SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the first season of “Pretty Hard Cases,” streaming now on IMDb TV.
For seven seasons, Adrienne C. Moore played an inmate nicknamed Black Cindy on Netflix’s dark comedy “Orange Is the New Black,” set in a women’s prison Litchfield Penitentiary. With her new Canadian television series, “Pretty Hard Cases,” Moore is now on the other side of the law as Kelly Duff, a no-nonsense drug squad detective. But, she has found some important similarities between the two shows that helped make her professional transition an easy one.
“What I learned from my time at ‘Orange’ was that yes, even though prison creates its own microcosm of a world, it’s still dealing with the same dynamics that we deal with on the larger scale of the bigger world — the politics, the theme of education, with love, with rivalries. And so, it was easy to jump into this new microcosm because the lens shifts (and) instead of dealing with the prison system we’re dealing with the policing system, but that world crosses criminals and those that are in jail and so forth,” Moore tells Variety from the Toronto-based set where she is working on Season 2.
“Pretty Hard Cases” introduces Det. Duff as one of the good ones when it comes to those wearing a badge and carrying a gun. When she is called to raid a drug house, she and the squad come across a little boy with a gun who has been told he is in charge while the real shotcaller is away. Kelly won’t risk anything happening to him, even though he has a weapon, and manages to talk him into putting it down so everyone can get out safely. But that doesn’t mean her resolve isn’t tested in other ways.
Her former partner (Tony Nappo) pressures her to tell his side of the story regarding an arrest gone wrong, but she sees footage that shows he was in the wrong and is momentarily torn over whether she should protect him. Meanwhile, when teaming up with Samantha Wazowski (Meredith MacNeill), she has to compromise on some of her usual ways of doing things, not to mention contend with a different kind of privilege, especially when Sam’s son Elliot (Percy Hynes White) gets too involved in their case trying to take down a major drug operation.
But the new partnership rubs off on Kelly, too. Even when it leads to letting a bad guy (temporarily) get away, Kelly opts to help Sam save her son at the end of the season.
“I feel like they are a yin and yang,” Moore says of Kelly and Sam. “There’s a big black half-circle and a big white half-circle and inside the white there’s a little black circle and there’s a white circle inside the black. Their journey is about understanding how they form together but then also within each other. It’s almost like when you don’t want to work so well with someone but you realize you do work so well with them. They’re sympatico.”
Here, Moore talks to Variety about trying to provide an aspirational cop show, doing her own stunts and what to expect in the second season of “Pretty Hard Cases.”
One of the integral things to “Pretty Hard Cases” is the banter between your character and Sam, which balances the extremely tense and morally serious situations they are often in. How did you guys balance when to lean into some of the lightness and the humor, and how much of that was just adlibbing and feeling it out in the moment?
I first came onto this show in December 2019; that was when I first flew out to Toronto to meet with Meredith and the executive producers, and at that time we went into this little room, very much like theater kids and we took the sides and spread them out all over the floor and just picked up scenes and played with them in different ways. We’d take a pass of a scene in a very serious tone and then we’d take another pass of the scene in a comedic way. We just played with those levels.
Working on a show for seven years that dealt so brilliantly with the balance of comedy and drama, it felt like it was a very natural evolution. And when Meredith and I got together and talked about our backgrounds and things that we’re interested in talking about, that was important to both of us. So, that was something we made very clear to the writers — that we wanted to be able to play and discover the material and the moments and the beats in the scenes and who these characters are and their relationship to each other and then to the rest of the characters in the show.
But then of course with the pandemic happening and the world really facing racism and the issues that exist between police and civilians — particularly African Americans — we didn’t want to ignore those truths, but also we didn’t want to burden our audience with a lot of heavy stuff without providing hope or inspirational or aspirational values. At the end of the day, I believe television and film and theater — all those forms of storytelling — are just as important to teach as they are to entertain. And so, finding that balance of where the comedy lies and where the drama lies and where the improvisation lies is when it’s a two-camera shot with Meredith and I standing by each other. If it’s on both of us, we can play. When it’s procedural on the show, we stick to the procedural. But if it’s character-revealing or character-building things about myself or about Sam, those are moments where we give it a little bit of breath. We begin to look at a little bit of Kelly’s private life in Season 1, but in Season 2 there is definitely more of it.
As the world shifted while you were working on the show, did anything change for you in terms of how you approached the character — her motivations or even how explicit some of her actions needed to be, in your eyes, when it came to right and wrong?
