For Life: Isaac Wright Jr. tells the real story behind ABC’s crime drama
Isaac Wright Jr. tells Precinct TV about his courageous fight that provided the basis for ABC’s crime drama For Life.
With ABC‘s For Life having finished its first season, TV crime drama fans can appreciate the real story of Isaac Wright Jr. Isaac’s struggle with the criminal justice system served as the basis for the series, and the character of Aaron Wallace is based on him.
Isaac visited Precinct TV to talk about the experience of having his life made into a TV crime drama, how For Life has affected his career as a successful lawyer, and what he hopes the series leaves audiences with.
Learn more about Isaac Wright Jr. and his incredible story in our interview below. If you want to watch the For Life finale or any other episode, you can stream episodes here.
Precinct TV: What was your initial reaction when you were approached about making your experiences into a TV series?
Isaac Wright Jr.: I wasn’t really apprehensive about it. I wasn’t in this instance, because of the person who wanted to talk to me about it. It was Fifty [Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson]. Power at the time was going very well. He’s a made man and big in the entertainment industry, and also business in general. So I knew that I was speaking with someone that wasn’t just talking or going to go out on his own and start searching. This was someone that if it could happen, he could make it happen.
And so it was a pretty exciting moment for me to find out that he wanted to talk to me. And then, from that point on, and meeting him for the first time, it was more of an exploratory situation. I would size him up, and to come back with a specific feeling that I’m going to decide to have about him. But it generally was a pretty exciting moment.
PTV: What was the development process like—the give and take between the reality of your story, and fictionalizing it for a TV crime drama?
IWJ: Hank Steinberg, the showrunner, did an incredible job with me on that. I met him first, and we spent a couple of hours together, general conversation in New York, and then ultimately I went over to Los Angeles and spent a significant amount of time with him at his home when we were developing the idea, the story, and how the story was going to actually be put together.
I understood from the very, very beginning that there was going to be a fictional element to telling the story and I understood why it was necessary. I was open to receive some of the things he was saying, and looking at it as a third person, I saw the need to be able to take some of these more complicated, very drawn out, convoluted issues and find ways to present them, and present it to the audience, in ways that were fluid.
In the series the main character, Aaron Wallace, receives his law degree and license in prison and helps other inmates as a licensed attorney. However, I only had a high school diploma during my time in prison. All that I accomplished—such as making new law, getting other prisoners released or sentences reduced and ultimately obtaining my own release—all happened with a high school diploma.
It wasn’t until I got out of prison that I did seven more years of college; my undergrad degree for four [and] three years in law school. Then once I graduated law school, I passed the bar the following year. I was then investigated for nine more years by the committee on character before I was granted a license.
We condensed it so that the audience can get it over a much, much shorter period of time. Hank created this idea where Aaron gets his license while he’s in prison, and he does some of these incredible things as an attorney, which was a great idea, and we brought it from New Jersey to New York. And the reason why it was important to do that was because in New York, the possibility of a person being able to get their license while they’re in prison is feasible. There’s two states that it’s feasible in, New York and in California.
If you recall some of the press around Kim Kardashian trying to become a lawyer, she’s not going to law school. She’s going to do her mentorship in a law practice for a number of years and then go take the bar. California allows you to do that. New York also allows you to do something like that. Most states don’t.
So there was this creative part that was fundamental in being able to move the story forward without dealing with a lot of those intricacies and complexities that would cause the story to be burdened with complicated longevity.
PTV: How was it to watch Nicholas Pinnock play Aaron knowing he’s based on you? Were you able to watch For Life as a viewer?
IWJ: it was very difficult. And I do watch the show, but I don’t watch it. The reason why I’m saying it like that is because every script that was ever written, rewritten, I get copies of it along with all the other executive producers and the writers. I make suggestions, so I see it before it’s filmed, and then any time I have the freedom, I’m on set there, and I was always available for input, which they utilized me for significantly. So I became immune to what was happening.
But in the beginning it was difficult, because the show brought me to certain realizations about myself…This was a very, very long fight for me, and I was fighting so hard for so long that I’ve never reflected on what I was going through. But watching Nicholas, and watching the character Aaron move through that process, it was like me watching myself now [from the] third person. It allowed me, for the very, very first time, to be able to see as a third party what I was going through. And that was a very, very enlightened situation. It was very therapeutic. It helped me a lot. It was difficult at the beginning, but it was very helpful.
PTV: Now that For Life has been on the air for a few months, what’s the reaction that you’ve been getting? Has the show affected your daily life at all?
IWJ: The reaction, both personally and professionally, has been overwhelming, especially professionally. Personally, I have the ability to control my life, to control my access to people, but as an attorney, I can’t do that. I have an office. I have an email. I have a phone. And it’s been very overwhelming, the amount of people that are seeking my help.
There’s issues where a lot of people, they don’t have any money… and the law firm is a business, and there’s a separation between myself and the things that I’m willing to do personally and professionally, and the firm… When I decide to do cases pro bono, I have to eat the cost at times when the firm doesn’t want to eat it, because they’ve agreed to do a certain amount and once that amount is reached, it’s on me to make decisions whether I’m going to sacrifice.
So it’s created an overwhelming situation for me, but also, it’s a good thing, because the inspirational aspect of it keeps people going, and has them creatively looking in other directions to solve some of their problems. So even the people that I can’t talk to, the ones that I ultimately will not be able to represent, and there are hundreds of thousands, mat least they have hope, and they have the inspiration to keep going, and to try to look in other directions.
If all else fails, they have themselves—to look deep within themselves and identify what gifts they have that may be able to contribute to the resolution of those issues and the challenges that they face.
PTV: Which leads to an important point—is there anything in particular that you want viewers to take away from For Life? Anything that you hope they leave with?
IWJ: When they get their jury inquiries, they should participate, because there’s two things. They’ve got to mentally level the playing field between the state and the defense. [And] they have to deal with a police officer as they would deal with any stranger…They have to be convinced about who they’re dealing with, who they’re talking to, who this person is.
They’re convinced by the content of that person’s character, the content of what comes out of their mouth, the way they carry themselves, and the things that they say. Only after accepting that do they come to a conclusion [about] whether or not they want to trust this person, or whether or not they want to put any kind of credibility in the things that they say.
Participate in the process. Participate in the system, whether it be as jurors, or whether it’s just being curious, and wanting to go in the courtroom and sit in on a trial. The courtroom is a public forum. Anybody can come in and sit down and view what’s happening in any courtroom in this country. We have to have try to garner a little bit more understanding of the system, and to participate more in the process and the administration of justice.
For Life airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.