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Chris Nee has often said she is half of the world’s babysitter, and in many ways she is. The 52-year-old creator of Peabody-winning Disney juggernaut Doc McStuffins — about a Black girl who dreams of becoming a doctor, like her mom, and tends to a rotation of toys that fall sick — has continued churning out must-see children’s fare, including Vampirina and her latest, Ridley Jones. The latter, about a girl who lives at the natural history museum where the creatures (including a nonbinary bison named Fred) come alive at night, is the first preschool series to come out of Nee’s sweeping Netflix deal. The prolific producer recently released the animated civics series We the People, a collaboration with the Obamas’ Higher Ground, which she’s also in business with on Ada Twist, one of a half-dozen upcoming series from Nee. Seated outside on her back patio in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles earlier this month, the gay mother of one teen boy spoke candidly about her journey.
You began at Boston University with acting as your focus. How quickly did you shift behind the camera?
Pretty early, and for multiple reasons. I’m not sure I was good enough; I had stage fright; and there was not a space for me to be a performer at that time. I had a shaved head, I couldn’t pass. The comment that I always got was that I was “too dykey,” which they would actually say in evaluations.
You got your start working on international editions of Sesame Street. What did you learn?
I was not necessarily trying to get into kids TV, per se. I was looking for a foot into TV. I remember they flew me to the Middle East. Again, I had my head shaved. This is in 1996 or ‘97. I fly into Amman, Jordan, on a first-class ticket with a schlubby T-shirt and bad jeans, and I move into one of the first-class hotels that was bombed a few years later. We’d record through the night at this recording studio and then I’d come back to the hotel at three or four in the morning. They definitely thought I was a spy. One night, someone jumped on my elevator, stopped it and said, “Who do you work for?” I was 27 and I went “Big Bird,” but they don’t have Sesame Street so it sounded like a code name. (Laughs.) What I learned is that the core emotions of childhood are universal. Fear is felt the same way around the world. I also learned about specificity of character. I’ve always thought you could do a personality test on which character someone [identifies with on] Sesame Street. I’m a Grover and Prairie Dawn.
So, what does that say about you?
I’m big, enthusiastic and goofy mixed with a little bit of anality. (Laughs.) But preschool TV went through eras where we just weren’t making anyone specific or flawed or really grounded. We were so into curriculum that those things were lost. What I love about where we are now is we’ve come back to a character-based way of writing things. It’s so much more satisfying.
You’ve often described yourself as the “bad girl of preschool TV,” and yet your shows have this gooey center. How do you reconcile how you perceive yourself with what you’re putting out into this world?
I’m writing the world as I want it to be. To truly know me is to know that I have the gooiest of centers. I’m the fastest to cry. And if I love you, I love you in all ways. But I walk in with a chip on my shoulder, waiting for people to judge me or to call me sir. The world is passed a lot of that, but I still carry it. When we were first doing publicity for Doc, I was very clear with myself that I would never lie about my life or my family. I assumed Disney would want to sidestep it, but they kept setting up press for my whole family [her son and former partner]. And I was like, “Oh, I’m behind.”
What was the bigger fight on Doc McStuffins: Doc being a girl or being Black?
Her being Black was a quick yes. The girl piece was interesting. I pitched Doc as a girl, but in the pilot, which I’m amazed has never leaked, Doc was a boy. Disney bought the show and said, “We think the character needs to be a boy.” It was about what was on the channel then. They weren’t paying attention. I remember thinking, “This is a terrible idea, but development takes years so I have time to get it back to being a girl.” And nobody else had bought it. Nickelodeon famously passed.
It seems like your Disney tenure wasn’t light on battles.
A lot of blood was lost. Disney is very meddling. That said, it was very hard to choose to leave there. I ended up with a very good thing, but you’re constantly fighting back a million notes, and I certainly found my sea legs to do that. It’s the Disney way. They’d put a lot of new execs with me and I was not easy on them.
I’m not very compromising. (Laughs.) When I got to Netflix, I had to recalibrate how to know how I felt about something because I didn’t have to fight. Sometimes the fighting is how I’d learn what I cared the most about and what I could let go of. I didn’t let go of a lot at Disney. I thought of myself as training executives to not give me stupid notes.
Given the growing demand for kids fare, has the respect for and treatment of its producers improved?
It’s always driven me crazy but I don’t feel it as much anymore. But there wasn’t anyone doing what I’m doing, which is saying, “I’m not going to pretend that I’m not providing the same revenues as people who are getting bigger overall deals.” The other thing was pay equity, which I fought very hard for.
What did that fight look like?
