Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Over the past two decades, the writer and director Nahnatchka Khan has left her mark on the comedy world. From writing for American Dad to show running Fresh Off the Boat to directing Netflix's Always Be My Maybe, Khan has shaped a long list of cultural touchstones.
Later this month, Khan is back with another sitcom that delves into the backstory of a celebrity before he was famous. Young Rock, which Khan co-created, is based on the life of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The series follows Johnson from his childhood in Hawaii to his days as a football player for the University of Miami. Khan says there's something that appeals to her about the personal stories of these larger than life figures.
Nahnatchka Khan: What's interesting to me is the roadmap of people before they get to where they're going and I think somebody like Dwayne, his road was so twisty and there were so many turns and there were so many ups and downs. He's one of the most famous people on the planet so I think that there's some familiarity with him even cursory like in passing, but I think there's a lot that people don't know about him. I think it's fascinating how do you get from point A to point B to point Z and that those are fun stories to tell.
Tanzina Vega: Ahead of the February 16th premiere of Young Rock, I spoke with Khan about the show and whether Hollywood is finally starting to greenlight more projects, like the one she's made, often centered around Asian American and Pacific Islander characters.
Nahnatchka Khan: It's certainly trending in the right direction, but when you start standing still, there's a lot of road to reach before you're actually running and I think the more movies shows anything, any media element that centers people of color, that centers of women of color is a good thing. I think there just has to be more. There's more than there has ever been, but there's still a long road to go.
Tanzina Vega: On so many different levels, your own family is Iranian American and I'm wondering if you've ever considered either creating media that reflects that experience or what your sense is of the Iranian American story as it relates to our broader media. How many actors or writers or producers are doing what you're doing right now?
Nahnatchka Khan: It's a challenge. I would love to, and I'm investigating different projects circling that area because I think, look, everybody's experience is so unique and so different, but there is a shared certain cultural touchstones that I think when people see reflected in any movies, TV, whatever resonates with them.
For me, I would love to find something that can bring my experience being an Iranian American and also, a Queer American. I have a lot of intersections in my life. I'm a gay woman of color and those stories are fewer and farther between. That experience is very specific that's not everyone else's. I think it's a challenge and it's something that I would definitely and certainly looking to explore.
Tanzina Vega: We both work in industries that, as women of color, at least that we are often one a few in Hollywood, in writers' rooms, in newsrooms. You've spoken about being the only woman in the writer's room, especially when you were starting out in Hollywood, is it still a boys club or has it gotten better?
Nahnatchka Khan: It's certainly gotten better. I think that there's so many great shows out there. Honestly, you can, I think, track it back to the more opportunities to create content for different kinds of creators. Once the disruptors came in, all the streaming platforms blew everything up and there's so many more opportunities for people to tell their stories.
It's not just a handful of cable and a handful of broadcast. I think when the opportunities opened up, the people who are now getting chances are people of color, women of color, Queer creators. I think it's getting better for sure, just because there's more opportunity. It's tough for me to answer, is it still a boy’s club because I've been lucky enough to be leading the charge on my own projects for a while. I make sure that it's not. I'd be curious being a staff writer today on someone else's show what does that feel like. I definitely would think it would be better, but I don't know if it's a true parody yet. I'm sure it's not.
Tanzina Vega: You've worked in film. You've worked specifically in Always Be My Maybe was a deal with Netflix, which, like you said, was a disruptor, really changed the paradigm, but you're also working with network television. Do you see there other than the opportunity limitations that network television has that maybe Netflix may not have? Is there a reason why you want to continue working with networks in addition to working with places like Netflix?
Nahnatchka Khan: Yes. For me, I'm really interested in telling all kinds of stories and it just depends on the creative project. Something like Young Rock, because Dwayne is so big. When he said he has such a big tent, his stories I think can really resonate with a lot of people. I think it's a big tent show. I think it's a show that can appeal to a lot of different age ranges, cultures, it's like Dwayne himself.
I think there's a lot of optimism and positivity in hearing his story. There's a lot of hardships that he goes through, but I think it's okay because you know that Dwayne turns out all right, in the end, you know what I mean? You're not too worried about him. You can live in those sorts of emotional moments a little more in Young Rock than in your traditional network sitcom.
I think going back and forth between something like that, and then making films for Netflix, it scratches all the itches, you know what I mean? It hits all the buttons because then you can tailor things in different ways and that, again, is a testament to where we are now in terms of the content demands. The fact that there are options and we don't have to just tailor it one way or the other, it's a good time to be telling these kinds of stories.
Tanzina Vega: We're obviously in a pandemic and we have been now going on a year but that hasn't stopped creatives and film production crews from working necessarily. I actually passed one recently not too far from where I live here in New York that we're filming. I'm wondering what that's been like to film during a pandemic. I know that you all have shifted production for Young Rock from Los Angeles to Australia. That's a pretty big shift, but what else has it been like?
Nahnatchka Khan: Oh, man. It's been a real challenge in all the ways that you think, in all of the COVID precautions and the safety requirements, all which are extremely important and necessary, and everybody's in their pod, it just changes the entire way the production is run from how we've all been used to. There's that. Also, creatively, it's been a challenge because as a director and as a writer-producer on set, working with the actors is something that I-- It's so integral into what I do.
It's been a challenge, you've got masks on, you've got face shields on, and you're trying to express with your eyes and you're-- You know what I mean? It's just a different way of communicating that I think is something that had to be learned and you have to get used to that. Yes, we were lucky enough to go down to Australia which they've handled the pandemic in a completely different way. We were happy that that Universal TV group made that deal and we were able to go down there and then to Atlanta after that and shoot some stuff with Dwayne there.
Tanzina Vega: Hope all of you are out there staying safe. Definitely, crazy times that we're in right now.
Nahnatchka Khan: Definitely.
Tanzina Vega: Given that fact that we're in these unprecedented, I know that word has been used so much, but we really are in unprecedented times and they can be challenging. They can be difficult. Lots of folks are really hitting the wall if you will. One thing we're doing is asking a lot of our guests, how they have been more than coping, how they're finding joy in the moment, how are you finding joy, Nahnatchka?
Nahnatchka Khan: Honestly, being able to be creative is a big part of it. Having had that opportunity to make Young Rock during this past year was a huge factor for me, because it's one thing where we're all isolated in our houses and with our own households and you can't really see friends, you can't see extended family. The way that I like to communicate and bring joy to others is by storytelling. That's what I do.
That's what I've always done, so that brought me joy. Being able to know that I can still have these stories, the film then shot and have these reach other people that are maybe feeling just as isolated, it's something about connecting through storytelling that made me really happy. That's really what I'm focusing on.
Tanzina Vega: Nahnatchka Khan is the creator and showrunner for Young Rock. Nahnatchka, thanks so much.
Nahnatchka Khan: It was such a pleasure. Thank you.
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