Aliyah Royale imagined her TV series debut might be a comedy. Instead, she plunged into an emotionally demanding role in a police-shooting drama that brought the 19-year-old into the daunting orbit of a veteran star and heavyweight producers.
Whatever the challenges, Royale said she felt compelled to be part of “The Red Line,” which details the devastating effect an unarmed African-American doctor’s killing has on his husband, played by Noah Wyle of “ER” and “The Librarians” fame, their adopted daughter Jira (Royale) and the white officer (Noel Fisher) responsible.
The eight-episode limited series debuting at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday also stars Emayatzy Corinealdi and is from executive producers Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” ‘’Queen Sugar”) and Greg Berlanti (“Everwood,” ‘’Political Animals”). Also notable: it’s on CBS, and is among the steps it’s taking toward inclusiveness after prolonged criticism for its predominantly white prime-time lineup.
To Royale, the story “felt like it was something that hadn’t been done before and really should be.” While Wyle’s Daniel struggles with depression and Fisher’s Paul with guilt, teenager Jira is unmoored, her sheltered life in a loving Chicago home uprooted.
“You have a parent taken away from you who was a part of your daily life, someone whose face you’re used to seeing every morning and every night. It makes it even worse when it was for reasons that could have absolutely been prevented,” Royale said. “And that reason opens up a new world of racial problems that Jira genuinely didn’t know existed.”
Royale’s credits mostly include short films and, testament to her fashion sense, a 2014 stint on “Project Runway: Threads,” the teen version. She earned the role of Jira after an intense search, said Caitlin Parrish, who with Erica Weiss wrote the play that became the basis of “The Red Line.” Both are showrunners for the series.
“We weren’t just looking for someone good, we were looking for someone special. And when Aliyah walked in, we knew she was unlike anyone we’d seen,” Parrish said. “She was one of the less experienced young women we read, but she had an immediate connection to the material and a depth of feeling that staggered us. And after her very emotional audition, she showed us her true personality by saying, ‘By the way, I’m fine! I promise!’”
The actress with the charmingly heart-shaped face is eager to discuss the project and her road to what could be a breakout role, her attitude lacking the guarded edge that years of celebrity can confer. A self-described “military brat,” she says her experiences shaped her early and inspired her to move to Los Angeles as a youngster, her mother in tow, to pursue a screen career.
Royale grew up in her own sort of “bubble,” she said, living on U.S. military bases as the Maryland-born daughter of a soldier whose assignments sent the family ping-ponging from California to Kentucky to Michigan. While her father was one of the few black men of his rank, Royale said she felt insulated and safe in the military environment — but recalls candid discussions inside the house about race.
“For me, being young and black in America, I feel like there’s sort of a duty to be educated on being a person of color and how things may be different for you in life,” she said.
Despite the disruption of relocating cities and schools, Royale says she was an honors student and, in high school, took concurrent classes at a community college. And it turned out being the new kid in class had its own payoff.
“I was in a completely different environment, and it really shaped how I feel connected to so many different types of people and how it changes the way you view friendships,” she said. “I think it’s what helps me be able to connect and be vulnerable to people” as an actress.
She also delighted in role playing, another boon to her future career.
“Every time I moved I felt like it was my chance to revamp my image, which is such a weird thing to think in third grade. It was like, ‘OK, now I’m going to become a whole different person.’ And I really did,” she said. Royale jumped from being an “art kid” who loved painting to one who focused on writing — she revised “Romeo and Juliet” because she didn’t like the ending — to a potential future scientist.
A love of learning was the connecting thread, with her ultimate goal to attend England’s University of Oxford. The acting bug bit when she realized the craft allowed her to be her most vulnerable and “connect most with people.”
“So my priority is my work now,” said Royale, along with her “amazing” and supportive mother, Tanya. And there’s a shout-out as well for her toy poodle, Ares-Sebastian, whom Royale likened online to a banana nut muffin. He was a regular on “The Red Line” set, sitting by quietly when the director called out “action.”
“He knows when mommy’s got to go to work,” Royale said.