"By the end of 2016, I felt outnumbered by shitheads."
British actress Clare-Hope Ashitey is seated in Netflix's Hollywood offices, recalling the period during which she first read the script for Seven Seconds, the 10-episode series that began streaming on the platform last Friday. Dressed in a pale-peach dress and leopard-print heels – an ensemble that doesn’t meet her preferred standards of comfort – she looks almost relieved by the frankness of her own words. "Between Trump’s election and Brexit, there were all sorts of opinions coming out of the woodwork that I thought had died out a long time ago," she says. "I was like, what's the point? All we do is bad things. The history of humanity is the history of people exploiting each other."
To be fair, the 30-year-old Ashitey was hardly alone in her defeatism. Yet she's the first to admit that the slightly fatalistic tenor of that particular moment was oddly helpful in terms of finding her Seven Seconds character, assistant prosecutor KJ Harper. We first meet Harper in a bar during her lunch hour, drinking Bombay gin with a twist of lime instead of preparing for court. When a hit-and-run accident leaves a black teenager bleeding to death in the snow, a police cover-up ensues. It falls to this reluctant heroine to bring her law-and-order colleagues to justice. "The timing definitely made it easier to tap into her despair," the actress says. "I imagine KJ being very idealistic in the beginning. Like, I'm going to make a difference and be really fair and address the imbalance in the system. And then she hops onto this train and can't do anything to change its direction."
Inspired by the epidemic of police brutality that led to the deaths of black teenagers like Tamir Rice and Michael Brown (among too many others), the Jersey City-set Seven Seconds explores the crime’s reverberations and racial implications for a community living in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, her back tellingly turned towards them. The cast is formidable, particularly Regina King as the victim’s bereft mother and Looking's Raul Castillo as one of the compromised narcotics officers. "A white cop and a black kid? Don’t you watch the news? There are no fucking accidents anymore," Castillo's character shouts at the rookie cop (Beau Knapp) who mowed the boy down – a justification so oft-repeated that it practically becomes a mantra.
But Ashitey is the one who has to navigate every corner of the show’s torn-from-the-headlines dramatic minefield – which she does, delivering a breakout performance that is as raw as it is restrained. While Hollywood has seen an increased demand for colorblind casting that avoids lazy stereotypes, Harper is an example of the infinite possibilities for writing complex characters of color. "It was very important that KJ is a young black woman struggling with her own demons," says writer/creator/executive producer Veena Sud (The Killing). "As a woman of color, I see so few [of my peers] who are allowed to be multi-dimensional and human. I wanted our hero to come from the black community, to understand in her heart, and not simply her head, how broken the criminal justice system is."
By the time pre-production on Seven Seconds began in New York in late 2016, Sud still hadn't found her lead. "One day I came home exhausted, at the end of my rope, and I turned on the TV – Children of Men was on," she recalls, referring to Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 thriller in which Ashitey, then 17, plays a pregnant refugee in a dystopian society ravaged by infertility. "It was the scene when Clare meets Clive Owen, and the first thing she basically says to him is 'Fuck off.’ I said, 'Where is this woman? We have to see her right away, she's amazing.’"
As it happens, Children of Men was only the second audition Ashitey had ever been on. The first was for a role she also landed, in 2005's Beyond the Gates, a drama about the Rwandan genocide starring Hugh Dancy. Her parents, who emigrated to North London from Ghana, were skeptical of their youngest child's desires to become an actress: She recalls them telling her that acting was "not a job, why don't you be a lawyer instead?" Nevertheless, they allowed her and her older sister to attend a local performing arts school. "I had a very good hit rate in the beginning!" she says, laughing. "I have not kept that up at all."
It was after those early films that Ashitey opted to take a break from the business. "I'd been to L.A. a couple of times during that period," she notes, "and I didn't think I would survive it, because I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't want to do my growing up amongst adults." She studied social anthropology at university and occasionally appeared in London theater productions; she later took a position as a personal assistant to the C.E.O. of a finance company. Then, in 2013, Ashitey decided to take a seven-week sabbatical and joined the cast of the British police procedural Suspects. "When I came back my boss said, 'Can I convince you to stay here and do this full time?’" she says, with a wry smile. "I was like, 'No! I hate this job so much.'"
She recommitted to acting, landing parts in the short-lived Fox series Shots Fired, which covered similar territory as Seven Seconds, and an episode in the second season of Masters of None. (The British tourist that Aziz Ansari's character shares a lunch reservation with? That's her.) Generally, though, she was confronted by the absence of exciting opportunities. "It has been very frustrating as a woman, as a black person," she says. "It's always Annabelle, 29, gorgeous or Margaret, 52, a former beauty. And then you have the racial stereotypes on top of that. Scripts specify 'minority' when it doesn't seem necessary. Given this is a traditionally liberal and progressive industry, it's surprisingly backwards."
Much like her Seven Seconds character, the actress felt the weight of her role. "The racial landscape here is very, very different to the U.K.," says Ashitey. She recounts the brutal murder of a black man named Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993. When the resulting police negligence was eventually exposed, it led to widespread reform in Britain. "Let's not get it twisted, we don't have it right," she says. "But that was a very important moment. I remember everyone talking about the concept of institutionalized racism. Now, there's more scrutiny and accountability."
To better understand KJ's situation, Ashitey watched 13th, Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated documentary about the racism fueling America's mass incarceration rates. She met with Jersey City police officers and district attorneys, attended AA meetings and monitored her own behavior whilst drinking. But, she says, "the most interesting exercise I did was explore decision-making, denial and how I justify things to myself. We can all be self-destructive. I make terrible choices all the time. It's uncomfortable to admit that you did a thing that was selfish and that you knew would hurt someone else."
The series hinges on this notion that in order to believe we are good people we often lie to ourselves. The police make prejudiced assumptions about their victim's gang affiliations so that they can shirk responsibility for saving his life. Harper convinces herself that justice is hopeless so as to avoid becoming the boy's avenger. "A black gang kid from the projects? His life does not factor into the equation in this city," she tells the detective working the case with her, while getting obliterated at a karaoke bar and singing an Anita Baker tune. "It never did and it never fucking will."
Her character's abdication of duty troubled Ashitey. "When something’s happening on the tube, I'm that girl who’s like, 'You're a dick and you need to stop,'" she says. (Also, for the record, her karaoke tastes favor Backstreet Boys and All Saints.) Ultimately, though, she's proud that the series will contribute to the ongoing conversation about such an urgent issue. At last year’s Women's March in New York, which she attended with costar Regina King, Ashitey began to feel just a little better about the current climate. "There are a lot of us, we can do something – and I guess the something that I do is make TV shows," she says. "We as a species did this, and we can fix it."