Isaac Wright Jr. pulled off a rare feat in the American criminal justice system. Sentenced to life in prison in 1991 for a crime he did not commit, Wright ultimately became a lawyer and successfully represented himself in court and was exonerated of all charges.
That wild story is the inspiration behind “For Life,” a 13-episode ABC drama starring British actor Nicholas Pinnock as Aaron Wallace, a fictionalized version of Wright. The series tracks Aaron’s incarceration and alienation from his wife, Marie (Joy Bryant), and 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine (Tyla Harris). In an unusual development, he also begins litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence.
“For Life” co-stars Indira Varma (“Game of Thrones”) as a sympathetic prison warden, and was created by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Hank Steinberg.
London-based Pinnock, 46, spoke to The Post while visiting ABC headquarters in New York.
What was it about Isaac’s experience that allowed you to play Aaron through 13 episodes?
Isaac was always very available to me. He was on the phone 24/7. If I asked him to come to set he would make himself available. He was very instrumental at giving me things I didn’t ask for. I managed to grab things from him. I had this bag of tricks with shards of Isaac that I could sprinkle onto Aaron to convey whatever we needed and have it be as authentic as it could possibly be. I haven’t been incarcerated. I know nothing about that life. I like to work under what I call “accurate imagination.” I have to imagine what that might feel like. What his next move might be based on what I understand about his condition. What I have in front of me as far as the story is concerned.
I’ve interviewed a lot of British actors and I know you can’t get out of drama school without mastering an American accent. Was that the case with you or was it something you picked up doing one job after another?
I didn’t go to drama school. I studied at a stage school for children to be on television and film when I was 12. Previous to that I lived in Saudi Arabia for five years, from ages 7 to 12. My father worked for an American construction company and I went to an American international school. So my ear was familiar [with] the accent. Kids from all over the world came to this school. And I think it was a matter of survival. You learned to assimilate. All the children — whether you were from India, Pakistan, Sweden, Colombia, wherever you were from — and me being from the UK, I couldn’t change the color of my skin but I could change the way I sounded so I could fit in more. I didn’t realize I was doing that at the time. But I look back and I realize that’s exactly what happened.
What was it like filming in Sing-Sing?
Oppressive. The air is thicker. You definitely feel a sense of restriction and confinement. We just worked in the outside yard. We could hear the prisoners at play. I managed to watch them playing basketball. There was one day when we were filming and they were banging on the doors and shouting and trying to cause disruption.
I heard that you asked Isaac Wright if you could wear his ring while you filmed the series. Why?
If I’m working on a project where I have the real person there, I want the essence of who they are. I like to carry things with me, like a trinket of theirs, that I can incorporate into the character. When I first met Isaac we went into a room for about 45 minutes and I watched the way he spoke and he’s very expressive with his hands. I grabbed that, so when you see Aaron in the courtroom and you see him with his hands, that’s Isaac. And then we have some flashbacks before Aaron went to jail. And Isaac wore a ring and I said I will need your ring because I want to add that to who Aaron was before he went to jail. He gave it to me and said, “Keep it during production.”
“For Life” premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC