At the Bar with Tracy Oliver


Too.  Damn.  Fine.
Fans will no doubt recognize the stunning Miss Tracy Oliver as "Nina" from the popular webseries The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, where she portrays the evil boss of "J", the protagonist (Issa Rae).

I myself was immediately struck by the sheer glory of this thick goddess and knew she most definitely needed a seat at the bar.  Thus, it was a great honor to complete this interview with her on August 5th, 2011.

All right, Mademoiselle Oliver…tell us a few things about yourself.

I’m originally from Washington, DC, but grew up in South Carolina. It was the movie, The Color Purple, that made me interested in performance. I was inspired by this beautiful film with so many rich performances and the story itself. It made me proud to be a black woman and it made me want to learn the craft of acting. Most of my childhood was dedicated to that—acting, singing, dancing, theatre— pretty much anything that involved a stage. After high school, I decided to go to California because I thought that would bring me closer to Hollywood. Except I went to Stanford, which is so far removed from Hollywood and entertainment that I still never really entered the “business” until after I graduated. At Stanford, I was frustrated with the lack of opportunities for actors of color. It functioned much like Hollywood in that there were several talented actors of color and very few opportunities for us. Therefore, I started writing. At first, I wrote monologues that I would use as audition pieces and then eventually, I wrote my first play, entitled, “Hope and Wait,” about four black women of various skin complexions. I ended up directing and producing the play and not acting it, which opened my eyes to the behind the scenes world of entertainment. After Stanford, I went to USC Film School, specifically the producing program where I continued writing, producing, and directing my own projects.

How did you get involved with ABG?

Issa Rae (the creator and star of the show) and I met at Stanford. We gravitated towards each other pretty quickly because of our shared interests and passion for the performing arts. After acting in “For Colored Girls…” together, we became close and realized we had similar sensibilities in terms of writing style and the types of stories we wanted to tell. We started writing together in undergrad and over the years, our relationship has continued to flourish both personally and professionally.

As far as becoming involved with ABG, Issa called me out of the blue one day and told me there was a bitchy character that she had created for her web series and she thought I was perfect for it. (I've played the "bad girl" or bitchy character before, so she was confident I could do it.) She asked if I would act in her web series and I told her I would love to. At that point, I didn’t know that this bitchy character would later evolve into the most hated character in the series and that this web series would gather such a tremendous following.

After the episode came out and I saw how much people were responding to it and the excitement about it, I decided I wanted to help elevate the show to a different level and I came on as producer in order to do that. Since episode four, I’ve been writing, producing, and acting in ABG.

What exactly are your duties as a producer on ABG?

My duties are to keep ABG organized and continuously evolving, meaning I’m responsible for overseeing almost all aspects of the show. I participate in the writing of the show, everything from contributing storyline ideas to writing dialogue. I make the shooting schedules for the show, find locations to shoot, organize the crew, find talented actors for our various roles, and now I’m overseeing our kickstarter campaign to ensure we can continue making new episodes that will hopefully bring even in more new viewers.

How long does it take to complete filming an episode? How did you handle issues like schedules and funding (before Kickstarter, of course)?

We usually shoot one episode in one weekend or two days at most. The shoots have been fairly simple because we don't have a huge crew and our shoots are fairly contained, meaning they stay in the office or the bedroom. The hardest one to date is episode seven because we actually shot a scene with over thirty extras and another scene on Santa Monica Blvd, one of the busiest streets in LA. That episode, which comes out August 4th, is our most ambitious and personally, my favorite one to date.

As far as schedules, most of our cast works full-time, so I’m careful to shoot in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate their schedules since they’re shooting for free. I never want anyone to have to miss work to shoot ABG. As far as funding, Issa and I have been financing this out of pocket and by pulling favors from friends in the industry who volunteer to help crew because they believe in what we’re doing.

As I mentioned earlier, you are beautiful. You are stunning; you caught my eye right away as this flawless-skinned, thick goddess. Then there’s your acting ability. The first time I saw you portray “Nina”, I took a step back, wincing as though you were yelling at me. How did you create this character?

Issa’s only note to me when she first cast me was that Nina needs to be a BITCH. She needed to be the quintessential mean girl of the show, so I took that and ran with it. To me, the best bitches in film/tv are also funny with their insults, so I always try to find the comedy behind Nina’s rudeness. I have so much fun with that character and to make her really stand out from everyone else, I add lots of condescending touches, such as evil giggling, changing my voice to sound overly dramatic when I’m bossing J around, and being overly touchy feely when I deal with any of the male characters on the show, in particular the character, Fred. I’m all over him every chance I get. Because it’s fun. And it’s what a woman like Nina would do.

