Season two of the ABC drama American Crime is both a coming out and coming-of-age story taking place between two high schools, one private (The Leyland School) and one public (Thurgood Marshall High School), in Indianapolis. Midwestern teen, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), is allegedly sexually assaulted at a party hosted by the private school’s boys basketball team. Following suggestive images of an inebriated, semi-nude Taylor going viral on social media, the students’ families and faculties at both schools each come in contact with each other and experience their lives being turned upside down.
The sophomore season of American Crime is rooted in both cast and crew members sharing their personal stories and brainstorming ideas for about a month. Those sessions for the John Ridley and Michael J. McDonald-created and executive produced series yielded discussions revolving around a dynamic intersection of trending topics like online dating, hookup culture, racism, classism, homophobia, privilege, access, masculinity, suicide, divorce, (cyber) bullying, peer pressure, mental illness, socio-economics and post-traumatic stress.
Ridley, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and McDonald, a former ABC executive, worked relentlessly to create and nurture an inclusive environment. Both showrunners challenged everyone to make American Crime a stark reflection of society. “We feel like we’re creating something special and artful,” says McDonald with his arms crossed in a brief interview during SCAD Atlanta’s #aTVfest. “To see people wowed makes us feel really, really proud.”
Shot in Austin, TX, veteran actors Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Lili Taylor, Regina King, Richard Cabral and Elvis Nolasco from American Crime’s first season returned as different characters. Added to the ensemble cast were younger talents Jessup, Trevor Jackson, Joey Pollari, Angelique Rivera and Grammy-winning member of Outkast Andre “3000” Benjamin.
Taylor, the product of a blue-collar, single parent home, receives financial aid to attend Leyland. He attends the party to hook up with the basketball team’s co-captain, Eric Tanner (Pollari), who is accused of the attack. Throughout the season, an emotionally distant Taylor endures a hot-and-cold relationship with his mother, Anne Blaine (Taylor), experiments with drugs and becomes involved in a school shooting ending in tragedy.
Often shown as reclusive, Jessup describes how he stepped into the role of Taylor. “The show set me up with a few trauma counselors and people who had been through similar situations,” says the Falling Skies actor. “Everyone’s case is individual, and everyone reacts to it in an individual way. It was important that Taylor be an individual.”
Seated beside Jessup is Rivera, portraying Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy Dominguez. Evy lives in public housing along with her ailing mother and hard-working father. Despite her personal battles, she stands by Taylor as he comes to terms with his sexuality and confronts the attack.
When Rivera was cast in her network television debut, she stopped wearing makeup, doing her eyebrows, regularly getting manicures and even began wearing baggy clothes. She states, “Rather than reading about people who go through this, I went and volunteered at a learning center for younger kids who came from low-income families.” The stylish Florida-born actress wearing a leather skirt, black stilettos and flowing hair continues. “I learned how happy these kids are even though they had a really rough time at home,” says Rivera. “They’re not a victim of their circumstances. They’re strong, and I wanted to get used to this world that Evy lived in.”
Jessup and Rivera each take a few minutes to comment in harmony about how they gravitated towards Ridley’s directorial methodology. Coincidentally speaking with them the same day Ridley earned his NAACP Image award for “Outstanding Direction in a Dramatic Series,” both actors talk about appreciating his self-assurance and open door policy. “He’s so incredibly invested in this show,” says Rivera. “You see the passion when you’re talking to him. It’s hard to not want to get in that mode with him and just totally give it your all.”
“If you have questions,” she continues, “he’s more than willing to sit down with you, talk and help you in anyway that he possibly can.” Jessup, who admits to being intimidated upon being cast, meticulously studied American Crime’s writing and story development to bring realism to the screen.
Jessup parallels Ridley’s persona to American Crime’s flow and tone. “[John] has a real affection for people and knows exactly what he wants at every moment,” he says. “He is incredibly focused, very smart, serious-minded, intelligent, well-spoken and you might not see it in the show but a really wonderful sense of humor.”
Pollari, on the other hand, was groomed to play Eric, as he was also coming to terms with his sexuality and witnessing his family deteriorate. He spoke extensively with Wade Davis, the former NFL athlete-turned-executive director of You Can Play Project, an organization that combats homophobia in sports. Davis, one of the few leaders of color to lead a national LGBTQ organization, appeared as a guest star in one episode, and spoke with Pollari about feeling shame.
The Memphis-born actor famous for his role on MTV’s The Inbetweeners researched similar cases involving sexual assault. Pollari says he didn’t try to concentrate too much on the program’s social impact as much as he did on delivering an exceptional performance. “[American Crime] is the closest thing to a theater experience that I’ve had,” confirms an extroverted Pollari. “The conversation is being had. Everyone has to come to terms with being who they are and high school is a tough place to do that.”
Like the first season, the cast of American Crime knows the series is a daring yet culturally significant program. The cast also emphasizes how familial support in a time of crisis is the show’s universal message. Since its Mar. 2015 debut, American Crime continues to hit a strong chord with viewers.
McDonald says young men and families of color especially have expressed gratitude for such hard-hitting subject matter. “The critical response is amazing,” says McDonald. “What’s really awesome are the letters that we’re receiving, the emails and people throughout America responding personally. We’re just recreating what we already know. All of this stuff came from many people and bad events. It’s unbelievable to be able to show that.”
The season finale of American Crime airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.