Our heart-to-heart with the kickass ladies of 'Downtown Girls'
I binge watched the entire first season of Downtown Girls in an evening when I got home from work one night after hearing about the web series from writer Jessica Lamour. It’s not the same as binge watching a show like Breaking Bad — it’s quicker and it doesn’t leave you an emotional wreck on your couch with mascara running down your face and side-eyeing everyone you know wondering if they too could break bad like Walter White — but it was fun and refreshing to see a group of young women of color just trying to survive in New York City. They show us that surviving isn’t easy, but we get to watch them navigate the challenges by being clever, absolutely outrageous at times, and relying on the strength of their friendships to get by. I spoke with Lamour and the powerhouses of Downtown Girls, who play the roles of creators, directors, and actors on the show, about how the series came to be, what motivates them to keep going, and about some of their favorite female creators.
Can you start by introducing yourselves and your current roles on the show?
Chandra: My name is Chandra [Russell] and I’m one of the creators and directors of Downtown Girls. I also play Zo on the show.
Crystal: I’m Crystal Boyd, also a creator and I play the role of Abney.
Emebeit: I’m Emebeit Beyene, Creator, Director and I play the character Sam.
Jessica: Hi I’m Jessica Lamour, I’m the writer of the series.
I admit I’m a little obsessed with origin stories and love when creative people come together to produce great work. How did you all meet, how did you all get involved with Downtown Girls, and how did you pull Jessica in as a writer?
CR: We were literally all together kicking back and forth ideas to get our careers moving and voicing our frustrations and Downtown Girls was born.
EB: We figured that instead of waiting for opportunities to come to us, we’d go ahead and create it ourselves.
CB: The inception of Downtown Girls started right after NYU. Emebeit, Chandra, Chivonne (the fourth actress on the show), and I started a production company, 1990 Lex Productions. It’s a multi-media entertainment production company that is dedicated to creating a new narrative that deconstructs modern experiences, explores relationships, and celebrates women.
EB: We are real life best friends and the show came out of our real life experience transitioning into adulthood. After several failed attempts at writing for ourselves a friend of ours introduced us to Jessica, who, at the time, was in a transition of her own from working in accounting to pursuing writing. We met for brunch at the Jane Hotel in NYC and immediately clicked. She really understood our voice and her humor was right up our alley.
JL: I came into the mix after Chandra’s boyfriend and my mentor introduced me to them to help write the web series. I thought these girls had a great thing going. I loved their energy, work ethic, and their sense of humor was right up my alley so I instantly knew I could work with them! A lot of times you go out for a creative project only to find that all your hard work was a waste and falls through the cracks because everyone isn’t passionate about the project. But with this group, it worked because we all wanted the same thing and although we came from different paths, we shared a common interest in making people laugh and telling our unified story.
How would you describe the premise of Downtown Girls?
EB: Downtown Girls, overall, is about four recent college grads hustling to make it in NYC. Season One focused on them in their senior year at NYU; this season they impulsively decide to launch their own business, a mobile app called House Party Finder, so they turn their NYC apartment into a lucrative nightclub to raise money.
JL: At the core, Downtown Girls is about four women that just graduated college and want to make something of their lives and impact their peers. They don’t want to conform to the robotic lifestyle of a 9-5 job. And like any comedy, reaching their goal comes with many humorous obstacles and poor choices.
What made you choose a web series and YouTube as the platform for the show?
CR: Well first off, when we first started doing Downtown Girls, which was in 2010 (a series of pilots no one will ever see — so bad), web series were still a pretty new thing. It felt like uncharted territory and a good way to break away from what everyone else was doing. The further we went with it, the more interesting we became in producing content.
CB: It was a way for artists to put work out there without a middle-man, which benefited in two main ways: 1) it got content directly to our target audience of 16-34 year olds, who were definitely online and 2) it was an amazing source of exposure that could potentially lead to greater connections and help with evolution of content. A great example is Broad City, which went from web series to Comedy Central show (holler NYU!).
It’s so interesting that you mention that some of the initial work on Downtown Girls wasn’t good. I think a lot of artists, especially young or new ones, get discouraged when something doesn’t turn out great and they forget that creating terrible work is part of the process! What pushes you all to keep going?
CR: You know how people always say if you’re gonna take the compliments you have to be willing to accept criticism. Well it works both ways. Sometimes as artists we can really get down on ourselves because we’re perfectionists and we want the work to be received really well because we’re sensitive about our shit. But to only take the failures into account is dangerous. When we watched those early attempts, yes we sat cringing in silence wondering how we could make something so bad, but once we got past the shock we recognized there were also moments of greatness that shined through. Those little moments informed us that we were on to something and had the potential to create a really special and hilarious project. Clouded in unnecessary exposition were great jokes and strong points of views and stories that we hadn’t seen explored. So instead of getting caught in what didn’t work, we extracted what was awesome and pledged to get better, stronger and smarter.
EB: We come from an artistic community at NYU so the process is nothing new to us. We have a lot of supportive, experienced people in our corner who continue to encourage us to be and do better. So we are fortunate in the sense that we aren’t easily discouraged. Our shortcomings are not a testament to our talent, but of lack of experience. We started out as just actors and with time and practice we developed creators, producers and directors.
