‘All American’ Showrunner Nkechi Carroll on Revealing the Characters’ Backstories

     February 6, 2019

all-american-nkechi-carroll-interviewInspired by the life of NFL player Spencer Paysinger, The CW drama series All American follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a rising high school football player whose promising talent leads football coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) to recruit him from South Crenshaw High to join the team at Beverly High School in Beverly Hills. Once there, Spencer has to learn how to blend the mistakes of his past with the opportunities of the present, in a way where he also doesn’t lose himself, in the process.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Nkechi Carroll talked about giving the viewers glimpses into the characters’ backstories in Episode 12, called “Back in the Day,” the tear-jerker moments, how all of the revelations will affect them going forward, her transition to showrunner of the series, how she went from working at the Federal Reserve to being a storyteller for TV, whether she lived up to the bar she set for herself on the series, and having a good idea of what Season 2 would be, if they get to continue telling this story. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.

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Collider: I’m a big fan of this show, which took me by surprise because I’m very much not a football person and I often feel like I’m too old for high school shows now. But this show has such quality storytelling and such a great cast that none of that mattered, once I started watching it.

NKECHI CARROLL: Thank you! And I love that you love it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. We joke, all the time, that we don’t know what we’re gonna do over hiatus. We’ll probably just spend the whole time with everyone because it really has become a family here, which has made it amazing for the storytelling. Everyone is so invested in the show and, as a showrunner, that’s a dream. You really couldn’t ask for better than that. They’ve really elevated everything that we’ve given them, and it’s been such an absolute pleasure to work with this cast.

You weren’t the showrunner on All American from day one, but it seems like you stepped up and stepped in pretty seamlessly. What was it like to step into that position, where everyone is looking to you for all of the answers, whether you actually have them or not? How do you get past those nerves?

CARROLL: You put one foot in front of the other, and you keep going. I’ve been involved in the process since day one, and April Blair, who created the show, was very collaborative. From when we sat down and figured out what the season and the big arcs were gonna be, we were all always involved in that process. And so, when she stepped down from the show and they asked to me to step in, it was very seamless because I had a great blueprint and had been part of forming it. It didn’t feel like I was stepping into something foreign. It was just like, “Oh, okay, now I am the final decision maker, rather than being one of the decision makers.” The cast, crew and everyone made it such a seamless transition and were so on board. They said, “Listen, whatever we can do to make this transition easy and to help, we’ll do.” Everyone just stepped up, which made it amazing. It really is like a family, so we were gonna keep the show going, keep turning out scripts, and keep shooting, and everyone really stepped up. It’s been a real blessing.

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I love that prior to becoming a television writer, you were an economist at the Federal Reserve, which seems like a big career leap. How did you leave that path and end up on this path? Was being a storyteller something you always wanted to do?

CARROLL: Yeah. To have my mom tell it, I guess I’ve been telling stories since a very young age, usually to get myself out of trouble. Yeah, I’ve always loved storytelling. I went to boarding school in England, and spent a lot of time with Oxford Youth Theater and studying Shakespeare, and just fell in love with the art of storytelling. For a very brief moment, I was like, “Oh, maybe I wanna be an actor,” but then, I was like, “No, I don’t. My love is of the word, but not actually performing it.” It was something that I’ve loved from a very early age, but I also come from a traditional Nigerian family, so it was like, “Doctor, banker, or lawyer. Pick one.” And I actually, legitimately, had a genuine love for economics, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll go to college for that,” but the deal I made with myself was that I would always keep up to date with the arts. So, even when I was studying economics at college, I was still writing plays in Philadelphia. When I started working for the Federal Reserve in New York, I was putting up plays at black box theaters in New York. It was always a part of me, and something that I always fed. And then, one day when I was burning the candle at both ends and doing economic analysis at the Federal Reserve, every day, and then would leave to go to whatever theater at night, and some nights, I would make it back home and some I wouldn’t, and I would shower and change at the gym at work and go right back out to the trading desk, I finally walked in the door and was like, “I need to pick one. I don’t wanna be sitting on my couch, watching the Oscars or the Emmys and being like, ‘I never gave it a try.’” God bless my husband who was like, “Listen, I’m a teacher. I can teach anywhere. If you want to give this a shot, let’s do it.” And so, we did. We packed up and moved to L.A., with no idea of how we were gonna make it work, and we just hit the ground running. I did a bunch of short films and web series, and anything that I could do to get my name out there, as a writer. One of my short films did really well on the film festival circuit, and that landed me my literary manager. I was just writing every hour of the day, and then I got my break when I met Hart Hansen and he was staffing writers for the Bones spin-off, The Finder, and he hired me. He saw something in my writing that he loved. And so, I quit my job at the Federal Reserve. By that time, I was working for the L.A. office, so I literally quit my job on a Friday, and then started on the Fox lot that next Monday. Thankfully, I’ve been writing, ever since.

