6:30pm PT by Marisa Roffman
'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' Star Stephanie Beatriz on Her #MeToo-Themed Directorial Debut
[This post contains spoilers from the Feb. 28 episode of NBC's Brooklyn Nine-Nine.]
During Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s first six seasons, the Fox-turned-NBC comedy has tackled real-world issues ranging from active shooters to racial profiling. But during Thursday's episode, a seemingly funny injury — a broken penis! — led to the Nine-Nine investigating a messy he said/she said dispute during which Amy (Melissa Fumero) revealed that a #MeToo moment originally prompted her to join the squad.
Tasked with directing the episode was first-time helmer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Stephanie Beatriz. The actress, best known around the Nine-Nine as fierce Detective Rosa Diaz, was tasked with balancing the serious storyline with a lighter subplot featuring Holt (Andre Braugher) attempting to prove his longtime nemesis is still alive. In the backdrop, meanwhile, was fellow Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews, who has been vocal about his own #MeToo experience and support for survivors. (Crews' beloved character was involved in a separate storyline and didn’t intersect with B99's take on the topic.)
"I just had to trust I knew what that style was because I’ve been working in that world, in that style of comedy, for a little while," Beatriz tells The Hollywood Reporter. Below, the actress-turned-director speaks with THR about pushing herself out of her comfort zone on the recently renewed series, how former recurring player Kyra Sedgwick inspired her and what it was like to boss around her longtime co-stars.
What made the timing right to direct now?
When Fox decided to not bring Brooklyn Nine-Nine back for another season, that was devastating. But also, in a very secret way, it was devastating for me because I had wound myself up into thinking that maybe if I directed a short [last] summer and the show got another season, maybe I could ask if I could direct. At the time, it seemed like a pipe dream, because I didn’t study film or television in college. I didn’t have any directing experience. It seemed like a very crazy ask. But I talked myself into it [before the cancellation]. And then when we got the sixth season, I was terrified. I was terrified to ask because of all those reasons. Not to mention, I had these voices in my head shit-talking me: “Who do you think you are to ask for this? You’re not a director. These are people who have done it a million times over. You’re dealing with professional, episodic directors on your show. This is a comedy, it’s difficult. What the fuck are you thinking?” I talked myself back out of it, and suddenly all of the 13 episodes had directors and I had missed my chance, you know? And then we got an additional order for five more. That was the moment that I knew if I didn’t at least risk hearing the “no,” I’d be so disappointed in myself in not taking the risk and asking.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, my first thing on TV ever was a guest spot on The Closer. And I ran into [The Closer star Kyra Sedgwick] at a party a few years back, and she asked me, “Are you directing yet?” And I was like, “No, no. I’m not a director, I’m an actor.” And she said, “You should start. Because I wish I had started 10 years earlier. You can do it. You know so much; you’re on set with them all the time. All you have to do is watch and learn and ask questions.” And that was the thing that put the seed into my head I could do it. That was such a generous moment from her; she didn’t have to say that. She barely knew me! I had done that one episode of The Closer and she had done a couple of episodes of [Brooklyn Nine-Nine] as Wuntch. She didn’t have to take that time and encourage me in that way, but she did.
When it came time to actually prep and direct, who did you lean on for guidance?
I did do a lot of studying. I did what Kyra suggested: I was glued to every director who came to our set, asking a ton of questions, asking our director of photography Rick Page a ton of questions. I also unofficially shadowed a couple of directors here: Payman Benz was extremely generous with his time. Gloria Calderon Kellett invited me to come to the set of One Day at a Time, and I shadowed an episode of her directing. By the time my prep week rolled around, I was surprised by how ready I felt. I was excited by how I began breaking down that script. All directors do it in different ways. Some have printed out shot lists. Claire Scanlon was another director who was really generous with me, and showed me how she broke down scripts, showed me her shot list, showed me her drawings of the schematics of our sets. Because I studied theater and that’s what I have a degree in, that’s what made the most sense.
I started with drawing all the blocking I was imaging on the set. Like Destin Daniel Cretton did when I [acted in] Short Term 12 — I was floating around him as well and looking at what he was doing — he had storyboards for almost every single shot he created. I took a page from Dustin and storyboarded my entire script. Next to every line in my script is a tiny stick figure pencil drawing of exactly what I wanted. What was so satisfying during shooting was I would look at these dailies, I would look at stuff at what we were shooting, and it was exactly what I had drawn. Something from my imagination was coming to life and being cut into an episode of TV. That was really thrilling.
You only acted in a few scenes in the episode. Was that by design?
Yes. That was a generous gift from [showrunner] Dan Goor and the writers. They knew I was going to have a bunch on my plate. It was intentional that episode and the episode before [in our production scheduled] I was pretty light so I would be able to focus on prep and directing during the week. But at the same time, [I appreciated] those arguments Rosa and Amy have about reporting sexual assault and what is the value of that — and there is no clear-cut answer, or right answer for everyone, which I think is a big part of the discussion I’ve had with friends who are women that don’t want to go public with their stories. It’s a personal decision and can impact lots of different aspects of your life if you say publicly you had a #MeToo moment.
Given how many people have had their own #MeToo experiences, what conversations did you have with the writers and cast — including Terry — about what you were comfortable with?
The writers on Brooklyn are very open with us. I can at least speak from personal experience with Rosa’s coming-out episode, I talked with them quite a bit about what I felt comfortable with and what I felt was necessary for the episode. From what I witnessed, it seemed as though it wasn’t necessary to make any strong or sweeping changes to what was written from the initial draft of the first episode. It was a very strong script from the get-go.
The episode had the serious #MeToo storyline, but also a lighter subplot as Holt attempts to prove his foe is alive. What was the process like in keeping both elements honest and keeping them true to the Brooklyn tone?
I had to think about the honest world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Yes, there’s truth and honesty in our world, but it’s also very heightened and moves very quickly. In that way, it’s just like a style. We have a style on this show that is very specific and was set up by [directors] Phil Lord and Chris Miller on the pilot. It’s snappy, fast-moving, kind of zany, really charming style. I just had to trust I knew what that style was because I’ve been working in that world, in that style of comedy, for a little while. I know it really intimately. I know the history of the show, I know the history of the characters, I know their intimate relationships with each other. I know their rhythms and who serves what purpose in each comedy scene. Really, it was mostly, they know what they are doing; set up the shots and get the fuck out of the way, because they’re going to do it. They know what they’re doing. Especially for a show that’s run for a while.
What’s exciting is to let the actors try things. Television can become such a machine…sometimes, it can happen that a director will come in and not give you a lot of room to move around and play. As an actor, that’s always the most frustrating thing, because you want to play. That’s what you’re good at. It was mostly about letting them have room to play. I didn’t always succeed. There were a couple of days where I felt really frustrated by myself as a director: “Why can’t I communicate this thing I want to communicate?” “Why did I step on that amazing improv that happened?” All of this cast knows this world really well, because we’ve been with it since the beginning. The rest of it was the hard part.
What was the experience like directing Melissa through her big reveal and Andre through a lighter side of Holt?
It was wildly fun. The weird thing about this is I really like our show and I enjoy watching it, but it’s difficult to watch yourself. So I got to watch 12-14 hours of my favorite show every day without [me in it]. It was really fun! I’m such an actor’s actor. I love actors, I love acting, I love different choices. I love how strange and interesting human beings are. It’s so strange and delicious to watch these scenes get worked on. The comedy scenes and the more intimate and emotional scenes. It was honest and real-feeling. I, of course, want to talk about how good I think Melissa and Andy [Samberg] are as actors. I think both of them have so much talent, and you’re getting to see a tiny bit of what they’re capable of on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But what I got to see that day when they were working on those scenes was such incredible, amazing work. I felt so lucky to watch it.
Some of the work they did that day isn’t right for the show. It doesn’t fit the tone of the show. It’s maybe too much. Maybe too real. Maybe that lives in a different world. But I got to see it that week because I was directing and let them riff and run and do those scenes over and over. Allow them the space to explore. We ultimately found exactly the right balance for what was right for the episode. But in doing that, we get these moments of real depth in acting that is so exciting to be witness to. It’s so exciting.
The same with Andre. For years and years, he did some of the most dramatic [work]…on Homicide for such a long time. Now, he gets to be in this environment and pushed to play. What he comes up with is so wildly beyond what i could have imagined. It’s so joyous to watch him, Terry Crews and Joe Lo Truglio work together that week. I was in danger of ruining many a take because they are so funny. They were coming up with things I never would have come up with, because it was the mix of the three of those human beings and those characters. It was very odd, strange and wonderful.
Looking back at the experience, what surprised you the most about directing? And are you looking to revisit this again?
The thing that most surprised me is that people are responding well to it. That sounds really silly to say, but I was losing [faith] and the producers didn’t say, “We hate it, we have to throw everything out and we have to start from scratch.” I thought for sure that would happen: just thrown in the can and set on fire.
But I definitely want to do it again, because the second most-surprising thing was it turns out I might be pretty good at it. I, of course, want to try again, because I think it’ll make me a better actor, too. That’s really where my passion is: acting. I want to do everything and anything to be a better actor, to gain more knowledge about this art form. I think directing is really helpful. And it gives you a different perspective about what you’re doing and how you can do it better.
This interview took place before news of the show's renewal. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.