Ashley Thomas was afraid of “Them” from the jump. “Not so much the horror elements — the weight of the piece,” says the actor, who stars in the new horror series created by Little Marvin (and executive produced by Lena Waithe) for Amazon Prime. The show premiered at South by Southwest last month, where it won the audience award. “I wanted to make sure that I could do the work so that I could do the piece justice,” adds Thomas.
The British actor stars in the series as Henry Emory, a husband and father of two young girls who moves his family from North Carolina to a hostile all-white neighborhood in Compton, Calif. The show is set in 1953 during the Great Migration, when Black Americans moved from the rural South to other areas of the country over several decades. The white residents of Compton react to the family’s arrival with a campaign of violent intimidation.
“I was watching an interview with Mahershala Ali — he was saying that when he’s scared of material, that’s the piece that he will go to. And so I took that approach,” says Thomas of his decision to take on the challenge of the lead role in “Them.”
Thomas dove into research on housing history in America, including the effect of covenants on L.A. neighborhoods. He read Josh Sides’ “L.A. City Limits,” which traces the lived African American experience in Los Angeles from the Great Depression through the current day. A friend also took him all over L.A. to show him the different areas of the city. “So that I could get a feel for what was going on,” says Thomas. “Because these neighborhoods aren’t shaped this way randomly. They’re shaped this way because of housing covenants and blockbusting and redlining.”
Thomas met up with his co-star and onscreen wife Deborah Ayorinde before filming; a lunch meeting turned into a five-hour conversation about their past and future goals. The pair channeled their shared experiences into a familial energy on set, and spent weekends hanging out and bonding with their onscreen daughters, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd.
The series has drawn comparison to Jordan Peele’s brand of social commentary through horror. But while “Them” shares common visual language with Peele’s “Us” (and notably, a pronoun-title) the historical series veers from Peele’s work. (And besides — the horror genre boils down to its anticipated tropes. Yes, there’s a creepy basement in “Them.”)
“[“Them”] is a unique story unto itself,” says Thomas, who’s back in the U.K. and on set in Liverpool filming a limited ITV series “The Ipcress File” (a remake of the 1965 classic film starring Michael Caine). “I think it’s important that there’s space for multiple stories to be told.”
The actor hopes that viewers will walk away from the show with an appreciation for his character’s commitment to making a better life for his family.
“Henry is a kind man, a family man. He is present with his family emotionally and physically, loves his wife, and loves his daughters unconditionally. And this is a story which is not depicted enough on television from the perspective of the Black experience,” says Thomas. “I hope this show encourages people to have more understanding and compassion for one another on a whole.” He also hopes it will encourage people to lead with their moral compass. “Because even though sometimes laws are there to protect us, laws do change, as we’ve seen in the past. I mean, segregation was legal,” he adds.
“I was watching a documentary on John Lewis the other day,” Thomas continues. “And his quote was, when you see something is different, when you see something that is not right and not fair, not just — say something, do something, get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” says Thomas. “For me, that says it all.”
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