There's such a thing as the biopic wife — the woman behind the man, too often relegated to the background of his epic life story. Jennie Reeves, the wife of the titular frontier hero in the new Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," is no such character. "She had such a clear point-of-view, a clear moral compass," says Lauren E. Banks, who plays Jennie in the show. "Not only was she positioned in understanding what the Reeves family was coming from—enslavement—, she also had a vision for the future."
Banks adds that she was "thrilled" upon reading the script for "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" and discovering that Jennie was central to this story, the first dedicated biopic of Bass Reeves, the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.
"For the wife of someone as large and big as Bass to be a woman of vision said a lot about my fellow collaborators, about how they understood women and, ultimately, how they thought I could service the role."
That word, "service," came up repeatedly in our conversation with Lauren E. Banks ahead of the show's Nov. 19 episode. "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," written and created by Chad Feehan ("Ray Donovan") and executive produced by series star David Oyelowo and "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan, is perhaps Banks' biggest role yet — in more ways than one.
"We not only had the responsibility of breathing life into people who existed, but also telling a story that I think they didn't imagine would be told one day. That ancestral kind of responsibility was present for me."
The historical record is piecemeal when it comes to Bass Reeves, let alone his wife, referred to as Nellie Jennie in source texts. History records that the pair were married in 1864, after Reeves had escaped slavery. They had either 10 or 11 children and remained married for 30 years, until Jennie's death in 1896.
Banks is best known for her role as Siobhan Quays in the Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge Showtime crime drama "City on a Hill," which ended its three-season run in 2022. The North Carolina native is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, where she was awarded the Carol Finch Dye Award. Previous recipients include alumni Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand.
For her first foray into a big, splashy Western, Banks learned how to drive a wagon, direct mules and herd cattle. She had never been on a horse before undergoing "cowboy camp" for the series. "I consider myself a cowgirl at this point," she says, recalling her training with Sheridan's in-house wranglers, who also work with the cast of "Yellowstone."
The crash course in cowboying stuck. Banks is competing in the Careity Foundation's Celebrity Horse Cutting Competition this December in Fort Worth, an annual charity competition to benefit cancer patients. Taylor Sheridan and "Yellowstone" players including Kelly Reilly and Gil Birmingham have previously supported the event.
"Lawmen: Bass Reeves" centers on the toll Reeves' astonishing career took on his family, shifting between his patrols and Jennie's vulnerable home life. In the series trailer, we see Jennie defend her home against the Ku Klux Klan.
"For the newly emancipated, there was a real threat of violence and domestic terrorism. And then you have Bass Reeves, who's doing something totally unprecedented: Bringing in bad guys that were white men. He became an authority figure so fast. There was a considerable amount of people who supported that, and a considerable amount who didn't. So we see Jennie Reeves stave off a mob of Klansmen. She has her babies inside, and Bass is miles and miles away on horseback deep into what was then Indian Territory. We have to confront that. We have a responsibility as storytellers to confront and deal with that very real threat and the courage of that mother."
For Banks, it was impossible not to be moved by the weight of this series. Bass Reeves is one of the giants of the American West, yet his story has largely gone untold in entertainment media until now.
"We were filming on plantations, in the environment in which some of their hardships occurred. So there was no escaping the connection between the past and the present," the actress recalls.
"There was a great amount of hope and excitement for what we were doing that juxtaposed that," Banks adds. "It was surreal, and also very beautiful and very human. It was just a wonderful honor and I was happy to be in service of Jennie Reeves."
New episodes of "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" premiere Sundays on Paramount+.
READ MORE: 5 Black Cowboys Who Shaped the American West
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.