When I got to Disney, there was no profit participation for any of us. It’s an intense thing to be told, “It’s never existed before.” I would call [Disney execs] and say, “Just so you know, someday you’re going to give it to me because it’s fair.” And animation writers do not get residuals. So, when I was first working on Doc, I had a terrible deal. Amortized over weeks, my story editor was making more money than I was— and I had no connection whatsoever to the success of that show. My songwriters and actors did, because they had royalties and residuals, but not me. It was clear that I was potentially creating my own bitterness, as I realized I was on a rocket, so I set out to change it.
I went and found a team around me who understood that I fucking love the fight. I ended up with a groundbreaking deal with profit participation, and it was done in many ways with Phineas and Ferb. It’s their story to tell, but I’d been hearing rumors that those guys [creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh] had finally broken [the participation precedent], and while I didn’t know them at the time, I knew people in common, so I reached out to Dan. I said, “This is who I am. This is what’s happening. I’m hearing you guys may have done something.” He canceled his lunch and I drove over that day and he gave me the information I needed to hold firm [and get participation in my deal]. But then I wasn’t satisfied with just changing my deal, I wanted to change the deal structure [for everyone]. And they didn’t give me a gag order, so I called every other showrunner and I’d say, “This is going to be a really uncomfortable conversation, but it’s going to give you what you need to know to change things.” Then I’d share every number I just got. I intended to tell the first round of people and then they would [pass it on], but then they all got gag orders.
My advice is to find someone to be your salary buddy. Early on, I found somebody doing something similar to me and we made an agreement that every time we had a new deal, we’d call the other person and say, “This is what I got.” And we’d always find something that somebody had said they don’t do, like a housing benefit or business class travel, and because the other person had gotten it you’d then go after it. And then when somebody would say, “Well, we don’t do that,” you could be like, “Yes you do,” which changes everything. Secrecy only helps them.
I want to shift to your Netflix work. One of your upcoming series, Ada Twist, Scientist, marks your second collaboration with the Obamas’ Higher Ground. How did you identify Ada as a character that you wanted to develop for TV?
Actually, Higher Ground and Netflix found the book first. I certainly knew the book series because I spend a lot of time in children’s bookstores. I like to see what’s out there, and it’s just graphically so beautiful. And right when I got to Netflix, they came to me, and when the Obama’s ask you directly if you would take on a project, one thinks deeply about it. And I almost said no.
Why is that?
Because I was like, “If we’re doing the hard-core science show, the three tablespoons of this, and one tablespoon of that, I’m not that person.” Those are the shows that used to make me cry when I drove to work. So, I was hemming and hawing a bit. Then we came up with this idea of the emotions of science, and that science actually talks a lot about how important failure and grit are. Once we got there, I was like, “Oh yeah. Now I know this show, I’m in.”
And from what I’ve read, you worked closely with Mrs. Obama on the character. Is that right?
Yeah, I flew to D.C. after I had written the pilot and the bible and we had maybe a round or two of art. I sat down with Mrs. Obama to say, “OK, here’s the template. Let’s talk about what’s working and what’s not working.” And it was amazing to sit with her and also really interesting. She had stuff like Ada’s hair in the design was too tight. It looked painful to her.
Your latest series, Ridley Jones, is an action-adventure series starring a girl, which is somehow novel in 2021. How is that?
Look, in my end of the business, I think we’ve internalized this idea that something has to be a boy or a girl show. It always trickles down to, “There are two shelves, and toys have to go in one or the other.” And if the lead is a girl, and she’s an adventure star, which lane does it go in? But I tend to not give a shit, so I’m just going to push forward — and of all the characters that I’ve written, she’s the one I would have loved as a kid. And let me say the one other thing, which I think is important, which is that in the preschool end of the business there aren’t a ton of people who look like me.
Yeah, so I’m writing the action-adventure girl because that’s who I am. And I’m very, very clear that a lot of girls love princesses, and I took my stab at the princess show around the time that Sofia the First was being developed. [My version] definitely had a different flair, and I also kept being like, “I don’t think I should be working on a show where I have to talk to the princess council. That just seems wrong.” (Laughs.) I just think things are different depending on who’s behind the creation of it, and so I’m creating something I want to see and I’m not sure that there are that many people like me [making preschool shows]. I actually think there are a lot of queer writers [writing for] six to 11, but, yeah, less so in preschool.
At this point, do you have a clear sense of what your mandate at Netflix is, and how is it different from your mandate at Disney?
This is going to sound really arrogant, but I think for other people there are guidelines, as there always are. But until I miss terribly, the people at Netflix are genuinely excited about what I’m excited about and that’s a beautiful thing. So whatever the conversations are with other creators are not the conversations with me. With me, it’s, “What do you want to do next?”
That sounds great, so long as it doesn’t cause creative paralysis, and it clearly hasn’t in your case.
No, I think my girlfriend would love me to be a little more paralyzed. (Laughs.) Part of what I’m trying to figure out right at this moment is how much bigger I can get because I still want to directly create things and I still want to write.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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