Awkwafina, Issa Rae, Reese Witherspoon and More on Taking on Producer Roles: “I Maybe Love Producing More Than Being On-Camera”
To achieve their creative ambitions, actresses including Aidy Bryant, Nicole Kidman, Hailee Steinfeld, Kerry Washington, leveraged power by taking on producer roles in addition to their onscreen duties: "I get to be there from seed to fruit."
“When a director or producer would say, ‘Try it another way, we need options,’ I never really understood that in the past — I always thought that it was just them trying to get me to do it their way instead of my way,” Kerry Washington admits of the days before she launched her production company, Simpson Street, and became an executive producer (alongside co-star Reese Witherspoon) on the Hulu limited series Little Fires Everywhere.
Now after several projects working behind the camera and in the editing room, Washington, 43, understands the benefits of being one of those voices. “We’re painting with a lot of different colors, and sometimes you need to have a little bit more red in that orange or a little bit more green in that blue,” she says. “I really get it now.”
Washington is one of a growing list of leading ladies — including Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies), Issa Rae (Insecure), Aidy Bryant (Shrill), Awkwafina (Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens) and Hailee Steinfeld (Dickinson) — from this year’s biggest shows who are taking on executive producer credits with their starring roles, frequently juggling multiple duties on set and having greater control over their projects.
“Creatively, I feel like I get to be there from seed to fruit,” says Bryant, 33, of her second season exec producing Hulu’s Shrill, which she co-created with showrunner Alexandra Rushfield and writer Lindy West. Awkwafina, 32, who transitioned into the producer role for the first time with her Comedy Central show, says, “I’m able to now do things like if I totally want to rewrite a scene, I can do that on the spot — on other sets, that’s not really your place to do that.”
At a time when the push for diversity is stronger than ever, several actresses see the control that comes with a producer role can extend to having a key say in hiring and creating a more welcome space for women and people of color on their sets.
Rae, now in the fourth season as co-creator, EP and star of HBO’s Insecure, highlights being able to bring on other Black and female EPs, directors, cast and crewmembers that reflect the onscreen stories of two Black women and their lives in Los Angeles.
“It feels good to know that behind set design and behind costumes, there’s just an intention there and another eye paying attention to details in ways that come from a knowing place, as opposed to a guessing place or a purely aesthetic place,” Rae, 35, says.
For Awkwafina, that means using her power to uplift others. But because hers is a show inspired by her own real-life beginnings in New York, she says it also requires that she “establish a voice — my voice. When you’re bringing people into a world as precious as your own life, you need that voice to exist, because it’s not a good feeling to have your life represented in a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s you.”
While that producer power is increasingly valuable in Hollywood, it’s not always all glitz and glam to balance being an actress with the producer’s duties of casting, financing, scheduling, shooting, editing and marketing the show.
Steinfeld, who was shooting season two of Dickinson — a modern, often comedic retelling of Emily Dickinson’s teenage years — as season one was unveiled with the November launch of Apple TV+, recalls “having my brain fully occupied at all times” and sacrificing her usual moments of off-camera downtime for calls with casting directors.
“I would find that it would take me a rehearsal or two, sometimes a take or two, to re-get into it, because minutes prior we were on a phone call that ran 45 minutes over and that’s where my head is at,” the 23-year-old says of coming back to shoot after breaks spent in production meetings. “It was a bit challenging to switch gears constantly.”
During the first season of Shrill, Bryant jokes, she tried to nail her lines in as few takes as possible. “I was really conscious of like, ‘Oh, this costs a lot,’ ” she says. Bryant also notes the downside of having to wade so deeply into the business aspect of the industry. “You have to look at the bigger marketing landscape or those kinds of things … Not that that’s a downside, but I think that’s the part that I enjoy the least because it just feels less artistically pure or something,” she says. “It’s a complicated thing and one helps the other, but sometimes getting into that stuff, I’m like, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I got into this to do.’ “
For those shows that dive into the romantic lives of their lead characters, that also puts these stars in the position of producing their own sex scenes. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement, many productions have begun using intimacy coordinators during those types of scenes — with HBO hiring coordinators across all of its programming — to provide a safer and more comfortable environment for cast and crew.
Bryant reveals that she asked for an intimacy coordinator to be hired during the second season of her show, for love scenes opposite her onscreen boyfriend Ryan, played by Luca Jones — a move that drew upon her more empowered on-set status. “I don’t know if I would have ever dipped my foot into that area if I couldn’t have also been a producer in the mix — even when it comes to hiring directors who I think will be thoughtful and who I can communicate what we expect,” she says. “Just creatively talking with the directors about like, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to convey story-wise with the sex scene, and so let that be the focus rather than nasty panning body shots.’ All of our sex scenes are very story-motivated rather than just steamy-motivated, and even being able to vocalize that point of view, I don’t know if I could do that as just an actor.”
