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How Aunjanue Ellis Found Her Groove In ‘Justified: City Primeval’

Justified: City Primeval may not be the show some expected to find Aunjanue Ellis in this summer. But the draw in playing attorney Carolyn Wilder was not the Justified brand’s cult status. Instead, the original source material is what intrigued her most.

“I’m always interested in stories in film and television that have been adapted from books. So this was from Elmore Leonard originally [and] I’m always fascinated by characters who have novel beginnings,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

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Unlike Justified, where Harlan, Kentucky is the center, with Timothy Olyphant’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dishing out his own unique blend of tough justice, Detroit is the setting for this FX offshoot. Traveling with his daughter Willa, played by Olyphant’s actual child Vivian, Raylan gets detoured in Detroit and tasked with catching sociopath Clement Mansell (an impressively charismatic performance by Boyd Holbrook fresh off playing Klaber in this summer’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny).

Mansell, who serves as the Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins) of City Primeval, is the reason Raylan and Carolyn’s paths cross and keep crossing; Carolyn is such a good lawyer she keeps Mansell free despite his many heinous deeds. “Raylan has never really dealt with a woman like Carolyn,” Ellis said of her character’s chemistry with Olyphant’s. “Carolyn is from Detroit, and I think she just introduces something new to his world.”

Timothy Olyphant and Aunjanue Ellis in Justified City Primeval
Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens with and Aunjanue Ellis as Carolyn Wilder in Justified: City Primeval.

Capturing Raylan off-guard is very much the point of the revival series, City Primeval co-showrunners/executive producers/writers Dave Andron and Michael Dinner, the latter who also directs the Aug. 29 finale, explained earlier in the year at the 2023 Winter TCA in Pasadena.

“We were excited to embrace it as a character in this piece … Putting Raylan as a stranger in a strange land,” shared Andron. “It’s also the land of Elmore, right? City Primeval is his first crime novel, and he really embraced Detroit. It’s a big part of the piece, and we wanted it to feel that way in this.”

And that was music to Ellis’ ears. “I’m not trying to be invisible voluntarily,” shared the actress, who earned Emmy nominations for her powerhouse roles in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and the Misha Green-created Lovecraft Country, along with an Oscar nomination for playing Williams’ family matriarch Oracene Price in King Richard last year. “Sometimes, you gotta fight those battles. But thankfully I was working with a team of folks who didn’t want that.”

Walter Mosley, with whom Andron worked on Snowfall, the show he co-created with John Singleton and Eric Amadio for FX that wrapped its sixth and final season back in April, joined the team as a consulting producer. Justified creator Graham Yost, who initially adapted Elmore’s work for the beloved series, welcomed Mosley. “Walter is one of the biggest Justified fans I’ve ever met.  I joke that I think he’s seen the episodes more than I have,” he shared back in January. “But also, he’s one of America’s great crime writers and loves Elmore.”

City Primeval is actually set 10 years after Raylan’s final Justified scene in 2015. Because of that timing, Raylan and Carolyn have more in common than looks suggest. “It’s her job to represent bad guys but I think what makes her interesting in this world of Justified is [Raylan] sort of operates outside the lines and I think Carolyn operates outside of the lines, and really sometimes operates outside of the lines of the law and recognizes that just because something is legal does not necessarily mean that it’s just.”

On top of that “Carolyn is kind of symbolic of the city itself,” Ellis shared. “It has been through a lot and yet still thrives. And I think it’s interesting to see two people who would never cross lines, never collide in any other environment, to see them collide in this way and see how they change each other. Of course, there’s romance there in the story a bit, but I just think it’s interesting to see how these people who are so different change each other.”

Aunjanue Ellis and Vondie Curtis-Hall in Justified City Primeval.
Ellis with Vondie Curtis-Hall as Sweety in City Primeval.

While Olyphant and Holbrook helped make City Primeval an actor’s playground, Ellis smiled in her delight of working alongside Vondie Curtis-Hall who plays Sweety, a bar owner and hustler caught in Mansell’s inner circle. “I just think Vondie Curtis Hall is one of the best actors to ever act, period. So working with him and doing scenes with him was a clinic,” raved Ellis, who also co-stars with him in director Tina Mabry’s upcoming feature The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat.

As viewers discovered, Carolyn’s investment in Mansell has absolutely nothing to do with him and everything to do with Sweety, his main accomplice who has championed her since childhood. “He’s a father figure, but not her father,” she explained. “She is in a position where she wants to save him but saving him also means moral compromise.”

Though actually filmed in Chicago, City Primeval was a rare opportunity for Detroit native Curtis-Hall to represent his hometown. “[I]t was great to be able to see through my character or in my character people that I had grown up with from Detroit — you know, the musicians and con artists, hustlers and the middle‑class Black folks — and bring that all to fruition in this through Sweety’s character was just, really, a great journey. And then to have Aunjanue to bounce off of in terms of our familiar relationship was just magic,” he shared back in January.

Olyphant also raved about Ellis’ performance. “They should just back up the truck with all the trophies and give them to Aunjanue,” he has said.

Still fan satisfaction was not completely lost on Ellis. “I understand the loyalty,” she said, while also hoping that Justified’s fans had “an appetite, a hunger, to go on another journey with Raylan.” (Dinner previously told THR he hopes to do another chapter.)

Not in doubt, however, was how pleased she was to go the distance herself. “I just found it to be a joy. It was a great working experience all the way around.”

The finale of Justified: City Primeval airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. on FX. 

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