JL: What pushes me to keep going as a writer is getting feedback from peers and mentors. While I love the compliments, the constructive criticism really helps me to know where I need to put in more work and that’s what ultimately makes a difference in your craft in the long run. I want to present my best work, so it’s great to have a community of peers that you trust to share your work with. And while having a group to rely on is great, you also know when you’ve put your best foot forward and have created something funny and great.
I noticed a big shift from season one to season two, with the episodes in season two being a little longer and the episodes forming a coherent narrative from one episode to the next, as opposed to season one, which featured shorter vignettes that seemed to stand on their own. What were the reasons for the change?
EB: Well, surprisingly enough, we received fan feedback that they wished it was longer, so we did just that! We decided to make it narrative because we noticed how important it is for your audience to connect with specific characters and the only way to do that is to create storylines and arcs for them.
What’s the writing process like and do you all come together to brainstorm what you want out of each episode?
JL: We sort of work like a writers’ room where everything is pretty collaborative. We all come together to discuss and break out the overall story and each character’s story arc. Then I’ll go off and write the episodes and then we’ll come back and punch it up and make any revisions that we see fit.
EB: We literally gather in a room and ramble our ideas off to Jessica who makes sense out of all of it in writing. She comes back with full scripts and with that we flesh it out some more as a group. The final product on screen is never really true to the script. Jessica provides us with a blueprint for us to play with on set.
CR: I think with this season more than the last it was really a story about watching these girls grow into their womanhood. We sat down and figured out how we wanted each girl to grow and figuring out what challenges, fails and wins come along with that journey. And honestly the stories sometimes are loosely autobiographical, so a writing session can be hours of sitting around retelling stories and laughing at some of the nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into and some of the cracked out stuff we did to get out of it. We tell a lot on each other, no story is off limits, if its funny or poignant it’s getting used. We’ve learned to be less protective of our embarrassments, trust me. Also, Jess is our show runner, so she’s with us on set and anything that we pulled from the page that doesn’t necessarily work on the camera, she’s there to pitch jokes and ideas. It’s a really collaborative process from start to finish.
There seems to be an abundance of roles for women of color as the stereotypical sassy sidekick or the “struggle story,” so it’s refreshing to see black and brown girls just hanging out and living their lives — which maybe shouldn’t be revolutionary. But why do you think there’s a lack of this type of representation and why do you think it’s important to show women of color in this way?
CR: I think there’s a lack of representation in front of the camera, because there’s a lack of representation in the studios/networks. Those green lighting projects are not black and brown people and so their interest is not in telling those narratives accurately. I also think sometimes the writers who are writing black female characters don’t really know black women, so they go to these stock “sistah” characters, just short of finger-snapping and eye-rolling.
EB: I think that storytellers and audiences have been associating universal characters with white casts for so long that, by default, the majority of the roles available for people of color are the easy to identify stereotypes. It’s only because that’s how we’ve been trained by our TVs and movie screens. As a result, when a story is told with (or by) people of color there seems to be a need to emphasis blackness as if it’s a means of declaring presence or a voice. Personally, I am not interested in perpetuating that cycle. I am a woman and I tell stories about women. Even though I am black those stories are still universal, because it comes from a place of authenticity. That cannot be reduced to a stereotype.
JL: When we were developing our show, we wanted to be true to ourselves. We are women that are educated, funny, and goofy.
CB: It’s funny because a mentee of ours was like “I don’t want to see these women being super fierce. I don’t want ‘Independent Woman.’ There are enough of those images. I want to see black women fall flat on their face in their stilettos as they drunkenly run down the street”. And I was like. . .cool. I dig it. Basically we are just giving ourselves permission to play and be gross.
JL: Women and black women aren’t just one thing and that’s okay.
Do you think there are certain spaces (digital/new media, television, film) that are more welcoming to characters of color, women especially?
EB: Digital media is by far more welcoming and more accessible than any other medium. I mean, when was the last time you saw a play with characters of color that wasn’t about their color?! If you don’t see the characters you want to see in mainstream media you can create them online with the click of a button.
JL: I think there’s a place for characters of color on all platforms. There isn’t an abundance, but they are there. With great shows like Black-ish and Key and Peele, it will make it easier to accept.
Where do you see Downtown Girls in the future?
JL: I’d love to see Downtown Girls on a cable network. And I say cable, because it does give you more freedoms than network television. And to truly tell the story, we need those freedoms.
Who are some female creators, writers, and performers that you’re loving right now?
CB: Solange Knowles, Ursula Le Guin, Kristen Wiig, Mindy Kaling, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain, Willow Smith, Tracee Ellis Ross, FKA Twigs
EB: Beyonce, Sia, Mindy Kaling, Melissa McCarthy
JL: The women of Broad City, Aisha Muharrar, really admire the female writers on the show I’m working on — Marry Me, Rashida Jones, Casey Wilson & June Diane Raphael, Erica Oyama
CR: Tracee Ellis Ross, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Kristen Wiig, Amanda Diva, Maya Rudolph, Sommore, Zooey Deschanel, Tanisha Long, Goldie Hawn, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and forever Moms Mabley
Are there any other projects you’re working on that you want us to know about?
CB: We have other development projects on deck, from a feature film about a stoner wedding to an hour-long gritty drama set in Chicago in the early 90s, jean jackets and all.
CB: And of course, check out the new season online now at TheDowntownGirls! Leave us a note. We love notes.