AUP. Ep. 34 Farewell to 2021


Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 1/5/21 

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture, and our stories. I’m your host, Courtney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio, and this week we’re looking back at 2021. This year is finally coming to a close, and I cannot say goodbye to 2021 fast enough. It was another year plagued with uncertainty from the raging pandemic to the social unrest to so many systems and organizations and ideals imploding from the #MeToo movement to all of the drama with the HFPA. We kicked the year off with the Capitol riots and we’re ending it with Omicron. So like I said, I am really ready to say goodbye to 2021. But one bright spot for me, at least, has been this podcast. theGrio launched Acting Up on March 12th, and we kick things off with my friend Kelly Rowland, and it has been such an incredible ride since then, 33 episodes later. And here we are. We’ve had some fantastic discussions with some amazingly talented people from directors, producers, writers, actors, activists, documentarians, executives, programmers. So many people have lent their time and their voices to this podcast, and I could not be more grateful. We’ve had a chance to dove into some of the most important projects of the year. We’ve had some laughs. We’ve shed some tears and we’ve really gotten into what’s happening in Black Hollywood. I am so privileged to be able to have these kinds of conversations with creatives who are moving the needle on screen and off. And so now I just want to revisit a few of my favorite convos from this year. I don’t know if favorites is accurate because it would be so hard to pick. I mean, all of these conversations have been so different, so rich and so honest that choosing a favorite is nearly impossible. That being said, there are some moments that stand out for me, and hopefully they stood out for you, too. Back in April, I spoke to Little Marvin, creator of the horror anthology series Them. That left me nearly speechless. I remember I was so nervous to talk to Little Marvin because at first watch, I was actually really rattled by his project. Lena Waithe was the executive producer, but Little Marvin was really the maestro behind this intense look at racism in this country. The horror anthology series was controversial, to say the least, and it left me wondering where we draw the line between exploiting Black trauma and making a point. And the reason that this conversation stands out is because, like I said, I was very nervous to have it, but also it was so honest and little Marvin really gave me some perspective that I hadn’t considered, and by the end of the conversation, I had a different take on what I thought that he was doing and what the project’s impact could be. [00:03:11][188.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:03:11] I’m being very honest when I say it was the first time I felt actually traumatized by the experience, like, I wish I didn’t see it. I wish somebody told me about it and I read about it, but I wish I didn’t have the visual. And so I wondered for you as a creator. Hearing that part, that genuine part. How do you feel? [00:03:32][21.0]

Little Marvin: [00:03:35] I feel everything hearing that. I feel everything hearing that. And here’s what I would say about first. There’s many things I feel about that particular thing. You just said it. My first thing is gratitude to you for sharing that with me because I take that in and I’m taking all of it in. I would say about that that the first thing about the trauma piece, because there is a lot of talk about that piece and we never set out to make a show about trauma, about Black trauma. We set out to make a show with Black folks that centered Black folks. That was complex, that was nuanced, that was emotionally rich. But the show was always about navigating the terror of whiteness. It was not about exploring Black trauma. It was about navigating the terror of whiteness and particularly the terror of white supremacy in this country. And I think it’s time we call the Jim Crow South what it has always been. It was a domestic terror regime. That’s what it was. Plain and simple. We’re talking about a place where lynching was a pastime. Lynching was a sport and a spectacle. There were lynching spectacles. I don’t want to get too deep in, you know, the history. I don’t have to tell you in crowded places. And you see, the picture is very proud and happy people around a body that has just been brutalized. This is the history of the country. I don’t think it’s our business as artists to whitewash that history. I think it’s our business as artists. Personally speaking, to bear witness, it’s my job to bear witness. It’s my job to listen. The first thing I did when I sat down to write it. It sounds perhaps silly or grandiose or over-the-top to say that you’re honoring the elders or that you’re listening to the elders, but it would be a lie for me to not say it. You make a decision to honor that past, and then you have to honor it truthfully. I think that particularly episode five. So I think about history as a house. And I think that I could have told the same story as a documentary about redlining. I could have found one family and made a biopic. I could have made you know a story about Jim Crow. That, to me, is about just going through the front door of history, and I wasn’t particularly interested in that. I wanted to creep around to the back of the house, bust open a basement window, and let myself into the basement level of history where the darkest, most frightening things live. And if I gave you that crime in a way that you’ve seen it before if this was a slave narrative if it was a piece of police brutality, it allows your brain, I think, to put it in a safe space. Oh, I’ve seen that before. I know what that is. (Yeah.) You’ve never seen this before. And so in a way, what I think it does is it brings the viewer a bit closer to the treachery and to the true sickness at the heart of the Jim Crow experiment. And so I feel every feeling and I feel them all with you. And by the way, I felt them all too when I wrote it and I resisted the writing of it. I’ve never felt this before in my life. I resisted the writing of it tooth and nail until I realized well I’ve never felt this before. And as an artist, I feel like part of my gig is to explore the things that terrify me the most, especially as a horror writer. [00:06:35][180.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:06:37] My sit down with DeVon Franklin is another one that stands out to me. Among many other things, DeVon is also a Governor at Large for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, folks behind the Oscars, and we talked about how the academy was working toward more equity for Black Hollywood right after they announced the 2021 nominees. We talked about the work that is already being done and the areas that still need a lot of improvement when it comes to equity for Black creatives in Hollywood. [00:07:08][31.3]

DeVon Franklin: [00:07:08] Listen, I’ll be the first one to tell you that this business has a long way to go. That when it comes to equity, when it comes to representation, when it comes to consideration, I’ll say I’ve been in the business for 25 years, so I’ve seen a lot. And even with all the progress this business has made, when you know what you’re noting, it’s because there is not yet equity. There is not yet equitable contributions for people of color and artists of color. We’re not there yet. We are not there yet, where it all means the same thing for everyone. So what I would say is let’s just acknowledge that right? We are not in a utopian business where everything is how we all want it to be. And there is still prejudice we’re working through. There’s still unconscious bias that we’re working through there. Still, sometimes this idea that one is more valuable than the other in every single day, we have to continue to fight against that notion because it’s not true. Here’s the other thing that I would also say I personally believe that the awards are nice as a recognition of what is done, but I also believe that we have to keep moving forward anyhow. And I do agree with you when you look at the impact, some of the awards I’ve had and people of color winning awards and not having the same bump. What I love about what you say about an Octavia or a Halle or a Viola is that they get up and they keep going and they work and they keep giving more of themselves to us. And that, to me, is such a powerful testament to who they are that even in the face of these facts that you are laying out, it doesn’t stop them from showing up and still giving us the people, more of them, more of their art, more of their heart. But I do agree that we as a business have a long way to go. Look, I’m a Black producer. I can tell you every day the fights that I got to fight, you know, as a Black producer, you know, and as someone who’s been around for a long time and has a track record of success and there are still things that I have to fight, and I just do my best not to get bitter about, not to get frustrated and say, OK, you know what? This is the way it is, but I’m committed to not allowing this to be the way it will always be. That’s why I serve as a governor. I do this work. I try to make a contribution because I do want to live in an industry where everyone is treated equally and gets an equal bump for their work, consideration for their work and acknowledgment that goes along with that. [00:09:19][130.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:09:21] Talking to the rock star that is Don Porter, the documentarian behind Tulsa and the Red Summer, as well as the Apple TV+ series The Me, You Don’t See which she did along with Oprah and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, was another one of my favorite episodes. The way that Don Porter is able to tell a story is just unmatched, and it was such a pleasure to pick her brain about what goes into creating these projects that makes such an immeasurable impact. It was also cool to just get the human side of being a Black woman whose, you know, cell phone rings. And Hey, it’s Oprah. She wants you to do a project, or, hey, it’s the Obamas. They want you to do a project. Or, Hey, your new gig means that you’re going to hang out with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Hearing her reactions, her real reactions to what was going on in her life was really cool, and she answered a question that I’m sure we’ve all grappled with, which is What gift do you get a prince? [00:10:19][58.2]

Dawn Porter: [00:10:20] I will tell you, when I first came onto the project, Oprah was like, You should meet Harry. And I was like, OK, it’s like, is he going to come to your house? Like, what are you talking about? So we went together to meet him, and my producer says to me, You’ve got to bring a gift like, you know, he’s got a new baby, you gotta bring a gift. (Oh, OK.) So I was finishing up The Way I See It. You know, the the (that little thing you did), that little thing I did. Yeah. So we were filming in the African-American Museum and the Smithsonian Museum on the mall. So I went to the gift store and I got him like a red, black and green onesie and some books about brown babies and like loving yourself. And so I put this little package together. He flipped out. He loved it. He was like, This is his culture. This is his background. And he just like, couldn’t get over the gift and he loved it. He kept remarking on it. And I don’t know what you give a prince, but I thought he had everything and he had a baby. So why do we only give women the gifts? You know, it’s his baby too. So Prince Harry strikes me as very curious and very respectful. And I think despite the fact that he comes from where he comes from, he also feels a little bit like an outsider. And so I think he really understands and is, you know, has a lot of a lot more empathy and a lot more in common with people of different races than most people would think. [00:11:47][86.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:11:49] Big moment in reality TV this year was Ebony K. Williams, joining the cast of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York and getting her take on what it was like to navigate that space with those women was really cool. Ebony talked to me about handling micro and macro aggressions from her costars, being labeled angry, and all of that drama between her and Heather Thompson. [00:12:12][22.5]

Ebony K Williams: [00:12:13] And this is not about Heather Thompson as an individual, but let’s use her as a as a as a model for what, like you’re saying, humans. She is exemplifying just how deeply intrinsic these presumptions of Blackness and Black woman who really are. So much so that Heather, as she stated, self-proclaimed “doer of the work,” self-proclaimed “ally to Black people, self-proclaimed familiar with Black lens through her work, with Beyonce … I’mma leave that right there. Let’s move forward. And yet, and still right. Yet still, despite all of that effort, intention and energy that she really expresses around her commitment to have this very particular kind of white woman relationship with Black folks, which she’s very proud of, still falls into the most natural space of defaulting to calling me articulate after, you know, I just simply do what I do, which is precisely unintentionally express my feelings, thoughts and emotions, and not only calling me articulate. The best part about it was- it was has any good job, but that let’s remember first. Good job. OK, thanks, coach. I guess a good job. And has anyone ever told you you are very articulate, which, you know, I’m like, Well, you know, let me think. Maybe it was my prolific career as a respected attorney. No, no, no. Maybe it was my national broadcasting career. Or maybe was the best-selling book I wrote. But I’m pretty sure somewhere along the way, my dear someone acknowledged not only that I was articulate because to me, that’s really not even saying enough, but I am a skilled and talented oral communicator and just gifted public speaker. Yes, I’ve been told. [00:14:14][120.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:17] Erika Alexander came through and dropped several gems about her passion for sci-fi and why Black people are the original futurists. She also educated all of us on this new frontier that are NFT’s what they are, why we should care about them, why we should have them, and how they could be a tool to build wealth in our communities. We talked about the launch of her history-making Concrete Park Bangerz collection that dropped on Curio and got a lot of insight about what inspires the beloved actress, writer, producer and activist. [00:14:49][32.4]

