23 ABC Exclusive: One-on-One Interview with the American Crime Crew

Exclusive Interview with American Crime Crew
Posted at 8:20 PM, Mar 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-12 23:50:39-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif . -- ABC's Emmy Award-winning show, American Crime, relays the unsettling truth of eye-opening situations - human trafficking, exploitation, and forced labor - happening in our communities.

In honor of the American Crime Season 3 premiere tonight, here is a transcription of the latest interview 23 ABC’s Digital Producer, Rasna Suri, conducted with some of the American Crime crew - Executive Producer Michael J. McDonald, Staff Writer Moses Zamora, and Actor Clayton Cardenas - prior to the special screening held at California State University, Bakersfield. She also had an opportunity to speak with Civil Rights Activist, Dolores Huerta, and learn about her take on the first couple of episodes. 

Michael J. McDonald
Executive Producer, American Crime

Explain some of the unique elements of the show.

The quiet moments depict how much of our lives is spent reflecting, not talking. Also, the language barrier shows what’s it’s like to not understand the language.

What sets this show apart from others on ABC?

ABC has been brave. American Crime makes the audience uncomfortable. But, there are solutions. People will rise to take action.

What is one of the main struggles the show illustrates?

The fight against the family tradition of agriculture and hiding it. Showing what it’s like to help these people and at the same time knowing that the system isn't going to help. How do you fight against that?

The staff for American Crime is diverse in itself. How does that factor contribute to the show?

If it's not our own experiences, it's important for us to interact with those on our sets who have lived those lives.


Moises Zamora
Staff Writer, American Crime

How did you role with the show come about?

My role for American Crime was very specific in the sense that I grew up here, in the Central Valley. I’m from Chowchilla. And so, the stories were really personal. I saw it. I grew up with labor field workers. My dad works in a medicine clinic environment where he treats these workers. So, we’d experience a lot of storylines. For that reason, it’s very specific to my life story. And, that’s why I’m a contributor to the show. But, I think one of the things that I really wanted to touch upon is that beyond this, this crime is about exploitation and human trafficking; most to the point of modern slavery. It happens in America.

One of the things that we learned was from Polaris, which is the National Human Trafficking Hotline and organization. They said to us, “imagine one human being having absolute power of another human being, for whatever reason - whether it is employment or whatever - and just imagine all the creative possibilities of exploitation and abuse as you can think of, and you will find it in America. And, this storyline is specifically in American Crime. We have field workers getting exploited, we have sex trafficking, we have domestic workers getting abused. And so, we’re only focusing on a few story lines. But, the range of human trafficking that exists right now... it’s vast. That’s why it’s very difficult to tackle. It’s not one cookie cutter crime. There’s a process for it. It’s very hard to tackle. And, I think, what’s really important is awareness.

Maybe that person in the restaurant that takes out the garbage has been exploited and is almost living in, what we call, ‘modern slavery?’ Maybe it’s the person that does your nails or the one that gives you a massage? The products that you consume, the things that you wear. Everything has a human cost. Do not assume that it doesn’t.

Given the current political climate, especially when it comes to immigration reform, what political stance does the show lean towards?

One of the things that is really brilliant about this show is that it really doesn’t take one side [politically]. It’s very grey. Because we’re all very complex individuals, all very grey. We might lean towards one political side or one set of values. But, when it comes to crime, when it comes to exploitation, when it comes to abuse, everything is kind of complex and grey. And, John Ridley [the series creator] really had the vision of focusing on the complexity of this. You show characters very intimately. You go into their lives, their wants, their needs, their flaws. And we stay there. And we experience them as full human beings. And, I think that gives it an extra layer; it gives it more power to be able to empathize with that kind of character. Whether we agree with their value system or not, you know that this is a human being and you kind of understand where they’re coming from. Even if they are the abuser or even if they’re the victim. It doesn’t matter because we try to build this world of characters that are complex, fully developed with all the flaws in order to make it human and real. No matter what your value system is, at the end of the day, we are all human. Once we make the step of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, then we can maybe start empathizing with their problems or be compassionate about their situation.

Don’t forget that these are story lines. There is an emotional journey. It’s not a documentary. We’re not trying to lecture people on anything. There’s a crime. There’s an individual that something tragic happens to and we follow those storylines and it’s an amazing journey. And when you lose someone, or when something violent happens, it’s really hard not to be able to at least grow some interest and just see what happened. How’d that go down?

I invite everyone that perhaps already has a certain political stance on certain issues to just watch the show. Because it’s not about taking a political stand; it’s just about showing a certain reality, a certain emotional journey. We went out of our way to bring law enforcement, organizations, people; we did a lot of research; we worked really closely to make sure these stories felt real and they were true and also had an emotional impact. It’s more than just a political stand. It’s a human journey. I feel very lucky to be a part of it and to write for it and be a part of the joint released vision but also the effort that ABC is putting out there, which is a little different from their regular programming. They do have the entertainment that feels a little more like escapism. But, this is a different kind. This is a different kind. This is an emotional journey. These things out there, at least for me, are very satisfying. A story is just as powerful as action.

What demographics does this show cover?

