Over the years, and especially since the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement, many TV shows have attempted to tackle race and particularly police brutality, often to their own detriment. Dramas like “The Good Wife,” “Scandal,” “Orange is the New Black” and “UnReal” have all fallen short of what could have been glorious indictments against a system that reaches far beyond law enforcement agencies. But with “Shots Fired,” creators Gina Prince Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood are taking a different approach, and it may very well work in their favor. The series centers on Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and Preston Terry (Stephan James), who are both investigating the shooting of a white teenage boy in North Carolina. Mack Wilds (“The Wire,” “The Breaks”) plays Deputy Joshua Beck, the black officer who pulled the trigger. In constructing a narrative where the cop is black and the victim is white, the Bythewoods created a distinctive angle to work from—one that might ultimately allow for a stronger commentary on race relations and state-sanctioned police violence in America than those we’ve previously seen in fictional programming.
Of course, the goal is to also make an entertaining drama, which means every character must have some complexity to them. Anyone who’s followed Gina Prince Bythewood’s work (“Beyond the Lights,” “Love & Basketball”) knows that this story will not be as simple as good kid, bad cop. Mack Wilds’ Beck is presented so that—at least in the early episodes of the show—we write him off as neither completely guilty, nor completely innocent. This is a technique that would have been far more troubling, had the cop been white and the victim black, but it works for the purposes of the series. Ahead of the show’s March 22 premiere on Fox, Wilds spoke with Shadow & Act about working alongside Lathan, the unique perspective of his character and the difficulty of shooting a show like this, when real lives were being taken by police.
Shadow & Act: You’ve been doing this work for quite a while now. Looking back on your time growing up in Staten Island, were there any particular experiences you had that led to your being a performer?
Mack Wilds: Bigger than anything, I grew up in a very, very creative household. My Dad was a singer, my mom would sing around the house. My brother raps, my other brother is a [visual] artist. My sisters, they draw, they sing. My little sister is probably the most creative out of all of us. She sings, draws, makes clothes, she does hair and make-up. I don’t get how one person can have that much creativity in her. So I grew up in a very creative household, and I always wanted to be a musician, a singer, something that had to do with music. Acting kind of happened. It was something that I liked to do, and it turned into something that I love to do.
S&A: That kind of household—that sounds like a great gift that your parents gave you.
Wilds: Looking back on it, I didn’t realize how not normal that was, until I grew up. I thought everybody’s family was like that. I didn’t understand that we were definitely a little different.
S&A: I’m curious about the early stages of your involvement in “Shots Fired.” What was your initial reaction when you read the script?
Wilds: As soon as I read it, I knew exactly what this was going to be, and what it had the potential to be, and that I had to be a part of it. Gina approached me, and broke down the character she wanted me to play and how she wanted to attack it. I remember it was a weird time, because I was trying to figure out if I wanted to just do music, or finally get back to acting. I decided if I was going to [keep acting], it had to be something worthwhile and something that meant a lot. It was one of those weird things where you speak something into existence, because this came on to my desk right after that.
S&A: Beck is an interesting character because he occupies a few different spaces. He’s from the hood, but he’s a cop. He’s close friends with the white guy on his force. At a certain point in the series, it feels like the people in both communities are turning their backs on him. Did you talk with Gina and Reggie about what this means for him, and how it plays into his journey?
Wilds: It was pretty dope, to see his life through both viewpoints, because it’s just what you said—he’s living his life in a few different spaces. He’s a black man from the hood in Charlotte, but he gets shunned because he’s not really from there anymore. Then, on the force, they’re kind of shunning him because of what he did. He’s living in the middle of two worlds that are [distancing themselves] from him. Even at home—you’ll see in later episodes—trying to deal with being a father at that time, it gets rough. You get to be with him and see those different worlds that he lives in, as he struggles through every one of them.
S&A: Were there any scenes that were especially challenging for you to shoot?
Wilds: One of the main ones was the actual shooting scene. It was on the same day that Philando Castile passed away.
S&A: Wow. Unbelievable.
Wilds: I remember I couldn’t even do it that day. I was online, looking at Facebook Live and watching his fiancée [post] the whole situation, with his daughter in the back seat. I walked into my trailer, not remembering what we were shooting that day, and seeing my police uniform. And it just broke me down. Gina and Reggie came to talk to me, and it took all that for me to remember why we were doing this.
S&A: Sanaa Lathan is really fantastic here. I love how intimidating her character, Ashe, is. Can you talk about working with her, and anything you might have picked up from her during your time together?
The greatest thing about Sanaa is that when you meet her, she’s literally the sweetest person ever. So peaceful, doesn’t want any problems with anyone. But then you watch on that screen, and Ashe will punch you in the mouth faster than—it’s just crazy. Watching her on set and seeing how amazingly she was able to pull off Ashe, and then be herself. It was great. Seeing her play these characters and make it real—because it’s one thing to play a character, but it’s another thing to make it feel real. That’s something I’m constantly learning how to do.
S&A: You obviously know plenty about the power of TV, from your time on “The Wire.” We’re in a really exciting time now where there are more and more politically minded TV shows capable of changing the world, and changing the way we think and talk about things. When people walk away from this first season, what are you hoping they’ll do?
Wilds: You know, we did the Washington D.C. premiere recently, and Reggie made a great point about this. I don’t want to be the guy who’s trying to push people into a mindset. So my answer is open-ended. For me the biggest thing I want, is for people to start a conversation, whether it’s a good one, whether it’s a bad one. Start the conversation, take a chance and understand the world we live in. That’s basically what we’re trying to do—show everyone the world we live in, from every seat in the house—the good, the bad and the ugly.
“Shots Fired” airs on Wednesdays at 8pm EST on FOX.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.