Aunjanue Ellis

Aunjanue Ellis

Michael Buckner for Variety
Aunjanue Ellis

Courtney B. Vance as Franklin Roberts and Aunjanue Ellis as Martha Roberts in 61st Street

Courtesy of AMC Networks
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Fill 1
April 06, 2022
Online Originals

Aunjanue Ellis's 61st Street Success

The Emmy and Oscar nominee discusses her new role in the AMC crime thriller set in Chicago.

Chances are you're familiar with the work of Aunjanue Ellis, the actress whose career has spanned dozens of movies and TV shows over a quarter century. But things have really taken off for her recently. In the last three years, she has earned two Emmy nominations — for 2019's When They See Us, and 2020's Lovecraft Country — and an Oscar nod this year for her supporting turn in King Richard.

There's a line to be drawn from those roles to her latest one in 61st Street, AMC's new crime drama premiering April 10. In it, Ellis plays Martha Roberts, a Chicago politician, wife to crusading lawyer Franklin Roberts (played by her Lovecraft costar Courtney B. Vance) and mother to blind and autistic 17-year-old son David (Jarell Maximillian Sullivan).

The series follows a Black high school athlete who is swept up in the Chicago criminal justice system. Unfolding over two seasons, 61st Street doesn't pull any punches in its portrayal of racism, police misconduct and a corrupt legal system.

"I just want to be transparent," she says. "I think that there's a lot of work that we all have to do, not just necessarily to show the strength of women, but rather to show the reality. Especially since we live in such a masculine culture. Black women are on the vanguard of change, of Black Lives Matter, taking on police brutality and police corruption and speaking truth to what is happening. So, if we're going to tell a story about that, I think audiences need to see someone like her."

Another draw for Ellis was getting to work again with two-time Emmy winner Vance. "He's one of these actors that, when you are in a scene with him, you immediately feel invited into the story that he's telling — and he wants to tell it with you," she explains. "It's not like that with all actors. He anchors everything... and makes everybody better. That was really what made me want to be a part of it."

As powerful as the series is, and perfect the timing, "This show doesn't have the answers," she says. "I feel like it asks questions, and it challenges and exposes work that still needs to be done. I think that people will watch it and be frustrated sometimes. It was frustrating doing it. But if we can make people think, and react to it, that would be a success."

61st Street is executive produced by Peter Moffat, J. David Shanks, Michael B. Jordan, Elizabeth Raposo, Alana Mayo, Jeff Freilich and Hilary Salmon. The series debuts April 10 on AMC, with the first two episodes streaming on AMC+ and ALLBLK. New episodes will rollout weekly, and be available one week early on AMC+ and ALLBLK.

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