The film, based on the memoir of the same name, depicts the early career days of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his efforts to free an innocent black man named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who was wrongly convicted of killing a young white woman. Just Mercy shows how Larson’s character, Ansley, started working with Stevenson (and continues to work alongside him) to reform the justice system. In an excerpt from Stevenson’s memoir, he writes, “In February 1989, Eva Ansley and I opened our new nonprofit law center in Tuscaloosa, dedicated to providing free, quality legal services to condemned men and women on death row in Alabama. We never thought it would be easy, but it turned out to be even harder than we had expected.”
The two later moved the Montgomery, Alabama where the Equal Justice Initiative was founded. Stevenson praises Ansley, calling her “fearless and smart.” Her responsibilities included administrative duties and handling the reporting and accounting of their federal funding. Fast forward to present day where the EJI has greatly expanded to 80 staff members with Ansley serving as Operations Director and a member of the Board of Directors. The EJI website notes Ansley’s 30-plus year dedication to helping the poor and death row inmates and calls her “instrumental in developing institutional assistance to indigent defendants at the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center and the Equal Justice Initiative since the inception of both organizations.”
In 2012, Ansley shared the secret to her special bond with Stevenson that has kept them together for decades in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine: “I have never known Bryan to get off track, to lose sight of the clients we serve or to have an agenda that is about anything other than standing with people who stand alone,” she said. “After all these years, I keep expecting to see him become fed up or impatient or something with all the requests put to him or the demands placed on him, but he never does. Never.”
Similarly, Larson has a bond with Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton, who also co-wrote the screenplay, on other films like Short Term 12. After Cretton introduced her to the book, according to Variety, he offered Larson the role of Ansley. Before shooting began, Ansley spoke with Larson to help her get into character. “This is not somebody who is a lawyer,” Larson told Variety. “This is a mom who noticed something that was happening in her community, and nothing was going to stop her from rectifying the situation in whatever way she could.”
In an interview with Refinery29, Cretton recalled hearing about one of Ansley’s conversations with Larson. “Eva actually called me right after she got off the phone with Brie and she said I think I met my kindred spirit,” Cretton said, laughing. “Eva came on set once or twice to watch Brie and give some pointers on Southern dialect. They both have a very fiery kind of powerful personality that is also equally as kind and loving. Brie was kind of the perfect person to play her.”
Larson spoke about Ansley, who she's called a “real life hero," at Variety’s Power of Women luncheon. The Academy Award-winning actress said she asked Ansley how she maintains her motivation when there are plenty of obstacles in her way. Larson said Ansley responded, “If all I can do is bring a little hope to someone, that’s enough. No one needs to feel alone. Every interaction is a chance to bring hope.”
Ansley certainly succeeds in doing just that. She has helped Stevenson win release, reversals, or relief for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners serving a death row sentence and relief for hundreds of people wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced, according to the EJI. She more than earns her hero status.