Russell Hornsby On 'Proven Innocent' And Playing Characters With Depth: 'I Don’t Want To Be The Actor Who Just Entertains'

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February 15th 2019

The American judicial system is broken. Its foundation has never been sustainable, and as a result, people often fall through the cracks and are left to waste away in prison cells. Luckily, as technology has advanced, justice groups have been able to use new forms of evidence to get convictions overturned, setting some who have been wrongfully convicted free.

In the new Fox drama, Proven Innocent, Empire co-creator Danny Strong, along with David Elliot and Stacy Greenberg, explore the lives of the wrongfully convicted, and how the stain of conviction can never truly be washed away.

Set in Chicago, Proven Innocent follows Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre) a defense attorney who, as a teen, was convicted along with her brother of murdering her best friend, Rosemary Lynch. After spending ten years in prison before eventually getting her conviction overturned, Madeline went to law school before returning to Chicago to open the Injustice Defense Group with her law partner Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Boudreau (Russell Hornsby), communications director Violet Bell (Nikki M. James) and private investigator Bodie Quick (Vincent Kartheiser). Though she’s eager to help free innocent people, Madeline is also determined to take down the man who put her in jail, corrupt powerhouse prosecutor Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer), while uncovering what really happened to Rosemary.

Ahead of the show’s premiere, Shadow and Act flew to Chicago to visit the Proven Innocent set. We sat down with Russell Hornsby to discuss the series, why he was hooked from the first script and why certain roles are suddenly falling in his lap.

Photo Credit: Fox Photo Credit: Fox

"When I first read the script by David Elliot I was moved by the premise of the show,” Hornsby explained. "Dealing with freeing the wrongfully convicted really attracted me to the piece —and so did the character. Easy is a father, a lawyer, a principled man. He’s a man who has integrity, and I think that’s very important. He comes off as a leader in his own right."

Though Proven Innocent is an ensemble drama, Hornsby was particularly drawn to his character because of how rich and textured Easy is as a man —and human being. "We want to be able to play good, quality, but conflicted characters," Hornsby said. “You have to be able to show that aspect of three-dimensionality in these roles. Proven Innocent has given me the opportunity to do that so that everyone can see who this person really is without allowing him to be an archetype."

Though Easy was the man who took on Madeline’s case and eventually got her released from jail, the law partners come from very different places. Like Madeline, Easy works tirelessly for his clients, but his perspective is different when it comes to going up against Prosecutor Bellows or even advocating for Madeline to relive her past. As a result, the relationship and trust that they have worked so diligently to build are slowly beginning to fray.

Photo Credit: Fox Photo Credit: Fox

"I think the beautiful thing about the pilot and where we go from the pilot is that Easy and Madeline are still trying to find what their working relationship is," he revealed. "We’re talking about this woman who was in prison for ten years, and what she’s trying to do now with her life and her career. And, we’re also talking about a Black man who is born and raised in the city of Chicago, who understands the dynamics of Chicago and the politics of Chicago —and sees things differently. Easy is a man of deep faith, and he’s practiced a lot of patience."

The Hate U Give actor continued, "This [white] woman and this Black man are coming at the work of freeing the wrongfully convicted from polar opposite sides. So they have to take the time to find common ground. But, I do think that because they come from these different sides, it makes for a wonderful set of dynamics for the show. Now, it’s just about finding their working relationship. What I appreciate is that as the show moves forward, we don’t shy away from those truths. That’s what will draw an audience to it —that sense of honesty and truth-telling that’s happening in these stories."

Filming Proven Innocent on location in Chicago is vital, especially considering the way the city is continuously villainized in the media. It allows a different narrative of Chicago to permeate its way into our collective consciousness. "I think it adds a different layer of authenticity to it," Hornsby unpacked. "Chicago is a city that people have heard about but haven’t often seen. I think we’re seeing a lot more of it lately. Chicago is very different from New York —it’s very different from Los Angeles or Atlanta. It has its own dynamics, its own sense of history, segregation, racism and politics. You have to be able to shine a light on all aspects of the city —the crooked and the straight. This show is going to find a way to be balanced in that approach."

At this point in his career, the Lincoln Heights alum has done projects that have been across the board in terms of genre and tone. However, with The Hate U Give, Creed II and Seven Seconds —2018 was a landmark year for Hornsby, and it’s evident that he’s just now stepping on the gas. "I think part of it honestly, is the roles choosing me," the Oakland native reflected. "It’s where I am as a man and in my life. I’m a husband and a father now. But, I’ve always been an actor that has been attracted to qualitative roles. Roles that are conflicted but speak to a level of honesty and truth, but have a depth of feeling. I don’t want to be the actor who just entertains. I can laugh with the best of them, I love to dance, I love singing —all of that good stuff. But I like to be an actor who gives people something that they can feel. I was raised working with August Wilson, and he showed me that Black people are rich in character —rich in culture, in who we are. What I want to do is find those layers in the roles that I choose.”

Proven Innocent debuts February 15, 2019, on Fox.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide 

by Aramide A. Tinubu on February 15th 2019
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