Award-winning actress Erica Ash is best known for her roles in Survivor’s Remorse, Real Husbands of Hollywood, Scary Movie 5 and many other acts on the big and small screen. She sits down with EBONY and gives us insight on playing the leading lady in the new BET series In Contempt, working with actor Richard Lawson, finding balance in her career, and why this show is so important in not only entertaining but educating our communities.
So In Contempt is going to be premiere tonight on BET. You’re the leading lady, Gwen Sullivan. How’s it feel taking on this role?
It’s exciting. I’m excited to have my first run of show lead. So that’s huge for me because that’s a bit on my vision board in my list of things to manifest for a few years now. So it’s, it’s nice to be able to kind of see how that all comes to fruition. But for this role specifically, it was amazing because you don’t often get see the public defender side in a law drama. You know, like law and order, those types of procedurals, it’s usually from the district attorney’s side or the prosecutor’s side. So it was nice to be able to show how people kind of fall through the cracks and how because of money or bias in the judicial system, people are getting the book thrown at them unduly in a lot of cases because they’re sort of presumed guilty when they walk through the doors of the courtroom. So I’m happy to be able to be a part of telling that story and telling just how hard public defenders work and how they have to be so creative because they don’t have a lot of resources.
I noticed that the cast is super diverse. So what’s that been like on set? I think that’s just really important as well with representation, don’t you think?
I think it’s absolutely important because, you know, you have to realize most people think on that side of the fence in the courtroom, everybody’s Black. That’s just not the case. As a matter of fact, our showrunner, Terri Kopp, is a White woman and she was a public defender for a good number of years; I want to think 10 years in New York City. She really cared about her clients and really took it to heart whenever she lost. When she wrote the script, she wrote a lot of those feelings about her personal cases. I think it’s very important to show that kind of diversity and then also show the diversity amongst the clients; it’s not always Black people, it’s not just drugs and violence. Sometimes it’s stealing, homelessness, cases where a night in jail is better than sleeping out in the streets because they are provided a square meal and protection. There’s a lot of very interesting stories that you’ll come across in the show.
I also saw that Richard Lawson will be playing your father, Earl Sullivan, on the show! What’s it like having him as your father figure on the show?
Yes, which means Beyoncé and I are sisters, yeah! He’s amazing. The first time I saw Richard Lawson was when I was a little girl watching Poltergeist. He’s been in the game forever, and he’s just such a seasoned actor and he’s just so slick with it. When I think of somebody that would want to be my daddy, I want somebody who’s cool and that’s Richard. Whenever we’re on set, he’s just always so full of knowledge about the business and in life in general. So I enjoy speaking to him when the cameras are off and certainly enjoy working with him when the cameras are on. He’s a very talented man.
Erica, you’re playing on a show that focuses primarily on legality issues and corruption in the system that our country is currently facing. I know you were saying that we’re going to find out how things work behind the scenes in the court system, but what do you think personally that it’s going to be the biggest lessons we are going to experience with you?
This is one of the biggest lessons is that we really need to come together and support our public defenders. They are one of the unsung heroes. I think next to teachers they are probably most of the most underappreciated jobs that exist. I mean, they don’t get any support from the government. They certainly don’t get the funding and the manpower and the resources that the prosecutor gets, and not only that, they’re not privy to all the terms of the case until further in. Whereas the prosecutor gets all the information right away and then they’re able to kind of cross out information they don’t want the prosecutors to have—they call it the didactic method. So their jobs are really hard and they’re fighting for people who have had to deal with the legal system in some way.
And so I think it’s really, really important to understand how the judicial system actually works, for example, so we don’t have these, these Kalief Browder-type situations continuing. And that was one of, you know, probably hundreds of cases that they didn’t get a chance to document on video and show you all that’s going on. So I want people to understand the nuances of the system. I want people to understand exactly how people fall through the cracks. I want them to understand that, you know, once they see the information, then they can kind of come up with solutions. Because for me, when I saw this, the first thing I thought was, well, logically we need to start a fund to create the money and, and create opportunities for at least first-time offenders or alleged offender to be able to make bail so that, they can continue their life. That’s what came to me just by having the information presented to me. Who knows what will come to other people by having the information presented to them. So I think getting the information, understanding how hard the public defenders work and understanding the loopholes that people fall through in the judicial system, those are the most important things. You’re going to really love the episodes.
