Liesl Tommy thinks it's bullshit. "It" being most rules governing the current state of entertainment. An actress-cum-director, Tommy thinks it's bullshit that TV is considered a "difficult" field in which to work. Tommy thinks clone revivals — revived theater that looks identical to its original — are bullshit. Tommy is over most of it, which means she can start to build something new.
When we speak, she's in the middle of working on the musical adaptation of SE Hinton's The Outsiders. The band Jamestown Revival is scoring the show, and Tommy is directing. Tommy described it to Refinery29 as "not your father's musical theater."
Tommy specializes in what you might call "not your father's" entertainment. "I don't know why we have to filter stories through the same gaze that we have been for decades," she said when asked about the recent glut of Broadway revivals. She added, "I'm interested in a take."
Tommy's takes have made her exceptional. Her theatrical work is indisputably Tommy-esque, which is why it's important that we watch her shift to television. In 2014, she directed a production of Les Miserables that she purposefully cast "against type." She first made her official mark directing the play Eclipsed on Broadway, which earned her a Tony nomination for best direction of a play — the first Black woman to do so. Just this year, she directed a revival of Top Girls in Boston with a cast of almost entirely women of color. The Globe called it "top-notch." Then there's The Outsiders, the musical that truly doesn't belong to your father, which is having a backers audition this summer.
But her more recent and perhaps more intriguing foray has been into television and movies. This year, she directed episodes of Dietland and Insecure. (Her episode of Insecure is still forthcoming.) Last year, Ava DuVernay approached her to direct an episode of the show Queen Sugar. And in a matter of months, Tommy will be helming Born a Crime, the film adaptation of Trevor Noah's autobiography. This is a new world for Tommy, and one she's excited to conquer.
"When they offered me Queen Sugar, I was technically not available because I had a play, but we managed to sort that out," Tommy said. "But one of the things [my agent] said was that television directing — at that time — was one of the hardest fields to break into in the industry." Tommy (again) thinks this is bullshit. Television directing, she points out, is incredibly, massively collaborative. Even the most nubile director should be able to make do — although there is still an issue of access. Women and people of color still face challenges in terms of getting opportunities to enter the industry.
Tommy is someone who managed to break through the glass ceiling, and once there, she found a support system. "There's a whole system in place in terms of producers and writers, and the AD, and all of the departments," she said. "Which is why I think the whole 'TV is one of the hardest things to break into' is so bogus. Because there's actually so much support. You have to really, really work hard to fail at television directing because there's so many levels of safety net."
For Tommy, directing Insecure was a dream. She entered in season 3, when the characters have evolved beyond their season 1 loglines. "I was thrilled when I got that script," she said. "What I think [Insecure] wisely did is that they doubled down on their characters' emotional integrity. It felt very intimate to me. Relationships were going deeper, friendships were going deeper."
She told Refinery29 that she was consistently delighted by showrunner Issa Rae, and not just by Rae's acting ability. Rae is disciplined. Per Tommy, Rae is the first person to arrive at every meeting she attends. And, when she acts, she acts. As a director, Tommy said, she could easily forget that Rae was both a producer and a writer. "The woman is working constantly. And yet, every time I gave her a note, energetically, she was completely available. She would act like she had no part of the writing of it. That's how available she was to my notes and our exchanges."
Tommy's work in TV is not insignificant. A Directors Guild of America report for the 2016 - 2017 season demonstrated that white men are still the go-to for television direction. Almost two-thirds of episodic TV directors for the 2016 - 2017 season were white men, while a slim 5% were minority women. (White women directed 16% of episodes, while minority men directed 17%.) Speaking to Variety in 2015, Arrow producer Wendy Mericle put it this way: "Executive producers are like, ‘Well, I can’t get any agents to send [women and people of color] to me.’ Agents are like, ‘I can’t get these people approved by the network.’ The network is saying, ‘The studio won’t approve them.’ There’s a vicious cycle of people saying it’s somebody else’s fault."
In other words, it's bullshit. The people who are changing the game are people like DuVernay, who hired solely women directors for Queen Sugar. "My first five episodes [I directed] — those jobs were given to me by female showrunners," Tommy pointed out. "That's pretty significant, right? We're in an age of women giving other women jobs and opportunities."
Tommy's career moves so far have led her to the white whale of opportunities: the Trevor Noah biopic, which Lupita Nyong'o is producing. Tommy is supervising development, and trying her best to highlight the "backbone" of the story.
"When you're doing an adaptation of a biopic — oftentimes, stories that are birth to death are not emotionally gripping because they try to do too much," Tommy noted. "So, a film like Selma, you really get to know the man through how he tackles a particular moment in time. And that is all about specificity and understanding the spine of your story." Born a Crime is still in the development process, and Tommy can't comment on casting.
Her success is proof that it is bullshit. That the TV ceiling shouldn't exist. In Tommy's words: "The success of [Queen Sugar] and of those directors are just a testament to this, in my opinion, imaginary barrier of 'quality and experience' that kept us all from being a part of the landscape."
Nothing is going to keep Liesl Tommy from the TV landscape.
This story has been updated to correct factual details.
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