A famous black man is accused of murdering his wife. After a sensational trial, he’s found not guilty. The Los Angeles district attorney who prosecuted him faces criticism from all sides.
There’s a reason it does. Marcia Clark, the DA who famously prosecuted O.J. Simpson, serves as executive producer and co-writer of the ABC drama The Fix. In the series, district attorney Maya Travis (Robin Tunney) is pulled back to the city and career she left behind when movie star Sevvy Johnson’s second wife is murdered and Sevvy is the prime suspect. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stars as Sevvy, a man who insists he’s innocent even as the evidence against him piles up.
Perhaps best known for playing the mysterious Mr. Eko on Lost, Akinnuoye-Agbaje infuses Sevvy with complex emotions and motivations. One minute you think he’s not guilty, the next you’re convinced he did it.
Paste recently had the chance to talk to Akinnuoye-Agbaje about playing a character inspired by O.J. Simpson, working with Clark, and his new movie, Farming, which tells the fraught story of his childhood. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]
Paste: When I’m watching the show, my mind keeps changing about Sevvy. I can’t decide if he’s innocent or guilty. Did you know going into the project whether Sevvy had done it?
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I did know. Knowing whether you’re guilty or not it certainly makes it more challenging to play the duplicity. It’s a lot more helpful not to know. I would do a take where I was guilty and I would do a take where I was not guilty. So I had my little techniques. In order to have the audience guessing, I proposed this to the directors and the writers and that’s how I played it.
Paste: How do you begin to play a character who’s been accused of murder twice?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I think it’s like any character I’ve played. I’ve played many dubious characters in my career. All have been accused of certain crimes, none of which I’ve fortunately committed in my real life. Obviously, with Sevvy Johnson there was a wealth of material the series was inspired by, so I was able to actually go into that with Marcia as well. We reviewed evidence. I watched the O.J.: Made in America documentary. I did a lot of research around the case just to put me in the mindset of the type of character I’d be playing.
Paste: You’re not playing O.J. Simpson, but Sevvy is clearly inspired by him.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Even though he’s fictional, it gave me a rich resource to pull from. I was around in L.A. at the time that that case was going on, so I had my own references to what I felt and how I had seen other people react, so I had a certain amount of informed knowledge about it. I think one aspect of this character that was intriguing to me and that I hadn’t seen in the case or in the media is how it impacted him as a person and his immediate family, so that was interesting to me—to really look into the family background and psychological and emotional turmoil that a high-profile case like this can inflict, and the consequential effect of that on you when people who love you start to question your innocence. That was quite disturbing, to be honest. It shows the whole gamut of the making of the man, rather than just saying, “He’s a movie star who is a prime suspect.” I thought and I discussed this with the writers what it took for a man like that to come into this country and build himself up, because I felt that would heighten the stakes and make it very real to what he was losing.
Paste: People are obviously going to make a lot of comparisons between Sevvy and O.J. Simpson.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: It was a tricky situation taking on the role, because I said, “Well, why are we doing this again? Why are we going to open that wound and rehash that story?” And in talking to Marcia and the writers, I realized it was not a repetition of that case in any way, shape, or form. There are the obvious parallels that will be drawn, and I think rightly so: It’s a black man on trial for the murder of two white people and a woman who is potentially playing a Marcia Clark character. It’s produced and written by Marcia Clark. The pilot is an origin story. People should draw their own parallels to what happened back then.
Where it differs is once we get into those 10 episodes, it becomes a fiction. It becomes, “What if this happened? What if he had said this? What if we had looked at it from this perspective?” Many of the issues that were raised in the case are still relevant today, whether it’s institutionalized racism in the police force, whether it’s sexism in the legal industry, whether it’s the racial profiling of black celebrities, which is obviously happening now a lot… The impact on him mentally and emotionally and how he’s come into that world. I would like to see how this man came to be. I would like to see the human side and see what’s really going on. I think one of the things that makes the story interesting is we have Marcia as a point of reference. I could go to her and say, “Did this really happen? Would you really do this when we are in court?” I really felt it was worth revisiting, because unfortunately, many of the issues that the O.J. trial raised are still very relevant today.
