before. I remember asking Connor, ‘How do you see those little marks on the ground and not look at them?’ It was a lot of new things happening all at once.”
Ridley, to his relief, found his young actors up to the task. “It isn’t hard to have faith in Felicity and Tim and Regina and Hope and Andre,” he said. “But to put this much story on four young actors, you don’t know if they’re going to be like deer in the headlights. But to a person, this group did everything they could to give their best performances and make sure the best performance was coming from everyone around them.”
Jessup, who had the biggest role and has gotten the biggest Emmy buzz of the young actors, said he found something universal once he got past his initial terror. “Everyone growing up struggles with identity and sexuality and family and who they are,” he said. “So if you can’t identify with that, I don’t know who you are.”
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