'American Crime' Creator John Ridley Talks Season 2: "You Want People to Be Baffled"

The Oscar winner discusses his decision to bring back a majority of the season one cast, how he decided on the new case at the center of the season and his biggest challenge this time around.
 Ryan Green/ABC

American Crime returns to ABC Wednesday with a new season and a new story in tow. Creator John Ridley brings back many members of season one's acclaimed ensemble — most notably newly minted Emmy winner Regina King, Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton — but not much else is the same. Instead of Modesto, Calif., season two takes places in Indianapolis, and instead of a murder case and the subsequent racial tensions that ensue, season two centers on a sexual assault case involving several members of a high school basketball team and the subsequent socioeconomic divisions that come to the surface.

Ahead of season two's 10 p.m. premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Ridley about the new season's biggest challenge, the decision to bring back so many of his season one cast and why he wants "people to be baffled."

How do you come up with the story of season two? What influenced you in coming up with the crime and the circumstances?

[Executive producer Michael McDonald and I] wanted to look at what we were saying and what we weren’t saying. What perspectives did we not offer up, what views, what types of individuals and some of the things that we landed on: socioeconomic issues, issues of sexual orientation, young people — we did not have a lot of young people on the show last year. We really wanted to examine family relationships that were a little bit more cohesive than in the first season. And a lot of the approach was what we wanted to talk about first, what we wanted to explore, and then figuring out what would be an exciting incident and what would be a catalyst for those discussions and take us into these difference spaces. So it was a bit of backwards engineering.

When you were brainstorming this season and this storyline, were there particular things that influenced you, like news articles or movies?

Once we landed on the incident itself, the crime itself, once you start reading stories ... There are a lot of conversations, probably not enough about assault, about how we deal with it as people, how we deal with it socially, how we deal with it in the legal system, how we don’t deal with it — that was a big factor. But the biggest factor was [realizing], once we wanted to orient the lens towards male peer-to-peer sexual assault, as difficult as it is to wrap your head around it in any regard and deal with it, that there is another aspect of it that is probably dealt with even more in the shadows if dealt with at all, and the difficulties — even in 2015 — of young athletes, male or female, being open and being able to present their sexuality. There were an amazing number of people inside our writers' room who we brought in to talk with us who were really able to take the story and personalize it, and that's really what made the difference for us.

Last year was a difficult season. Difficult for me as a person of color and what we were doing, and it was very difficult when there were moments where we were right on top of what was going on on the streets of America. There were moments where I look back at last year and I wish that we — again, not trying to trick or deceive the audience — but just reminded them that these things are happening. It's not just me creating the story and my one perspective, and that was something that Michael and I really worked towards this year, was inviting voices in. … However you think you may feel, this subject matter is something that needs to be talked about, needs to be discussed and it is happening. There is an urgency to it.

Did that real-world element, and knowing how often these kind of cases are coming up, make this kind of case more appealing to you?

Absolutely. ... You don’t want it to just be a plot point, and you don’t want it to just be something that happens and there's a level of disregard for the impact of it. Certainly we got into it and there were perspectives that were outside of my experiences by any stretch, so you do want to make sure that you're bringing in people … who challenge what we're doing, what I'm doing to begin with, having the writers challenge what I'm thinking and then other people who challenge what we're doing as a group. You want as much as vetting and as much challenging. And within that, you hope that you have perspectives that are representative of these stories that are happening.

Sexual assault is just, in general, an underreported crime — an under-adjudicated crime. In terms of how the investigations are handled, they are handled differently than the other crimes. It was an education. We're in a place where there's certainly more focus on it but you realize, again, irrespective of the genders, it is just a crime that is set apart from others that happen.

Are there certain areas in which you think this season and this story overlaps with season one?

Not a lot. Certainly we have, I would say, places where we look at things in a slightly different way. Family would be one. Last year, the stories were very much about families falling apart. We saw that in the Skokie family, we saw that in the Gutierrez family, and Carter and Aubry's families. This year is very much about the fusion of family — families coming together, families who, once an accusation is made, they have no doubts about their family members and coming together. But sometimes when you're coming together, that puts you in opposition to other people; that's one thing we wanted to examine a little differently. That was an area of overlap, but we definitely wanted to look at the family dynamic differently.

