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Power Player: Funny and Fearless, Showrunner Courtney Kemp Knows Exactly Where the Buck Stops

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

It is roughly two minutes into my interview with creator, showrunner and producer Courtney Kemp, and she has already discussed red lipstick, offered me lunch and plunged into an insightful critique of misogyny in Hollywood. 

“There were definitely certain issues, especially early on, with being the definitive voice and having to say the buck stops here, even if I am wearing lipstick and a skirt,” she says. “It’s still my show. I’m still the showrunner.”

That show, which Kemp created, is the critically acclaimed Starz drama Power, currently in production for its fifth season and considered to be the network’s most watched original series to date. (The latest season averaged around 8 million viewers per week—for reference, that’s a number topped in premium cable only by HBO’s Game of Thrones.) The series marks her debut as a creator and showrunner, though she has been producing and writing for years for shows including The Bernie Mac ShowInjustice, and The Good Wife.

People are often surprised to learn that Kemp—who is direct but warm, with a big smile and mischievous laugh—is at the helm of Power, a gritty New York drama full of drugs, guns and gangs. “Im a black woman showrunner,” she states. “Which means sometimes that goes along with, ‘What? Youre a showrunner?’’’

“I think being a woman actually has been harder than being of color,” she continues. “I think that both things do define who I am and my experience on the planet. But being taken seriously as a woman, given the content of my show—my race was always going to make me a more authentic voice for people and make people trust me with this subject matter, or in this world with these characters. But my gender often was a challenge.”

Among those challenges: the frustration with others asking her to speak “as a woman” about sexism and misogyny, most recently in terms of the ongoing exposure of a deep history of sexual assault in Hollywood.

“I think we are ignoring a lot when we talk about this as a womens issue,” she says. “Its a power issue.”

Courtney Kemp discusses a scene on the set of Power with cast
member Omari Hardwick. Center: EP Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson

While she’s glad that the voices of those who have been exploited currently are being heard, Kemp admits she’s not optimistic about recent events having a lasting effect. “This is going to be a brief window I think, where this is going to be taken seriously. I think that we will snap back. Because everything is cyclical,” she says, though she quickly adds that she hopes she’s wrong. She is adamant, however, that any lasting change will require work by everybody.

“We have to not look at it as a binary and look at it as everyone’s responsibility,” she counsels. “I always get the question: ‘What can you do, as a woman?’ And it’s like, well, ask everybody.”

In fact, Kemp hates being asked her stance on anything “as a woman,” something she has spoken about at length. “I just hate gender essentialism, racial essentialism, essentialism in terms of sexuality or gender status … I hate all of that.” She instead values individual experience and emotional truth, both of which lie at the core of her beliefs about storytelling.

“You can’t say that because someone is a straight white man that they don’t understand. Because you don’t know what they understand. You can’t say because someone is a black woman that she can’t write, you know, the Lance Armstrong story,” she says firmly. “Thats the thing that I think is sort of my rallying cry, that writers can write anything.”

While the factual backgrounds of stories may require research, Kemp is insistent that what matters most when writing characters is accessing their emotional truth, which everybody experiences. She describes the wide range of characters she writes as all fundamentally coming from different parts of herself.

“Because when you’re writing at 2 in the morning, you only have yourself to draw on,” she explains. “You can’t really call anyone else and wake them out of a sound sleep and be like, ‘Well what would you do?’ So you really have to go for emotional truth.” And that, she insists, “knows no race, no gender, no color, no sexual orientation. Hurt, heartbreak, pain, struggle, triumph: they don’t know any thing to do with the person or the race, gender, et cetera of the character … The outside of the character isn’t what people are connecting to anyway.”

As with challenging sexism offscreen, Kemp believes a storyteller’s power to tell any story means the responsibility for crafting the still-scarce “strong female character” is on everybody. “When people ask me, ‘Tell me about how you create such strong female characters,’ Im like, ‘Ask the guys that. Why they dont. Why they choose not to.’”

Kemp herself is about to send another powerful woman to screens across the country, having recently announced her next project: the series Get Christie Lovewhich secured a pilot production commitment with ABC in a competitive bidding war this autumn. The show is inspired by the 1974 TV movie and subsequent series Get Christie Love, which starred Teresa Graves as an undercover CIA agent and was the first drama on network television to star a black woman. Kemp has been striving to remake the historically important project for years and has vivid memories of first seeing the original. “I was like: This woman is a badass. And she’s black, and she’s powerful, and she doesn’t care. She’s not hung up. She has freedom.”