In the cast interview, your castmates talked about how a show like ABG “has something for everyone.” Thing is, I’m not awkward; "some" people who come to my blog – by now – probably see me as evil incarnate. So I think the character I could relate to the most is probably Nina. How similar are you to Nina in real life?

I’m NOTHING like Nina as far as how I treat people. I’ve met people like Nina in working environments-- the type of people who abuse any power they get, get pleasure from making people feel badly about themselves, and will try to take your man just because they can. I know those people. I’m nothing like that. I’m actually the opposite. I usually go out of my way to make sure people I work with are happy and taken care of. I like to be surrounded by peaceful people, not people that want or create drama.

If there is some similarity I have to Nina, it's that I do carry myself with the same confidence that she does. So much of Nina’s character is being confident and secure, which is a direct contrast to J’s character, who is insecure and self-conscious about so many things. I’m more like Nina than J in that I walk, talk, and carry myself with some swag because I’m confident in who I am. I like who I am.

If there’s some tiny part of Nina to admire, it’s that she commands attention when she walks in a room. As black women, too often when we carry our heads high or walk with a certain swagger, people are quick to label us arrogant. That double standard doesn’t exist for men—awkward, insecure men are frowned upon by society. But when a woman does the same thing, meaning she walks with that same strut that a man does, it’s called “intimidating” or “bitchy,” which I don’t agree with. I think it’s important for women to have self-confidence, as long as it doesn’t bleed into arrogance. There’s a very fine line between the two. I’m personally leaning on the side of confidence, while Nina, as we all know, is more arrogant. That’s the major difference between the character and how I am in real life.

What can we expect from Season 2?

As far as season one, you can expect a more fully developed love triangle between J, Fred, and White Jay. And of course, Nina will try to ruin it, if she can. Of course, there will also be more office politics and hilarious awkward moments. The thing that I’m excited about most is that we’re doing a musical episode to showcase how talented our cast is. We’ve got some singers, musicians, dancers, rappers, etc in our group, so this will be so much fun to do together. I’m from a musical theatre background and I love to sing, so I’m excited to be able to have that opportunity to showcase my musical talents in a future episode along with the other cast mates!

We're too far out for Season 2 for me to comment just yet.

What yours and Issa’s ultimate goal with ABG?

Our ultimate goal with ABG is to find a network that will buy the series and air it on television. Though the lead of the show is a black female, we believe that the humor and the situations in it are universal and should be seen by a wide audience. In order to maintain the integrity and tone of the show, we’re hoping a cable network, such as HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, etc will buy it. If all the networks pass on it, we’ve discussed keeping it on the web and finding investors to cover production costs and hopefully find a way to monetize it online through our fan base.

Has your life changed in any way since ABG captured thousands of fans across the country?

I’ve acted in several projects before, but this is the first one that has had such a huge following. It’s surprising and obviously exciting to be recognized by fans of the show on the street, in the movie theatre, at a bar, etc. A highlight for me was running into the wonderful actress, Tracie Thoms, on the street randomly one day and we recognized each other! She knew me as Nina from ABG and I was like, “No, shut up. You’re the star! You’re in Rent, Cold Case, The Devil Wears Prada!” I’m a big Tracie Thoms fan, so when she recognized me, it finally hit me. That’s the moment I knew ABG was on to something.

On the other hand, it’s taught me a few lessons. Although this is on a much, much smaller scale, I’m getting a sense of what it’s like when celebrities have to read comments about themselves online. Since I’m playing the bitch, rarely do I read anything nice about myself or Nina. After episode 5, I pretty much took a beating! It was the first time I had to deal with people publicly writing about my physicality—my looks, my weight. It has forced me to develop a thicker skin. I think sometimes when actors really get into a role, people confuse the character they are playing with the person they are in real life. I’m playing a bitch, but I’m not actually one in life. I’m just acting. Issa always reminds me that the hate I’m getting from ABG fans just means I’m doing my job.

Do you have any other projects you’re working on?

I’m actually a writer, in both film and television. In addition to writing episodes of ABG, I have a feature script entitled, “Marriage is for White People” that is circulating at the studios as we speak. It’s pretty much a black version of the film, “Love Actually,” set four weeks before Obama’s historic election victory. It’s an ensemble script with interwoven love stories, which I’m excited about because I miss seeing black people in love on-screen. I don’t consider Madea movies love stories, so it’s time to bring back those 90’s black love stories I grew up on. Nzingha Stewart, a talented music video director is attached to direct, as well as Gabrielle Union. Fingers crossed that some studio will make this movie!

