Newcomer Aliyah Royale plays the role of Jira Calder-Brennan on The Red Line, a limited series event that begins airing on CBS tonight at 9/8c.
Jira is the adopted daughter of a mixed-race couple, Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) and Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds), now deceased.
As a result of her father’s possibly racially-motivated death, Jira will experience intense emotions and a call to arms for justice for not only her father, but everyone who suffers bigotry. It’s a heavy role for Royale, and she tackles it marvelously.
We had a chance to chat with her about the role and why it’s important to her.
Tell me what you thought about the story the first time you read the script for The Red Line.
Aliyah: Oh, I was freaking out. I was like, "Okay, so this is not another procedural on television, not another police procedural. This is an actual narrative about real people and about real things that we're experiencing in our society today."
I sort of felt like if I got the role, that I would have a huge responsibility to the entertainment industry and to people in general to be as truthful and real as possible while playing Jira.
Now that you mentioned that, what do you feel that your responsibility is in taking on a role like this?
Aliyah: Like I said, the only thing I can really do is be honest.
The good thing about The Red Line is that it has amazing writers who really focused on presenting a grounded story that wasn't just about the sociopolitical lens that a lot of people will see it through, but about real people and real families going through a very hard time, and creating these characters and these words that the characters use to really resonate with people through the screen.
Playing Jira, all I had to do was be my most authentic self and go through different stages of grief and different stages of understanding that comes when a teenage girl has to realize that there is a racial problem bigger than herself that she's now been exposed to.
What did you think of the arc that she's going through? What were your thoughts on it, and what emotional arcs will Jira experience as a result of her father's death?
Aliyah: Jira's going to go through all the stages of grief, of course, and a little bit more than that. The amazing thing about Jira is that she's a very strong person.
As soon as the shooting happens and she's had time to process it, her initial thought is, "Okay, what do we do now? What do I need to feel like myself again?" Which is why she's on this search for "more family." She's looking for her birth mother, because she's adopted.
Although she's processing her father's death and trying to get a handle on racial shootings and what it means to be racially profiled and what it means for people to be afraid of you because of your skin color, she's also trying to figure out how to make things better.
She's not going to just sit there and be sad and soak in that grief. She's the type of person to say, "Okay, what can we do to make things okay again?" Once you come back from something like this, there is no ... You're crossing that red line.
There is no going back. You have to really decide if this is your identity now, or if you are going to stand up and be a part of a voice or a movement, or make a difference in your community so that things like what happened to Jira's birth father don't happen again.
Why do you think it's important that this show airs in the current climate?
Aliyah: I think it's important that entertainment reflects not only our ideals and our hopes, our dreams for the future, but the problems that are going on in our current society.
The Red Line is absolutely a product of its times, which is insane, because it was originally bought back in 2011 as the play, A Twist of Water. The way it's shot today and the way it reflects all of our problems today, it's something that needs to be said. Entertainment can be lighthearted and fun, and we can have our moments.
But sometimes when you are given these amazing platforms to say real things, to reach so many different kinds of people, like having the show on CBS, it's important that at least occasionally, we talk about real things.
Do you see any similarities between your life and Jira's?
Aliyah: Absolutely. That's one of the things I loved about Jira. Most of the roles that I audition for ... Playing a teenage girl is really hard, because I would say that I am strength and strong-minded and the force of nature that Jira is.
But most of the roles that come through for teenage girls have to be girls who didn't know they were pretty until some boy told them they were, or didn't know they were smart until some teacher said, "Hey, you tested really well on this test."
To get Jira, who may not know her identity as far as who she is as a young black person L.A. ... in Chicago, but know who she is ... Yeah. I was talking about me there.
That's okay. This is about you. It's as much about you as it is about Jira.
Aliyah: It really is. Just being a young black person in America in general, and trying to figure out what that means and how to maneuver life ... It's difficult.
To see Jira do it with the best possible finesse that you can, as hard as these hardships are ... She's dealing with very adult circumstances as a 17-year-old.
