Clare-Hope Ashitey is the star of Netflix’s “Seven Seconds,” which begins streaming Friday. She’s also someone lucky enough to have the label “breakout” affixed to her for a decade. Why so long to break out from breakout? There’s a little story there, but let her explain. At 31, she has starred in an Oscar-nominated film, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” in 2006; a pair of popular British prime-time series; and Fox’s “Shots Fired,” the network’s ambitious attempt to explore police shootings and the racial divide.
In “Seven,” Ashitey plays a law enforcement official who tilts against entrenched forces and biases. As K.J. Harper, she’s an assistant prosecutor who investigates a hit-and-run in a Jersey City park when the police decline to. For viewers, the truth emerges in the opening seconds of this 10-parter: A black teen was struck on his bike by a distracted cop, whose colleagues quickly orchestrate a cover-up.
I spoke with Ashitey last week:
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in north London, and both my parents are from Ghana, and they came here about 1978. I went to a performing arts school, [later] performed onstage and did a lot of stage stuff at drama school, but also a lot of dancing. The woman who ran the school started her own [talent] agency, and I got lucky — a couple of films in a row. I was still in school when I finished the third . . . [but] knew I didn’t want to study acting.
“Children of Men” — a dystopian sci-fi film about a world where women could not conceive — got you a lot of positive attention, and then you left the business for a while. Why?
Some people did wonder — why would you do that? — but I was 18 when it came out and 17 when I shot it. It was very hard being on set at that age, at work with all these people who were adults, and I had to pretend that I knew what on earth was going on. It was very tough and I knew I also wanted to go back to my studies. I always liked studying and was not done.
So what were your career goals at that point?
I wanted to be a lawyer but went to the School of Oriental and African Studies [in London]. After I left university [in 2009] I did a bunch of other jobs — waitress, a play, a film — and didn’t really commit to either side — law or acting — until four years ago. Now I’m here and I’m not entirely sure what happened.
“Shots Fired” introduced you to American viewers. How did that go?
It was interesting [and] tough. It was my first foray into American TV . . . [which] is such a machine, a big, wonderful machine, and you get very lost if you don’t know how it works, and I was trying to figure it out from the first day. But it was a great experience and I did a lot of growing up on that show. It was also an interesting story and important story.
Like so many Brits, you’ve mastered the accent — on that show and now “Seven.” What’s the secret?
(Laughs.) I had a coach . . . [but] there’s so much American TV in the U.K. that we grow up watching it and listening to American music. It’s easy for us to do the accent.
You’ve launched your career here with roles that address specific and painful issues — police shootings, Black Lives Matter, the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. How have you come to understand these?
People in England know about this, but I was still not prepared for how deep the divisions were. . . . There’s something very broken here and it’s fairly upsetting to see when you go into it as an outsider. This is an incredible country with wonderful people but this racial dynamic is always there, in large or small ways.
Many of these shooting tragedies have involved unarmed black men shot by the police, but the catalyst of “Seven Seconds” is a hit-and-run. Why?
Veena [Sud, the creator and showrunner] would have her own answer but I think people can very easily dismiss something when they’ve already decided “This is how it’s going to happen.” By having different elements or to look at this in a slightly different way is more engaging.
What’s next for you?
I’m moving to the States — New York — and like every actor, I have no idea what’s going to happen after that.