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March 10, 2020

Listen to the Music

Nicholas Pinnock finds the music in his characters - and in himself.

Melissa Byers
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC

"The rhythm of life is a powerful beat," sang the cast of Broadway show Sweet Charity.

Actor Nicholas Pinnock, worlds away from musical theater, also knows that rhythm, and it has helped him through life, both personally and professionally.

Pinnock leads the cast in ABC's For Life, based on the true story of Isaac Wright, Jr., who lived the life that Pinnock portrays. Pinnock plays wrongfully-convicted Aaron Wallace, who becomes a lawyer in prison, helping other convicts while preparing his own case.

The London-born actor relishes the challenges of the role, from the character to the Bronx American accent. He says, "I worked quite extensively with [creator] Hank Steinberg, and we had a lot of conversations, and I love that man because he's so collaborative. His ego is completely out of the way. It's all about what's best for the show.

"So we spoke a lot, and I brought a lot of ideas to the table and he brought his ideas to the table. And then George Tillman, who shot the pilot, the three of us kind of decided what we wanted out of Aaron, and where there was a great jump off point to discover lots of other things about who he was.

"Because what happened was, after reading the pilot and a couple of included versions thereof, it became very clear to me that there were five different versions of Aaron that I had to play. Because we had the Aaron that needed to code switch to be different types of people.

"We have the prison Aaron who is the Aaron who is an inmate. We have Aaron as the prison rep, who he is with the warden. We have Aaron, the family man who he is when he's visited by Marie and Jas. We have Aaron the lawyer when he's in the courtroom, even though he has a tragic angle he still presents himself in a different way.

"And we also have flashback Aaron, previous to the arrest. So we have the five different elements that all have to be the same and similar, but have their distinct differences. For instance, Aaron in the courtroom speaks slower, he speaks clearer. He has more of a careful cadence to what he's saying.

"As opposed to the complete opposite of that, which is the Aaron who's an inmate, who speaks with a lot of slang, and mumbles quite a bit, and does all these things.

"So there were always though, these five distinct versions of the one character. And it was about how we carefully navigate that character through these different stories and the life that he has to play. And it was fascinating.

Nicholas Pinnick: It was the hardest work I've done. It's the work I think I'll be the most proud of and it wasn't easy. It really, really, really wasn't easy.

"It was the hardest work I've done. It's the work I think I'll be the most proud of and it wasn't easy. It really, really, really wasn't easy. But I think, I believe, and I feel, that we've found something that seems to work."

The show is complex, with myriad story elements for the cast to walk through. Pinnock notes, "Oh it gets far more convoluted and complex. And what people seem to think is going to be a procedural crime drama, a legal drama, they're going to be extremely surprised.

"What makes this very different to your average legal procedure is every single case that Aaron goes for to take on board, is tied into him getting out of jail. And so there's an emotional connection behind everything that he's doing, which you don't see in legal drama.

"You just have these really interesting twisty, turny cases that these lawyers, who are doing their job, get through. But Aaron is mostly invested because this is his life. These are lifelines to his life outside of jail, where he's innocent. And we've his got family and he shouldn't be in prison.

"And so it gets very, very, very complex. The journey that he goes on. And we start to see different jump off points. You start to see these different aspects of him that you probably wouldn't expect.

And the writing team did the most superb job in delivering storylines that are just so interesting, and as actors, we would sit in the makeup room and in the canteen, discussing, 'have you read the next episode?' And we'd be texting each other and calling each other, because, they came in with some really, really wonderful stuff that you wouldn't expect from network television. And that was a really big highlight for us."

Although such stories are common fare for platforms such as HBO or Netflix, Pinnock is proud to be working on a network show with such intense material. He says, "I thank Karey Burke, who took over as Vice President not long before I got the call for interest in the show. They've been so brave and so committed.

"And, I'll be honest, I had my fears in the beginning that it was going to watered down and kind of try to fit in to the typical network formula of a drama. When the script came through, that's not what we got. And then I had a second fear that was, in the edit well they're going to do exactly the same thing, water it down, they're going to make it fluffy and network.

"And then I had some of the directors come to me and say, we have seen edits of X amount of episodes, and anything you thought it could be... what you thought it was going to be, I'm telling you right now, is completely wrong. Because it's edgy, it's complex, it's not linear, it's gritty. It has all of the elements that I look for as an actor in a drama.

"When I'm looking at something that I want to be involved in it, it still has all of those elements in it. And you know, you'd be very, very surprised and pleased. And I can only thank again, not, just Hank and the writers, but, ABC, Karey Burke for actually sticking to their word and believing in the show in the same way that I do."

It's not just an American problem. It's not just a black problem. It's a people problem and it's a global problem.

The show takes on a number of important social issues, and Pinnock is quite aware of what they are trying to do with the show.

"It's important, it's this message of social justice and injustice. This story is not exclusive to our character Aaron Wallace. Not only did it happen to Isaac Wright Jr., but there are, reports from the Innocence Project, and they'll tell you that misidentification is a big thing, and people have been put away because of it. And there are a lot of people sitting in jail and in prison who shouldn't be there.

"There is a system that isn't fantastic, the legal system in this country. There are some people who don't run it properly. And a lot of people are being overcharged for crimes in one community, that another community would get a lesser charge for, knowing that these people cannot afford the proper legal care and legal attention that they may need.

"So they get legal aid and they contemplate plea deals, and a plea deal of six years is better than a sentence of 20 years. Because there's an agenda behind it, and there's a lot of people of a certain demographic, but we need to understand and see and know that there are lives out there that are being jeopardized by a system that doesn't support them.