Paste: Marcia Clark has been a public figure for decades. What surprised you when you got to meet and work with her?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I was intrigued to meet her and get to know her just from a legal aspect, because I’ve studied law, so there was that connection. The media kind of depicts a person a certain way, so you tend to have a preconceived notion before you meet them… but when you actually meet her, you meet the human, and she’s a very dynamic and extremely intelligent woman. And she’s fun. None of that comes from impression you get from the media.
She directed some of the scenes whispering in actors’ ears. She was very much a part of the creative process. She wasn’t just a name on the show. Not only was she a part of it, you could tell that was something that was a part of her. The creativeness. So it was actually hard to believe she was a DA. It looked like she was someone who had always aspired to be a part of the creative process.
Paste: You’ve played “bad guys” before. How was this different?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: I find it a lot easier to play a gun-wielding drug lord or a drug dealer that kills for survival than somebody who is suspected of killing someone he loves or has a history of domestic violence. I think the very intimate nature of those crimes made it very disturbing to inhabit. It was not a comfortable role to play by any means, just emotionally. From the moment the show starts, everyone is attacking him, and so for the next 10 episodes, as Sevvy Johnson and as an actor, you’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown. So while it was compelling viewing, it was quite nerve-wracking playing that character.
Paste: It sounds like Sevvy really got under your skin. Was it difficult to leave him at the end of the day?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: It was definitely not hard to leave him at the end of the day! I would literally jump out of those clothes, take a cold shower, turn on the music, and get back to my reality. It was quite an uncomfortable character to play. I was very glad—as much as I loved working with my actors and production—I was very glad to leave it each night.
Paste: What can we expect for the rest of the season?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: You’re going to see more cliffhangers and more suspects than you can believe. This show will literally wring dry all of the suspects, and at the end of the 10 episodes you will have your answer. We really go at Maya Travis and ask, “Is this just revenge? Is she blind to the truth?” and we really start to feel for Sevvy. The weight and the balance of guilt switches like a pendulum… You will not know really whether he’s guilty or not or if somebody else in his life is responsible. In a nutshell, it’s really going to be a bullet train ride of a thriller.
Paste: I have my theories.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: All I can say is, we’re early in the race here. Think of it as a marathon and watch the runners coming up from the wings.
Paste: Your movie Farming, which you directed and wrote, is autobiographical. It’s about your experience of being fostered by a white family when your Nigerian born parents “farmed” you out to a white couple. Tell me about the decision to open up your life to an audience.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: The decision really was born out of the need to sleep at night. These type of projects that are both personal and cathartic, you only do because you can’t live without telling the story. I felt that way about this project—not only would it give me personal healing, but Farming really is the voice of a generation of black Britons that went through the same process. It would not only validate their experience, but also give voice to [that] experience. For that reason as well, it was important to me to share this story on a wider platform. It’s been an incredible process—at times painful, at times liberating. I feel gratified. I feel honored and ultimately liberated after such a long period of trying to make it. I feel great and I have seen the impact. We’ve been doing a series of screenings in Switzerland, London and the U.S. and just the impact it’s had on people made me realize I made the right decision to share the story on such a wide platform.
Paste: I have to confess I knew nothing about the practice of farming.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje: You would be forgiven for not knowing. Even the Britons who live here don’t know, and I think one of the shocking things about this story is not only its narrative of parents giving away children to tens of thousands of white couples in England, but the fact that it was unknown even in England on such a large scale. We in Europe and the U.K. are very familiar with the black American experience from slavery to civil rights to African Americans as we know them today, but very little is known of the journey of the black British experience. At the heart of that story, it really is a love story about the importance of parental love. The search for it and ultimately the finding of love within oneself. Whether you specifically relate to the phenomenon of farming or not, you can relate to it on the universal level.
I think people will relate to me on a different level and frequency. They will see the making of the movie star and what has informed some of those performances. It is always a nerve-wracking experience to put yourself out there but I think the means justified the ends—the ends being the healing for myself and a generation of people who were farmed.
The Fix airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .