'Queenie' Creator Hopes to Make Noise With Hulu Show


Hulu’s new drama series Queenie begins with its protagonist, Queenie Jenkins (Dionne Brown), in stirrups — and in pain — at a visit to her OBGYN, during which a technician tells her in response to her audible discomfort, “I’m sure you’re fine, strong girl like you,” before asking, “How many sexual partners do you have?”

The scene sets audience expectations for the coming-of-age story based on Candice Carty-Williams’ 2019 novel of the same name, about a 25-year-old British-Jamaican girl in South London running from abandonment issues spawned by her estranged relationship with her mother — which seem to catch up to her through every man whose attention she clamors for, be it her boyfriend Tom (Jon Pointing) or the sexual suitors she entertains after signing up for a dating app when he asks for a “clean break.”

“Authenticity is really important to me,” Carty-Williams said at a special press screening of the series in London, which The Hollywood Reporter attended. “When you see something on screen that doesn’t represent you, you really feel it. I had to make sure that when I was watching it — because I was in the edit for like nine months — that everything was working. You would feel when something didn’t feel right or something didn’t look right; it didn’t look like us.”

Those moments sometimes required having difficult conversations, said creator Carty-Williams, also an executive producer and showrunner. “It’s worth it when you want to see yourself properly represented, and also, you have these really beautiful, amazing people inside and out [that you’re working with],” she added in reference to the show’s cast, which includes Queenie’s tell-it-like-it-is friend Kyazike, played by British singer-songwriter Bellah, and her cousin Frank (Samuel Adewunmi). Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) portrays Queenie’s grandad Wilfred. “You also want to make them proud of what they’ve done, too. It’s not just me anymore, it’s a whole family of us.”

Queenie’s missteps may prove cringe for older audiences far removed from their own quarter-life crises as they watch the young social media assistant suffer through panic attacks and push those closest to her away, rather than let them in on her struggles. But for newcomer Brown, 28, portraying a young woman simply trying to figure life out was liberating.

“I read the book throughout the audition process. But when I got the part, I read it again in full, and I remember seeing Candice and being like, ‘Did we know each other in a past life?’” Brown recalled during a private media panel. “She was like, ‘What?’ And said, ‘I didn’t know that other people felt like this.’ And she told me, ‘You’re never the only one.’

“[Queenie] gave me a sense of fellowship, in a manner of speaking, and I think through that it was quite cathartic,” Brown added. “It helped me let go of things that maybe I hadn’t let go of as well as I thought I had. It made me recall things and let them go easier. I think sometimes we don’t want to think about something because it’s like, ‘oh, if I bring it close to me again, I’m going to hold it.’ And after that it was like, ‘no I can.’ I can bring it as close as I need it and I can still free it.”

Below, Carty-Williams, Brown and Bellah chat with THR about adapting Queenie for television and what it means to put South London on the map in this series.

***

There was a publisher bidding war over your novel in 2017. Was it the same when it came to the TV adaptation? How did this project land at Hulu?

CANDICE CARTY-WILLIAMS I saw maybe 15 production companies in total who wanted to work with me on the show. Eventually, we went with Lionsgate because, you know, the name. And then Channel 4 got in touch with me and they were like, “Look, we remember your novel when it was going around, we want to work on it,” and I started developing it with them around 2017, 2018. So, before the novel even came out, we were already working on it. And then Tara Duncan from Onyx had basically been stalking me for a while (laughs) and she came in to give an amazing pitch and I was like, “It’s obviously gonna be Onyx.” I feel super supported and Tara kind of knew the project from the beginning. She has been so instrumental in making it what it should be all the way.

How true is the series to the novel? Were there any key changes that you made in the adaptation?

CARTY-WILLIAMS Lots of things came out for time, obviously, because a novel’s a hundred thousand words and a TV show is eight 23-minute episodes, so you’ve got to be snappy. We took some of the bigger things out but we kept in it the heart of who Queenie is and who her friends and family are. Some of the men, some of the sticky situations, we kept in because they were fun. But some stuff we had to remix a little bit. There’s a day where Kyazike tells a story for half of a chapter, and in the TV show, we were like: we don’t have the time for that. So, we just had Kyazike [talking] in the van on the way to moving Queenie [into her new apartment]. We’re always keeping it moving.

What was it like for you being a showrunner for the first time, and how important was it for you to be in that role?

CARTY-WILLIAMS I wasn’t actually meant to showrun it. I was meant to write a couple of episodes and then be like, “Cool, thanks everyone, see you later.” But you end up being like, “No I need to be there.” Just with writing episodes, you then re-write episodes, and then you’re writing on set and talking to people, so you’re changing things. I would say, sort of from the beginning up until the very end — we left the edit two months ago — for the last year, it’s been Queenie every minute of every day. It’s good because it’s my vision, ultimately, and it’s amazing being close to everyone. I also like getting the best out of them, but also, I want to be a support, and it was important for me to be there when we were talking about things that were really challenging. I didn’t just want to leave it to someone else. I wanted to be able to have difficult conversations. It was a lot, and it was all-consuming, but it was worth it.

Dionne and Bellah, talk about landing your roles.

DIONNE BROWN It was an extensive audition process, which I loved. I feel like a lot of actors are really averse to that kind of audition process, but I really like it. I like being in the room, and I like going into the room again and again and again and getting closer to something. I obviously like getting it as well (laughs). I don’t want to just get close and then not get it. But it was different every single time. We did a chemistry read, and then we did another chemistry read after our tapes and the rest is history.

BELLAH The casting director, Aisha [Bywaters], saw me promoting my music on a news show, ITV, and she reached out to my team. I was a bit apprehensive, like, “What’s it about?” and she said that I was charming so that was that (laughs). I did quite a few auditions and I was traveling a lot, so a lot of my auditions were on Zoom. I grew up doing musical theatre, so I thought when you audition for things, you kind of just do it, cross your fingers, hope for the best, but you move on with your life because you’re not banking on it. They just kept calling me, and I was like, “You guys like me.” I found out [that I got it] when I was in America and I was really angry at my manager because he knew before I did and saw me eat all the food that I was eating and just said, “Yeah man, you got the role,” going back. I was like, “You hate me.” But it was fun and amazing. I was very excited.

Candice, what was it about Bellah and Dionne that let you know they were right for their respective parts?

CARTY-WILLIAMS I’d seen Dionne in another audition for my other show, Champion, and I was like, there’s something quite Queenie about her, so we’re going to keep her for that, and if she comes back to me, then it means that she’s going to be Queenie. Dionne was asking a lot of questions about the role, and I was like, she’s very in her head, and Queenie is as in her head as this. So, I thought these two people, they’re going to work.

Bellah, I’ve been a fan of her music for a really long time. When the casting director said, “We’re going to call in Bellah,” I was like, “Okay, great.” In the chemistry reads, together, they were really, really strong. There was a real connection of sisterhood and of being quite different people, but bringing one tone to things. Also, Bellah’s improvisation was making everyone laugh. I was like, we’re gonna need that offset.

Black American audiences routinely have conversations about representation and wanting to see themselves in stories like this. How significant is a series like this for Black British audiences?

CARTY-WILLIAMS I haven’t seen anything like it. Obviously, I’ve watched Insecure, which is probably the closest thing to it in the world of TV. I’m a huge fan of Insecure, huge fan of Issa Rae, and we need something for ourselves. Growing up, our representation, a lot of it was American, and we’re not American. We’re different in so many ways. I never wanted the character to be strong or sassy or loud. I wanted her to be this person who actually had a lot of vulnerability and a lot of pain and a lot of trauma and we would work through it with her and see what that means and what that does to a person in the British context because that is the key.

Are there nuances to the Black British experience that you feel American audiences need to understand or be open to in terms of your characters’ journeys?

BELLAH I always say it, but a lot of us are diaspora kids. This is based on a Jamaican woman’s journey, and that has nuance to it. I’m Nigerian in real life, I have nuance to the way I do things, the way I say things. My slang is informed by Jamaican language, but also my English is not fantastic — well, my English is fantastic, but when I choose to not use correct English, it’s informed by the Nigerian immigrants around me, do you know what I mean? So, it’s language, it’s food, it’s culture, it’s music, it’s everything. It’s different, but it’s still very similar. It’s still a Black experience, because the moment we came here, we were Black. We stopped being Jamaican, stopped being Nigerian. So, it’s still that but it’s just a new perspective, a fresh perspective.

When the novel came out it was marketed as a Black Bridget Jones’ Diary, and you said that’s not actually what this is. What has been important to you about the way this series gets marketed to audiences?

CARTY-WILLIAMS I think it’s important that money is spent, and I don’t say that flippantly. I think with the whole Black Bridget Jones thing, that’s about the scale of things. I never wanted Queenie to be a quiet publication, I never wanted it to just kind of come out and then be in the Black section on bookshelves. I wanted it to be in loads of people’s houses of every single background. I wanted people to understand her story, to read it, to talk about it, and it’s been amazing to go around the world and people will be like, “Oh, you wrote that book?” I’ve seen my book in the maddest places. I went to Mexico City not long ago and I was in this Black-owned art gallery, and in their special reading room there was a copy of Queenie and I was like, “What is that?” It’s a weird thing, but also, it’s cool. Like, let her story be universal. And in the way of marketing, let everyone watch this. Let everyone take it in and let everyone understand who she is and what she’s about. It’s really great for me to put South London on the map in that way. One little corner of the world making noise.



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