Erika Alexander: I just want to be a part of something that’s new where you can be new. When we first started to do Concrete Park. We were stuck in a space where everybody had to be hip hop out and you couldn’t even re-imagine what that type of individual could be. It was stuck in a misogynistic world, stuck in a homophobic world. All these sort of things sort of applied to that world. I thought, these people are so much more. My generation is so much more. I grew up with people who are on their shows now, Reza and know Latifa, and they weren’t Reza and Latifa. He was Bobby and she was Dana. And, you know, we were all coming up in and finding ourselves. And yet every time you went out, somebody had the stereotypical vision of what our futures looked like, which were, you know, again riddled with all the crime and the melodrama. And this is this all the all the things that go go with being Black or of color. And that was too limiting. But in space in the future, in science fiction especially, it’s a way to talk about the now. Science fiction is just a replacement for all the things we’re dealing with in the now, but in the future, we can be a shapeshifter. We can be an alien. We can be multi gendered. We can be, can be other than we are. So if Gene Roddenberry was onto anything, he wanted to solve the race problem by putting together a multicultural ship to go boldly to new worlds and new civilizations where no man had gone before. But he was talking about the now the sixties and all the pain and frustration that he must have felt. Looking at the fact that we couldn’t get ourselves together around something as simple as a tone change in our skin. It’s absurd are cultural differences, which were very closely linked to each other. If we look, you know, whether we’re looking at the eastern traditions and or the Asian traditions or African traditions, they’re all closely aligned. I mean, because we all from one person, eventually we’re just human.

Cortney Wills: [00:16:55] One of the biggest surprises for me this season on Acting Up was my sit-down with Shalita grant, who was the breakout star of Netflix’s You. Season three was all about the impact that her character made on the show that had a real cult following. I didn’t really know what to expect from Shalita. I hadn’t talked to her before. So many of the people that are on Acting Up are people that I have known for years, but she was someone who I only knew through her work on this show and another one that she did on HBO last year. And so I was so pleasantly surprised with, number one, just how much I liked her. Like, she’s just a really dope human, very driven and extremely smart and kind of forging a new frontier in the haircare world. But what really surprised me was how honest she was about her challenging childhood and the way that she cultivated this killer career on her own terms. She makes no apologies for the decisions that she’s made and that she’s making, and she had this level of self-awareness that, you know, you meet people like that and you just know that that took some work and it’s really admirable. Check her out. [00:18:02][67.4]


Shalita Grant: I don’t look like what I’ve been through. So like, people assume so many things and they have my entire life, right? So I had like teen parents like my mom, went to jail when I was five. That’s how come I moved to Virginia from Baltimore. Like, I’m the oldest of nine kids. Like, I didn’t grow up with money. I grew up there was my mom’s side of the family that was like Nation of Islam. And then, you know, my grandma converted to Christianity. Like, there’s so much life that I’ve lived because of where I come from. But like, I would go to these different schools and people would just project a history on me because I never stayed anywhere long enough to, like, really establish relationships and stuff. I went to six different elementary schools, so very young I was used to being put in different situations and having to like, figure out even the education like differences from school to school, elementary school to elementary school, like within 20 miles like, it could be really dramatically different. And the kids too can be like wildly different. So I’ve always been used to people like assuming like like that. I’m like mixed that I grew up, you know, whatever I came out of the womb without an accent, right? Like without a Baltimore accent, without like a country accent like my family members have. And they’re like a couple of kids that just like within my family that like, came out like that. Like, that’s just how we talk. So for my whole life, it’s always been like, you know, people projecting something on me and then treating me a certain way based on their own history with whatever they’re projecting. So for me with Sherry. Yeah. Like, I love how multilayered she is because I know what it’s like to have, like so many layers. But for Sherry, she doesn’t live as authentically as I live. Like I’m Buck Wild in my life because I agreed a long time ago that what people project on to me is about them and I will not fit into whatever. And that’s not my fault, you know? So I just live like Buck Wild, like today we’re doing this tomorrow. We’re doing like within hours, like I’m renovating a twenty-six hundred square foot house here in Houston with my girlfriend, Jessica Aguilar. So like yesterday, I’m in like a T-shirt. I’m launching my e-commerce business. So like yesterday, I had to do freight delivery. So I’m working the the pallet jack and like bringing the stuff out like baby girl has layers and within a day I show up for whatever it is I got going on and it can be different by the hour. So for Sherry, though, she doesn’t live that authentically. She’s obsessed with success and for success for women is a narrow field. And so that’s what she shows when she first meets you. But then when she’s put in a glass cage, there are so many layers, so you can only imagine what she’s like at home with, you know, Mr. Conrad and the kids, you know, to the point that you were making about that, the snippets of life that these influencers, they know what’s sellable. So they give you that. But, there’s a lot going on.

