How Jury Duty Orchestrated the Trial of a Lifetime

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden on Jury Duty. Photo: Freevee/Courtesy of Amazon Freevee

There was one key fact that 30-year-old Ronald Gladden didn’t realize when he responded to a Craigslist ad in 2021: The “documentary” he signed up to be a volunteer juror for was completely staged. Every person he met — his fellow jurors, the judge, the plaintiff, the defense, the security guard, even his waiter at Margaritaville — were actors on the Amazon Freevee docuseries Jury Duty, orchestrated by producers of Bad Trip and The Office. Throughout the experiment, the goal was to follow Gladden’s reactions to crazy situations — like when a juror played by comedian Mekki Leeper tries to get out of court by saying he’s racist, or when a rude James Marsden, played by James Marsden, gets stuck in jury duty alongside everyone else and isn’t happy about it — instead of making him the butt of the joke. The season ends with Gladden being given $100,000 and a tour of how the whole experiment was orchestrated.

Since Jury Duty’s debut, Gladden has earned a following of his own, especially on TikTok, where he’s been dubbed “the perfect example of the female gaze.” While the finale may have answered some of viewers’ more technical questions, there were more questions to cover. Series co-creator and executive producer Lee Eisenberg and executive producer Todd Schulman spoke about how they chose Gladden to lead the series and how they orchestrated the jury trial of a lifetime.

Were there other settings you were considering for the show besides jury duty?
Todd Schulman: Yes. I don’t want to share what they were, because you would think I’m a sadist. But we did toss around a few other possibilities before landing on a jury. What really worked about that was both the idea that it was going to bring in a diverse group of people and also allow us to isolate them once they were sequestered. Those two components were really important to us in terms of finding a setting where we could do this hero’s journey.

What made Ronald the perfect “hero”? How many people did you consider before choosing him?
Lee Eisenberg: One of the things we talked about from the beginning was we wanted a show that never felt like it was punching down and felt optimistic, that had the tropes and the tone of something like The Office but really had a warmth and an optimism to it as well. When we saw Ronald’s tape, we couldn’t believe it. He’s such a nice guy. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s witty. That’s what we had hoped for. He exceeded our expectations in every single moment of the show.

I read that Ronald answered the casting notice through Craigslist. Was it a paid opportunity? What was the advertised rate? How did you guys craft an advertisement for this?
TS: I wish we had some kind of ingenious casting system, but it really is just an ad on Craigslist. I don’t remember the exact dollar amount, but we spent a lot of time talking and formulating that ad, because you want to attract people who are up for a new experience, but you don’t want to ensnare people who are financially desperate. Ronald was the exact kind of person we were looking for when putting out that ad, which is someone who is not doing this because it’s a money opportunity but looking for something and adventure. We went with Craigslist because it is a kind of democratic process. If you go through casting, you’re going to find a lot of actors. We wanted to get people who were genuine human beings living in the real world, not people in the Hollywood ecosystem.

How many people did you consider before choosing him?
TS: We got thousands of submissions. We had narrowed it down to about 15 or 20 towards the end that we went a little deeper on. We had talked a lot about The Joe Schmo Show in doing the show, and in the first Joe Schmo season, the hero was Matt. We were always talking about “We need to find our Matt,” and seeing Ronald in the interviews before we cast him in the show, he was just so likable. There was a pretty clear consensus that he was our guy.

TikTok has become obsessed with Ronald. When I read comments on clips of the show, everyone is in love with him and calling for him to be the next Bachelor.  What has it been like to see the response online?
LE: I think he’s in contention to be People’s Sexiest Man Alive. [Laughs.] We were incredibly charmed by him and found him to be such a winning character. You can get why it’s taken off in the way that it has and people connecting to him. But the level that it has and the fervor that it has is not something that I ever could have anticipated.

Were there any hesitations on revealing the secret to Ronald?
TS: Yeah, there were definitely a lot of nerves around that moment, just because everyone had grown so fond of Ronald, so the last thing we ever wanted was for him to react poorly. We didn’t anticipate that would be the case. However, people are people, and you never know how someone’s going to react to something that shocking. The crew developed genuine relationships with this person. Luckily, Ronald, being the wonderful person that he is, took it in stride and was understandably shocked, but he still has great relationships with the cast and the crew to this day.

When I was watching the finale, it reminded me of the show Undercover Boss with the reveal of the experiment and the cash prize. What other shows influenced the series?
LE: Certainly Joe Schmo was a huge one for us; we’re really big fans of it. I worked on The Office for five years, which was just putting all these people into a room together and seeing how they interact. A lot of that was scripted by us, and a lot of that was the genius of our casting team putting together this amazing group of improvisers, who had to be on for far longer than any role usually calls for. When you’re an actor on The Office, you do a tape, and the tape takes seven minutes, and then you call “Cut,” the cameras move, and everyone goes back and gets on their phones and talks to their family. With this, you have to stay in character just days and days on end, so I think it was a really taxing experience.

My favorite moment was when Ronald showed Todd the movie A Bug’s Life because he thought Todd could relate to it. How did that happen? Did Ronald request the movie?
LE: I think I’m a decent writer, and I wish that I would come up with a moment like that. That’s Ronald being someone who is just a nice guy. We talked about the story being sequestered, and you’re locked up in a hotel with very little to do. There were video games and movies, and there are obviously things for them to do to pass the time. It’s not like we had asked Ronald ahead of time, “Hey, what movies would you like to show to somebody else?” Part of that was a testament to the actor [David Brown] playing Todd and part of that was Ronald, and it’s just one of those things where it just was organic. It was one of the DVDs there, and they ended up getting into this conversation about it. You just see how nice and kind and giving and generous Ronald is.

TS: I think that scene embodies what I love about this genre or format — whatever we want to call it. As a viewer, it just restores your hope in humanity a little bit. There are good people out there who are really trying not to mock misfits, and if someone’s a little different, not to make fun of them but actually trying to show them there’s a place for them. That is so heartwarming.

LE: We want to lead with comedy always, and we’re really excited about that and mashing these two genres together — taking elements from Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen and merging that with something like The Office to do seven and a half episodes with a continuing storyline. When I look back on it, I can’t believe we actually pulled it off. One of the things we wanted was an unlikely group of 12 strangers, and the bailiff and the judge and the lawyers, and everyone else who are also actors, and to see how these people sitting in a room together, from all different walks of life, can actually create connections and friendships. Jury duty is the great equalizer: It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. You’re tasked with having to come in in an impartial way to come to a decision, and you have to listen, you have voice your own thoughts, and you have to find common ground.

How did James Marsden get involved? Did he enjoy playing an “asshole” version of himself?
TS: Lee and Gene Stupnitsky, the show’s other co-creator, had this great idea of What if there was a Hollywood celebrity playing the worst version of themselves? The big thing was if we’d actually be able to find anyone who was courageous enough to do it. Both because, obviously, you’re lampooning yourself, but also more challenging is the idea of “How do you feel instead of getting to be in a trailer for most of the day and then coming on and working for 30 minutes, you’re going to spend 17 hours on set? And most of the time cameras won’t be pointed at you, you’re just going to have to be in character offscreen?” That’s a big ask, and you need a pretty special person to do that.

LE: In L.A., I’ve gone to jury duty, and inevitably you see someone you can recognize, and we thought, If this is an L.A. court, wouldn’t it be funny if a celebrity that everyone is really excited about on the jury initially is selected, and then over the course of the episodes, people start to really see them for who they are — that they’re a narcissist and self-involved? It just felt like a fun character when you’re looking at your stew of 12.

We had a meeting with James, and he was just game. You need to make it feel as real as possible. James Marsden is sitting in the jury-selection process — that took two days. He’s just sitting on a bench waiting with other people and occasionally talking to Ronald. But if you talk to Ronald too much, then Ronald might get suspicious. It’s just a very boring, different type of acting. He had to stay in it without doing a lot. I will say, to James’s credit, when we had that first conversation with him, he was so game to do all this stuff. We were worried when we were describing the idea of him sitting there for 17 hours, but the only thing he was worried about was, like, “I don’t want to do a show that’s mean-spirited.” Which, luckily, that was the opposite of the focus of the show, so it ended up working out.

What is the vision for the future of the series? Anything else in the works?
TS: We’re just now talking about what else it could look like down the road, but we don’t have any concrete plans. It does feel like it’s a format that you could repeat. But I wish I could tell you we know what we’re doing next or even if there will be a next, but we haven’t gotten that far.

LE: I would say most of our time right now is texting back and forth and saying, like, “I can’t believe that people are watching our show. This is incredible.” We probably should be working on other projects: less screen grabs of people liking the show and a little more focused on what else we could do. That would be probably a good idea. So thank you for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Jury Duty Orchestrated the Trial of a Lifetime