Over the course of Netflix’s wintry crime drama Seven Seconds, assistant prosecutor K.J. Harper stumbles onto a police cover-up of a hit-and-run that both obsesses her and nearly destroys her career. Played by the British actress Clare-Hope Ashitey, K.J. is an alcoholic with a pile of guilt over the way she handled her past cases. The crime she’s investigating, involving the death of a black teenager, puts her on the right side of justice, though it takes her a long time to realize how much she’ll have to fight for it. Ahead of Seven Seconds’ premiere last week, Vulture caught up with Ashitey to talk about capturing the complexity of K.J.’s character, what she learned about the American justice system while making the show, and how her career has changed since her breakout role as Kee in Children of Men.
K.J. is incredibly competent in some areas and totally self-destructive in others. What’s it like to bring those two disparate elements together?
I think we’ve all done things that are a detriment to ourselves and we’ve all made good choices that have brought good things for us. It felt right to portray someone who was real and wasn’t purely one thing or another because I think you lose people when you say, “Here is our heroine and she’s absolutely perfect and she’s squeaky clean.” To have a person who has an actual flaw, an actual thing they are really struggling with, I think people will find something in that.
Why do you think this case ends up obsessing her?
It crystallizes a lot of what has been going wrong for her, a lot of passions that she used to have as a young, idealistic prosecutor. This whole process involves so many hurdles. When we meet her at the beginning, she’s given up in a lot of ways. She’s in a pretty woeful state personally and professionally. It would be too strong to say this case is her salvation, but I do think it rewinds some of the destructiveness that she’s done to herself.
K.J.’s relationship with Regina King’s character is interesting, because there’s so much anger between them, and the sense that they could be on the same side but aren’t. What’s it like to play those scenes with Regina?
It’s not only incredible because she is a fantastic actor and a wonderful person, but it’s also incredible because it’s interesting. It’s like most relationships where people don’t trust each other at the beginning, but they need each other and they have to get to know each other. They come together in spite of themselves.
You’re from Britain, but this show is telling a very American story about America’s criminal-justice system and history with race. How did you approach that?
Research and talking to people and reading and watching as much as I could and as much as I had time to do. I was very surprised when I first started spending time in America. The culture shock was something I wasn’t prepared for. I had a lot of work to do to try to begin to understand this enormous and complex country that I thought would be an easy process.
Then, on top of that, understanding the judicial system here and what the roles of prosecutors are and the challenges they face. Then, on top of that, trying to understand what it is to deal with substance abuse. It felt worth it, because she shouldn’t be just one thing or another.
What surprised you about the American judicial system?
I was absolutely astonished that everyone who has an encounter with the police is arraigned before a judge. It makes absolutely no sense to me for that to happen. It means that the judicial system is bogged down in a huge backlog of cases, whether it’s from the smallest misdemeanor up to the biggest crime.
I went downtown to the courthouse pretty late at night, and arraignment court was on. You have these prosecutors and public defenders and judges and all of these people who are there on a Friday night at half past 12, and how can you expect people to bring their judgment and their best selves to their work at that kind of time? It doesn’t make any sense. Then, when they get back to work, that backlog is so huge and there are enough problems in a judicial system without bogging it down in things that don’t need to happen.
One of my friends works for a public defender’s office in New York and I was talking to her about this show. She pointed out that because the police inordinately crack down on people of color, the vast majority of the people a prosecutor goes after are going to be people of color. That’s something that hangs heavily on K.J.
It does, and I think there are people who work as prosecutors and as DAs — black and brown people — who are seen as traitors because they are constantly sending people away of their own race. It’s a system where numbers of prosecutions are what you’re judged by, and it isn’t by the fairness of what you do. It’s by the numbers that you bring up and the numbers of people that you put away, and that contradiction won’t ever resolve itself because it can’t. Having to deal with being a person of color in that situation where people are angry at you for putting them away, that’s really tough.
She takes the position of “I’m just trying to be fair” and wants to compartmentalize it, but it’s impossible.
It’s impossible to be fair. If I was fair, I would lose my job. There must be a lot of people who come into that system with an idealism, thinking, “I’m going to change things.” I mean, how do you? It’s like having a little oar and trying to turn a tanker around. I don’t know how people keep their enthusiasm and their passion and their sense of fairness, when the outcomes that the government wants are at odds with the outcomes that are better for society. I can’t even get my head around how difficult it must be to work in that kind of scenario.
Did you look at events where people protested against the police — like Ferguson, for instance — as models for what happens in Seven Seconds once the case spills into the public?
I think we were informed by all of those things that happened and continue to happen. Though it may seem easy to some people to amalgamate all of these experiences, I don’t think it’s helpful to bound them all into one. Behind each one is a different individual and a different family and a different community and a different set of people. We did try to be informed by all of them, and take valid and true experiences from all of those cases and put them into what we do. Because if we’re not reflecting what people are experiencing, then what’s the point of trying to tell the stories?
I hope that [Seven Seconds] brings a greater empathy and understanding, especially to communities that aren’t very diverse and that don’t have that much contact with black and ethnic minority groups, for experiences that are going on probably not very far from where they live. I feel like there is a real lack of empathy — not just in American society, it’s definitely happening in Britain as well — and it’s heartbreaking that people can see something and not feel it.
K.J. begins in a state of total despair, which is something that a lot of people can relate to in this political climate. Then she gets motivated by the case. Do you think that journey is possible for a lot of people?
I think it’s possible. I despaired quite a lot at the beginning of last year, especially in the wake of Brexit and the election of Trump, and I got to a point where I didn’t really see the point in us as a species. I was so tired of people just doing horrific things to each other and having no empathy for people and having no understanding for people.
I’m in a much better place with it now, but looking at K.J. and how she is in such a bad place at the beginning and meets all of these obstacles and hurdles … watching someone take a few steps forwards and then a bunch of steps back, and then a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps back, I think is helpful. It’s definitely helpful to me, even as a consumer, if I can look at it from the outside and say, “It doesn’t matter if you fail one, two, three times, there’s always a fourth time. You fail the fourth time, there’s a fifth time.” You just keep going. Everyone has an internal moral compass, and some of us lose it sometimes but find it again. She finds it again and I think that that’s a real salvation for her.
Your breakout role was in Children of Men. How has your approach to acting changed since then?
I’ve had quite an irregular career. I did a few films, and then I wasn’t sure I still wanted to act at the end of it, so I went to university and I studied social anthropology and went down that route for a while. I massively enjoyed doing that degree, finished, and then still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and put off making a decision for a really long time.
Things maybe would have been really different if I’d not gone to university and come over here on the back of Children of Men. But that wouldn’t have been right for me. It wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. So yeah, it’s been up and down, back and forth, and now I’m in this room. Definitely, it wasn’t the right industry for me to grow up in. I had a lot of growing up to do and I think it can really warp people. Coming from a family that is mostly science-based and not knowing any family who work in entertainment, I would have been largely on my own, just trying to figure it out, and I was not equipped to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.