"And even though the audience is not a part of that community, it's easy to live in your own bubble of privilege and it's easy to live in your own bubble of a certain financial stature, and not realize that there are injustices going on around you all the time and you're blind to it.

"And hopefully they'll open up their eyes and when they see an African-American man in the jumpsuit, they may think like, actually, that man may be innocent. And that there are communities fighting for their lives literally, because of a system that just doesn't support them.

"It's not just an American problem. It's not just a black problem. It's a people problem and it's a global problem."

Pinnock has known his own share of struggles in his life, and at one point, he turned to poetry to work through them. Pinnock says, "I got into poetry I think like 20 years ago, maybe earlier. Actually I've been writing since I was a child. Used to write songs and things with friends and we pretended that we were in a band.

"And I look back now and the poetry of those things are things that echoed a lot of my work when I was in my early 20s. I had a mental breakdown 14 years ago, and that's what really boosted a lot of my work, and inspired it, because some of the things that I would say in a depressive episode, in one of those moments, some of the things I would say would shock people to a point of being afraid that I was about to take my own life.

"Which I'll admit that I was not far from at times, and thought about a lot. But then when I wrote these things down, they became poetic and I could also articulate myself better.

"And then I just never stopped, I just never stopped writing, and I just kept it up. Not only in depressive moments, but in moments of joy and moments of love and moments of loss and all these kinds of things. And I must have at any one time, at least 30 poems on the go. So I go back and I edit and I suppose like a painting.

"And the only reason I write is because I can't draw, I can't paint. Cause if I could paint the beauty that I see in word, then I wouldn't write. But writing is almost like a painting for me. It's kind of how I see it in my head, and I put it down in words. If I can see all of my poems visually, as a piece of artwork.

"That's really helped me, a therapeutic approach in my depression and other areas of life too. And it was just nice to be able to share that at times with the people, and then be commissioned to do poems for art installations, and so on and so forth. And it's become a passion and a joy of mine.

"I'm an ambassador for a mental health charity, and they put a book together to sell to raise money for the charity. I'm [also] compiling a book to publish."

... the lines that I'm given, that my character has been given to say, for me there is a melody in them where I can almost see them as a piece of music.

Pinnock's approach to character is rather poetic, as well. He says, "There is a melody. How I approach my work is... the lines that I'm given, that my character has been given to say, for me there is a melody in them where I can almost see them as a piece of music.

"And each of my characters have a different cadence, and they have a different tone to their voice, and they have a different melody. And they have a different song to sing, given the dialogue that they deliver.

"Aaron had a very internal tune that was going on in him the whole time. And a lot of what's not said is being said in the words that he delivers. And so I try to add that poetic gesture to my character. When I'm given a script, luckily, I'm afforded and gifted the license to sometimes paraphrase and sometimes take words out and sometimes take lines out.

"Hank and the writing team are very gracious and they trust that everything I do is truly for the best interest in the work, or the best interest of Aaron. So they trust that if I'm suggesting something or if I'm pulling something out or adding something in, it's because I can feel a melody and rhythm. There's a beat missing or a beat too many.

"And so I find it, and I found what Aaron's is. So I know that he wouldn't say this at this point, he would say it at this point. Or I shift things around, and that surely fueled my exploration of poetry so many years ago, because I found that my work changed after that. Because of that reason."

Finding Aaron's melody was of paramount importance to Pinnock. "It's part of his focus. When I spoke to Isaac, Isaac made it very, very clear that he had no time for joy. He had no time for anger. He had no time for loss. He had no time for any of these things. His only focus was doing everything he could to get himself back to his family and get back to the outside world. Because he knew he was innocent and that was his drive.

"Now, if Aaron doesn't have that, we don't have a story, and I can't play him. There's no way I could have played him if I hadn't found that switch and that thing that has that internal melody. It just keep him driving at every single cost. Because there's only so many ways that you can express anger. There are only so many ways that you can express all the things that Aaron needs to get through his journey and telling the story.

"It was my job on top of everything else to find as many of those different ways as possible. Or else it would be very, very boring to, not only tell for me as the actor, but even more so for the audience to watch if anger was expressed in the same way every single time, if a moment of triumph was expressed in the same way every single time.

"So there had to be different layers, and different levels to the same emotions that go on. Because he's living a life of an inmate. Your world is very limited, your environment is very limited. Your experience within that world is just very, very limited. And so there is a lot of repetition, and there is a lot of the sameness and routine that you have to go through to be able to live through it.

"But within that sameness, there has to be differences. And it was my job to find those different layers and touches and differences to make it interesting so the angle wasn't just the one beat. And so on and so forth. And that was what was the biggest challenge or one of the biggest challenges for me. And I thrive off finding a challenge that I'm not sure that I can overcome.

"And that's kind of how I choose my roles. If I'm not frightened by a role, and I don't think it scares the shit out of me enough for me to go, I'm not sure that I can play it, then I'm not interested in playing it.

"And this is what I loved about Aaron so much. There were so many challenges and I was so scared of the role, by the time we got to the moments of the script that were just getting better and better and richer and richer, I became so scared and so fearful that I wasn't, I wouldn't be able to execute this role in the way that it needed to, to justify my position here.

"And my internal dialogue was, I have to focus and I have to complete this challenge. And so Aaron and I were kind of going through very similar things at the same time."

For more on For Life, click here.

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