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I love this next episode, “Back in the Day,” because we finally get to see certain aspects of the backstories and the histories of these characters, brought to life in a way that really gives us a deeper understanding of them. What was it like to get to explore and show us who these characters were, before we got to meet them?

CARROLL: This is something, since day one, that we’ve been like, “Eventually, we’re gonna wanna tell the backstory.” In the pilot, Grace said that she wanted Spencer to move to Beverly Hills because he’d been in out of trouble in Crenshaw, and she saw it as a way of saving his life, but we’ve only met the really responsible Spencer. We wanted to know what the Spencer who was in and out of trouble looked like, that would force her to call someone she hadn’t spoken to in so long, to ask for help. That was obviously a very difficult call for her to make. And it was the same thing with Olivia, Samantha Logan’s character. Samantha was unbelievable in the filming of this. This was a tough one for her, and she beyond delivered. She was amazing. We didn’t want it to just be like, “Oh, her addict background is just something cool that makes her edgy.” We wanted to really authentically tell that story of what a lot of teens go through, in this day and age, and show what it’s like when the addiction takes over. We felt like, as opposed to just talking about it, we needed people to see it, for it to really authentically describe what happened and for it to really hit home. That was where the genesis of the idea came from. It shows the worst day, in both of their lives because it determined so much of who Spencer and Olivia are today and where they are today.

There are also definite tear-jerker moments in the episode. Was there one that most got you, especially seeing what the cast brought to it?

CARROLL: Oh, my gosh, there were absolutely a few. The O.D. scene with the Bakers, the minute Jordan realizes what’s happened to his sister, and seeing the way they fought and rallied to bring her back, gets me every time. Between editing and everything, I’ve probably seen that episode a billion times, and without fail, every time, I’m a mess with the waterworks. Our sound mixers laugh at me and are like, “You watch it like you’re watching it for the first time.” There’s also the moment with Coop and her dad. That first time she jumps into his arms, I was done.

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How will all of what we see in this episode affect the characters, going forward?

CARROLL: From this point on, in our ramp up to our season finale, our characters’ worlds are gonna explode around them. We felt it was really important to understand what they come from, what their foundation is, and what they’ve overcome, so that you have an understanding of why they’re reacting the way they react, or why they have the strength they have, in a moment where you wouldn’t expect them to. We felt like it was really important, and that this was the right time, to tell this backstory, so that we can then send them into the craziness that we send them into, for the four remaining episodes. Our cast is so incredibly brilliant. We threw a lot at them, and they more than delivered. I’m really excited to see people’s reaction to the journeys that we take Jordan, Olivia and Layla on. Greta Onieogou is such an amazing talent and makes it look so effortless. There’s a real ramp up in her storyline, leading up to the finale, that sets the stage for Season 2 for her. We’re just really excited for everyone to see what the cast has delivered.

Do you feel like you have a good sense of what Season 2 would be, if that happens?

