It seems not a week goes by without news of another police shooting; now, a big network TV series is tackling the topic head-on. Shots Fired (premiering March 22 at 8 p.m. on CityTV) explores some of the most urgent issues of our time—racism, police brutality, and terrifying political agendas—with an ensemble cast including Helen Hunt, True Blood alum Stephen Moyer and Toronto-born Stephan James.
Fresh on the heels of critically acclaimed performances in Selma and the Jesse Owens biopic Race—for which he just snagged a Canadian Screen Award—James, 23, takes on the role of Preston Terry, a young prosecutor tapped to investigate the shooting of an unarmed white teenager by a black police officer. Working alongside a seasoned investigator played by Sanaa Lathan, it quickly becomes clear there’s more to the case than meets the eye as an earlier, overlooked murder of a black teenager resurfaces, opening wounds that threaten to expose deep divides within the small North Carolina community and weaving a complex mystery through what otherwise might have a been a more traditional procedural cop show.
We chatted with the proud Torontonian, who got his start on Degrassi: The New Generation and now splits his time between Los Angeles and The Six (“there’s nothing that gives me more joy than landing at Pearson and feeling like I’m home”) about hopes that the show will spark much-needed discussion, how he got inspiration for the character from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and how it feels to become a voice for the voiceless.
Tell us about how you got involved with the project.
I got the script for a series that Fox was going to be doing—at the time it was called Indictment—and I remember being blown away by it. I thought it was beautifully written and I really hadn’t seen anybody like Preston Terry on television or in the movies so it struck me as really intriguing to tell a story as important as this.
The show explores some very important issues such as police brutality and race. Did you have any reservations about signing on to a project?
Anytime you’re doing work with this sort of subject matter, it’s a very sensitive thing. And I truly believe that if the work you’re choosing to do doesn’t scare you a little bit then maybe it’s not the type of work you’re meant to be doing. I feel like you’ve got to make conscious decisions to do important things and to tell important stories based on narratives that are happening in our day-to-day lives. For me, Shots was one of those instances and it was something that I knew people would be talking about whether they hated it or loved it. And that was my goal going into this—to have that conversation.
Do you feel comfortable taking on this vocal role?
Definitely: it’s a huge responsibility. And my responsibility as an artist is to imitate life. This is probably the most current thing on television or in films, and my job as an artist is to reflect society, as I believe art should reflect society, and the problems in which we face within society. This is just one of those problems and for me, that’s never something I’ll be afraid to take on in order to aid in the discussion and help push it in the right direction.
Did you do any research before the project or turn to anyone for advice?
The producers were instrumental in connecting me with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and I based my character mostly off of him. I tried to look to different examples and he was probably the biggest, clearest example for me. I truly believe that Preston Terry aspires to be Holder one day, and, for me, picking his brain and learning about his journey, all the struggles he’s faced in order to rise to the level of success in which he has—and having that chip on his shoulder and acting like he always has something to prove—and how conscious he’s been of his blackness throughout the whole process was really valuable to me in shaping Preston Terry.
It’s clear that there’s a lot going on with your character. How will Preston Terry’s story progress?
Preston Terry is summoned by the governor to help prosecute the case after a black police officer shoots and kills a white teenager. And obviously he’s very green as this is only his second major case with the Department of Justice but he’s also very confident and that probably comes from his background playing sports. He was a star athlete in high school and college and so he’s the type to rise to any sort of a challenge and this is just another challenge for Preston. He comes in very optimistic and thinking he can change this community, that he can change America even, and he quickly becomes jaded as he realizes things about the community, about this country, about law enforcement, and about himself that he didn’t know coming in. It’s a really interesting progression to see how it all unravels. He leaves Gates Station a much different man than when he came in.
Who in your life are you most excited to see the show?
I’ll be anxious to hear what my peers think of it. There’s a lot I’ve kept my friends in the dark about—I’ve always been pretty secretive of my projects but this one moreso because of the mystery-thriller aspect. I really want my friends to experience the whole ride much like I got to while filming it. I’m very excited to see how people react.