‘Seven Seconds’ Star Clare-Hope Ashitey Says It’s Okay To Get Complicated [Interview]
English actress Clare-Hope Ashitey, who stars in the Netflix original Seven Seconds, is never afraid to deal with complex issues.
The jarring, “anthological crime drama” that is Netflix’s Seven Seconds presents a scenario then chips away at what we assume to be true. Its topic is a killing. A Jersey City officer is involved in the death of a black child. Myriad questions and assumptions pour out from every corner of the series, as the layers of this tragedy are slowly peeled back for the viewer. Ultimately, it’s a show that asks us to question how we see ourselves as well as our communities.
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Clare-Hope Ashitey stars as KJ Harper, a black, female Asst. Prosecutor on the case working opposite the mother of the victim, Latrice Butler, who is played by Regina King. Ashitey’s acting chops are undeniable. She comes to this new show from the British crime drama Suspects as well as classic films like Children Of Men. Her performance is nuanced and arresting, her own character’s complexities revealing themselves in sometimes contradictory ways.
@Okayplayer sat down with Ashitey to talk Seven Seconds, what she brought to her role, how on the nose this topic hits for a lot of people, and what happens to a community when a child dies.
Okayplayer: The show speaks to a moment right now between police and people of color. What was it like playing an Asst. Prosecutor in the series?
Clare-Hope Ashitey: These things are not new and have been happening for a very long time, but this is a very interesting moment in history with [the] scrutiny that we have. And to look at these kinds of issues and play these kinds of roles at this moment — and trying to play them in a way that is honest and not exploitative — is interesting to me and is important to me and hopefully will resonate with people and will contribute to a conversation that needs to be had.
OKP: From the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the Women’s March, this is such a political moment right now in America. Do you think the show will help people widen their point of view of those involved?
CHA: That’s what we’re hoping. It’s a story that’s not being told from the point of view of the perpetrator or the victim or the prosecutor. There are so many players in any event that happens and all of them have a journey and a decision making process and [both] an ethical and political point of view. And exploring all those things or I hope exploring all those things can be something the [audience] finds interesting and a way into caring about this conversation. And I think it’s also much more interesting to look at an issue through the lenses of all of the players because only that way can you understand it.
I think it’s really easy for us, because we all occupy a certain geopolitical space and we all have our own viewpoints of some things and inhabit that little bubble, that when we process information we do so through the lense that we have developed as the person that we are.
I think that people almost preordained who the characters will be. [They] have named the heroes, and will decide how these people are going to react without looking at the facts of the case because we just occupy a certain point of view. And hopefully having a look at all of these characters and saying, ‘Look, this is the journey that this person took’ will help people break down the situation, which I think people need to do in real life. I don’t think it’s helpful to look at something and decide in advance who you think the players are and where you think they’re coming from.
OKP: As an Asst. Prosecutor, your role takes on a set of assumptions about our criminal justice system. What did you to do prepare for the role and tackle those perceptions?
CHA: We were trying to tap into her as a character. We were trying to portray real people as they might exist in the world, rather than [just saying] ‘we’re just going to write these things and have her look and say these things.’ It became about creating a person and then testing her by looking at how she would react to certain things. And, necessarily, a lot went into that.
Especially because I am foreign and there’s a lot here that’s foreign to me — the judicial system in the UK is very different to the judicial system here and the racial landscape is very different than the racial landscape here. There was a lot that I had to work on to understand who the woman was and the world that she inhabits. [Trying to figure out] what childhood would have been like for her and what work would have been like for her.
OKP: You’ve worked with a lot of hugely talented people in your career. What was it like working with Veena Sud, whose show, The Killing, rocked everyone’s world?
CHA: I think first and foremost she is incredibly passionate. It sounds basic, but I think sometimes what’s really lacking in storytelling is having someone who’s telling a story and wants to service that idea. I think often there are so many other decisions or other priorities in our industry and they can often be about making money, to be frank. So it’s nice to work on a show and be surrounded by people who thought ‘this is important’. And we felt passionate about the issues and it gives [you] an energy when you’re going in to work that you don’t have on other jobs.
