EXCLUSIVE: Erica Ash on her ‘In Contempt’ role and tackling the flawed legal system
'In Contempt' premieres tonight on BET.
It’s finally time to see Erica Ash return to the small screen on BET’s new legal drama, In Contempt.
The series premieres on the network tonight and stars Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse, Real Husbands of Hollywood) as Gwen Sullivan, a passionate public defender who is hell bent on seeking justice for her clients at any cost.
Actor, Richard Lawson plays her condescending father, Earl Sullivan and Christian Keyes plays Charlie Riggs, Gwen’s soon-to-be boss and love interest. Mouna Traore plays Vanessa Hastings, a tightly-wound rookie who’s working on being woke.
TheGrio caught up with the Erica Ash to find out about her new leading role and why now is the right time to shed a light on our flawed legal system.
“What attracted me most was how well the script was written. I thought it was so very authentic and so real and the stories were so gripping. I really loved the fact that Gwen is so driven and so on top of things at work but still very flawed. For me, she is the perfect representation of the modern day career woman. There’s a lot that has to be juggled and we don’t always do the greatest job of doing that. The character was very relatable and she’s very interesting,” she said.
According to Ash, there’s a big misconception about public defenders, and she’s out to change the narrative about the people she considers “unsung heroes of law.”
“To represent a public defender who brings a positive light to what they’re doing is important. The public defender is the most under appreciated person who is viewed as being at the bottom when it comes to practicing law. They really work hard and they have to be really creative because they are under-resourced and understaffed, overworked and grossly underpaid,” she explained. “To make sure their clients get a fair shake, they really have to be very savvy with the law and so I would venture to say they’re really the most brilliant attorneys. They’re the unsung heroes of law. That carried a weight for me in making sure I represented them honestly and authentically.”
While we’re constantly seeing stories of Black men and women who are forced into plea deals and given less than stellar legal advice from public defenders, Erica Ash insists that the attorneys aren’t to blame for the system’s flaws.
“I think that 100% the show is important to showing people exactly why that perception exists. A public defender gets stacks and stacks of cases that they have to get through and they do want to give their clients the absolute best possible outcome and a lot of them really care. I think teachers and public defenders are the two most under appreciated career choices in this country,” she continued.
“When they’re working, they’re doing it for the love of justice because it certainly isn’t for the money. You think about all the disadvantages that they start off with in the justice race. They’re always ten cases behind the starting line. What appears to be apathy is not. It’s just them trying to make the most of a broken system. Unfortunately, what’s worse is that they’re trying to pass these new laws that actually expedite already expedited cases through the system to get their backlog caught up and that’s not the answer. The answer is to get more people who can try these cases and give them a fair shake.”
Erica Ash dove in to her new role and relied on real-life research to nail the new gig.
“I did do a lot of research to prepare for this role. Our show runner, creator, writer, Terrie Kopp, was a public defender in NYC for a number of years and having her there as a guide was priceless. I asked her lots of questions and she was completely open and there to make sure I understood every legal term that I had to speak and every procedure that I had to go through in terms of the script. She also sent me articles and books and documentaries and I was able to shadow public defender in Atlanta which really helped me. I got to sit down and chat with her because she’s doing the job now in this time. A lot of the cases in the show are cases Terrie worked on herself or ones her colleagues worked on so there’s authenticity there as well.”
While Erica Ash admits that leading a drama series is a major shift from co-starring on a comedy like Survivor’s Remorse, she was up to the task.
“It is a different world. I’m going from a half-hour comedy to a one-hour legal drama so beyond it being a whole new world of terms and concepts and procedures that I’m not familiar with, it’s me doing a show that’s twice as long and me probably doing three times the work. I was number three on the call sheet for ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ and I’m number one now,” she said.
“The workload itself is drastically different. My typical day is about 16-20 hours and that’s 5-6 days a week. Beyond that, people are looking to you to be the example so if you’re having a bad day, that’s not something that people need to see because you want to make sure that the show moves in a way that will get it to the next season. Happy crew, happy you. What I’m really grateful for is that God sustained me through these three months and made it possible for me to be in good spirits throughout the shooting and I had an amazing cast and crew and yes, I’m driving it but I didn’t do it alone. I had a lot of support.”
As far as her acting chops go, fans are used to seeing Erica Ash in comedic roles but she says switching gears to a serious legal drama was NBD.
“Once you do something well in Hollywood you tend to get pigeon-holed in that so I happened to get comedy first and that’s what people saw me as. I was actually very excited to finally be able to show people this dramatic side of me because it has always been there. It wasn’t difficult for me to tap into that.”
In Contempt will tackle social issues facing our communities right now and Ash says there are striking parallels between the show and the #MeToo movement.
“Any time that you start talking about it and putting it out there, those are steps in the right direction. I think this show sort of mimics that conversation in the sense that people are asking, ‘how do you make change?’ First of all, it’s about getting information and knowing what is going on. So much of what has happened has happened because women were silent because they felt like they had to be. Now we’re gaining the power to be able to use our voices to speak out and say, ‘This happened, it didn’t feel good. I didn’t like it and I don’t want it to continue.’ It’s the same thing with our show and I see a lot of parallels with the #MeToo movement that’s going on right now and with Black women and Hollywood,” she said.
“We have finally found our voices and have enough voices to be able to make people stop and take notice and finally listen. These weren’t the first voices. There have been ripples throughout history of black women wanting a bigger place in Hollywood. There have been ripples in history of women in general wanting fair and equal treatment and to not be sexually harassed. There have been ripples of people wanting a better justice system and for the promise of justice for all to actually be enforced.
Each ripple, even though it may not have taken affect for the woman who had the courage to speak, they empowered another woman and another and now we have several women who are coming together and speaking at the same time. It’s huge and I think our show being able to put out all the nuances about the justice system and the ways our system fails us is the first step in moving in a positive direction. I’m really grateful that I get to be at the helm of this shows stance on speaking out.”
Check out a BTS look at the series:
In Contempt premieres tonight at 10/9c on BET.