I always rooted her in this idea of “to serve and protect.” And so, that was at the core of her, and everything that she experiences throughout the season goes back to that idea. Whether it’s her relationship with Sam, her relationship with her sister — you see a bit of tension there — the whole idea was that yes, they fudge the rules a little bit, but it’s with good intentions. And moreover, I wanted to shed light on not often do you see strong, female, Black leads like myself that are full-figured women doing action-packed scenes and running and chasing and doing fight scenes, stunt driving, anything like that. That was also something I really wanted to be super-focused with her. She’s in her 40s, she’s had a couple of doughnuts in her life, she’s doing the best she can, but I wanted to show that even at her size — at my size — we can definitely have a strong impact with fight choreography.
Do you do most of it yourself?
I do. Even today we had this car scene, and I was begging my stunt coordinator to let me do it. I have driving on my résumé; I am a precision-driver! But the insurance… [Laughs.] I try to do as many of the stunts as I can do, but my stunt double is another full-figured, beautiful, African Canadian woman, and I want to give those women an opportunity to shine as well because they have a hard time finding stuntwomen that match my physique that can do stunts. That even further shows that’s not a very popular realm to be in in this acting world. And so, I want to encourage them to give me as many stunts as they can.
Did your vision for portraying a police officer change over the past year-plus?
I think a lot of times people look at cops and automatically label them as the enemy. Not the bad guy but the enemy. And there are cops that are compromised, but I have friends on the police force, I have friends who have worked in the prison system, I have friends who have been both inside corrections and outside the police force, and they get this bad rap of being Public Enemy No. 1. And that was one of the things I really wanted to dispel. I know I have those same feelings. I was literally pulled over by a cop on the highway to Canada — I was driving to Toronto on the American side in upstate New York, Trump country [with] MAGA flags flying everywhere and my heart was bursting outside of my chest. And I wondered how many people have this feeling when a cop pulls them over, but also, I don’t like this feeling [and I want to understand] why do I have this feeling? And so, that’s one of the things that was really important to me in taking on this role — to give a different light to how police are viewed. There are good cops out there. There are cops like Kelly who want to serve and protect the community and not be seen as the bully or the enemy. And then the other thing was that I wanted to be aspirational with this with this role in that, hopefully, while it can’t solve every issue, it will hopefully shed light on how we can communicate with each other differently, for the better.
When you talk about communicating differently, do you mean in individual communities or on the larger scale of the media?
Honestly both. With police, rarely do you see good stories on the news. It’s always that they arrested someone, they stopped someone, they’re on the hunt for someone. From that perspective, yeah, I wanted to offer a different vantage point. And then in general, how we communicate with this community and how we stigmatize even them.
In the first season, Kelly had moments where she didn’t know what she would do about her statement regarding her partner’s violent actions during a past arrest. Why do you think she struggled with that?
She is in that whole line of serving and protecting, but do I throw the man who has been my biggest advocate and ally since I joined the force under the bus, or do I protect him for the greater good that at the end of the day we got another bad kid off the street? That line is a very, very, very blurred line, but it was very difficult for her to decide. At the end of the day, she realized she could fudge a line or two but not to the point where she would overstep it.
Now she has this new advocate and ally in Sam, and they are going into a more fully-fledged partnership in Season 2. How aligned are they truly, going forward?
Not to give any spoilers away, but their partnership — their friendship — goes through a lot [in Season 2] in terms of learning boundaries, learning trust and when to lay in and when to let up. And that is in all areas of their relationship — their professional life and their personal lives together because at the end of the day, Sam is a very open, vulnerable book and Kelly is the exact opposite of that. And so, a lot of those layers of vulnerability that Kelly tries to keep locked, you’ll see them break wide open, and Sam as her burgeoning friend tries to support her, but because Kelly has always let this “keep my guard up” lifestyle, it puts a strain on their friendship and on their work relationship.
How do you view the Kelly and Sam partnership going forward? There was reluctance on Kelly’s part to join the other team, but how much of that is just posturing a little and being unwilling to show Sam that she does like her?
I think at the surface there’s that, but in looking at the end, I have to go back to the beginning where literally one of the first things Kelly said was, “I gave up on having partners.” It’s because of what happened with Keegan, but you’ll see in Season 2 even more of why she’s against partnering with someone because someone from her past comes into her present, and she has to deal with that. On a deep level, she’s been scarred by her partners — not just partner, partners — so there is that hesitation and that is also, I think, what has led her to being so closely guarded with her emotions and who she lets in and how she lets them in. In Season 2, they realize they are definitely stronger (and) better together than they are apart.