Jury Duty director explains the time the show went 'too far' with non-actor Ronald Gladden
On Jury Duty, everyone is an actor — except for one unsuspecting subject
The new Amazon Freevee series Jury Duty is like nothing on TV right now.
Developed by the producers of The Office, Jury Duty is a docu-style comedy that follows a regular guy named Ronald Gladden who's called in for jury duty. He's told a documentary crew will be covering the case and it will be aired on television. What he doesn't know is that everyone is an actor and the trial is fake.
Director Jake Szymanski joined Commotion guest host Talia Schlanger to talk about the ethics of the series, and how he made sure Gladden didn't walk away feeling like he was on The Truman Show.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For an extended cut of today's discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
Jake: I think it took [Ronald] a while to process [the big reveal], as it would any normal person who gets revealed to that the last three weeks of your life were, you know, a little more scripted than you thought. But his only immediate concern was, "Oh, man, I thought we became friends, you know, with the cast." And all the cast was like, "We love you!" They had a lot of conversations with him and, you know, we shot this over a year ago now, and they are all still friends and hang out. It's really sweet to see.
Talia: I read that he's still friends with James Marsden and was happy to find out that James is less narcissistic in real life.
Jake: Yes, that was the joy and the pain for James. He loved playing a cocky, narcissistic version of himself, but then was like, "Oh man, this guy really thinks that's who I am." And wanted to say, "Hey, man, that's not me," at the end of this.
Talia: James also said that he had a lot of moral questions for himself about being a part of this and whether it would work. He said, "Is this even something that is ethically right to do, to play with someone's human experience over the course of three weeks of their life?" What do you think?
Jake: Well, yeah, I mean, that's a question we all had, right? Like, is the whole premise or idea of the production right or wrong? I think what we decided is, "OK, if we're going to do this, how can we do it in the best way possible? How can we day-to-day, moment-to-moment be acting in the most morally right way in this circumstance?" So that's what we tried to hold ourselves to. And we would talk about it every day. "Hey, here's what we have coming up for tomorrow. Do we think this is too much? Do we think this is OK?" And we would change our plans and tweak.
Talia: Can you give me an example of one of those moments?
Jake: Well, I'll give you an example of a moment where I think we realized we went too far, which was in Episode 6 for Ross's birthday party when James comes and flips the cake. Ross is one of the jurors. The group finds out it was his birthday, but he didn't tell anyone and they decide to throw him a surprise birthday party. So Ronald is there setting up a birthday party with half of the jurors. James Marsden shows up, was unaware it was a birthday party for [Ross] and thinks it's a party for him — that they're trying to make him feel better for losing a big role that he wanted in a movie. And this kind of makes sense as a sitcom, right? As, like, a classic TV story where he shows up with the wrong idea and ruins this party saying, "I don't need your pity! You don't need to do this for me."
But in reality, Ronald had put in all this work for Ross's birthday to see it ruined by James — someone who he thought he was becoming friends with — [and that] really upset him, and really made him feel like, "Wow, James is a jerk. I don't know him as well as I thought. I'm so sad that we put all this work into this party." And that was the one time where we went, "Oh, we don't feel good about this. We don't feel good about what we're putting Ronald through right now." And actually, we reveal it later — it's not in the episode, but James comes back with another cake. He comes back, he apologizes to Ronald, he says, "I went too far. That was wrong of me." We, like, immediately changed plans and tried to fix that because it was one of those things that was funny on paper and made sense for the character arcs of a show. But when you're dealing with a real human person with real emotions and real connections to those people, that's where it gets tricky.
Talia: But it all hangs on that person, right? They have to come out looking like a good person to do what you, I think, set out to do.
Jake: Yeah! They have to be a decent person and they have to be a person who can handle that experience too. You know, that's something else we were screening for, what you're talking about. So yeah, a big part of that is the months we put into the search for Ronald before we started filming.
Talia: Well, it's been really interesting to talk to you and congrats on the show!
Jake: Thank you so much.
WATCH | Official trailer for Jury Duty:
You can listen to an extended cut of the discussion from today's show on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Interview with Jake Szymanski produced by Danielle Grogan.