I’m super excited to share with you all this inspiring interview I had the privilege of doing with the hilarious and talented Sujata Day from HBO’s Insecure!
We were all huge fans of CeeCee from the popular YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. I discovered the show back in college and stayed up late watching episodes while procrastinating on homework every night.
Now the webseries has evolved into one of the biggest shows on HBO, Insecure, and Sujata Day has evolved in her career from an actress to a screenwriter and director as well. She graciously took time out from her busy schedule to share her journey with us.
1.) What inspired you to want to become a screenwriter and actor? Did you have family/friends that were in the industry or were you compelled to do it on your own?
I didn’t have any family or friends in the industry. In middle school, I was determined to be a part of a group. So I tried out for every sport and activity— cheerleading, tennis, rifle team, so many others. I didn’t make any group or any team. But I didn’t let rejection stop me and kept trying out for the next thing. Finally, I auditioned for the school musical, Showboat, and got cast in the ensemble. I had one line that made the audience laugh every night. That was it. I caught the bug!
2.) How did you get into acting/screenwriting? What path or major life decisions did you take to get into the industry?
I majored in engineering in college, but was a couple classes away from a minor in theater. I took a semester of playwriting and a semester of screenwriting, right before I moved to LA. I studied abroad for a year in Sydney, Australia, where I dove headfirst into studying acting and performing in plays. While living in Sydney, I made the decision to move to LA to pursue acting as soon as I graduated.
3.) Fan Girl moment: I’ve been a huge fan of you and Issa Rae since The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl YouTube series came out. How did you get involved with that project? Can you tell us a little bit about ABG and its evolution into Insecure?
I joined Twitter about eight years ago, mostly for networking. Shout out to @filmtvdiversity for tweeting out producers/directors/filmmakers every day. I followed Issa Rae and she followed me back. A couple days later, Issa tweeted she was looking for a mixed girl to play her best friend on a web series. I responded and told her I wasn’t mixed, but she told me to come in anyway. I went to her house for an audition and a couple hours later, I booked the job. The road from Awkward Black Girl to Insecure is no overnight success story. ABG was Issa’s third web series. I don’t think any of us realized how popular ABG was until the Kickstarter raised over $50k. That’s when Pharrell jumped on board to fund season two and we were STOKED. The pilot of Insecure was shot three years after Issa started working with HBO. Issa told me there was a small role for me in it if I was interested, with the potential for the character to grow. I, of course, said yes!
4.) Let’s talk about Cowboy and Indian. What inspired this unique story/concept? You are the lead actress and director in that film. How was that experience?
I love early Tarantino films. With Cowboy and Indian, I wanted to answer the question: what if one of the brides in Kill Bill were Indian? Writing, producing, directing, and starring in it was a blast because I had 100% creative control. It was incredibly educational and fun bringing to life a personal project from inception to final cut.
5.) What is your screenwriting process? Do you have a set strategy? How do you know a project is complete?
I know people who write every day. I’m not one of those people. I write when inspiration hits and hole myself up for a couple days or weeks and bust out a first draft without censoring myself. My first drafts are pretty horrendous. Writing is all about rewriting, so after I vomit out the first draft, I put it away for a week or so and then dig into a second draft. I send my second draft to two or three people I trust to give me honest and helpful notes and work on subsequent drafts after that. My finished product varies from project to project. If I’m working independently, I just decide when I’ve done enough rewrites and call it a day. It’s different when I’m working with a production company because they are the ones who decide when a draft is finished and ready to send out.
6.) Do you feel you are compensated fairly for the work you do in your industry?
Yes. It’s important to know your worth in this industry but also take chances on projects and people. Sometimes, I agree to specific projects not because of the pay but because of an interesting script/role, who I’m working with and the potential for future collaborations. Shout out to my amazing lawyers Bob and Jennifer!
7.) What are some obstacles you have faced in your profession as a woman of color?
By writing my own roles, I have turned every obstacle into an opportunity. As an actor, sometimes you’re just not auditioning for lead roles because of what you look like. The only way to change how the industry sees you is to produce your own content, which is as easy as shooting something on your phone. Don’t complain, create.
8.) What are some opportunities you have come across in your profession as a woman of color?
I’m getting to work with some amazing people in the industry who are dedicated to amplifying the voices of marginalized storytellers. I have a workplace comedy at Charles King’s MACRO, a family comedy at John Legend’s Get Lifted, and a supernatural dramedy with Super Deluxe and Stephanie Allain’s Homegrown. It’s an invigorating time right now, where many of the doors which were previously closed have now been blown wide open.
9.) What advice would you give to women of color who want to follow your career path? For example, what do you wish you would have known about your profession before you started working in it?
Don’t wait for people to give you opportunities. You have to create your own opportunities. Tell your own “authentically you” story and produce it. Shoot it on your phone, and post it on YouTube or Vimeo. Don’t worry about how fast or slow your peers are moving along up the Hollywood ladder. Support your friends and celebrate all wins, not matter how small or big. Keep your blinders on, work really hard, and don’t expect handouts. The right people will notice your work whether it’s ten years down the road or twenty. Keep in mind, this industry is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you’re not in it for the long haul, you’re not in it.
Hopefully you found Sujata Day’s interview as inspiring as I did. If you have questions or thoughts about her interview or her projects please feel free leave a comment below.
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Art by Loso F. Perez of Prime Vice Studios