Lawson’s character in the show is always trying to push Gwen to go into corporate law. What’s your opinion on corporate versus public defending and why do you think your character, Gwen Sullivan, strives so hard to stay in the public sector?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with corporate firms. I, I’ll go ahead and say that you know, there’s nothing wrong with being paid what you’re worth and having the money that you make commensurate with the work that you do. Nothing wrong with that at all. I think for people who go into public defending, it’s purely for the love of the game because they’re not making substantial amounts of money. There are people who are really in need. You do it because you love it. And I think that for the people who are in the public defenders game. My hats are off to them because that’s all that there is. Richard Lawson playing my dad. You think about any parent, any parent wants to make sure that their child is OK and to make sure that their child is financially sound. Oftentimes, with public defenders it’s a stretch and coming from the kinds of background that she came from, she’s got a dad with money. He doesn’t want to see his daughter struggling just to defend people who may or may not be grateful to her for her services and may or may not understand the sacrifice that she’s making in order to work for them. He wants to see his daughter thrive. He wants his daughter to live the kind of life that, you know, he created for her all her life. And see her continue that. So, I mean, that’s understandable in any, any parent will do the same way. I think that’s noble of him wanting to see his daughter achieve higher. But in her mind, she’s more purpose driven, it’s about where the greatest need is and in her mind it’s in the public defense sector.
So you have your Annalise Keating, Olivia Pope, Mary Jane Paul. Who’s Gwen Sullivan?
Gwen Sullivan is a fighter, she is a very headstrong, determined, driven woman who understands that everyone deserves a fair shake. She won’t rest until at least the people that she can help get their day in court. She is not a perfect one, she definitely makes some mistakes. She definitely has moments where you wonder if you like her. In her mind, if she’s fighting for the right thing, however, she has to fight for that is OK because he’s fighting for the right thing. She may do the wrong things to fight for the right thing, but it’s the ultimate goal of that. That’s most important. She’s very passionate, caring, loyal. She’s an addict, so she’s healing. She’s got a couple of addictions that she has a hard time with. So you can see her humanity. She’s a woman, she wants to love, she wants to be loved. She’s not a machine though, she thinks she is and has to be reminded to do the human things—rest, eat and take care of herself. She’s very much like me in that respect and so I can appreciate that about her.
Your role as a Black woman in the industry, moving from comedy to drama and big screens, how do you successfully find a balance?
Internally, in terms of keeping your spirit intact, it’s two-fold. It’s about who you surround yourself with. So you have a reflection of what you want and who you want to be. You have to make sure that the people who are around you are genuine and genuinely aligned with your purpose. I think the second part of that is making sure that you stay centered like I meditate and I pray a lot, and I also journal. So for me that’s the way for me to stay in touch with my spirit and stay in touch with God, and I’m always listening and I’m always trying to hear what I’m to do next, to stay open, to be guided to where I need to go and that has worked for me all the years of my career. My grandfather is one of my guardian angels and has been having a hand in guiding me and helping me pick the right things. I think having some sort of spiritual aspect or some sort of spiritual practice is really important. And that’s just my spiritual practice.
Erica, is there anything else that you want our audience to know before the big premiere of In Contempt?
I want them to know that this project is something that we poured our heart and soul into, and we believe that they are going to be entertained. They’re going to love it. I fell in love with the script and each episode is better than the last. I think that it will garner a really big following, but it’s important to follow it beyond that because I want people to be as educated as possible. When you’re watching law and order, you’re watching the show and it’s amazing. You are learning something from the show and if someone’s talking about a case and you jump in and you’re like, ‘Oh wait, where did that come from?’ Where it came from law and order because you actually learn something. You didn’t realize it. That’s what this show is going to do. It’s not going to beat you over the head, but you’re definitely going to learn so much. I just want them to support it because I really want to keep Black people on TV. We have to definitely support our shows that our faces are on, especially with us being in these kinds of roles to show how important it is and how much we can tell these stories as well.
In Contempt premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET. on BET.