In terms of writing and filming, who would you say your influences are?

I love old Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing Spike Lee. Gina Prince-Bythewood, because she wrote and directed, Love and Basketball, a movie that I know all the lines to. Nora Ephron is one of my favorite writers. When Harry Met Sally is timeless and it’s one of the smartest romantic comedies ever written. Recently, I really loved 500 Days of Summer. The minute I finished that movie, I wished I’d written it. My goal is to write “mainstream” love stories that someone like Nora Ephron would write and just cast people of color in it. I would love to see us just be. Sometimes I’m tired of us being in “black movies.” I want to get to a point where we can just be people acting in a movie, who happen to be of color.

What hopes and goals do you have for your career overall?

I ultimately want to be a multi-hyphenate like Tina Fey, Zach Braff, and Ben Affleck. I don’t see myself just writing or just acting or just producing. I see myself being all of those things at once.

Unfortunately, as a woman of color, I don’t have the luxury to say that I just want to act. There are not enough opportunities for people of color for us not to be writing or producing. As Issa has proven with ABG, sometimes you have to create opportunities for yourself. No one else would have created that show and if they did, they probably wouldn’t have cast a dark-skinned actress with short, natural hair. They would have cast someone more “mainstream,” whatever that means.

My goals are to continue writing and producing and hopefully acting in some of the things that I write. If ABG does get picked up by a network, it would be a dream to do what the cast of The Office is doing—writing episodes and then turning into actors the next day. I’d love to be able to keep doing all of those things and ultimately, make a name for myself.

It has been an immense pleasure having you here at the bar.

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Comments

  1. Ya you got an interview with her! I love to hate Nina, and when I hate a villain I have to love the actor because they are doing a bang up job.

    I am hoping they get ABG on TV too this show is just banging.

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  2. Honestly, I don't trust Hollywhite. I think the fan-funded, webseries trend needs to continue. It's hella cheaper than bullshit cable anyhow.

    I'd rather shell out $20 once a year during a Kickstarter campaign than $80-100 a month for cable I don't use.

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  3. Tashabilities8/5/11, 4:47 PM

    I'm with K on that. I don't trust the suits at a network to continue doing a good job with a show like that.

    And Tracy is right. You have to create your own lane, your own opportunities. I'm so grateful these girls are doing ABG. It's a great idea & the time for it is NOW.

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  4. I agree, keep it online. Being able to watch online and read other people's comments is part of what fuels the momentum and enthusiasm for the show.
    Plus, international fans can enjoy it too.
    Also putting it on TV might mean pressure on you guys to alter your own vision and unfortunately restrict and reign in your creative talents.

    ABG is too good to kowtow!

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  5. "Also putting it on TV might mean pressure on you guys to alter your own vision and unfortunately restrict and reign in your creative talents."

    Exactly. I've seen it happen too often with ground-breaking and original shows on the networks. They start out fine, then gradually become weak and formulaic after TPTB exercise more creative control under the guise of 'knowing the audience best'.

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  6. I agree that the online format will allow the writers to have more creativity and honesty in the show. I just worry that depending on $20 individual contributions is leaning towards insufficient funds.
    How long can cast and crew continue to do amazing work for free? At some point, people desire to live and walk in their craft while being able to support themselves, not just do it for the love.

    So, while I worry about ABG hitting the small screen, I also understand that keeping it online might lead to it eventually dying because you'll lose the core of the cast to better paying opportunities (whether they are quality projects or not). As Tracy mentioned, all of the cast members have full time jobs. The show already airs monthly. I'd like to see increased frequency with the show, I just understand what that would mean as far as the funding necessary and the big backing necessary to pull that off.

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  7. I just worry that depending on $20 individual contributions is leaning towards insufficient funds.

    Not if they continue to broaden their fan base. If a million people donate $20, insufficient funds won't be a problem.

    Also putting it on TV might mean pressure on you guys to alter your own vision and unfortunately restrict and reign in your creative talents.

    Precisely why it needs to stay online. Issa Rae is a dark-skinned actress who cut off all her hair. Tracy Oliver is a thick black woman.

    Hollywhite doesn't want to show women like these regularly dating and being loved by a variety of men. Hollywhite's followers are also an issue; they have an ability to get perfectly good shows canceled simply because the female lead is black.

    But online, where it's funded by the fans and written for the fans, we cut through a lot of the bullshit.

    I love ABG. I too want to see longer episodes and more frequent podcasts. I want to see CeCe, J, and Nina have a LOT of different relationships with a LOT of different types of men, and I just don't trust Hollywhite to provide this for me.

