On Saturday, Feb. 9, FOX’s new TV series “Proven Innocent” premiered at SCAD aTVfest. The show focuses on a wrongful conviction law firm as they fight to free innocent clients from undeserved prison sentences. Lead character Madeline Scott, played by actress Rachelle Lefevre, understands her clients’ pleas for justice on a personal level — exonerated of murder and set free after spending 10 years in jail.

Riley Smith, Nikki M. James, Danny Strong, Clare O’Connor, Russell Hornsby and David Elliot attend the “Proven Innocent” press junket. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2019.

The Connector met with actors’ Riley Smith, Clare O’Connor and Russell Hornsby to talk about their new show, its social justice message and their experiences in the television industry.

Tell us your name and role and a little bit about what your role is in the show?

Smith: My name is Riley Smith. I play Levi Scott on Proven Innocent. Scott was wrongfully convicted of a murder, spent 10 years in prison for that crime and finally got released. Though he was found innocent, the stigma of being a convicted killer just never quite leaves him.

Everyone in town doesn’t want him there. They think he’s guilty. He can’t get a job. He’s really a broken character who, over the arc of the season, you get to see try to rebuild himself, along with trying to figure out who really killed this girl that he was convicted of. He knows the only way he’s finally going to get out of the shadows is by finding the real killer.

O’Connor: I play young Madeline on the show. She is the young version of the lead, so we see her exclusively in flashbacks throughout the season. They are flashbacks to a very traumatic time for her when her best friend was murdered and she is accused and convicted of the crime, along with her brother Levi. She goes to prison for 10 years. So lots of trauma. We see my character in a lot of very high stakes, emotional situations. It’s cool because the lead of the show — older Madeline — she kind of takes the character in a whole new direction once she’s gotten out of prison.

Hornsby: My role, Easy Boudreau, or Ezekiel Boudreau, Easy for short, is the lawyer that got Madeline Scott off after serving 10 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Easy and Madeline start the “Injustice Defense Group” together, where they are champions of freeing the wrongly convicted.

Your character deals with emotionally heavy content. How do you prepare for that?

Smith: I’m the kind of guy who tries to get as method as possible. So I really have been doing a ton of research ever since I got the script — listening to podcasts and watching “Dateline” and “20/20,” any of those kind of shows. I actually got to be mentored by a guy named Jason Strong who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and just dove into what these people really go through and how hard it is when they come out of prison. So, for me, I try to just get into the role as much as possible. There’s no separation, if possible.

O’Connor: Sometimes you play roles where the character is not so far away from you — at least in their circumstances — but in this case it is. It’s been really incredible. I’ve done as much research as I can on wrongful conviction and what’s been the most helpful besides watching the documentaries that a lot of people have seen on Netflix, like “The Staircase” and “Making a Murderer” is actually reading autobiographies of people who were wrongfully incarcerated, who eventually got out.

That’s been really interesting for me to kind of get a sense for what that psychology would be like because it’s so … It’s almost unfathomably horrible to think about, as someone who has never had that happen. So it’s been really interesting for me to get inside the minds of those people and try to play the character with a lot of respect, due to the fact that this does happen to real people every day.

How did you first get into the film and television industry?

Smith: I started back in the day before social media. I started in 1997 and it was pipe dream for a kid from a horse ranch in Iowa to be an actor. I got very lucky back then.

No connections?

Smith: No. I moved to New York. I got into acting class. I was fortunate enough that I had a modeling agency that I was making money from to pay for acting. I got very lucky that one of my first jobs was a pilot for Warner Bros. They flew me to Los Angeles, I screen-tested and got it. I was a terrible actor. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I got lucky and then worked really hard.

O’Connor: Well, actually this is the first big thing that I’ve ever booked. So in terms of breaking in, it feels like this is the closest thing to a big break I’ve ever had. I’m loving every second of it. It is such an incredible role as a first big break, like really tuning into that is just incredible. 

A lot of SCAD students are looking to break into the TV industry. Do you have any advice?

Smith: I think my biggest advice to aspiring actors, or anybody in the business, is that you have to love it and have to do it for the right reasons because there is no guarantee that you’re going to get where you think you’re going to get. Whether that’s being a superstar or famous, you can’t be in it for those reasons. You have to be in it because you love it. You have to be in it because you love being broke. You love struggling and then it’s never a struggle. It’s not work. It’s passion because there is no guarantees of anything in this business. It’s a really hard business to be in but if you love what you do, then it’s not work, at any level — it’s love.

O’Connor: I think the biggest thing is just if you really love doing something, keep doing it. Even if that’s creating your own content. I feel like that’s a big thing right now and it’s actually possible to be discovered if you make your own web series. There’s all sorts of different roles that, whatever industry people are trying to break into, they can make content themselves that they generate. But I mean, the biggest thing is just that you really never know. Things change so quickly in this industry and just don’t give up because a year ago at this time, I had no idea I was about to book this. It happens so quickly and it has changed my life. So you just never know. Things are changing every single second.

How many “nos” do you hear before you get a “yes”?

O’Connor: I think I usually will audition for 20 things and I’ll get one of those 20. So that’s like 19 nos, which depending if you’re only getting one audition a week, that’s a pretty long time to go with just a ton of rejection. It is intermittent reinforcement, which is kind of scary in this industry because every once in a while you book something that’s awesome, but there’s a lot of waiting around and there’s a lot of rejection. But again, if you like the work, if you’d like prepping for auditions and you enjoy that kind of excitement, it’s the only thing to do. I can’t not act.

Russell Hornsby at the “Proven Innocent” press junket. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2019.

Do you think that these types of shows that bring awareness to social justice issues will lead to actual change in the legal system?

Hornsby: I think it will eventually. I think what we’re looking at and what we’re talking about is awareness first. I think when we have awareness, then that slowly brings about change. If people are aware, they engage themselves differently with the media, with newspapers and with what they see on television. They’re a lot more aware, so then that affects how they vote. You know what I mean? That affects how they think, and so discussions start to happen. 

People are a lot more aware, so they’re talking with their friends, family members and co-workers about different things they see happening in the world. I call it evolution versus revolution. Revolution is quick change, evolution is change over time. It all takes time, but we do have to constantly be aware and put this in the forefront of peoples’ minds.

“Proven Innocent” premieres Friday, Feb. 15 at 9 p.m. on FOX.