Growing up in West Philadelphia amid poverty and abuse, J. Alex Brinson could hardly imagine the contours of his life today, as an actor on the CBS courtroom drama All Rise. But he attributes his success to those early struggles.
Because he also had dyslexia, his single mother worked three jobs to send him to a private school, where he discovered a larger world. School plays and summer theater camps led him to see the arts as his path to a better life, though he had to spend hours going over scripts to learn unfamiliar words. "Creativity, imagination and storytelling were what I kept running after," he says.
His determination led to Juilliard, where he studied drama and met his future wife, Sarah, who was studying dance at New York University. The couple moved to Vancouver, where Brinson landed bit parts in Supernatural, The X-Files and Prison Break before booking a regular role on Netflix's sci-fi series Travelers.
Next stop: Los Angeles, where he won his role on All Rise as Luke Watkins, a court bailiff who puts himself through law school to join the L.A. County District Attorney's office.
"I went from playing an abusive, alcoholic cop to a really nice guy who's trying to help people while figuring out the justice system," he says. Brinson attributes his acting ability to his rough childhood, which included physical and emotional abuse. "Listening and understanding what state the [abuser] was in meant survival, and it was the beginning of my emotional intelligence," he says. "Empathy is my strength."
The second season of All Rise opened against the backdrop of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests; its exploration of injustice from various points of view, Brinson says, was inspiring.
His own experiences with the judicial system — from welfare and human services to the prison system — drive his passion for creating a better world. When he was 11, his stepfather was released from prison and came to live with the family after staying in a halfway house.
"When you grow up on the block, you make money by playing ball or selling drugs," he says. "I want to inspire the next generation to embrace who they are and change that. There is no challenge outside yourself. If you have the courage to sit and get to know yourself, there isn't anything you can't do."
All Rise was not picked up by CBS for a third season. Its first two seasons are available on Paramount+.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2021