After dismantling a police officer on the stand, Craig Kirkwood likes to catch up with the witness to stress that it was nothing personal—that as a public defender he owes his client the most zealous defense possible. Usually the officers respond tersely, offering a bone-crushing handshake and few words. But one cop’s reaction (after a suppression hearing pursuant to California penal code 1538.5) was different: He broke into a grin and asked for a selfie.
“I know,” the officer said, acknowledging his about-face, “but you’re Rev, dude!”
Dueling in the courtroom might seem a long way from running in the fateful touchdown for T.C. Williams High in 2000’s Remember the Titans as quarterback Jerry (Rev) Harris, but Kirkwood insists his first and second careers have their similarities. “It’s all public speaking, relating to an audience,” he says.
Kirkwood, who had always wanted to grow up to be an actor or an attorney, started applying to law schools as TV and movie auditions dried up in the mid-aughts. He saw the rise of reality television and decided he had to get out of acting before he started “selling pencils on the side of the freeway,” he says. He got his start helping to prosecute case as a clerk in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office but found that he couldn’t sleep after convictions that should have made him celebrate. He’s been an L.A. public defender for eight years now—he was named Trial Attorney of the Year in 2013—and is considering running for judge somewhere down the road.
In the meantime Kirkwood spends jury selection explaining to candidates that they don’t know him, they know the character he played on film. “You would never lie!” a potential juror might say.
“That’s true,” Kirkwood answers, “but would that cause you to be biased?”
Remember the Titans is based on a true story about the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school football team. Kirkwood originally read for Petey, a role that went to Donald Faison, but when he was asked if he would play Rev, a pastor’s kid, he was delighted; his mother and stepfather ran a church at the time. (“I have a very Disney vibe,” Kirkwood says. “I auditioned for The Wire, and they were like, Uhhh. . . .”)
He’d never shown much athletic talent, so he was completely unprepared for the two-week football camp the actors were put through before shooting began. They faced off against semi-pro players who were trying to get the attention of coaches and absolutely destroyed the actors.
“[Ryan] Gosling got hurt, [Ryan] Hurst,” Kirkwood says. “I read a tackle wrong and got my right shoulder dislocated. They basically said, ‘Don’t hit him there anymore’ and sent me back out. I really wanted to impress Mr. [Denzel] Washington.”
These days it’s Kirkwood’s 2-year-old daughter, Samantha, who runs him around. She couldn’t care less that Dad’s famous, but he’s looking forward to the day she asks to see his work. “I will sit her down when she’s old enough to start making fun of me, and let her,” he says. “Not everything I did is as critically acclaimed as Titans.”
He might have been wrong about the direction the film industry was taking, but he doesn’t regret his choice for a minute. “Sometimes it’s like moving a pile of sand with a pair of tweezers,” Kirkwood says of being a public defender, “but people will come up to me and say, ‘You changed my life.’ That’s humbling. I’m making some sort of difference. I can’t save them all, but I can save some of them.”