Criminal Justice: Sophie Okonedo plays Jack Woolf

Sophie Okonedo plays passionately committed solicitor, Jack Woolf, who needs her fragile client, Juliet, to start talking to her otherwise how can Jack defend her?

Sophie Okonedo is an actress not afraid to tackle challenging and interesting projects. In 2004 she was nominated for an Oscar as the best supporting actress in the acclaimed Hotel Rwanda, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best leading actress in Tsunami: The Aftermath.

So what attracted her to her latest role of Jack Woolf in Criminal Justice for BBC One?

“Jack thinks outside the box,” is her empathic answer.

“And, I thought Peter’s scripts were extraordinarily well written: subtle and never obvious. He doesn’t spell anything out and doesn’t talk down to the audience. Before you know it he’s taken you right into the emotional drive of the story and opened up the law in action for everyone to see.

“I don’t know what lawyers are like in real life but I wanted to take Jack away from the way I’ve seen them portrayed on television, straight and constrained in a suit. I loved the lively way Peter had written Jack.

“She’s passionate, anarchic and has a real edge to her. She’s street-wise and not part of the establishment, if there’s such a thing.

“She is strong and can take care of herself. You’d want her on your side!

“When Jack first meets Juliet in police custody, she knows there’s more behind why this seriously traumatised woman has shut down and isn’t talking.

“Jack recognises signs of abuse in Juliet but needs to know what’s been happening to her client in order to build a defence and instruct their barrister, Anna, who has doubts about whether provocation can be used as a defence in Juliet’s case.

Sophie explains the seemingly intractable problem Jack has with her client, who is in an increasingly desperate situation.

“Jack’s frustration and real fear is that she won’t be able to draw Juliet out of herself and get to the truth. Without this co-operation Jack can’t fight Juliet’s case. Juliet’s very survival depends on it and prison is a terrifying place to be.

“Jack is totally focused on getting Juliet off, but her client’s in complete despair: worried about her husband, and desperate to see her daughter, Ella.

“The big question is whether Jack can succeed. And, can there ever be a truly happy outcome?”

Did working on such an intense project give Sophie sleepless nights?

“Not for a minute,” says Sophie. “I really looked forward to going to work; it was like having a shot of adrenalin.

“Jack’s not a victim, she’s a fighter trying to get justice for Juliet who desperately needs help. That’s a really positive role to play.

“Maxine and everyone were terrific to work with and I had two days quizzing Peter about the story and he briefed me on how the law works. But I didn’t get too bogged down in detail though!

“I was interested in bringing Jack’s passion to screen, making her watchable and entertaining. I just went for it and tried to push my performance as far as I could,” an intelligent and pragmatic response and one that no doubt Jack would approve of.

BBC viewers can next see Sophie playing Winnie Mandela in Mrs Mandela, a one-off, fact-based film about the controversial former wife of Nelson Mandela.

Filmed in South Africa, Mrs Mandela co-stars David Harewood as Nelson Mandela and David Morrissey as the notorious police interrogator, Theunis Swanepoel.

It will be shown on BBC Four and BBC Two next year.

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