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Actor Cush Jumbo on 'Criminal Record', her series about London's detective force

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We were trying to play a clip the other day from a new TV show for its star, and we had some technical issues.

CUSH JUMBO: No, you need to act it out. I'm afraid you're going to have to act it out.

RASCOE: Oh, yeah.

JUMBO: British accent. Go.

RASCOE: No way I'm trying that. We'll leave the accents and the acting to Cush Jumbo. Trained in theater, the Brit made a splash with a one-woman show she wrote and starred in about Josephine Baker. She really hit it big, playing lawyer Lucca Quinn on the CBS dramas "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight." Her new series, "Criminal Record," pits her character, an up-and-coming Black detective, Sergeant June Lenker, against a senior white detective in the London police force. It kicks off when June gets a tip that a Black man in jail for murder just might be innocent, and, yeah, that senior detective might be to blame.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRIMINAL RECORD")

PETER CAPALDI: (As Daniel Hegarty) You are aware that he confessed.

JUMBO: (As June Lenker) What if he's innocent?

CAPALDI: (As Daniel Hegarty) That case was investigated fairly.

JUMBO: (As June Lenker) What is he hiding?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Let it go.

RASCOE: No way she'll let it go. Cush Jumbo also executive produced "Criminal Record." And as the Apple TV+ show begins, she says her character is simmering with frustration, pushing up against an old guard institution like the police force.

JUMBO: It's a constant battle about being passionate about this job to the point of putting herself in danger a lot of the time and yet feeling so disappointed and frustrated by not only the corruption and the racism but the misogyny.

RASCOE: Did you draw on your own personal background or your own experiences for those aspects of this role? You know, whether it was dealing with the race or the misogyny?

JUMBO: I mean, look, Ayesha...

RASCOE: Yeah.

JUMBO: You and I - we're both women.

RASCOE: Yes.

JUMBO: And we're both of color.

RASCOE: Yes.

JUMBO: And we don't need practice at that.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Yes. Absolutely.

JUMBO: You know, people are always asking me, how did you find this, or what did you draw upon? I'm like, listen. We're all born the way we're born. So if you're a woman, you've been doing this whole misogyny thing a long time. And if you're a Black woman, you've been dealing with microaggressions and microaggressions for a long time.

So it wasn't so much that as it being actually quite cathartic to look at how to frame it in a way that helps an audience to not just sit watching a show which is gratuitous for the wrong reasons but actually makes you want to talk about stuff afterwards because personally, my job is not to make the world a more polarized place. It's to create a space where people can go, this is gray, and we want to talk about why this area is gray, why it's complicated.

RASCOE: In the U.S., it is palpable. People are going at it pretty constantly over race. Is it the same way in the U.K.?

JUMBO: I knew the show was special, but I hadn't accounted for the response that we have got about a British police show about injustice and from all over the world. And it's been really interesting to me that we so often think of these things as, well, this is a British racial issue. This is an American racial issue. And then you suddenly have an email from someone in Brazil or Venezuela or Australia or Iceland or Paris that's saying to you, this show really speaks to me because of the framing of these conversations and what's happening.

I actually think that culturally, there's a misconception that there are no race discussions to be had in the U.K., and I suppose there's lots of reasons for that. Those conversations are different, but maybe one of the things we were trying to talk about with the show was that the British essentially are repressors, you know? Like, things are very much under 10, 15, 20 layers, but the response shows me that many of the ways that it's coming out are universal.

RASCOE: You're very well-known for American shows like "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight." Is there a difference in doing those versus a series that you make at home in the U.K.?

JUMBO: God, there's - I mean, there's lots of differences, but mainly it's - the thing with "Criminal Record" was it's the first show that I have shot in my hometown in my natural accent.

RASCOE: OK.

JUMBO: I've done many British shows where I have either done a northern accent or a Manchester accent, Leeds accent. Or I have been a lot posher. But my natural accent is from south London, which is a very distinctive London accent. And I've actually never shot in it. I've also - having been born and bred in London, it was emotional and inspiring to be shooting next to projects I grew up on and signing autographs for kids that were sitting on the same swings that I'd been sitting on 20 years before or, like, where I'd kissed a boyfriend behind some bins. That was, like, my whole life going in full circle because when I was 8 or 9 years old, all I wanted to do was pretend to be other people for money. And I didn't come from a background where I thought that would ever be possible. So then to be doing it and then be exec producing the show and be - having other kids see me do that from where I'm from was really amazing.

RASCOE: Yeah. And, I mean, you know, you talked about the different U.K. accents, but do people ever come up to you, and they're shocked because they think that you're American?

JUMBO: Yes. All the time. All the time. My favorite thing is, like, a lot of actors in London, probably like a lot of actors in New York, actually, the quickest way to get around, sometimes, is the subway or taxi. So people - you see actors all the time in London. And I get stopped so much. And people go, oh, my God, you look just like that American actress from "The Good Wife." And I go, yeah, that happens to me all the time.

RASCOE: (Laughter). And they don't know. They really don't.

JUMBO: No, they don't know. And you probably clocked that I'm somebody who kind of prides myself on looking quite different each time I do something. So I love the chameleon aspect. And I think sometimes people are like, that woman who's, like, getting a Happy Meal for her kid in the middle of, you know, some rough part of London can't possibly be the actress that I just watched on Netflix. Or, you know, like, I think they're just like, she looks like her, but it can't possibly be her because...

RASCOE: It can't be.

JUMBO: ...This scenario does not make sense. And I like that, too.

RASCOE: Well, I think that's great. And I mean, you also - like, so you don't just do TV and film, but you also do stage work. You've just come off a run as Lady Macbeth opposite David Tennant in London. How do you balance all of these different mediums?

JUMBO: Theater is something that I've always done. It was my entrance into the business. I've been onstage for actually most of my life now. I first was onstage when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I've pretty much done - I try to do a play every two years, maximum, as a gap, because it's like a refill station. It's like where I go to fill myself back up with where I'm at physically and emotionally. And I do all kinds of theatre. But I love Shakespeare and classical theater because I love language and literature. And it would be very difficult for me if someone turned to me tomorrow and said, you will never do a play again or you never do a musical again. I would really struggle with that because it's my church.

RASCOE: Yeah. I came across an old quote of yours, and you said most of the time, you just get what's available and hope at some point in the future you'll be able to choose. Do you feel like you've arrived at that point?

JUMBO: Oh, wow. I must have been really young when I said that.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

JUMBO: I do feel like I've arrived at that point. Yeah. It's been a long time since I did a job because I felt it was the only job to do. As you get older in this business, or probably any creative business, you have to begin to think about the purpose of why you're doing it, and it can't be the same purpose that you had 20 years before. I think there comes a point where you go, every job that you do takes a lot of time and energy, takes time from my little 5-year-old son's life. And so I want to be doing a project because I think it has something to say about the world, as long as I feel it's going to stretch me in some way and add another little piece to what my contribution to the business should be. And I feel that a lot of the time, that's me using where I am now to open spaces up to more kids like me who are making their way into the business.

RASCOE: That's Cush Jumbo. Her new limited series, "Criminal Record," is now on Apple TV. Thank you so much for joining us.

JUMBO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.