Right from the start, FOX's "Gang Related" takes you on a fast-paced, action-filled ride as it explores the war between law enforcement and gangs in the city of Los Angeles. Gang rivalries aside, what’s interesting about this particular cop drama is that it also shows the human battle of moral complexities, appropriately fitting with the show's tag line: “Every villain has a noble cause, and every hero has a dark side.”
As Assistant District Attorney Jessica Chapel on the new series premiering May 22, Shantel VanSanten plays the one enforcing the law, which she says is a task that leaves her character no room for ambiguity.
“There is no gray area for her. It's very black and white in her mind. It's very what's right and what's wrong. She has to stand up and have integrity for people,” VanSanten said at the advanced screening for "Gang Related" at Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles. “At the end of the day you're prosecuting people and you're putting them in jail. It’s people's lives on the line. It has to be black and white.”
Dealing with notorious gang members and life-altering issues is definitely a major transition from the stories VanSanten told with the character she is perhaps most known for: Quinn James from the CW's former drama “One Tree Hill”.
“She is extremely different,” said VanSanten on Jessica. “There are a lot of adult situations, and I feel like I kind of got to grow up. I get to play a really strong woman. She's very powerful.”
VanSanten added that playing an attorney presented her with the challenges she always yearned for as an actress. “I prayed for my next role to be something I could sink my teeth into and something that scared me; that I didn't know about and that I would have to research and study. I loved that she was so opposite of me in that I knew nothing about her life. I knew nothing of that world. To create a character that is so separate from you; Quinn was very similar to who I am. There are parts of her that were really in me. And there's really not a whole lot of Jessica that I knew how to play.”
To get to know more of Jessica's world, VanSanten did a lot of research to understand the culture of professionals in the legal field. “I spent a lot of time with the Mission Hills Police Department. I studied a lot of guns, I studied a lot of cops, and I went to a lot of courtrooms. I pretended like I was going to take the LSAT and studied the dummies version book. I talked to a few different assistant district attorneys: one in San Francisco, one in San Diego, one in L.A., and one in Texas. And I spoke to a lot of men. I wanted to study them, too because I wanted it to be gender neutral.”
As an attorney, Jessica has to often work with the Gang Task Force headed by her father Sam Chapel (Terry O'Quinn), whose tension with his daughter is apparent from the first episode.
“Her relationship with her dad starts off in a very negative place. It’s very strained and they're not close," VanSanten said. "We get to kind of discover that throughout the season.”
Jessica's relationship with her dad is one of the many complex relationships portrayed in “Gang Related”. The show centers on Det. Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez): a rising star member of the Gang Task Force who is also secretly aligned with one of the city's most powerful gangs, the Los Angelicos. This due to an obligation he feels to the gang’s leader, Javier (Cliff Curtis), who took him in as a child orphan and raised him as his own. Javier then masterminded Ryan's entry into the police force as a way to protect his gang and family.
“It's controversial on a lot of levels. That's what's good about it; it makes you question new things. The minute you get controversy you ask yourself: in your own morality and your own choices, what would you do?” explains VanSanten on how “Gang Related” shows the characters attempting to balance allegiances while trying to take down dangerous gangs. “It's about where your loyalties lie: your family, who would you stand up for and what would you do. Everybody kind of gets tested in that way.”
Gang Related airs Thursdays at 9pm EST on FOX.