CARROLL: Yes, 100%. Part of the set-up of all of this was also building where we wanted to take these characters in Season 2, with what kind of stories we want to continue to tell, and maintain the identity of the show and what we feel like resonates with our fans. So, we have a really, really good idea of where we want to take them in Season 2.

It’s so funny to be reminded of the fact that Daniel Ezra, who’s at the center of all of this as Spencer, is a British actor on a show called All American, where he’s playing such an American sport. Do you ever have moments where you’re like, “How did we end up with this guy in our show?”

CARROLL: I feel like I say that to him, at least once a week. I”m trying to keep him humble. But at least once a week, I’m like, “How did we get him?” We are so incredibly lucky to have him on this show. He really is an incredible talent. Now that principal photography on Season 1 is done, he’s back to his British accent, and it trips me out, all the time. I’m not used to it because he stayed in his American accent the whole season, even on weekends. So, to have full British Daniel running around right now just cracks us up because we’re all like, “Wait, this is weird!”

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When you started on the season, what were your hopes for the series? And now that you’ve finished shooting, do you feel like it lived up to the bar that you had set for yourself?

CARROLL: That’s such a great question. Our hope for the season was that we would make a grounded show that would connect with people and just feel like an authentic telling of what it’s like to be youth of color in America today, and to be able to portray the spectrum of that, and not just one particular aspect of that story, and to do it in a grounded way that resonated and was relatable to people, from any generation and any ethnic background. The emails and the tweets that I get from complete strangers, who are just like, “I feel like I’m seeing myself, for the first time,” or “I feel like I’m seeing my story, for the first time, and maybe America will understand me a little bit better,” or they’ll relate to a specific character and be like, “That was my cousin,” or “That was my brother. Thank you for telling our story and helping me feel seen.” I can’t tell you what those messages mean to me. That’s the goal. We make a difference, even if it’s one person’s life, or two people’s lives. We reached out and changed the way someone approached something, or we allowed someone who felt like they weren’t being seen in the country that they live in to feel seen. It has beyond exceeded my expectations, and honestly, that’s my biggest honor.

One of the things that I love most about the series is the relationship between Spencer and Coop because how can you not love them together?

CARROLL: Everyone needs a best friend like that.

What do you most enjoy about getting to explore and watch that relationship, but also seeing what Daniel Ezra and Bre-Z do with it?

CARROLL: For us, when we write Coop and Spencer scenes, we’re all so excited to go down to set and see what Daniel and Bre-Z are gonna do with it because that chemistry really is palpable. It’s crazy to think that, a year ago, they had never met because they really do have this beautiful, amazing bond that translates so great on the screen. It’s a beautiful, healthy friendship that you can look at and be like, “Oh, that’s best friend goals, right there.” I call my best friend, all the time, and I’m like, “Please, tell me that we were this kind of friends in high school,” and she’s like, “Maybe not as perfect.” It’s a joy to write for them and to really see them. They bring so much of themselves to the table, in those scenes, and it’s a real pleasure to watch.

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The first season of any show is always about finding what the show is, what works and what doesn’t, and who the characters are and what their relationships are, all while the writers’ room is trying to figure out what their groove is. Was there a moment this season, where you felt like all of that had really come together?

CARROLL: It’s weird, I’ve worked on quite a few shows, and I feel like everyone probably says this about the show they work on, but there really was something different and special, from minute one, on this show, when everyone got together. We had all of the actors come into the writers’ room and we talked with them, and there was a moment there where I looked at the cast we had and I looked at the writing staff, and even our production staff in the office, and I was just like, “We have something special, and we have the potential to make magic.” Everyone seemed so invested in doing it, and in that moment, it was just like, “Oh, my gosh, this show can be so much more than just a teen show, or a football show, or a family drama, or whatever category people want to put it in.” We feel like, with this group, we have the potential to do something special, and that’s what we set out to do.

All American airs on Wednesday nights on The CW.

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