On April 10, AMC debuted its newest series, 61st Street. The crime drama stars Courtney B. Vance as Franklin Roberts, a Chicago public defender on the verge of retirement. But then Moses Johnson— a student athlete getting ready to go to college on an athletic scholarship— gets arrested after a drug bust gone wrong. Roberts is pulled back in, as is the audience, into a tragedy that unveils the flaws and failures of the Chicago judicial system.
Ahead of the series premiere, LA Confidential spoke with Mark O’Brien about his role as Officer Johnny Logan, the beauty of Chicago and the excitement of crime dramas.
What grabbed you about the 61st Street script and the role of Officer Logan?
Officer Logan is a generational cop from Chicago as in he comes from a long line of police officers. He's really, I think, an introverted person who keeps kind of to himself and he has one person in his life, his partner, who he looks up to, sort of means the world to him. And I think without him, Johnny kind of starts to falter and his life drastically changes, and which is probably something that, in a way, needed to happen for him to understand who he is and what the Chicago justice system and the police department actually means to him.
Sometimes you get in conversations with people and they talk about good guys versus bad guys and stuff. That's not interesting to me as an actor. I really want to play someone who's conflicted— someone who is compromised and conflicted in the middle of something where they don't know what to do. There's something about playing a character who knows exactly what they have to do that's just really not appealing to me as a performer or as an artist in general. So Officer Logan just seemed like such a conflicted character and, on top of that too, almost technically, the fact that he doesn't speak that much. He's a large part of the series and the story, but he's very introverted. He doesn't really know what to say and know what to do and how to handle himself. And I think that that's that's gold for an actor to play. A lot of actors say they want less lines, and it's true. A lot of times it's the emotions, the behavior that kind of means more than just saying words. So that was an interesting challenge for me. I've never really done someone who's quite that reserved and introverted. And that just popped out of the script to me. I wanted to know what he was going to do next.
How did you prepare to play a Chicago police officer?
I did a couple ride alongs and got to meet some police officers there in Chicago. But a large part of the research for me is before I go to shoot anywhere, I like to go to the city and experience the city a little bit because as an actor, we have lives outside of working too and so when you get to a place you’ve never been before and you just jump on set and you start performing, you don't have your bearings.
For me, it was important to get to Chicago and kind of experience Chicago a little bit and understand it a little bit. It was really fascinating and eye-opening to me the way Chicago is. It's such a beautiful city, but it's also very passionate and the police department is passionate and the people are passionate and it ends up creating something that's beautiful, but there's also great conflict there. And that's what the show deals with.
61st Street has a fantastic cast that includes Courtney B. Vance, Aunjanue Ellis and Holt McCallany, among others. What was it like collaborating with the other actors?
This was an extremely, extremely tight cast, especially when it came to the artistry of it. We shot during COVID, so you can't really do read throughs. We did read throughs every weekend where we would all discuss each script and where we're coming from. We got together a lot to discuss each and every beat. It was probably the most collaborative work I've ever done as an ensemble in my career. It was very, very interactive and very open with our opinions and our thoughts on it all. Throughout the series, I ended up working with Courtney B. Vance quite a bit. He's just amazing and he's so collaborative, he’s a producer on the show, too. He's a legend— he's Courtney B. Vance. He steered the ship in a way I've never really seen before. And he did it with such grace and humility, but he also did it with an open mind to all the other actors. So when there was a thought or a new take on something, he was open-minded to everything as well.
This is not like a sci-fi show or something like that. This is happening today all the time, especially in Chicago, there's a bit of history of that… Some of us are playing characters that commit questionable acts, so that has to be done in the right way so that we're making the right kind of statement without glorifying anything or just gliding over something that's really important and significant for a lot of people watching, so it had that kind of delicacy to it.
What was it like to play a character who serves as a major source for empathy?
Sometimes when you dislike any group of people or they've done something wrong and someone dies or something happens to someone, there's still residual effects to that. Like those people are close to people and they have kids and everything. That shows the problem with discrimination and corruption. It's so contagious and it spreads in different ways so that people become caught in the crossfire of that who didn't even ask for it. So when there's a history of prejudice, there’s a history of injustice, the offshoots of it are immeasurable.
When it starts out, I don't think that's something Johnny Logan ever really thought about that that much. He just didn't think about and all he's really thinking in the beginning is the loss. He's suffering. So he doesn't think about the big picture of what's happening in the city. And I think that's the case for a lot of people. It doesn't even necessarily mean you're selfish, but when you’re in grief or you are in mourning or you're in any state of loss, you can't really see outside of that. I thought it was important that the show didn't glide over that because a lot of shows do. You look at big action movies and someone gets shot and no one really cares. There's no after effects. It's like no, the offshoots of that go on and on and on forever…What Peter Moffat created is something that deals with the minutiae of our emotions and our society at large.
View this post on Instagram
What do you enjoy most about acting in crime dramas?
I just love suspense. I love watching a movie and not knowing what's going to happen next. That's the most important thing to me. Aaron Sorkin said it best. It's like it's surprising, but it's inevitable. So you can be shocked, but it makes sense. And so for me as an actor to be a part of that world, because I've watched so much crime drama, it's a dream come true because I'm hooked as a viewer when I watch that stuff. And years ago, a friend said to me, he was like, “You should do TV and movies that you want to watch.” And that's how I go about my career. I'm like, this is something I'd like to watch and is something I want to be a part of because it's something that objectively I would sit down and be interested in. So I just love being a part of that as long as there are stakes, as long as there's something on the line for the character and it means something. And there's something they're scared to death of and there's something they don't know how to handle yet. You don't want to play a character who just jumps on a motorcycle and does stunts all day. I wanted to be the guy learning how to do that. It’s way more interesting to me. Crime drama— when they get into the real minutiae of it and how it happens and how it's gonna unfold and who did it and all those things— it's just a ride for me and I love being a part of it.
You recently directed your first feature, The Righteous. Did that experience affect your approach to acting?
It was interesting because I was finishing up my first film that I wrote and directed while we were shooting 61st Street. I feel like that changed the way I looked at filming a lot because you really understand everyone's role that much more, even post production. And you respect it a lot more and I think it allowed me to be a bit more patient and understanding to the whole process because it's daunting doing a TV show. You have to move so fast. And there are so many shows out there. What's so great about what's happening with TV is that there's going to be something for you. There's something for everybody. It's out there. Right now, I think it's a really amazing time for performers and for actors because there's not just 12 shows on TV or whatever, there are hundreds. So there's something that appeals to you because when you do a show for six years, 10 years, it's gonna mean something to you. And right now, there's so much more out there that finally I think actors have a bit of choice and a bit of variability in what they do. And I think that that's just a wonderful thing. So it was great doing that and also finishing my film because it was kind of seeing it all at the same time and it made me appreciate the show that much more because these ones are rare.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Courtesy Narrative PR