It's hard enough for an adult to process a racial shooting, like for Daniel, her adoptive father, to process his husband's death. But to be a kid and have all of the emotions of adolescence and have to go through that same tragedy as a black person, it's extremely difficult.
How do you think that Jira might have handled it if it had been Daniel who had been shot and killed instead of Harrison?
Aliyah: I think it would've been a very different conversation. It wouldn't have been about race so much as violence.
Because even outside of race, there is still a level of police violence and police brutality that still needs to be discussed when handling high-conflict situations like what's going on in the convenience store the night that Harrison is shot.
I think it wouldn't have been so much a national conversation about being black and your skin tone having a lot to do with what happens to you in society, but it would've still been a very grieving process to lose someone who was a part of your daily life and suddenly isn't there anymore.
It's a very somber show. What was the feeling like on set as you were filming it?
Aliyah: On set, honestly, it didn't feel as somber ... I'll tell you this. When we see clips of the show and we watch it, like when that first trailer came out, all of us were like, "Oh, this is kinda heavy."
On set, you know you're dealing with difficult subject matter, and it's definitely conflict matter. You try and keep it as lighthearted as possible, whether it's Noah Wyle telling dad jokes or us just sharing stories of our personal lives as a family, because that is ultimately what we become.
We tried to keep it as light as possible, because you have to find moments to laugh when you're dealing with this sort of subject matter, or else it'll sit in your heart.
Although we want it to affect hearts and create change in people so that we can create conversations, this isn't something that's supposed to hurt people or put people in their feelings so much that they can't understand that there is hope and healing at the end of the story.
What was it like working with Noah Wyle as your dad?
Aliyah: He is extremely talented. Although I knew that he was talented because of ER and everything, there were moments that I genuinely was in awe of the way he connected with his character, Daniel.
It is incredibly difficult to be bare and vulnerable in front of the 200 people that are on a cast and crew on any given day on a television set, especially with the subject matter of The Red Line. It's hard to get into those emotions and go in and out of them to shoot these scenes.
To see him do it seemingly effortlessly, it was really awesome. This is, of course, the first major thing that I've ever done in my career. To have a role model like him to just show me what it means to be vulnerable and what it means to bare your soul in roles like this is ... I was in awe every single day. I was in awe.
What do you hope viewers take away from this after watching? You mentioned starting a conversation. There are a lot of conversations that can be started as a result of this show. What do you think a few of them are?
Aliyah: The conversation should definitely be, what do we do now? How can we make this better so that these situations do not happen again? It obviously has its heavy subject matter, and we understand that.
But if we can get people to talk to each other in ways that they haven't talked to each other before, that's the goal. The reason and the way that it's possible for these things to happen, like the shooting of Harrison Brennan, is because we stopped talking to each other.
We stopped connecting with each other. We are in a very divided state as a country that was supposed to be founded on coming together and new ideas and new people and new religions, etc. At some point, it stopped being that, and people started being afraid of everyone.
I think that people are mostly afraid of what they don't know or don't understand. If we're creating this national conversation where people are talking to each other and listening to each other in ways that they haven't listened to each other before, how can things not get better?
You're a very wise and impressive young woman, aren't you?
Aliyah: Thank you. You know, the young black youth of today have to be educated.
What else do you have coming up?
Aliyah: Honestly, The Red Line is my pride and joy. It's definitely the focus of everything I'm trying to do. When I'm on a project, I try to put my heart and soul in it and stay focused on it until I see it come to fruition. We'll see what's coming up. Hopefully it'll be a season two.
If you could give your sales pitch to my readers about why they should tune in, what would they be?
Aliyah: A sales pitch. Okay. Absolutely tune into The Red Line. It is a family drama that will really affect your heart. If you are looking for a show that really believes in the power of talking to people and connecting with people, The Red Line is for you.
Be sure to tune into The Red Line tonight from 8-10 ET only on CBS.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.