FOR LIFE, now on Wednesday nights on ABC in its second season, is loosely based on the life of lawyer Isaac Wright Jr. Wright got his law license while he was in prison, having been wrongly convicted of a crime. When he was exonerated, Wright continued to represent other inmates in court.
In FOR LIFE, Nicholas Pinnock plays Wright’s fictional counterpart, Aaron Wallace. Season 2 begins with Aaron obtaining his freedom. He now must renegotiate his relationship with his wife Marie (Joy Bryant), their loving daughter Jasmine (Tyla Harris), and his namesake, Jasmine’s newborn son.
Indira Varma plays Sofiya Masry, the former warden of the prison where Aaron was incarcerated. During Season 1, Sofiya lost her job over her support of Aaron, and her marriage to aspiring district attorney Anya Harrison (Mary Stuart Masterson) was in danger of crumbling.
FOR LIFE executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson optioned Wright’s story, and hired Hank Steinberg to develop it as a television series.
ABC recently put Jackson, Pinnock, Steinberg, Varma, and Wright together on Zoom for a FOR LIFE Q&A session to talk about Season 2.
Jackson talks about how hearing Wright’s experiences made him determined to get the project made as a television series. “When Isaac told me the story initially, I couldn’t see how you could tell it and do justice to the story in two hours, in a feature film. Because he had it in that format. The way he told the story, it was so vivid that I could see everything. I could see everything he said to me, but I was like, ‘There’s not going to be time to explain what happened, and process it.’ And it’s too important. So many people went through a version of this, a smaller version of the injustice where they have to [do] more time than they should actually have for the crimes they were in. The next court proceeding would mean that you lose the ability to get that last [plea bargain] offer they made to you. So, either you take the copout, or you get twenty years, or you get fifteen years, because you didn’t take the plea that they offered you. And they [the people doing the plea bargaining] absolutely cop out. They said, ‘Let me take a bad situation before it gets worse.’ And this is what stands out to me in Isaac’s journey, because he said, ‘Things went bad. It got worse. It got past what “bad” is.’ When you get sentenced to seventy years plus life, that’s way past bad. And he still worked in the same direction tirelessly the entire time until it turns around.”
There are other people who have also won exonerations, Jackson continues, but their experiences are not as compelling as Wright’s. “You can look at some people and be like, ‘This guy is great, he’s amazing, I like him,’ but there’s not anything about his journey that would make him more exciting to me than him having the willpower to get himself out of that type of situation. Because it landed on me that way. I said, ‘Watch. It’s definitely going to sell.’ And people kept trying to convince me that I’m not right when I believe I’m right about something, because they can mistake my confidence for arrogance. This is what happens when you have confidence without things around to support it. You start to build that aura of, ‘No, I don’t need you to support it. It’s definitely going to go the way I think it’s going to go.’ To the point when we were selling the television show, when I got an answer I didn’t like, I said, ‘Do not tell Isaac that. Because what he just did isn’t the problem in the pitch.’ The next group of people that we saw, it was ABC, and they bought the show. And here we are. Because I told him, ‘It’s going to work. I’ve just got to make sure it works the right way.’
“Even before Hank was involved with the project, I had a show called CON LAW. A guy had a similar idea, a similar concept, but it was just something that he made up. I’m like, ‘Oh, no. I’ll do CON LAW if you inject Isaac Wright Jr.’s experience into this actual show, because this is real. This really happened.’ It was a point where Sony was questioning whether we needed to say that the show is loosely based on Isaac Wright Jr.’s life story. And I was going, ‘That’s what the f***ing show is.’ Having it be his actual experience makes it hit home in a different way. What made it important to me is what the general public is connected to. Let’s just say our creative structure doesn’t feel like that is absolutely important, because a lot of the projects that they found successful in the past were not true stories.”
Wright adds, “One of the things that’s very significant about this, especially when you’re looking at us dealing with Black Lives Matter, looking at the racial divides in this country, and some of the issues that we have, one of the things about it being a true story – we have Aaron Wallace there, and we have to also understand whether the public would even be able to believe, without it being a true story, that a Black man could possibly do that in the criminal justice system. And so, the truth of the story not only brings light to these issues, but it also shows that anything is possible, no matter what your color is, even when you’re Black, even when you’re a minority, even when you’re poor, even when there are no answers. All things are possible in the system, and all things are possible in this country if we put our minds to it. And so that’s very, very important, in the sense that, would this show, if you deviated from that truth, and you use the same character, and you tried to move through the show, would the public accept it the same way they could where they could stop looking at the show and go to Google and see that this man really existed, these things really happened to him. And so I agree with you one hundred percent. I think that the anchor, the inspiration for this show was on point, and I agree with you. You’re a genius.”
Jackson laughs appreciatively. “What can I say?”
