In recent years, the likes of Ava DuVernay’s 13th and When They See Us have offered eye-opening and anger-inducing insights into America’s flawed judicial system and its bias against Black people.
The latest show to highlight that racial inequality is For Life, a procedural drama which sees Nicholas Pinnock star as Aaron Wallace, a wrongfully incarcerated man who became a lawyer in prison and fights to prove his innocence.
Ahead of its UK debut this week, NME caught up with Pinnock over Zoom to hear why For Life is worth tuning into.
It’s based on a true story
The character of Aaron Wallace is based on the real life story of Isaac Wright Jr., who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit before being subsequently exonerated.
“I didn’t know anything about it beforehand,” Pinnock says. “But having read the script, I did some research and he was a fascinating character. It became really clear to me that this was something that I was drawn to and wanted to be a part of”.
Pinnock spent time with Wright Jr. – still a practising lawyer – prior to shooting, and made a conscious effort to take what he learned from those interactions and channel it into his portrayal of Wallace. “There was a focus that Isaac had when he was in prison trying to prove himself innocent,” he notes. “There was no time for being down, no disappointment, or anger or joy or anything. And so when it came [time for] me to portray Aaron, it was very clear to me that in everything he did, there had to be this focus, even though there’s all the stuff going on behind the eyes. Everything he’s not saying had to be just as important as everything that he was saying”.
Aaron Wallace is a complicated hero
It’s impossible not to be on Wallace’s side as he sets about proving his innocence so he can get back to his family. As their dutiful prison rep, he even manages to help some of his fellow inmates along the way. But though his goal is righteous, the way in which he tries to achieve them is sometimes less so. For Pinnock, that moral murkiness is part of Wallace (and the show’s) appeal.
“It could be very one dimensional and quite boring if there was no edge or danger about him the entire time,” he says. “Going to the edge every now and then is really interesting not only for the audience, but for me as an actor. I want to go on that journey, because it can help me understand how to take an audience [with me]. And if it’s not always smooth sailing then, for me, it’s a lot more interesting.”
There’s a load of fascinating characters
While much of the show’s screen time is understandably focused on Pinnock’s Wallace, For Life goes to great lengths to create a well-rounded picture of the impact his incarceration has on the people in his orbit. Inside the prison walls, that is best encapsulated in his relationships with empathetic warden Safiya Masry (Indira Varma) and loyal best friend Jamal (Dorian Missick). On the outside, much of the focus is given to Wallace’s young daughter Jasmine (Tyla Harris) and sympathetic wife Marie (Joy Bryant), with whom he shares a complicated relationship.
“The interesting thing is, when I first read the Aaron and Marie scenes they didn’t seem to pop for me,” Pinnock recalls. “They seemed very formulaic and easy, and I didn’t think they were going to really amount to anything. But then when we got on set and Joy and I started bouncing off each other and playing together, something really special happened. I started to enjoy the collaborative process that Joy and I had sprung up together more and more”.
The courtroom scenes are gripping
Of course, no legal drama would be complete without lawyers verbally sparring in a courtroom, and there are multiple scenes in For Life that prove satisfying in that regard as Wallace becomes increasingly skilled in articulating his arguments. Fittingly, the courtroom vernacular was a bit of a learning curve for Pinnock too.
“Courtroom dialogue is like scientific dialogue and medical dialogue for an actor,” he says. “It’s a foreign language. Lawyers take anywhere between three and seven years to be able to practise. Their grammar is so different to how we speak on a day-to-day basis. So you’re using words and you’re using phrases and you’re moving the structure of a sentence around so it sounds legal – and it’s really, really, really hard. So yeah, those are the challenges.”