OKP: The child who’s killed has a life as well that’s uncovered over the course of the series. How do you think people will react to what we learn about him as the show goes on?
CHA: It’s a very complex story. And we’re dealing with being inside the heads of a lot of different characters. There are a lot of twists and turns, if you will, that happens. Part of that, I think, is engaging the audience. Like, there has to be an entertainment component to storytelling because that is what people want.
But I think, even aside from that, as a species we’re messy. Our lives are messy; and our decision making processes are messy; and our relationships are messy. People have those kinds of [wrinkles] in their lives. It’s not just something we made up to make telly be interesting. And all families have secrets. The older I get the more I understand this to be true. Some of those are small and inconsequential and some of those are ground moving for a family or group of people. And suddenly something happens and all those secrets start coming out of the woodwork and change how we feel about people and how we feel about things. And telling a story in its full complexity is not only interesting and entertaining, but also it’s not helpful when you [don’t} do that — when you simplify people — because that’s not what we’re like. I think you lose audiences when you treat them like they’re not intelligent enough to deal with those complexities.
OKP: Cities are also a kind of family. Do you think they could do a better job of integrating all their members into their patchwork of justice?
CHA: Absolutely. Make no mistake, the system here is pretty broken. And I think there are huge groups of people who feel they have been done a disservice. I do however feel that it is very dangerous to say, ‘well the city has a duty to make sure that all member of society feel integrated’. It is every single person’s responsibility to work towards that. And to take that agency and be proactive into getting this country and this society and this world as a whole to where we want it to be.
And I understand that it can be very difficult. There are lots of groups who’d say, ‘well we do take part’ or don’t feel any incentive to take part because of the way that they’re treated. But I think it becomes even harder when their agency is lost or when they don’t exercise their agency. And even people who don’t feel connected to the story in any way and feel like this isn’t my experience and I don’t know these communities, it’s also their responsibility to understand and have empathy and built tolerance and work towards something that’s better than what we have because what we have right now doesn’t work.
OKP: You worked opposite a powerful performance by Regina King. What was it like working with her?
CHA: It was great. She’s incredibly good at what she does, that’s the first thing. And working with someone who’s very good at what they do is —selfishly — good for me because it makes me better. That’s a privilege to be able to do that and have access to actors and directors and producers that are good at what they do.
Plus, on a very basic level, she’s just really nice. That sounds very basic but it’s very underrated in our industry and it’s actually not as common as it should be. She’s very approachable. And I think when you have a certain status your presence kind of sets the tone for what things are going to be like on set. She doesn’t lean into having that status at all. But at the same time being so nice and approachable makes working on set easier.
OKP: Do you think representation matters in the sense that it’s important for people to see someone like you in the position you’re in on the show?
CHA: Absolutely. On the one hand it’s important to reflect the reality of what happens. And part of the problem is that whitewashing is a problem in some of our cultural output. But also having an African-American character that doesn't conform to stereotypes and that is complex and layered and is a real person is, I think, very important. I think that sometimes people get upset when characters don’t show up — as they would like to term it — because it can reflect badly. And I understand that people who already live in very difficult situations may not think it helps. But I actually don’t think that it’s helpful to create stereotypes or conform to stereotypes that aren’t accurate or aren’t true.
OKP: Violence against children is a particularly jarring aspect of our world. What do you think happens to a community when it has to wrestle with the death of a child?
CHA: I think that every time that happens, for whatever reason, is a time to spur people to take action or to take note of what’s happening. Because it’s so unnatural. There’s a reason why we’re so affected by young people dying. And when there are reports in war zones it’s always so devastating when it affects children and when it affects young people.
I think any society in which that happens with regularity and with which there is a pattern, as it appears to be here, something has to give and something has to be done to address that because it is so unnatural. That’s why people have such a visceral reaction when that happens.
Andre Grant is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has written for HipHopDX, Complex and The Well Versed. Follow him (and us!) on Twitter @DreJones.