Cortney Wills: [00:21:40] Aida Rodriguez had me in stitches during our conversation about her HBO Max special Fighting Words, and she also had me in my feelings when we were talking about Afro-Latina identity, colourism, and how the way that she identifies as a Black woman informs her comedy and informs the way she navigates her career and her life. [00:22:03][22.7]

Aida Rodriguez: [00:12:25] You know, I think the beautiful thing about identity is that, you- it’s something that’s personal, right? Because everybody’s always trying to tell everybody what they are. Know, like, I’m not transracial. You know, I’ve been called the N-word so many times in my life in front of my son, who is now, you know, in his 20s. But when he was four and I had to explain what that was, you know, in San Diego at a gas station, I’m holding my two babies and these white people just pull up in a truck and they’re like, you know, you still, because I was driving a BMW and they’re like, You’r still a F-ing N-word, B-word. And I was just like, I was so furious. I was like, I wanted to, you know, and it’s interesting to claim, and I understand why so many people feel like why do y’alI want to be Black now? I want to be Black before, you know, because there is this thing that I claim my afro indigenous roots because I feel like history, society, America has embedded this shame and embarrassment of where we come from by, you know, making Africa, you know, our African ancestors caricatures with this idea that it’s uncivilized and underdeveloped and indigenous people as being dumb and weak. And those are our glorious ancestors, right? And I claim them proudly because I am because they were. And it’s just I want to reframe that. You know, I talk about Blackness because in my community, you know, we’re having conversations that were happening 20 years ago or 30 years ago when School Daze came out about colorism and the erasure of darker skinned Black people, which is real. And so I understand why some of the dark skinned Black people are like, We don’t want to identify with you. That’s caused us so much pain. But at the end of the day, I understand that, and I respect it. All of that being said, my story matters, my life matters, my reality matters, and it is just as valid as everybody else’s. That does not undo the realities of colorism in this country and abroad. You know, anti-Blackness has always been framed as being a Latinx thing or a Latino thing. Anti-Blackness is a global issue that lives within the Black American community and beyond. It is real in India, it is real in China, it is real in the continent of Africa, the motherland. It is real everywhere. Dominicans are not the only Latinx people who have anti-Black, you know, values. And you know, when we frame it, let’s frame it properly. The Dominican Republic has a history that was connected to murder from their president that dealt with Blackness. So there’s trauma there. But, you know, and it doesn’t make it alright. But what we need to do is start aiming our weapons at the systems that have created, enabled and continue to perpetuate these ideals. And that’s what I have a problem with. So I have a darker skinned Latina, doesn’t want to be identified with me. I get it. I understand it. I’ma fight for both of us because at the end of the day, you know, in the Black American community, Halle Berry doesn’t stop being Black because Viola Davis is Black [00:16:02][217.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:44] And of course, we’d be remiss if we did not discuss one of the biggest things to happen on the screen in 2021, and that is the end of Insecure. We’re all still reeling from the final episode and that beautiful special that HBO did Insecure: The End, which spoke so much beyond just that hugely impactful show and series, but was also a lesson in how we can uplift and empower our own people in the entertainment space and beyond. I spoke to three of the leading ladies of Insecure before they took their final bow. Yvonne Orji, Christina Elmore, and Natasha Rothwell were all guests this season on Acting Up. Each of them spoke so candidly about their feelings on the show and the impact that it had on their own lives and on their careers. Christina opened up about the fact that as she was playing a postpartum Condola, she was really a postpartum Christina, and that is something you don’t see every day. [00:26:44][60.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:45] It was so real watching you, watching Condola, navigate those long nights and those hard days, and as an actual mother and again new mother yourself with her second baby, I’m sure that you could identify. But like God damn, I’m so grateful that they showed that. [00:27:06][20.2]