Washington says Little Fires Everywhere, which follows two intertwined families sparring over race and class differences, also hired an intimacy coordinator. As one of the bosses on set, she felt it was important for other actors to have that outlet during scenes with her. “I was really grateful for an intimacy coordinator because in my scenes with people, I never wanted the other actor to feel like they couldn’t say, ‘Don’t touch me there’ or ‘Don’t do that’ because I was the producer, right?” she explains. “I didn’t want the actor in the scene with me to feel like he couldn’t have a voice because his love scene was with the producer. I felt like the intimacy coordinator was almost there for him more than they were there for me — but also for me.”
Rae, who filmed her first-ever sex scene on Insecure, says she’s grateful that it “happened on my own terms because I was already terrified and it was my own show.” In scenes not involving herself, she also makes it a point to “make sure that it’s up to [the actors’] standards and they feel as comfortable as they can given the circumstances.”
Steinfeld also emphasizes the importance of protecting her fellow actors during those intimate moments. “That’s an advantage, knowing exactly how they’re feeling as an actor, understanding my fellow castmates and being able to have a certain level of power as a producer to where I can help them either be more comfortable or more secure in what we’re shooting,” the Dickinson star says.
Sex scenes aside, these actresses say becoming an EP has given them greater insight into the business and ability to explore areas of production they had never dabbled in. For Awkwafina and Bryant, that has awakened an interest in casting. “As someone that was doing self-tapes for a long time, it’s like, ‘So this is what has gone on! This is what y’all are doing behind the scenes,’ ” Awkwafina jokes.
After casting for two seasons on her show, Bryant says, “Every time I’m at a comedy show, I’m like, ‘Oh, I would love to see what that person can do’ or, ‘Oh, it’d be great to write something for them.’ I just can’t stop thinking about that stuff.”
For Rae, now neck-deep in a virtual writing room for Insecure‘s fifth season, the story is the key to it all: “Hearing the intention behind the season, behind every episode — I go in not having to prepare as much as I would if I came in cold. I understand why we wrote specific lines and I understand every process of every scene. There is no better character study than that.”
Producing partners also help carry the load when a star is weighed down in filming, as with Rae’s showrunner, Prentice Penny (“It’s gone from leaning on him a lot to feeling like a full partnership”), and Washington’s senior vp production and development at Simpson Street, Pilar Savone.
“Pilar understands how much I love to produce and how in the trenches I am and that I’m really a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of producer, but she also understands that I need space as a creative person to do my work. So it’s a dance, it’s always a dance,” Washington says. “There are hours of the day where she knows I have to really have my actor hat on, and so if things can wait, they need to wait, and she’s good at putting out fires when I’m not available or stalling until I can come out of that intense creative zone to have more of a logistical, producorial perspective.”
For some of the first-time producers, their latest projects have unlocked new career goals that will take them more offscreen than on. “I would love to produce a project that I am not acting in because I do think that it’s such an incredible role in and of itself, and I would love to have just that to purely focus on 100 percent,” Steinfeld says, inspired by others in Hollywood who have brought books and real-life stories they loved to life. “I think that would be just a whole different ballgame for me.”
Bryant, likewise, admits of producing, “I love it, I maybe love it more than being on camera.” Despite her full plate of appearing on SNL and starring in and producing Shrill, Bryant says she’s started to write and produce shows for other actors.
Some, though, look forward to taking on projects where they’re not in the driver’s seat. Awkwafina teases that after working rigorous hours on her show, “it’s also nice to go onto a set where I’m not producing and I come in and say my line and then I’m just like, ‘All right, I’m going to go to crafty now and have some nuts.’ ” Others have trouble taking off the producer hat when shifting into new projects where their roles are strictly onscreen.
“I talk about this all the time with Eva Longoria,” Washington says. “Sometimes you go onto a set as an actor and then you want to say like, ‘Oh, why don’t you put the camera here?’ or ‘Why don’t you do that?’ It’s like, it’s not your job! It’s just not your job.”
By Tyler Coates
These actresses have all won acclaim (and awards) for their performances but have taken home even bigger prizes as producers and creators
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman – Big Little Lies
Kidman may have won an Emmy for her performance in the HBO series, but the prize for outstanding limited series was shared between the actress and her co-star and fellow EP. In her acceptance speech, Witherspoon noted the importance of “bringing women to the front of their own stories.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Fleabag
Waller-Bridge’s game-changing Amazon series just about swept every awards show last year, including the Emmys, where she won for acting, writing and outstanding comedy series. “Well, this is just getting ridiculous,” the actress-writer producer quipped when she picked up her third trophy of the evening.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
Louis-Dreyfus’ portrayal of Selina Meyer earned her six consecutive Emmy wins for outstanding lead actress, but her role as a producer on the HBO series brought in an additional three Emmys for outstanding comedy series. The comedian, tied with Cloris Leachman for the most performing Emmys, now has 11 statues at home.
Tina Fey – 30 Rock
The former SNL head writer had a star turn on her NBC meta-comedy about a late night variety show writer, but it’s worth noting that all of her Emmy wins — three for outstanding comedy series and one for outstanding writing in a comedy series — were earned for her work off-camera as creator and producer.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.