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Actress Wunmi Mosaku discusses 'We Own This City' and police corruption in Baltimore

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

"We Own This City" - that's the title of a new miniseries on HBO. The we is a corrupt police unit. The city - Baltimore. The story - how damaging that corruption is and how difficult it is to root out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE OWN THIS CITY")

WUNMI MOSAKU: (As Nicole Steele) Could there ever be a moment where a police officer performed their job in such a manner that you would agree with a finding that he or she should be fired for abusive behavior or brutality? Could that ever happen in Baltimore?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Certainly.

MOSAKU: (As Nicole Steele) Has it ever happened?

RASCOE: "We Own This City" is based on the book by Justin Fenton, a former crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, who covered this real story of the city's Gun Trace Task Force. This elite unit was once hailed for its success, bringing guns and drugs off the street. But ultimately, eight of its officers were convicted of racketeering, armed robbery, planting evidence on suspects and selling drugs. Wunmi Mosaku plays a Justice Department lawyer in the series, and she joins me now. Welcome.

MOSAKU: Thank you.

RASCOE: Your character, Nicole Steele, is working on crafting this consent decree following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. She definitely went through an evolution as she was peeling back more layers and finding out just how dirty and how bad things were in this police department. Like, did you feel that change over the series about what was going down?

MOSAKU: I mean, I definitely felt that change as I was reading and then, you know, popping on my phone to look at, like, Wikipedia and the internet and - like, this was all very new to me. I had started reading that script thinking it was a drama. I hadn't realized it was real until Freddie Gray's name came up.

RASCOE: One of the takeaways from, you know, looking at the series is, like, how corruption within a police department - it affects the entire department, even those who are trying to do the right thing. And then, of course, that abuse - it lessens the trust, obviously, of the public. You grew up in the U.K., and policing is different. Like, did working on this series affect you at all when it comes to your thoughts on policing?

MOSAKU: It definitely affected me. You know, I'm Black in America. My husband is African American. I guess, like, the complicitness of everyone - it's not just the police; it's the whole system. Here, it just - it feels a little more scary because of the militarization of the police. Police officers in the U.K. generally don't have guns, you know? So the jeopardy is a little different. The fear I have is very acute here.

RASCOE: There's a scene later on in the series where your character, Nicole, is talking about her experience but then also talking about her brother, a Black man in America, and what he had been through. And, like, I mean, it's a conversation that's had over and over again, right?

MOSAKU: Over and over again.

RASCOE: And the question is, how do you not be absolutely consumed by it? And it seemed like that's what Nicole was grappling with. I'm a Black woman. I'm trying to deal with this system. I'm trying to make it better, but it's very hard. But how do I not have it consume every part of me?

MOSAKU: I feel like that is the alchemy of humanity and hope, you know? Like, we go through such terror and still have the audacity to hope and dream and fight because what is life, really, without that hope and drive?

RASCOE: That makes sense. That makes sense. I mean, you're playing a lot of Americans. Do you feel like there's something that you feel like they have a certain air about them, you know, us Americans...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: ...That you think is different than if you were playing someone from the U.K.?

MOSAKU: I do. And I think it's the fearlessness of saying the truth, fighting for the truth and being honest. I feel like, in the U.K., we can be so nice and polite and not actually acknowledge what is really happening, whereas I feel like here, especially within our community, the people are honest. Like, my husband's friends and family - they hold each other accountable.

RASCOE: They're more frank.

MOSAKU: They're frank. And it's all with love. And it scared me. I was raised in a very, like, Nigerian, British household. And, you know, the carpet is lumpy from sweeping everything underneath it, you know what I'm saying? It is lumpy.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

MOSAKU: And I guess that is an attraction towards being here because I can be honest.

RASCOE: You've done some pretty heavy roles. You have this role. You are, like, in a whole lot of stuff. You are all over the place. You know that, right? You're all over the place. You were in "Lovecraft Country," which was also very heavy, dealing with racism.

MOSAKU: Yeah.

RASCOE: And, like, did you see this for yourself?

MOSAKU: No, I really didn't. To be honest, I didn't even see TV and film in my future. I mean, growing up in the U.K., I didn't see hardly anyone who looked like me, definitely of Nigerian descent. I felt like maybe I would have a career in theater. I went to drama school thinking I want to be the most-demanded Shakespearean actress on the - of the stage.

RASCOE: Wow. That was the goal?

MOSAKU: That was the goal.

RASCOE: I mean, you say you didn't see yourself. I mean, but even in Hollywood, there are not a lot of actresses who look like you and certainly don't look like me or my shape, my size in Hollywood. How have you navigated that?

MOSAKU: You know, I was dealing with that in the U.K., too. I remember someone said like, I don't know if a 17-year-old would look like her. And I was like, well, here's a picture of me at 17, you know?

RASCOE: You've been 17 before.

MOSAKU: Right. Like, you know...

RASCOE: Yes.

MOSAKU: ...And this lack of understanding of all of our shapes and sizes and shades and, you know, hair textures and - I was told once when I was, like, 22 to lose weight. A costume designer said something about my stupid thighs. I was like, wow.

RASCOE: Oh, my God.

MOSAKU: So all I could do was embrace me fully. And my mom told me if I straightened my hair, my hair would all fall out. So I couldn't even - I couldn't do that (laughter).

RASCOE: So you wouldn't do that?

MOSAKU: I wouldn't do that.

RASCOE: So you didn't get a relaxer because you're like, it's going to fall out?

MOSAKU: Yeah, you know? So, I mean, I was just - she was just like, you have to love all of you regardless of what people say, think, expect. And so, you know, I remember from a very young age, I was like - I would do these little self-affirmations in the mirror from like - in the mirror every morning before school.

RASCOE: What were your affirmations?

MOSAKU: I'd say, I love you. I love you, hair. I love you, teeth. I love you, belly. I love you, stretch marks. I love you, everything. I was just there. I would just go from head to toe - I love you.

RASCOE: Oh, that's amazing. That is amazing. I needed to do that. Oh, my.

MOSAKU: Yeah.

RASCOE: I really needed to do that.

MOSAKU: Yeah. It was interesting growing up because representation really does - it does matter. But self-love, self-acceptance, that's really what matters.

RASCOE: Yes, absolutely. Wunmi Mosaku, starring in the new HBO miniseries "We Own This City," which premieres tomorrow - thank you so much for talking with us today.

MOSAKU: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.