Entertainment

How 'When They See Us' transformed those who worked on it

Posted May 31, 2019 8:27 a.m. EDT

— There's a moment during a courtroom scene when Niecey Nash, playing one of the mothers of the Central Park Five in "When They See Us," has a look of pure grief.

The thing is, Nash wasn't really acting in that moment.

"I am forever changed," Nash told CNN of her role as Delores Wise in the Netflix project directed by Ava DuVernay.

The limited series tells the story of five teen boys of color who were wrongfully convicted in 1990 of raping and leaving a white female jogger for dead in New York City's Central Park.

When their convictions were later vacated, the case became a flashpoint in the fight against systematic racism in the justice system.

Nash plays the mother of Korey Wise, the only one of the five teens sentenced to an adult prison. He was 16 at the time.

The actress said she followed news coverage and documentaries on the case over the years and learned the how the boys, who spent between six and 13 years in prison, had been coerced to make false confessions.

"I felt like I was carrying a burden for these boys," Nash said.

In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, confessed to being the sole attacker in the Central Park case. DNA evidence confirmed his account.

"Many years later, Ava Duvernay is doing the story of the Central Park Five and I'm like, 'Oh I have to be of this movie,'" Nash recalled.

What distinguishes the project, Nash said, is that DuVernay tells the story from the viewpoint of the boys and their families.

"Sometimes you had the real life men on the set and sometimes their families were on the set, so you had to be considerate of that," Nash said. "You had to lean all the way into the art and telling the story."

It's a story of suffering that was painful to revisit, Nash explained.

"It's the only job, I'll tell you, I've ever been on where [they] provided crisis counseling for you if you needed it at the end of the day," she said.

Blair Underwood stars in the series as Bobby Burns, an attorney for one of the boys.

He said he joked with DuVernay that only she and possibly Steven Spielberg (who is not connected to the project) could get him back to acting in a courtroom (the actor rose to fame starring as attorney Jonathan Rollins on the hit legal drama "L.A. Law" more than 25 years ago).

But Underwood said he knew DuVernay was the right leader for the project.

"A good director's job is to create an environment where actors feel free to express, to explore and to try things," Underwood explained. "I was so blown away by these five young actors [who portrayed the boys]. As young men to be that open, that free with your emotions. It was remarkable."

Underwood said he hopes viewers will feel the emotion the cast and crew brought to the series and see how little the world has changed in the past three decades.

"We have an unjust justice system for black and brown people," Underwood said. "There are those who will try and deny it, but it really is undeniable and if this [series] sparks something in someone, an awareness, than all the better."

"When They See Us" certainly lit a fire under Nash.

Since completing the series, she's taken on a new kind of project.

"I literally walked off that set and became an ambassador for the Innocence Project to help those who've been wrongfully convicted," Nash said. "I just had to serve somewhere."