How “UnPrisoned” Tackles Mass Incarceration with Humor and Heart

“My goal in creating this show was really to shift hearts and minds around people who have been affected by mass incarceration,” UnPrisoned creator and executive producer Tracy McMillan revealed during a TCA press conference to promote the new Onyx Collective series, which debuts today on Hulu. Loosely based on her life with her own father, the series tells the story of a therapist who learns to understand herself better when her incarcerated father is released from prison, moving in with her and her son. “The families, the people involved, these are human beings like my family members. And I just knew that there was a story there that America was ready to hear.”

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

“Delroy is quite literally one of the reasons that I am an actor today,” gushed star and executive producer Kerry Washington, who plays the lead character Paige opposite screen legend, Delroy Lindo. “When I was in high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and we went to see the movie. And I watched what he did with that character, and it changed my idea of what was possible as an actor. Like, the magic that he created on screen and the arc of that character just really transformed me and was like a lighthouse in developing my craft throughout my career. So when we were talking about who could be the dad on this show, I was like, ‘There's one person. There's only one person.’ And they were like, ‘What if he says no?’ And I was like, ‘I don't know, we don't have a show.’”

Thankfully, Delroy Lindo said yes to the offer to play Paige’s father Edwin, and even joined the project as a fellow executive producer. But Kerry Washington wasn’t the only admirer of his immense talent. “On the very first day that we worked together, Marque [Richardson] came and essentially communicated to me what my being in the business had meant to him,” Delroy revealed. “Now, this frankly has nothing to do with ego gratification, but the way that I received that was I was able to see into how important all of this work is that we do, how important it is to be part of a continuum, and it directly connected, for me anyhow, into the way that we worked together.” In addition to being drawn by the heart and humor of UnPrisoned, Delroy Lindo was attracted to the project because it’s markedly different from the usual roles he’s played. “The projects that I've done in the last few years — The Harder They Fall, Five Bloods — were what I called historical correctives, and this… It's a present-day corrective.”

“I was just trying my best not to get fired on that day one,” laughed Marque Richardson about his first scenes. “Halfway through the day, it was a scene with me, Mr. Delroy, Ms. Washington, and halfway through, I had to stop and be, like, ‘I just want you all to know, I'm freaking the bleep out right now because I can't acknowledge that this is not happening.’ I studied these people, and to be in a room, in a scene, and work with icons to me, masters of their craft, I didn't know if I was coming back for real. So I just rambled to Kerry or rambled to Delroy. Delroy was, like, ‘God bless you, brother. God bless you.’ Kerry was, like, ‘We have time. We have time. We have so much more time.’ And I'm, like, ‘I don't know because you are amazing.’” UnPrisoned came into Marque’s life just when he needed it most. “It came at a time for me where I needed to learn empathy and compassion with my father. And Mal was somebody who I wanted to be. So, I'm just glad to be here.”

“I feel like a baby working with them, I feel like I'm taking my first steps,” revealed Falay Rakotohavana about working with seasoned veterans like Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo. “They gave me so much inspiration as to what I can do as an actor that I didn't know I was able to do before working with them. They showed me a lot of new freedoms that I didn't know I had. The first day was super nerve-racking. My first scene was with my beautiful mother, Kerry Washington. And I just remember shaking for the first, like, half of the day, and then I had Delroy right afterwards where I was shaking more. But as I settled into it and I found a comfortability with them, I found a chemistry, and there was something that felt so beautifully authentic within our work, even on the first day, that I just knew we were going to kill it. I knew we were going to do something amazing.”

One of the hilariously amazing things the show does is give Paige an inner child to communicate with, played by Jordyn McIntosh. ““I loved to embrace my feelings of, like, whenever I get angry, just say them spicy words,” the little actress said, eliciting laughs from everyone present. “Jordyn's amazing,” gushed Kerry Washington, who revealed that the casting process for Little Paige actually helped define the character. “They say that we all come into the world with all this spunk and courage, and then life impacts us. And girls in particular begin to fade a little bit as we are trying to be likable and acceptable and make sure that people will take care of us. And Jordyn sort of was like, ‘No, I'm not compromising. I'm who I am.’ And we thought that's who Paige's inner child has to be. It has to be who Paige wants to be if the world wasn't squashing her.”

“One of the reasons I'm involved in this show is that executives at ABC and Onyx knew that my personal story was somewhat similar to Tracy's,” revealed showrunner and executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser, reflecting on how much the landscape of television has changed during her career. “The family in this show are kind of living in the aftermath of incarceration. My father is Edwin. My father was very charming, charismatic, made some choices that he thought were going to benefit his family, but they did not… I grew up wishing I had another father, a regular father with a regular job who had regular friends, but that was not my life. And so there was a part of me that wanted to help Tracy amplify what that is emotionally, what that toll takes on families who are not living together as a nuclear family, as they're developing who they are and who they want to be… I do believe that there's freedom in being able to make peace with that. And that’s what all of these characters are learning, and Paige in particular, is you've got to leave room for love in all its many iterations. You've got to find familial love. You've got to find self-love. And I think when you do that, you become more free. And that's a lot of what the show explores. I'm excited to be here to tell the story.”

You can discover the “present-day corrective” UnPrisoned now streaming on Hulu.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).