Christina Elmore: [00:18:27] Thank you. Me too, and I’m grateful as a viewer, but I was also really grateful as an actor because it was literally, I think I was seven weeks postpartum. And in the same position as Condola, thankfully, my husband is an amazing partner and father. I wasn’t in that position. But when her boobs were leaking, my boobs were leaking when her when she wasn’t sleeping. All the bloodshot you saw with real, all of the extra body that you saw was real because it was my body after a baby. And so like, it was really about sort of I’ve never I’ve never felt that close to a character in my life. When they were calling cut, I was like, It’s fine, I can just lay here. I’m still tired,(Oh my gosh) So it was. It was, it was. So it’s such a unique experience for me as an actor and as a mom and I, I felt like they got it so spot on and so much of the writing, and they were also open to Jay and I because Jay is a dad, and so we were able to be like, Oh no, we would leave the stroller out here. Oh no, we might do like things like that. And it was we were working with babies all day, which was super fun, but also sort of a little too close to home. It was just a lot going on, but I I’m grateful that they told that story in such a real kind of way that we didn’t gloss it up for TV and co-parenting. Shout out to all the Mamas and the Papas doing it that way because that is not a game.

Cortney Wills: [00:28:46] And Natasha. Gosh. The beautifully gifted Natasha Rothwell, who served not only as a writer and producer on the series, starred on the series but also directed an episode of the final season of this series was such a joy to speak to getting to thank her for her work, getting to thank her for Kelli, getting to thank her for creating a character who just lived just was just faced. A world as she is unapologetically happy and joyous and desired and smart and beautiful and so brilliant was a highlight of the season for me. Here’s what she had to say about the impact that writing this character playing this character had on her own life. [00:29:34][47.7]

Natasha Rothwell: It was a thousand percent intentional. The conversations that I had in the room from the very first sort of scripts where we were when I realized I would be Kelly, it was evaluating what we’ve written and not feeling the need to go back and add fatness to the page. Like what? The like that makes zero sense. Like, we’re allowed to be Black and fat and not have those be plot points. We can just be and we can just exist and not be this thing we need to fix, you know? And that has been truly the top joy of this for me is to be in that skin. And it has really changed my life personally. Like it has really made me fall in love with the body that I grew up hating. And and it’s been such a powerful experience to have, like other fake bitches in, you know, DM me and, you know, screenshots and be just like, I’m I’m getting that look, you know, I love that fear and just have them excited to be seen and not being self-deprecating. And Shiona Turni who’s our costume designer like. She is incredible. And she I’ve been I’ve been doing this for a minute and I’ve worked with many different folks, and some folks are dressing you to hide you and they’re just, you know, they are trying to figure out how to fix something when there’s just nothing to really fix. It’s like, celebrate it. And she own it just knew that from the job and was just on board and even opened up my eyes because I had a limited view about what I could and couldn’t wear. And she’s like, We’re going to get you in this fit. You’re going to wear those little white boots this tiny little Gucci dress and I’m like, I didn’t even know Gucci went up to my size and I was like, Okay, oh yeah. So she really opened my eyes, and it’s just been an honor to play Kelly. And a big part of what I’m doing with The Academy productions over at Disney is, you know, a part of the mission is the otherness that other people see fat, Black, whatever that is going to be resolved before page one our stories are not going to be centered around, you know, trying to justify our humanity, and that’s what it is when you’re on the page trying to do that. And so let’s just assume our humanity and tell stories, and that’s what I’m excited to do. [00:24:13][152.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:05] Those are a few of my favorite moments from Acting Up as we close out 2021. I want to thank every guest who came on and shared their stories with us. I want to thank all of the listeners for tuning in and engaging with the content. And let me tell you, we are just getting started Acting Up. We’ll be back in the New Year with more candid conversations with Black, Hollywood’s brightest stars. See you next year! Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five-star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments, and suggestions to Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Courtney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up. Check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:32:05][0.0]