It’s all over. We have three main storylines and they’re very specific to the demographic we have. We have Latin American field workers, an Anglo Saxon young girl who gets caught up in sex trafficking, and also, we have a Caribbean nanny of black descent. One of things that I think John was really emphatic about is that it’s not a show that shows diversity. Even though we’re used to saying the word diversity. He picked a different word. He said it’s a show that’s reflective of our society. So, you will see lots of faces and when it comes to immigration, when it comes to labor issues. You have a great range. We even have Somali characters. And, it’s wonderful to see that because it really truly represents our society, it really reflects our society. And, not just that. He took it a step further. And made that reflective behind the camera, like in the cast, the crew, the writer team. 6 out of our 8 directors were women. It’s very reflective. No one is begging for any favors. It just reflects where we are today. Let’s call it what it is, right? So, I thought even the getting used to the terminology made it a little bit more authentic to what we are really actually experiencing. It’s changing. The dynamic of the language and the conversation. It makes a difference because then you don’t feel like you’re asking for a favor to be represented. That’s just how it is. It’s just how it is. These are the people who are part of America. It truly reflects who we are. I think that’s real. I think that’s true. And, I think that’s what makes this show one of the most critically acclaimed shows on network television because we take the time to make sure it sounds right.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

My life commitment was to become a writer. Take a class to know what it takes to be a TV writer. You have to set your ego aside and be open to feedback. The journey is worth it. It's a dream come true.


Clayton Cardenas
Actor, Portrays Diego Castillo on Season 3 of American Crime

I am one of the migrant farm workers’ bosses. I keep the pickers in line, house them, help recruit, things like that.

Good boss or bad boss?

Well, I mean. I guess you have to watch. I guess you’ll find out, yeah.

How did you get selected for the part?

Well, it was very interesting. So, my co-star, his name is Richard Cabral... he sat down with the producer. I hadn’t auditioned for it yet. So, Richard calls me and says, “Hey, they’re having trouble casing my brother. But, I know if you can get an audition, you can get this.” So, I called my agent. I said, they’re needing to cast somebody on American Crime. I want this job. So, she calls. The next day, I audition and I get the job. It was really amazing.

What excites you most about your role?

Oh, God. That’s a good question. You know, just telling the story as an artist, as an actor. I think the funnest part is telling stories and connecting with other actors on set. That’s always the biggest joy to me; to live these moments and to actually feel the feelings of these characters. It’s really cool. It’s indescribable.

Do you feel like your character is reflective of your own life in any way?

Well, my family in the 30s were pickers. It was kind of a harsh reality to hear the story. When you watch [American Crime], you’ll be able to see more of what I’m talking about it. It forces you to look at something that you would normally sweep under the rug. And, I think that’s one of the great things about American Crime Season 1 2 and 3 now is that they do a great job with that, of shining the light on things that people don’t want to see. It makes you uneasy. It makes you cover your eyes. I think that’s the greatest part, the stuff that makes you feel something. That really hits you. Some people like to laugh and some people like the cringe. That really emotionally hits them. Again, like I said, that’s the goal of any artist; it’s to have somebody feel something.

Stay tuned. You’re gonna see something you wouldn't expect. You’re gonna see something you probably didn’t wanna see, you know what I mean?     

Has your family seen a preview yet?


So, they’re going to be watching it with the whole nation, the world?

Yes, the whole world! My mom is just happy that I had an agent. She was like Oh my God. She thought I made it just because I had an agent. I’m really excited for her. She’s through the roof with this whole thing happening right now.


Michael, Moses and Clayton: What do you want your audience to take away from American Crime?

Michael: People who haven't experienced these things, I want them to not assume...to not assume anything is what it appears. If we can stop assuming, we can change the world.

Moses: Compassion. Regular human compassion. Everyone goes through their own issues.

Clayton: The timing of this show is perfect. If people don’t want to talk about it, they want to sweep it under the rug. Give a voice to the voiceless. Humanity as a whole has to bring awareness to these kinds of issues.


Dolores Huerta
American Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist, United Farm Workers of America

What were your thoughts and reactions after watching the first couple of episodes of American Crime, Season 3?

This story is really about human beings. So often, many of us do not really know how human beings are exploited, how they’re taken advantage of. And, I know that when people are aware of and see some very, very real stories that are happening right now, that it really, I think, brings people to a point of compassion, but, also action. Because, the story we saw today about a young teenager being trapped...that is happening right here, right now in our community. We know that undocumented farm workers are being brought in to work at slave wages. That is happening right now in our community. These are things that we think we are separated from. But,  we don’t realize that these things are going on in our midst. It’s happening in our community.

Given your lifelong work of activism, explain how just being aware is a first step towards making progress?

Once we are aware of something, it brings the compassion, and we know that those people that are trying to change the situation, even though we personally may not be able to change it, know that we can give support. And, giving support means giving support to American Crime because they are bringing these stories into our living rooms so that we can see them and be aware of them and be sensitive to them. They’re depicting real human beings and lives. Rather than denigrate the people that are being shown, we need to be supportive and do whatever we can to help them change their conditions. It’s very, very important. These are very important stories.

What were your initial thoughts before you watched the Season 3 episodes? Did you have any inklings as to what the focus would be?

Well, when I saw the picture of a farm worker in a tomato field, I knew it was going to be about farm workers. Also, I just want to thank the producers and directors of American Crime and ABC for doing this. It’s not glamorous. It’s not a comedy. But, it is something that touches your heart.