Kemp first began working on a remake several years ago, right after her father passed away, partly in order to work through attendant feelings of helplessness. Working on the strong character of Christie was in part an attempt to answer the question, “How do I get my power back?” However Kemp temporarily shelved Christie when Power took of on Starz.

Kemp is cautiously hopeful about Get Christie Love’s prospects, explaining, “I think it is a good time for a black woman to be on TV—y’know, speaking multiple languages, kicking ass, being vulnerable, having a complicated love life.” She also believes that “There’s a space and a time in the culture for a black woman showrunner to have multiple shows on the air,” as has been proven by Kemp’s soon-to-be-colleague at ABC, Shonda Rhimes.

She’s very pragmatic about the reasons for that time and space, however. “People actually want this content right now because they think they can make money. Because the only color that matters in Hollywood is green. So when people are like, ‘Oh, is it more open now?’” Kemp laughs and continues, “No! People know how to make money!”

Kemp created her production company, End of Episode, in part to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to have multiple shows on the air. “The idea is to really make more TV that is more inclusive of everybody and get everybody’s stories on,” she maintains. These days, though, it seems one of the hardest parts of telling those stories is finding time to write them.

“It’s almost impossible to get time to write,” she says. “I have to steal it.” She walks over to a bookcase in her office and pulls out a stack of signs, which she says she sometimes puts on her door. One is a flowchart guiding would-be interrupters through the process of deciding if they should knock (they shouldn’t). One says, “You made a wise choice.” Several provide directions to her assistant’s office, and one, which makes her laugh, that says simply, “NO.” “If Im going to write,” she explains, “this is the one that has to be up.”

Courtney Kemp on the set of Power with
cast member Omari Hardwick.

The writing needs to be as insulated as possible from the avalanche of other showrunning responsibilities. Though the writers’ room is her preferred home base, she flies back and forth between her set in New York and her writers’ room and editing suites in LA “pretty much constantly,” she says. “The writers’ room has to live without me. It has to make decisions without me, it has to breathe without me. And then I have to come in and go, ‘Okay, that doesnwork because I have a global idea of what the series is.’” She is, again, where the buck stops, creatively as well as logistically.

“Writing is what if, and producing is what is,” she explains. Her life as showrunner is a constant, often-contradictory balancing act between the creative impulses of making a television show.

“There’s so many different elements that you need to control, or at least try to control, because so many things will be out of your control,” she observes. “I mean, theres a hurricane—what are you supposed to do about that, right? Trucks get flooded, things get stolen, actors get sick. There’s so much you can’t control that you can only write for what you can, and that’s producing.”

Kemp credits mentors like Michelle and Robert King, Jef Melvoin and Greg Berlanti with giving her the information she needed to become a first-rate producer. “I still do things to this day that I learned from Greg,” she notes. He gave her tips on everything from season plotting (have a singular vision and keep coming back to “What is the show?”) to staff hours (10-6; give your staff the weekends of) to working dinners (“Once the foodarrived and everyones eaten, its 9p.m. What the hell? Just go home! Start in the morning”).

He [Berlanti] would take us to the editing room. We would learn how to edit,” she recalls. “It was very much a ‘teaching hospital.’ The best shows are.”

Kemp consults with direct J.J. Bassett (middle) and DP Mauricio -
Rubinstein(left) on location in NYC for the
Power season 2 finale.

Now that she has shows of her own, Kemp’s latest challenge is navigating the ways in which being a showrunner also means being a public figure. “Being recognized is weird,” she admits, adding that her experiences of being recognized come in pockets, “because of the ways that the shows audience has broken down.” She laughs as she tells a story about being recognized by a salesperson while checking out in Sephora. “I had one girl go, like, ‘You’re a legend!’ And I was like, ‘Uh, no. I need eyeliner! But I’m not a legend.’”

While fans of Power are passionate – “I’m so grateful to our fans and I love them, and I’m so really, really thankful for their watching,” she adds—Kemp goes back and forth between experiences like that and competing instances of frequently not being recognized by others in her own industry.

“I’ll literally be at like a showrunner’s event or something, and someone will be like, ‘Oh, hey, can I get some more water?’ They think I’m like a waiter,” she says. “Because there’s no way I’m a showrunner, right? I don’t ‘look like a showrunner.’”

Kemp is calm as she continues, though it’s clear that the feelings run deep. Sometimes when that happens, she explains who she is and what she does; sometimes she just walks away.

“You don’t have to educate people every time,” she refects. “You don’t always have to make it about well you should’ve known, or you should have recognized, or at this point you should be educated enough to realize, ‘Look, anybody could be anything.’ Because maybe you’re the education.”

She smiles a little. “My existence is enough. Like, I got in the room the same way you did. Came up with a good story. That’s it.”

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