Jerrika Hinton Explores Catholicism and “Cop-aganda” on Hunters

Jerrika Hinton talks playing an FBI agent who challenges the notion of a “noble cop” on Hunters, Amazon’s new series about a group of Nazi-hunting vigilantes.

Photo by Robb Klassen. Makeup by Mylah Morales for Six K LA.

Hunters, the new Amazon series about a group of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York City, may seem like a pure work of ambitious revenge fiction, but it is steeped in truth.

Part of the series is based on Operation Paperclip, the very real initiative, approved by President Harry S. Truman, that was started by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. In 1945, 1,600 German members and leaders of the Nazi Party were brought to America to work as scientists and engineers for the U.S. government in an attempt to have an advantage over the Soviet Union in the race to send rockets to space. Some members of Operation Paperclip even won the highest award one could receive from NASA. It’s not something taught in an everyday American-history class, but the program is teased out on the series created by David Weil and produced by Jordan Peele.

Hunters begins in the spring of 1977, years after Operation Paperclip began. A disparate team of vigilantes ban together under the leadership of Meyer Offerman, a Holocaust survivor played by Al Pacino, to take out the Nazis who are hiding in plain sight and conspiring to build a Fourth Reich across the country. An FBI agent named Millie Malone begins to piece together the truth, while in direct opposition to some of her superiors.

Jerrika Hinton plays Millie Malone. You may know her from some of her extensive television credits, which include appearances on four seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, the HBO series Here and Now helmed by Alan Ball, and, more recently, Servant, M. Night Shyamalan and Apple TV+’s foray into serialized horror. What drew her to the role of Millie on Hunters was its originality.

“I was reevaluating what I want my involvement in this industry to look like, so I was saying no to a lot of things because nothing was interesting at the time. Then I read this script and immediately sat forward in my chair because it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on TV,” Hinton told W over the phone. “I was intellectually stimulated, and I was very curious about who these people were who were involved in the project, and where it could go. That’s a combination of things that doesn’t happen often,” she said with a laugh.

Though the tone of Hunters is an amalgamation of many different genres and styles—particularly pulp films of the ’70s that inspired filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino—it is grounded in some realism. “There’s historical context for virtually everything in the series,” Hinton explained. “Of course, as we know at the very core, the Holocaust is real. And as I learned in researching the project, Operation Paperclip is a real thing that I had no idea about. When I started researching, and found out about that, I was truly horrified. There are so many things that can be said about our government systems.”

The bulk of Hinton’s research related more particularly to her character, a queer, black FBI agent in the ’70s who is also a devout Catholic. When asked what she discovered when she researched the number of black women who served as FBI agents in the ’70s, the actress admitted that she found there were “Very few! Very fucking few.”

“I didn’t know anything about the Catholic church. I didn’t know anything about the FBI and what the requirements were at the time, or when they started admitting black people or how many female agents there were,” Hinton said. “I did a hefty amount of research into J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, because this is coming at the tail end of his reign and he was the guy hunting down and persecuting gay people. I was trying to wrap my mind around her circumstances and what choices, even in her youth, might have shaped her as a person.”

Millie often serves as the eyes and ears for the viewer, and emerges as one of the central heroes of the narrative. But her journey does not come without its roadblocks and questions. “She’s a bit unmoored as a character because so much of what she believes she’s now calling into question,” Hinton explained. “One of the fundamental things that I kind of glommed on to when I first started putting her together is that okay, this is a woman who is a faithful Catholic and a faithful government servant, so she places her faith in these huge, overarching institutions. That says a lot about who she is,” she went on. “When you start from that place, you have an instinct that all of that shit is about to get turned upside down for her. It’s tough to go through in her skin as a character because it’s so heartbreaking, you know? But as an actor, as me, separate from her, whenever people get their world flipped upside down, that shit’s fun.

Earlier this year, before she started doing press for Hunters, Hinton was traveling throughout Africa, visiting Egypt, Tanzania, and Uganda, where she spent most of her time being an avid photographer, a craft she’s been honing since she was in her teens. “I am pretty adamant about not charging money because I want to keep it a hobby. I don’t think every interest needs to be monetized,” she said. “I take portraits for people, I like doing that kind of stuff. It’s a different way to collaborate and to see other people. I’ve also written, and I directed when I was in college. I haven’t directed in a number of years, but I still write. I’m just a curious person. I like learning languages, I have a huge garden and love gardening, I like life. I like it when life has many components.”

The main component of her life, of course, is acting. But Hinton revealed that the way she came to be an actor is not exactly the typical actor’s narrative of feeling a burning desire to perform. “To be very frank, it was a thing I’d always done and a thing I knew I would continue to do, while also doing other things because I have other interests and other talents,” she said. “I can never talk about it in the way that some people can in terms of, ‘It was this deep yearning, this deep ache inside me and I needed to express myself in that way.’ That’s not the truth for me. The truth for me is, like, I’ve done this, I’ve been doing this, I’m going to keep doing this, and then I’m also going to look around for other things to do. That’s the mentality I developed when I was a teenager, and a mentality I’ve kept with me throughout the stages of my career. And frankly, I think it’s the mentality that’s helped keep me sane.”

Part of keeping herself sane when living in the skin of a character who gets put through the ringer, like Millie on Hunters, involves divorcing herself from any inkling of what an audience’s response to her work might be. But when asked what she might take away from her work and apply to her real life, Hinton said, “[Millie’s] faith—and when I say her faith, I’m not just talking about religious faith, I mean like faith, period—even though it gets challenged in serious ways.”

Hinton also said that she is intellectually stimulated by the question of where a character like Millie fits within the popular trope of the “noble” cop. “There’s an interesting thing that happens in entertainment when it comes to law enforcement,” Hinton said. “They love to put a black person as a cop or government official. The ‘noble person’ is, like, the black cop. A few months ago I came across the term ‘cop-aganda,’ and I can’t remember who coined the term, but I was like, That’s an interesting phrase,” she said of the portmanteau that refers to pro-police narratives.

“I never paid attention to how many ‘noble’ black cops they put on TV. Also, these law enforcement agencies, they work with these studios and TV outlets to help create these characters to tell the stories that they want told, and so I’m looking at that in a different way now,” she went on. “It makes them a symbol.”

Millie, in some ways, does challenge the idea of what constitutes a “noble” (read: palatable) black character on television, as well as the binary of a “good” or “bad” cop. “When I think back on Millie and how she contributes to that dialogue, that’s something I’m eager to keep exploring on my own,” Hinton said. “Maybe I’ll write something about that, where she lives in that pantheon. I wasn’t engaged with that question before, and now it’s something I am absolutely paying more attention to.”

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