For the culturally fluid, this poignant legal drama may feel just like home.
The new NBC show “Bluff City Law” includes seven veteran actors of stage and screen — all of whom boast impactful, cross-cultural backgrounds. And the story? It revolves around an elite, legal family led by father and daughter attorneys known for combating injustice and fighting for the underdog.
Emmy-award winner Jimmy Smits (“Star Wars,” “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue,” “LA Law”) plays Elijah Strait, the patriarch. His prodigy (and daughter), Sydney Strait, is embodied by Caitlin McGee, who shines in her first lead role in a network television series. The energy between the two actors is electric, as it is among the entire cast.
One final character plays a pivotal role in the show, and that’s the city where the series is set: Memphis.
‘Hugely Versatile’ Cast
In the pilot, Sydney has just left a successful career in corporate law to return to her father’s civil-rights firm. The two immediately battle to mend a rift between them — and no one is left unaffected.
Behind the scenes, a real-life camaraderie among the cast fuels a genuine affection among the show’s characters. Members of the ensemble fall together like family linked by the diverse cultural spectrum they inhabit. “It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this show and this cast,” Smits says. “We are representative not only because we are men and women, but culturally, we are from different parts of the planet.”
Smits was born in New York City and lived in various boroughs there. His father is from Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. His mother hails from Puerto Rico, where he lived from ages 10 to 12, or “the wonder years,” as he calls them. But Smits still experienced many of the coming-of-age traumas familiar to third culture kids. The challenges of moving to a new culture, changing schools and learning to fit in all shaped who he is today.
His upbringing also was a big reason Smits became an actor. “Where I live and breathe, in terms of the music I listen to (and) what I want to say about humanity … All those kinds of things inform me from that time.”
On the outside, McGee may seem like the odd woman out among such an international collection of artists, but there’s always more to an individual’s heritage than meets the eye.
“I grew up in a very diverse family,” says McGee, who is passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as transphobia in the military. Such causes come up in “Bluff City Law,” which is one reason the role resonated with her. It also helped that McGee is an admirer of her fellow castmates.
“It’s amazing how everyone in the cast is cross-cultural,” McGee says. “I’m completely aware of my privilege. If I don’t use it to speak out, it would be a disservice to the people I love. So, taking this character was really important to me.”
“We’re so diverse, and that’s how the world is,” she continues. “You don’t have to scream it out. You don’t have to say, ‘We’re diverse!’ It’s just … the way that the world is, and (the cast) reflects that.”
Art Emulates Life
Michael Luwoye plays attorney Anthony Little. He’s best known for the Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have it,” based on the Spike Lee film of the same name, and for playing the lead role in the celebrated musical “Hamilton.”
Born and raised in Alabama, Luwoye’s parents are engineers from Nigeria who immigrated to the U.S. for their education and laid down roots in Huntsville, which is home to a Nigerian community. His parents still live near their alma mater Alabama A&M University.
“Acting to me is a way to emulate and present life,” Luwoye says. “You get to tell stories about what people are going through.” Luwoye also believes it’s important for viewers to be able to see a piece of themselves in theatrical performances. “That shows you the people behind this, the people who are creating the art, are a part of the community that you’re from, as opposed to an attempt to tell it from a distance or an idea about it.”
Next up is Stony Blyden who brings completely different experiences to the show. He was born and raised in Reykjavík, Iceland, to a Cuban mother and an Icelandic father. In Iceland, Blyden attended a school where he “was the only not entirely white kid.”
And like many people who straddle cultural identities, Blyden often wanted to be just like everyone else. “I would straighten my hair, do all these things to fit in,” he recalls. “Looking back, I realize I was so dope just the way that I was. I embrace that now. I wish I’d done it more back then.”
At 17, Blyden is the youngest “Bluff City Law” cast member, and he brings personality and confidence to his role on the show. “The way that I make music or the way that I write or the way that I act, it’s all kind of in there,” he says. “It made me the strongest version of myself.”
Actor MaameYaa Boafo can relate. Representing Ghana, West Africa, Boafo was born in Pakistan and raised in Sudan, Switzerland, Ethiopia and Kenya, as well. She jokes: “Am I missing a country?”
“I was usually the only girl who looked like me,” she says of her childhood. “But I didn’t realize it until I was 9, when someone said to me, ‘You can’t play with us because there are no Black fairies!’” She takes pride now in being an adult third culture kid. “It’s who I am, and it’s all I know,” she says. “It’s made me have a heart for humanity.”
Boafo’s father worked for a refugee aid agency, which showed her many aspects of life. “People have a certain preconception. ‘Oh you’ve lived here, you were born here,’ but the circumstances … are very humbling. To be able to connect to people on a heart-to-heart [level]? I don’t know if I would have gotten that just being raised and growing up in one place.”
Grateful for her humanitarian upbringing, Boafo plans to pass those lessons on to her own children. Meanwhile, she shares them with the world via her acting. “’BCL’ is all about humanity,” she says. “We are a law firm that stands up for the underprivileged, so of course, I want to be a part of this project — absolutely.”
Boafo comes to “Bluff City Law” from such television series as “Iron Fist” and “American Odyssey.”
“It’s a real honor to be part of such a diverse cast,” she says. “The thing that I love about our show is that it’s about people who are just going through life. They just happen to be Black or they happen to be women, but that’s not the focus. I love that it’s just about the human condition.”
British actor Barry Sloane may be best known in the U.S. for playing Aiden Mathis on the hit ABC drama “Revenge.” He stars as “Bluff City Law” attorney Jake Riley. “It’s a fantastic cast [with] great writers and great producers,” he says. “A civil rights law firm in Memphis right now seems like the story to tell. We can be very brave. We can shine a light on things that should be spoken about. I’m just pleased to be part of something that would be able to do that.”
A native of Liverpool, England, Barry’s big break came via the record-breaking, sell-out play, “Jerusalem,” which made its debut at the Royal Court Theatre in London before moving on to Broadway. “It was a play about identity across countries … What is the identity of a country, anyway? It’s all merging together.”
Fresh off a six-year stint on the Netflix hit “House of Cards,” actress and producer Jayne Atkinson plays Della Bedford, an estate and trust lawyer whose portrayal she based on the iconic American politician and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whom Atkinson recently played in a one-woman show.
Atkinson was born in England to British parents who later moved to the United States to live in Connecticut and Miami, Florida. “My father taught us to be kind to everybody because America was kind to him,” she shares. “At home, we had more of an English experience.”
Being the eldest of three crossed over into her experience on the “Bluff City Law” set. “Shooting ‘BCL’ has been one of the best television experiences I’ve had,” she says. “We created this camaraderie and this family.”
She emphasizes that enjoying each other’s company laid a foundation of trust whereby the actors supported one another. “In Hollywood, you hear all these stories of casts with backbiting and competition,” Atkinson says. “We started off with a foundation of love and fun, and I’m so proud of the show.”
Finally, the city of Memphis, Tennesee, U.S.A., rounds out this multicultural cast as an icon of North American history, music and civil rights. Creators and executive producers Michael Aguilar and Dean Georgaris, the latter of which is also a writer for the series, intended to make Bluff City a centerpiece in the show. It follows that the soundtrack includes music by the likes of recording greats B.B. King and Johnny Cash, both of whom laid down tracks at the seminal Sun Studio in Memphis. The city is also home to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and Graceland, the mansion and estate of Elvis Presley. It’s the second-most visited residence in the U.S. behind the White House.
Memphis’s rich history balances out a culturally refreshing TV series with an equally impressive cast.
The one-hour “Bluff City Law” pilot debuts September 23 in North America on the NBC television network. Watch the trailer below: