Tonight on Law & Order: SVU, Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age) makes his first appearance as defense attorney Bayard Ellis, a man who's very concerned with the civil liberties of the clients he’s defending. He’ll go toe-to-toe with Mike Cutter (Linus Roache), the Law & Order ADA-turned-bureau chief. This morning, we chatted with both actors about tonight's episode; here’s what they had to say.
Andre, can you tell us a little bit about your character?
Andre Braugher: Bayard Ellis is a brilliant defense attorney who has been defending drug kingpins and mafia figures for many years. And because of a crisis of conscience of some kind, is now defending defenseless and indigent clients on a pro bono basis. So in this episode, he comes across a case in which a young man is being prosecuted for rape, and every aspect of the prosecution’s case has holes in it. Only a defense attorney who’s willing to take on the system and has the resources can really challenge the state in cases like this.
What makes Bayard Ellis such a worthy opponent for the DA’s office and the NYPD?
Linus Roache: Well, I think Andre just said it. He’s a man on a mission. He’s a man with an agenda. And he’s a man fueled by a conscience. He really wants to challenge the system and make sure that justice is being pursued in the most appropriate way. So he’s really speaking civil liberties. In the episode, I’m playing a bureau chief now, and my role wouldn’t usually be to go into the courtroom. But as soon as Mike Cutter hears that Bayard Ellis is in this, he's got to take it on. He’s basically going to rip the whole thing apart. So I’ve got to make sure that all of my team is being absolutely thorough. Bayard Ellis is kind of like a force of nature, a very important one, testing the system to its limits.
Andre Braugher: Seeing Mike Cutter in the courtroom means that I finally have their attention. This is not a situation in which every case is going to be prosecuted in a rogue manner. It’s really an example of testing the system, testing the state, pushing back against them, so that these rogue prosecutions of defenseless clients don’t continue. This is Bayard Ellis’s contribution to that effort.
Linus Roache: That’s true, but what also makes this a dilemma is, he’s in danger of letting a rapist go free. His agenda is the civil liberties issue and not necessarily that this guy—from our point of view, we got the right man. And that’s what I think is gonna be challenging and interesting for the audience to make up their minds tonight.
Do you think the audience can sympathize with Bayard Ellis, or will they be too caught up in the fact that he’s defending a probable rapist?
Andre Braugher: They’re gonna be caught up with whether or not he’s a racist, but the fact of our world is, this case can only happen to people who are defenseless. You don’t find the state prosecuting people with plenty of resources, and there’s a reason for that. They understand that they cannot have their statistics, and they cannot pursue justice against people with real power. So typically people are gonna be caught up with the question of whether or not this young black man raped this young white woman, but the whole point behind this prosecution and this defense is to suggest the story is not that simple, and that it ought to be looked at in greater detail for justice to actually be served.
What kind of effect can a case like this have on SVU, and might we see it play out in the way the show handles future cases?
Linus Roache: I don’t know how [showrunner] Warren Leight sees it, but I think what this does is, there’s a sense that the SVU unit is kind of on shaky ground in a way. Everything’s gotta be thorough and proper, and it’s kind of good, because it doesn’t make us comfortable. It shouldn’t be that we’re in a comfortable show and everyone knows exactly what they’re doing. Everyone’s job is on the line. Justice is on the line. What is the right action? All these questions that make Law & Order the show that it is, and this kind of scenario, I think, fuels it. And I would imagine that this is going to continue on through future episodes. I don’t know when I’m coming back next, but it seems like every time I walk into an episode, I’m basically very concerned about the integrity of everyone on the SVU unit. Our future’s gonna depend on that integrity, and the world looking at us. I think that’s what creates a very healthy and interesting tension for the audience.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 10pm on NBC.