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71° Good Afternoon

‘For the People’ gives us a fictional look into Manhattan’s ‘Mother Court’

Wesam Keesh, who plays Jay Simmons, dishes on the upcoming episode.

Wesam Keesh (pictured, left) stars in

Wesam Keesh (pictured, left) stars in "For the People" alongside Jasmin Savoy Brown and Britt Robertson. Photo Credit: ABC / Nicole Wilder

Manhattan’s latest legal drama “For the People” gives viewers a front-row seat in the courtroom as the suspects behind fictional terror attacks, fraud schemes and more face their judgments.

“A lot of these cases will be pulling people in two different directions,” says Wesam Keesh, who plays new lawyer Jay Simmons. “You’re going to realize in some cases, there’s not really a clear line of what’s right and wrong.”

From the minds of Paul William Davies, Shonda Rhimes and others, the new ABC series has been described as “How to Get Away With Murder” sans Viola Davis. In fact, “HTGAWM” fans may find comfort in this new script that follows a group of young professionals taking on their first cases as public defenders at the Southern District of New York federal court (aka the “Mother Court”).

It has nearly everything you’d expect from a Shondaland series — tough leading ladies and BFFs that give off “Grey’s Anatomy” Meredith/Cristina vibes, a whole lot of drama and an optimistic character adding a touch of comic relief. That’s where Keesh’s Jay Simmons comes in.

“He believes everybody deserves a voice in the courtroom,” Keesh says.

The pilot saw his colleague Sandra Bell (Britt Robertson) opt for sharklike tactics in the courtroom defending a man accused of an attempted bombing of the Statue of Liberty. But Jay’s time to shine comes quickly in episode two: He struggles to silence his own opinions to defend a suspect — who identifies as a white supremacist — charged with shooting an assemblywoman during a campaign rally.

“He’s going to graduate from his freshman-like tendencies pretty quick after this and he’s going to face bigger challenges in the coming episodes,” he teases.

“For the People” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Given that Jay is from an immigrant family, defending someone who identifies as a white supremacist is visibly challenging for him.

Yeah, he’s from an immigrant family from Syria. The person he defends hates him. Hates who he is, the color of his skin. Everything about him he hates and thinks he should not exist on this earth. You have to compartmentalize your feeling toward this guy and look what he’s being tried for now. Is he guilty of the crime he’s facing now? If not, he shouldn’t be punished because of his views.

We see Jay put his personal beliefs aside and ensure the suspect isn’t being judged for the way he looks (tattoos offensive in nature). He redeems himself with an epic closing monologue. What was it like to shoot that scene?

That was probably one of my favorite moments in my professional career ever . . . I probably rehearsed that monologue over 100 times, easily. It was a dream come true for me. Jeff Daniels was in “The Newsroom” and in the pilot episode, he has a great monologue. He talks about how he did that monologue over and over so he knew the lines forward and backward. That’s the way I felt doing that scene and I didn’t even know about that story with Jeff, so it was cool to see it parallel with him.

How did you prepare for the role of a public defender with no law background?

I got to shadow a real public defender at the Los Angeles courthouse. I asked them how they can defend someone who’s like a child molester or a serial killer. How do you even put up with that? They said they don’t think these people don’t deserve to be punished, but they do deserve to have a voice in the courtroom and that’s what it’s about, a proper defense.

What’s the significance of placing this series in New York City?

It takes place in the “Mother Court,” which for people who don’t know, is like the Super Bowl of courthouses next to the Supreme Court. There’s an energy to New York it’s never-ending. If there’s anything I’ve learned about a public defender, it’s that their job is never-ending too. It fits perfectly in this city.

Jay is eager, smart, but his personality sets him aside from his colleagues. What do you think his sense of humor adds to the series dynamic?

Jay adds a unique sense of humor and I think that plays into Paul William Davies, our creator’s, unique sense of humor himself. He’s always wanted to be a public defender and now he’s working with the top judges and lawyers. There’s a freshman quality to it that I think a lot of us can relate to.


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