Read the logline for UnPrisoned— a therapist and single mom’s (Kerry Washington) life is turned upside down when her father (Delroy Lindo) gets out of prison and moves in with her and her teenage son — and it might scream “drama.” With the rare exception (see: Orange Is the New Black), most Hollywood projects dealing with the prison system (see: Just Mercy, The Unforgiven), or in this case reentry, are told through a serious if not grim lens.
UnPrisoned, though, aims for laughs and sincerity. Tonally speaking, it’s far more Modern Family than Oz. And as its opening slate informs viewers, it’s all “inspired by some truly crazy shit,” events from creator Tracy McMillan’s actual life.
“I think it’s important to tell this story through a dramedy lens because this story is about a very real family, or it’s inspired by a very real family, and that family is filled with funny characters,” Washington tells Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview. “Her father was in and out of prison her whole life, and he’s also charming and hilarious and wonderful. And so we wanted to make sure that we were making a show that honors the essence of who they truly are, and what their lives were together.
“But you don’t wanna be insensitive. You don’t wanna make fun of it. So really I think what we all committed to doing was to try to be as honest as possible because the truth of humanity is often really funny. It’s also often really provocative and poignant.”
The Scandal actress, 46, admits she was extremely nervous to meet screen vet Lindo, but wanted no one else for the role of her troubled yet charismatic father.
“I’ve been a Delroy Lindo fan forever,” she says, remembering the impact his performance as Harlem gangster West Indian Archie in Malcolm X (1992) had on her in high school. “His performance kind of transformed my idea of what I knew was even possible as an actor. And then 30 years later I was thinking about this show and watching Da 5 Bloods and I was like, ‘There’s only one actor who could play my dad.’ You know, there’s one guy who I felt like had the gravitas and the intelligence and the charm and the sex appeal and the strength and the vulnerability.
“We wanted people to be able to reimagine or, or sort of maybe examine their own prejudices and stereotypes around who formerly incarcerated people are. Because Tracy often says of her own dad, when people met him, they would always say ‘Well, he’s so smart, he’s so charming, he’s so polite, he’s so kind. I would never have thought that he was in and outta prison your whole life.’ So we wanted to create a character that made people check their own prejudices.”
Washington plays a marriage and family therapist in the series, which also hits home for the actress who often speaks candidly about her own mental health struggles. Acting, Washington says, can help.
“It depends on how crazy the character I’m playing is,” she says, laughing. “I do think acting invites me to be in touch with my own body and my own mind in order to do this work. It’s interesting, as actors, we don’t sit at a piano to play the notes, or pick up a flute. Our body and our mind, those are our instruments. So I have to know those instruments well. I have to be in tune with my thoughts and in tune with my physicality to be able to take on a character. And that exercise, that need to be in presence and awareness, I do think helps me in my own mental health. But it’s not a substitute for the work.
“I have to still be willing to do the work in my own life. I often find that characters come into my life when it’s time for me to think very deeply about my own relationships that might be adjacent or similar in some way. So sometimes they provide an opportunity for me to do some homework, but I have to usually take that homework outside of just the set and talk to my own therapist and outside to work through whatever’s coming up.”