Julia Ormond (pictured — all photos credit Quantrell Colbert/Lifetime Movie Network) stars in The Wronged Man, a new Lifetime Movie Network film premiering January 17 at 8 p.m. (ET/PT). Based on the real-life story about paralegal Janet "Prissy" Gregory (Ormond) who crusaded to exonerate Calvin Willis (The 4400's Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a felon convicted of raping a young girl. As a result of Gregory's determination and staunch belief in Willis' innocence, he was finally released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 22 years for a crime he did not commit.
This compelling story made headlines in 2003 as yet another example of the problems with the justice system and how vital DNA evidence is to making a case. At the time, Willis was the 138th convict freed due to DNA evidence (the number is now up to 249). The case was greatly helped by the involvement of the Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org).
I caught up with Julia recently to discuss her latest project.
When you first read the script for The Wronged Man, did it just hit you right away that you had to play the part of Prissy Gregory? What was it about her that drew you to the character and to the movie itself?
The story is so terrific. I’d heard of the Innocence Project before, but this movie really drove it home to me how important the organization is for someone who has had a wrongful conviction. Prissy herself is all about doing the right thing, even though she is not qualified. For her, it’s a reluctant journey. She finds it easier to fight for someone else than herself. I mean, I’d love to do more comedy, but I just find it compelling to participate in stories that compel you to do something, to act.
What do you hope the audience comes away with after watching this?
I think the figure is something like 40,000 people in American jails have been wrongfully convicted. I wanted to tell the story of an individual, where people can relate to it one-on-one.
This film really makes you look twice at the justice system, just the fact that it was so difficult to get Calvin a new trial. And much of it was difficult to watch. Did this film make you angry?
I know from visits to detention centers I’ve done in the past that it really affects those who don’t have means. I was floored! Justice shouldn’t be an accident — it should serve everybody, with or without means.
As a wife and a mother, how could you relate to her struggle to keep doing what was right for Calvin, but also to not neglect her family life?
This is the age-old question for me. But I feel that everything she does is for her son. In the process, she doesn’t quite achieve the right balance (of work and family), but her son does understand the bigger picture. She doesn’t want her son to see her sit back and not do something about a wrong she sees being committed.
Did you get to meet Prissy to research for the role? Do you meet Calvin?
I spent time with Prissy. It was amazing — she is a wonderful person. She is very grounded about having a movie made about herself, and she is very funny. She knew it wouldn’t be completely accurate (for the sake of storytelling), but she said, “I don’t think the world is ready for an accurate portrayal of me anyway.”
What are some qualities about Prissy that you admire, and are they some that you share with her?
Because of what is going on in her own life, she channels her energy to fight for someone else. I like how tough she is — the barriers go down; the barriers go back up. She is a person with a wounded past. The temptation is to shut down, but she still has hope. She believes the world can right a wrong.
There are moments during her journey where she felt she was the wrong person to do it, but her gut told her she had to do it. I could relate to that.
I love that you are equally comfortable in just about any genre, whether it be on stage, on the big screen, the small screen … is there any format you prefer, or do you like to mix it up?
I really enjoy mixing it up. I wish I could do more theater, but that is a difficult schedule to have with a 5-year-old. The last time I did it was eight years ago. You use slightly different muscles, but you are still exercising.
The BBC recently released the 20th anniversary special edition of the Traffik miniseries, which was your big break into showbiz. What were your thoughts when it was brought to the big screen in December 2000 (as Traffic), winning four Oscars and being nominated for tons of other awards?
That was an amazing first role. It was my first year out of drama school — I hadn’t done anything, really — and it jettisoned my career. When they released the movie, I was invited to the screening, and I didn’t really think much about it. Only when Michael Douglas appeared onscreen as the judge-turned-drug-czar did I realize, “Duh, this is a remake!” I really loved the movie. I thought it was a terrific adaptation of the miniseries.