Taking the gloves off in Season 2, TNT’s cop drama MURDER IN THE FIRST (coming from creator Steven Bochco) unleashed a series of brutal crimes within just its first couple of episodes, ranging from a mass killing on a school bus to the homicide of a police detective by one of their own and a brewing drug war where a young teen is caught in the crossfire. At the center of the maelstrom of crime seems to be local crime boss Malcolm “Suger” Monroe, piercingly portrayed by actor Mo McRae. MURDER IN THE FIRST deftly interweaves all the criminal elements together so that it feels like a boiling cauldron of stress, pressure and unpredictability, making Suger Monroe a pivotal part in keeping the lid on rampant crime from breaking loose as these crimes all come to a collision point this season.
In an exclusive interview, star Mo McRae talked about the attraction of portraying such a layer criminal mastermind and the fun he is having with the variety of roles being offered at this point in his career.
What initially drew you to the role of Suger on MURDER IN THE FIRST?
MO: The depth of the character was very interesting. I thought he was very layered and nuanced. I felt like there were a lot of different things I could do with it and the show itself was interesting as it already had a great cast in place.
Were you aware when you were cast of the storyline the show would be pursuing this season and how dark it was going to get?
MO: Yeah, I knew they were looking to take down a darker path than it had been previously and that my character would be a pretty prominent figure in making that transition into a darker, edgier world. So that was exciting to be part of a bit of a rebranding on the show. Eric Lodal, co-creator, and Robert Munic had spoken to me about what they wanted to accomplish with the show, and it was really exciting.
One of the first scenes we saw Suger in was where he was being asked about the death of a young teen who may or may not have been involved in Suger’s organization, and it is startling as it makes you wonder if Suger is using young teens to run drugs or if something else is going on.
MO: I think that is something that is really important and topical as it asks: what are our kids doing in America — and are they inflicting pain and trauma on others, which is really as a result of the pain and trauma that has been inflicted upon them? And how do we deal with them? With the school bus shooting and the kid who potentially had a run in with Suger, it is like: what are we doing with our youth in this country that is creating these types of outcomes. So a lot of interesting questions are raised.
It definitely turns a page on the show a little bit as it shows very young teens and children in violent crime situations and it is resulting in immediate death. So the stakes are pretty high this season.
MO: Extremely high and it is, unfortunately, very indicative of the times we are in.
The other thing we got a clue in was that Suger has a past history with Terry English (Taye Diggs). Can you elaborate on that and what that mystery might be?
MO: Without giving away too much, I would say the history between Suger and Terry is one of almost respect and a level of disdain at the same time because they have had to operate on different sides, not necessarily of the law, per se, but they have differing moral compasses in the way they see achieving goals and while they may have the same goals, but they have gone about it in completely different ways. So there is definitely a divide between them and there is a tension there. There is a respect, but there is a tension.
What was it like going toe-to-toe with Taye Diggs in your first scene on the show?
MO: Taye Diggs has been around for a long time, so it was cool to have an opportunity to work with somebody like him. I was a kid when he hit the stage, so I was excited about getting to work with someone who had been doing it for so long.
Will we be seeing Suger interact with Hildy (Kathleen Robertson) coming up?
MO: (Laughs) You’ve got to stay tuned! You’ll have to see what happens with Suger and Hildy. Kathleen Robertson is a phenomenal actress. I am really a fan of hers from the show BOSS that she was doing with Kelsey Grammer. She was just riveting and electric on that show, and the opportunity to come and play with her, I was really excited about that because I am a genuine fan of hers. She was the consummate professional, super prepared. She takes the craft very seriously. So getting to work with her has been a true pleasure.
What can you share about Suger? What do you most admire about him?
MO: He always as a plan. He is generally the smartest guy in the room and me as a person and individual, I can be very visceral and instinctual, and sometimes impulsive or emotional, and Suger on the other hand is a lot more calculating than I am as a person. So to play somebody who really relies on his ability to stay three steps ahead of everybody else, I really enjoyed it. It is a very admirable quality that he had.
Do you think Suger fell into this line of work, or did he deliberately and strategically choose to do it?
MO: It was a strategic choice.
As smart as Suger is, why would he choose this path? Do you have any ideas?
MO: I think environment. I think Suger grew up in an environment where there were prevalent with options were very limited. So amongst those, he saw this as an opportunity to achieve everything he wanted to for himself and also to have a positive impact on the community, even though he has taken a few liberties that could be perceived as negative. He definitely goes against the law, but I think Suger’s mentality is he examines the law on a local level and nationally and in the legislature, and things of that nature. It’s really like: how legitimate are the laws that have been imposed upon us? Should you abide by something that you believe in your heart is systemically wrong and systematically incorrect?
Do you see Suger as more a hero in this story or is he villain in it?
MO: I see him as a hero. I don’t know how other people are going to see him, but he definitely has qualities that make him come across as villainous because as much as he is benevolent in some ways, he is also ruthless in others. But I like to think of him as “ruthless with a cause.” It will be very interesting to see how the fans respond and what side of the equation he ultimately falls on: is a hero or is he a bad guy, or a little bit of both? I see him as a real human being. He is a little bit of both. But it will be interesting to see which side is more prominent. I think he is a hero.