    There's the Bechdel Test, and then there's the Pygmy Test - I want to watch a TV or movie that's predominantly POC with which I have no complaints whatsoever about the big things (race, gender, sexuality). Ktown Cowboys, Audrey and Dre, and ABG have the potential to pass the Pygmy Test so long as the current PTB remain the sole PTB until the end.

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  8. My God, she's gorgeous! And talented. *bows*

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  9. "Honestly, I don't trust Hollywhite. I think the fan-funded, webseries trend needs to continue. It's hella cheaper than bullshit cable anyhow.

    I'd rather shell out $20 once a year during a Kickstarter campaign than $80-100 a month for cable I don't use."

    THIS!!!! I can easily see them sabotaging and whitewashing the series and making a mockery of it.

    I would much rather spend my disposable black gay dollars to support a series that aims to celebrate/support/and represent me and mine with respect as opposed to Hollywood that would sooner go belly up than reach out to marginalized audiences.

    Also, excellent interview.

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  10. Nina...I mean Tracy. You are what the world of film,tv, cinema needs right now. As a black educated woman..there aren't many viewing options out there currently that Id wanna see. Im excited to know you are working to change things in the industry :) Much success to you and many blessings. I love ABG..actually had the pleasure of meeting Issa and actually saw you as well. You all are dynamic performers.

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  11. See...this is what I'm talking about.

    I'll be honest...I was cynical at first about ABG's reaching the $30,000 goal, but already they've got 1300+ backers (the Blasian Narrative included) and they've raised close to $37,000 with five days left to go on funding.

    Similar with Ktown Cowboys. They asked for $10,000 and with 146 backer they've raised close to $11,500 with 18 days to go on funding.

    IOW, it can be done, especially if POC redirect all that money spent on white-saturated films, books, comics, and cable - which ultimately annoy us anyway - and just funnel that cash towards projects like these. These projects could raise millions every summer and easily produce the high quality films and shows we'd like if we could just band together, buckle down, and make it happen.

    It could be like the Renaissance-type companion to the black natural hair movement.

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  12. @ Neo-Prodigy: "THIS!!!! I can easily see them sabotaging and whitewashing the series and making a mockery of it."

    *cough* Heroes *cough* Yes, I am still pissed about it.

    @ Ankh: I want to contribute, but this Amazon Payments thing is some ole bull. Why no PayPal option, Kickstarter? >:(

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  13. I agree that it should stay online. The Guild has an enormous fan base and makes a lot of money from merchandise, itunes episodes and songs, comics, etc and that's a web show. I really want this show to reach that status.

    Wait wait wait...episode seven is up?

    *rushes to youtube

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  14. I agree with you K. But I believed ABG would get the funding.. Its amazing what Black folk can do once we stick together and put our funding/support where our mouth is...I know there are/were other folks than just Black contributing but this was 'our' doing. Im just excited that me and 'awkward' and 'average' black girl can finally say "hey..i recognized myself in that ep" due to being in similar situations.

    Kudos to Tracy, Issa, and all involved. I will support them with all future endeavors because they are 'keepin it real' lol. And Im glad to have found your blogSpot, K!!

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  15. I want to contribute, but this Amazon Payments thing is some ole bull. Why no PayPal option, Kickstarter? >:(

    I think Amazon created Kickstarter or something.

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  16. Ah. That explains it, and my card won't be here for another week. >:(

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  17. Excellent interview. Ms. Oliver is a fantastic actress and I LOVE the show! My very best wishes to it in the future.

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  18. As a social commentator, I think that this is a very realistic show. I would love for it to stay online as well, simply to show everyone how supporters can and will turn out for something they want to see. I wish you all the best- and Nina (Tracy), there's always backlash when people play bad parts excellently. :D

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  19. Everywhere I go people I really torn about it, they want longer episodes (30 mins TV show time) and yet they still want it on the web so Hollywhite aka HollyWTF won't ruin it. I too am still pissed off at how blonde Heroes got towards the end.

    Web shows are really where its at these days there are a few TV shows that were originally web shows. However starving POC cast and crew need to eat.

    We will see.

    Here is an interview with Issa Rae on VIBE.com
    http://www.vibe.com/posts/v-exclusive-vibe-gets-know-creator-youtubes-hit-awkward-black-girl

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  20. @blaqnoir - it's not only Black folks enjoying and putting their money into this project ^_^. Hollywack can continue it's delusion that POC stories are not universal but we know better.

    Thanks for this interview!

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  21. Damn...they raised close to double their original goal.

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