Last year, again, the subject matter for me personally, about race and interactions with people of color and police, was a painful and in some ways a very dark season. This year, once we got into it, I knew it was going to be painful in different ways. I wanted to make sure that, when we knew that physicality was going to be a big part of the storytelling and boundaries, I didn’t want to limit it to the negative. One of the things that we're going to be carrying through is that being physical and touched doesn’t have to be a negative. Because the story is about sexual assault, we see family members, we see lovers, we see people, we see artists, we see athletes in instances where touch is not inappropriate, but is appreciated and aspired to, and it is a thing of beauty. When we see it and it is correct, it's magical. I didn't want this season, knowing how tough it was going to be, to be merely relentless. There were moments where we could see, in sharp contrast, the good not only in people but the good in the way we embrace physically and emotionally, and hold onto the things that are important to us. … That was something that very fundamental in our construction.

What was your biggest challenge this season that you didn’t face last season?

My biggest challenge was a starting point that was not familiar to me. Last year, going into it, we knew one of the fundamentals was going to be about race, having an interracial relationship, having a black man who was accused, I thought there were things that I at least had some kind of a thought or perspective on through my upbringing. … The biggest challenge was going to be, from the moment we started talking about this, there were things that made me uncomfortable, not in terms of the subject matter, but I could write 12 Years a Slave or All Is by My Side or season one [of American Crime], and people could go, "OK, I can see John's entry into this," and these kinds of things, people may not see the entry.

But I knew if I felt uncomfortable, we were starting from a really, really good place because I like when I make other people feel uncomfortable. I feel like if we're all doing something that makes us comfortable, it could be really good, like eating at your favorite restaurant. Maybe I'm not ordering that same item but I love this restaurant. I wanted to go to a whole other place, a whole other part of town, somewhere else, and that challenged me. I think for the second season of American Crime, people appreciated what we're doing but you don’t want people to come back and just appreciate again or like it again, you want people to be baffled a little bit. Or at least I wanted to do that and I think I was surrounded by people who were willing to push me to those places.

How did you decide to bring so many cast members from season one? Did you always know you would do that?

When American Crime started, it was before a lot of the really good things that happened in my life happened, and all those folks were on board. All those folks took a chance. Even if folks knew me as a writer, they didn't know me as a writer-director. [They] were willing to take a chance not only on me, but the subject matter, the type of storytelling that you don’t normally see on broadcast television.

I had a group of people who showed an amazing amount of faith, and you want to keep that going as long as possible. That's why more than anything else. There are a lot of terrific people — there are a lot of terrific people who have shown interest in working on the show in the second season and a lot of them we were able to reach out to ... people like Hope Davis and getting Andre [Benjamin] on board. I love doing that, but there is no substitute for the people — first time out — who showed a faith in me that I maybe hadn’t even quite earned yet. If I have a regret at all, its that across the board we couldn’t manage to bring everybody back.

How much did you consciously try to cast these returning actors in different roles as compared to season one?

That very much so. You look at [Regina's, Felicity's and Tim's] characters. Those three in particular, I definitely wanted to write away from season one. Just as actors, if you're going to work in a space where the idea was to do something different, to make sure that their characters were different. … With Elvis [Nolasco] and Richard [Cabral], their characters were very, very specific. To have Elvis, you'll see him in the second episode playing literally and emotionally a principled man; he plays a principal of a public high school. After seeing him play a recovering addict who's accused of murder last year, now he's playing a guy who has dedicated his life to making the most positive space for young people in a challenged area. And Richard, I don't know want to talk too much about his character — it's a surprise coming in — is completely antipode to Hector. We were absolutely cognizant of writing away from Barb, writing away from Russ, writing opposite to Aaliyah, so these actors could do something that could challenge them. Andre, who is a guy who showed so much faith in me when he did the film All Is by My Side — that was a great moment. To be able to call up Andre and say, "I have this part. I would really love you to do it," and he was like, "Say no more. I'm there. I'll do it." It was terrific all the way around. I had some old friends in some different spaces, some new people, terrific actors and then our young cast, who I can't say enough about.

Season two of American Crime premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC

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