Gina Torres was more than ready to leave her acclaimed role as Jessica Pearson after seven seasons of playing the fierce attorney on the USA Network drama “Suits.”
After the tumult of the 2016 presidential election, the actress saw an opportunity to revive the character that had earned her three Imagen Foundation Awards for Best Supporting Actress, as well as an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) award nomination for Favorite TV Actress-Supporting Role.
“I became fascinated with what was unfolding in front of me. There were so many interesting questions about loyalty and the power grab of it all,” Torres told NBC News.
“Pearson,” a “Suits” spinoff which premiered July 17, is a continuation of the former attorney’s narrative.
The show is also making history. Torres is the first Afro-Latina to create, produce and star in her own show.
Intelligent, formidable and steadfast in her values, Pearson seemed like the perfect vehicle to probe those questions. In “Suits,” Pearson had been originally hired at the Gordon Schmidt Van Dyke practice to fulfill a diversity quota, but she quickly rose through the ranks, determined to show naysayers her value. She eventually becomes managing partner of the firm.
Pearson’s story arc on the show ended after she was disbarred for defending a colleague, who had never passed the bar but had pretended to be a lawyer. After that, she decides to break away from her life in New York City.
The show, which stars and is executive produced by Torres, plucks the powerful character from the legal hierarchy of New York City and throws her into the intense world of Chicago politics.
“Chicago is so thick and rich with history; it’s a microcosm of what’s going on in the country — gun and gang violence, immigration, disparities between the rich and the poor, racial division, historic political corruption,” Torres said. “There’s no want for storylines.”
Just as the series brings new trials for Pearson, it brings fresh challenges for the Bronx-raised Cuban American actress. The Hollywood veteran won an ALMA award in 2001 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Syndicated Drama Series for her role in “Cleopatra” and is known for her work in “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Firefly,” among others.
“As women of color, it’s important to be impeccable in our words and in our work since we’re held to a higher standard,” Torres said. “But we must also be unapologetic about our excellence and not apologize for being awesome.”
Torres said Pearson lives this mantra, and that she herself tried to embody this sentiment on set.
“Being an executive was shockingly easy,” Torres said. “God knows I have an opinion and I’m not afraid to share it. And the cast and crew was collaborative and understanding, recognizing that my voice is essential.”
Torres has driven diversity on the show by pitching the character and arc of Yoli Castillo, Pearson’s assistant, as well as by incorporating Spanish-language dialogue into the show.
“The best and truthful way to tell diverse is to have diverse writers — it takes everybody doing what they do and being who they are,” Torres said.
Torres is aware of her rarified role as a Latina actress and executive in an industry that it still trying to make strides when it comes to representation.
“I never pretended to be anything other than who I am … if people want to project their ideas of what I should be unto me, that’s not my problem,” Torres added. “If I have served as an instrument for education that Latinas can look any myriad of ways, I’m happy. There’s Cameron Diaz, there’s me and everything in between.”