“I think I can add,” Steinberg says, “people have been trying to make the jailhouse lawyer show for decades. And it’s never really been cracked. And if 50 and [executive producers] Doug [Robinson] and Alison [Greenspan], or any producer, came to me with, ‘Hey, we have this idea for a fictional idea about a guy who’s in jail, and he learns how to become a lawyer,’ I really don’t think I would have connected to it, or thought that it was that great an idea. But it was something about it being real, and then hearing the specificity that Isaac talked about it when we spent dozens of hours together in the development of it, that’s in the fabric of the show now, that I never could have created or made up or understood or known about, and it’s all in there. And that’s what makes it feel real, and textured. So, yes, Isaac’s experience gives it a stamp of credibility, but it’s also, his experiences are infused all over the scripts themselves in a way that elevates it.”
Jackson says, “It was interesting, the passion that was involved. People didn’t want to connect Isaac to the show. I don’t know how to make you guys understand it. It was a battle for me to make sure that it was that way. One of the attorneys that they had at Sony worked at the district attorney’s office, and said, ‘He escaped on a technicality. He was guilty.’ It’s people’s personal perceptions, how they view things. People’s passion makes them say things that doesn’t logically make sense for you to say that to a person.”
Why was it decided to keep Aaron in prison for the entirety of Season 1? Steinberg takes the question. “We felt that to really, fully earn the catharsis of his liberation, from a dramatic standpoint, where you’re hoping to tell a five- or six- or seven-year story about an incredible character, that we should really make it feel earned. I think if ABC had ordered twenty-two episodes in the first season, we probably would not have gone a whole twenty-two in the prison. It’s hard to know, because you develop the show organically with the writers, and you feel your way through. But we of course always intended for the second chapter of his life, for the character to be on his new journey as a liberated man who’s still got the weight of everything he’s been through on him. It just felt organic to end the [first] season with a cliffhanger, and then to move him into the next chapter at the beginning of the second season.”
What was Wright’s reaction to first season? Were there any scenes where he thought either, “Oh, I wish it had happened that way” or “Thank God it didn’t happen that way”?
Wright laughs. “There were so many wonderful scenes that I would have wished it had happened that way. I would have to relate to the way Aaron got out. I had to get out by a police officer actually confessing on the stand. So that burden and that challenge, that mountain was a lot higher to climb. In this season, at the end of Season 1, and you’ll see in the beginning of Season 2, the brilliance of how Aaron flipped on Maskins [the assistant district attorney who put him away, played by Boris McGver] and on the system was just incredible. I wish I would have been able to do it that way, instead of the way that I had to do it, actually.” He compliments Steinberg. Thanks, Hank, I appreciate that. Great job.”
Steinberg elaborates on how Aaron is able to win his liberty, saying that there were a lot of different ways it could have been written. “Sometimes it just happens very organically. We ended the first season with a big cliffhanger, and then we all got together, and said, ‘Okay, how are we going to handle this, and how do we want to find a way to get him out, a really dramatic and unexpected way?’ We ended up making a decision to do something where it’s actually not about going back to court, but we had a big, climactic moment at the end of Season 1, where he wins his retrial. We didn’t want to reiterate and replicate something like that. Where we landed is having Aaron use the cunning and street smarts, and combining that with the legal skills of the stuff that he learned in prison, combined with his connections with Roswell [Aaron’s mentor, played by Timothy Busfield] and Sofiya on the outside to orchestrate this incredible jujitsu move on the powers that be that were trying to keep him down.”
Although Aaron is fictional, there are many points of similarity with Wright, who is one of FOR LIFE’s executive producers, along with Steinberg and Jackson. How does Pinnock feel about playing a quasi-biographical character, especially when the real-life model is so nearby?
Pinnock says, “It was a huge responsibility, and I was really fortunate to have Isaac Wright by my side at any point that I needed him. I mean, I wasn’t doing a sound for sound, like for like of him, but there were essences of Isaac that needed to be in this show, and I could not have done that without his support and his guidance, his help and his constant availability. It really helped me shape who Aaron became.”
Does Pinnock feel that Aaron is any lighter this season, now that he’s no longer imprisoned?
“No,” Pinnock replies, his real-life English tenor a startling contrast with the New York baritone he employs as Aaron. “I think there is the weight of everything that he went through last season, but with the added responsibility of who he is now as a husband and a father, which is something we explore a lot more about Aaron than we were able to in Season 1. He has the shards of who he was as a prisoner that he’s still dealing with, because he was in prison for almost ten years. There are certain prison aspects of Aaron that are still with him now that he’s on the outside, he’s not just a free man and going straight back into regular, everyday societal life. He is having to adapt, and that adaptation brings with it a weight of its own.”
Sofiya lost her prison warden job and was in dire marital straits at the end of Season 1. What’s going on with her in Season 2?
Varma laughs. “The only answer I can give is, you have to watch it. Life is complicated, and I think one of the good, exciting things about this show is that it’s not black-and-white.”
In FOR LIFE’s second season, Pinnock joins the behind-the-scenes team as a producer on the series. What is that like for him? “It’s just having more communication, more input. You get to a point at times, I think, as an actor, where you realize and you feel that there is more that you can put into the character that you have to offer, and that people around you feel that as well, and they appreciate and acknowledge that. And that’s basically what it is.”
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Article: Interview with FOR LIFE actors Nicholas Pinnock, Indira Varma executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and the creators on Season 2 of the ABC Drama – Part 1