Like many literary adaptations, Will Trent — the new ABC crime drama about a dyslexic and orphaned special agent, played by Ramón Rodríguez, with the highest clearance rate at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation — has deviated in many ways from its source material. But author and executive producer Karin Slaughter wants longtime fans to make a distinction between the show and her bestselling novels on which the show is based.
"The book is the book, and the show is the show," Slaughter told reporters at Wednesday's Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena. "Keep in mind, in the books, you don't know Michael Ormewood is a bad guy. You spend half the book before the switch happens, and you realize, 'Wait a minute. I've been rooting for someone who's awful.' … This show gives all the things that I wanted to do always in the books, which is just deliver a fantastic story that's well-told, and they've done that."
Rodríguez, in just his second leading role on TV, was first approached about playing the titular protagonist after learning that his latest pilot was not moving forward at Hulu. Despite never having read the Will Trent novels until he received the offer for the lead role, the actor was immediately struck by Will's doggedness and resilience, as well as his heart and "unique perspective that actually helps him with cases and crime." For the role, he worked to educate himself about dyslexia and the foster care system and tried to shed his own New York accent to adopt a more Southern/Georgian twang.
In the pilot, "he's not interested in a chihuahua and having that in his life," Rodríguez said, with the same scene-stealing pooch lying down in his lap. "And one of the brilliant things in the pilot, which I felt was a great way to introduce the character is [to] have this scene with the chihuahua, where we see him adopt Betty.
"Anybody who's in the business knows, 'You don't do scenes with dogs or babies. It's a risk. It's a gamble. You don't know what you're gonna get.' She's a bona fide pro," he continued. "Look at her! She's very relaxed. She's looking at her trainer for the treat, and she's got the best job out of all of us. She comes in, knocks out her scenes, goes home in like an hour. It's amazing."
And while Rodríguez is actively working to tell more stories about the Latino experience as an actor and producer, he admits that it was refreshing to play a character whose racial identity is not at the forefront of his characterization. "I'm Puerto Rican, but it's not about ethnicity," he said. "I love that he's just who he is and as Karin established him, so you're not gonna see me coming in and showing off my Puerto Rican flavor. We're honoring this character — and I'm honoring this character — as he is. And that, to me, is a great delight."
"But at the same time, I do think in casting Ramon, it is a chance to make that character all the more specific," Heldens said, acknowledging that the description of Will in the books (tall, lanky and blonde) doesn't match Rodríguez's own characteristics. "I think we absolutely can make [a] story out of him looking into his background and questioning who he is and where he came from. So, for us, it's a story opportunity down the line."
Avid readers of Slaughter's novels will also know that Ormewood, played by Jake McLaughlin in the new adaptation, has a personal and professional history with Angie Polaski, played by Erika Christensen. The two are paired up in the series premiere as part of an "experiment" and a change of scenery for Angie after her latest undercover sting, leading them to confront the consequences of their one-night stand. But apart from cultivating a "tough guy" image and refusing to use a suspect's preferred pronouns in the second episode, there aren't any indications of Ormewood's future transgressions or violent tendencies.
"Every moment that Michael Ormewood is in that pilot, we made a deliberate choice to have him do some things that I thought were transgressive," executive producer Dan Thomsen said. "I thought he mistreated that college student [by not using the correct pronouns in the second episode]. He said some things that were inflammatory, and those were very specific choices. And the decision is to evolve that character in the direction that is not exactly like he is in the books, but he's not going to be on a journey that is completely detached from the book."
"In the pilot, one of the things that we wanted to end with is this notion that as Will and Faith [Iantha Richardson] are being partnered, that now Angie and Ormewood are being partnered, and that was a structural decision just to help us in our storytelling," Thomsen later added. "We like the pairings, and we actually have some episodes coming up where the pairings intersect."
Will Trent airs Mondays at 10/9c on ABC.