What should fans watch for as we see Suger’s involvement in what is going on as the season unfolds?
MO: I really think you should watch for the seemingly unlikely relationships that he begins to develop.
Is that part of his bigger game plan to strategically make alliances?
MO: (Laughs) That’s something you’ll have to watch and see. These relationships develop and you have to wonder if there is a genuine connection happening or is it part of some bigger scheme, also where does his trust and loyalty really lie in this world. Steven Bochco, Eric Lodal and the rest of the creative team, including Jonathan Abrahams, they have created a universe in which there is so much ambiguity and I think the fans and viewers are really going to enjoy the opportunity of getting to make their own decisions about what is happening opposed to it being spoon-fed as to “this is what this means” and “this is who this person is” and “this is good” and “this is bad.” I think what they have created — the producers, writers, directors and everyone who comes on board — is really an environment where it’s “this is what is happening and you decide if it is good or bad.” And that’s exciting. You don’t see that often. It’s not like they are force-feeding an opinion. It’s creating a tapestry and people see what colors they see.
What are you most proud of working on MURDER IN THE FIRST?
MO: The thing that is interesting about that question is that in life lately I’ve been coming to the realization that society and different cultures is they make it not okay to be proud of yourself. Like normally, I am incredibly humble person but I’ve also gotten to a point in life where we should be proud of our work. You should be proud of your work. Not being egotistical about it, of course, but to be proud about things is something I want to encourage. So I’m happy you asked me that question because another time you could have asked me that and I would have deflected it, like talking about how I was proud of what everybody else is doing and not been about to single out what I’ve done. But episode 9, the director was Reggie Hudlin, who is an incredible film actor/producer who came and directed a couple of episodes, and in episode 9 my character has to do some really heavy, emotional stuff. Like it’s a collision of emotion. It’s crazy. It’s probably one of the most difficult things I have done in my career, one of the most challenging. I was so worried about it in terms of: how can I try to convey it meaningfully as so many things are happening at once? I felt like I’m not sure I totally accomplished what I set out to accomplish, but I’m proud of the effort and the energy on the set. It was a night shoot and I am proud of the energy that night in that scene in episode 9. As a little tease so people can know exactly what I’m referring to when it gets to that episode, it’s a scene that takes place in an alley. I refer to it as the alley scene in the episode Reggie Hudlin directed.
How was the experience working on MURDER IN THE FIRST versus working on BATTLE CREEK? Both are dramatic cop dramas, but with different tones.
MO: Very different. They are very different worlds. BATTLE CREEK was a character that was in a high stakes situation and very reactionary. BATTLE CREEK was a very reactionary character opposed to Suger who is a catalyst. He is the orchestrator of his circumstance. So both were fun in different ways. The productions had very different feels. Like BATTLE CREEK was very network, primetime television, which is fine in its parameters, but what we are doing with Suger in MURDER IN THE FIRST feels more like premium cable. The things they are allowing me to do and say, I have a lot more freedom in MURDER IN THE FIRST.
Do you find yourself attracted more to cable-type roles or do you like network roles as well?
MO: I’m attracted to well-developed characters. It could be a short film, network TV, a feature role. I’m just attracted to characters. I was reading for a network show where it sounded incredibly dynamic. So I’m pretty open to everything. I’m attracted to characters wherever they come from, if I feel like they have dimensions and they could be a real person.
What is on your plate now? What are you dreaming of for your next role?
MO: In my dream scenario it would be a heavy character piece that offers a love story and has a high level of heroism. I want to be heroic. I want to do a heroic driven love story.
Have you heard of the Netflix show DAREDEVIL? I could see you doing a dark, heavy heroic role combined with romance in DAREDEVIL.
MO: (Laughs) There you go! I like what’s happening here. I like it. I’ve got to get my agent on this call.
I could just see it. You were talking about what you’re interested in and it sounds like it would fit really well in that world.
MO: I agree. I like that show, actually. It’s funny ’cause in the comic books, there are things that I think would accomplish what I’m looking for. A lot of conversations keep coming up with me and comics and those kinds of things. Hopefully, ultimately that comes to fruition.
Also, thinking outside the box, if you could sit down with your character Suger what would you tell him as some every day advice?
MO: That’s a great question! I would tell Suger — he’s so smart — it’s funny, but I would tell him: “Enjoy some of the fruits of your labors. Enjoy some moments. Find time to appreciate what you have created.” Suger is a pretty focused guy. Not a lot of levity with him. He’s charismatic and he’s charming at times, but it is all for a purpose and a motive. So I would tell Suger: “Try to carve out moments to take inventory and enjoy.”
Would you say that is something you learned from playing that character, or what would you say you learned from him?
MO: From Suger, I learned: strategy is paramount. That’s something that is always applicable, in every situation you can think of. Strategy is paramount. What I picked up from him is if you could mold Suger and Mo together, you’d have an awesome person. That way I could enjoy everything and be strategic at the same time. (Laughs)
To see more of Mo McRae’s strong performance as Suger and just what part Suger has to play as the drama unfolds this season, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of MURDER IN THE FIRST on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. on TNT.