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Courtney Kemp Agboh on How She Became a Showrunner, and Why She Doesn’t Feel Responsible to Make ‘Better Female Characters’

Photo: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

As Power settles into its second season, the Starz show is amping up both the pace and tension, in an attempt to take the good thing it had in season one and make it great. Showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh took time to sit down with Vulture at the Austin Television Festival to talk about the show – which was picked up for a third season today – why she doesn’t feel responsible for creating great female characters, and her disappointment at never taking over Entertainment Weekly.

Tell me all your things, because your career path is amazing.
So, my things: I went to graduate school for English literature. I thought I was going to be a professor, then I ran screaming from there into magazine journalism.

Where at?
I worked at Mademoiselle and then it shut and I worked at GQ for three years, during which I was freelancing. I wrote for Vibe; I did music reviews; I wrote for Time Out. I was desperate to get into Entertainment Weekly or New York Magazine. Like, desperate. Couldn’t get that job. God was like, “Guess what’s not happening, girl?” Then I also really wanted to be the first black female editor-in-chief of Vogue or Entertainment Weekly, of course.

That was the dream.
That was the dream. And the dream, you know, didn’t happen. Then I went and I wrote for J.Crew for a while.

You tell me, “I wrote for the J.Crew catalogue,” and people need to hear this. People need to hear that it’s hard and you work a bunch of crazy jobs and you end up in a completely different place than you thought you wanted to be.
Absolutely. By the way, my big break in TV was my magazine article I wrote about interracial dating, which these two guys wanted to turn into a TV show. But it took three years from the time that I quit GQ to the time that I moved out. I mean, it was a long process.

That’s amazing. Then you started out as a staff writer on Bernie Mac.
Well, I came into the comedy world, and I’m not very funny and I fucking failed.

Well, I think “failing up” is what we call it.
But see, here’s the thing. In hindsight, it looks very good, but at the time, I got a new job in a new career and I failed. I didn’t get asked back. Luckily enough, I really wanted to write a one-hour drama anyway, so I wrote a one-hour CSI spec, and I got hired on Injustice, where I worked for Robert and Michelle King, who I ended up working with on The Good Wife. So my whole career, there has been a lot of good and bad.

How did you make the leap to showrunner?
Well, there’s no leap. There’s staff writer, and I worked my way up. The shows I worked on got canceled every year, and then I was on The Good Wife for three years, and the idea [for Power] started to come together and I pitched it. I had a couple more years in the wilderness and then they finally said yes. Slow and steady work. Which is why when young people say to me, “How can I get my show on the air?” I say, “You can’t.” You can get your show on the air, maybe, but you won’t run it. If you want to be a showrunner, you have to work your way all the way up. That’s how it came.

Well, there are those, like Josh Schwartz with The O.C., who come in as these wunderkinds and are immediately relevant. But that’s not realistic.
Well, it happens. Also, in my case, this was the first show I ever pitched, it’s the first show I ever sold, it’s the first show I ever wrote for money. I mean, yes, lightning in a bottle, but I had worked for ten years. Josh, when it happened to him, it wasn’t like he hadn’t written a lot of stuff, it just had never gotten made. Greg Berlanti wrote ten pilots before he broke through. It’s like people only see the success part; they don’t see how much work goes into it.

What did you learn from making season one of Power?
I kind of know a little bit what I’m doing. That was a big revelation, because I had never done this before, and I learned that I could trust my own taste. I could trust my instincts. It didn’t mean I had all the experience or I knew everything, but I could trust myself some.

That’s not what I was expecting, and that’s amazing. I think that’s a very important thing to hear.
But I will also say this, that you cannot go through something like this without some kind of spiritual life. You can’t. If you don’t have something that grounds you, that is a regular thing that you go to that keeps you sane and safe, forget it — you won’t survive, because my life changed so much. Overnight.

Going into season two, did you have any changes you wanted to implement in how the show ran?
Well, we changed some of the writing staff. But, you know what, no, because I ran the writers’ room on The Good Wife briefly, so I knew how to run the writers’ room. But in terms of just attacking story, I kind of stay in The Good Wife model. We decided to write to ramping up the pace. Because by the end of the season last year, we really started to get into a different pace, and the show sort of thrives in high pace and high drama.

Do you worry about your representation of female characters — because you are a woman, do you think people expect more of you?
Well, I don’t think the show is that masculine. It has a male protagonist, but the show is actually really sensitive and vulnerable and feeling-y.

That’s really true.
What I would say is that if you enter the show in a place of looking, I’m doing a little sleight of hand [gestures]. I’m letting male viewers go into the show and see sex and relationships with women … The female characters are really strong and realized and smart. Nobody’s dumb. Nobody is bimbo-y. Nobody is a pushover. I think that Ghost should not fuck with these women. They are not easy bitches. As a woman, I don’t feel like I have a responsibility to create better female characters. I feel like I have a responsibility to create good characters. Because the truth is, those kinds of things ghettoize us even more as writers.

My job isn’t to make great women; my job is to make a great fucking show so that the next time a woman wants to run her own show, somebody says, “Yeah, she can probably do it because that other bitch did it.” Even though that is ghettoizing us again, that’s how people think. When people ask me, “Has Shonda Rhimes opened a lot of doors for you,” no. I’ve never met her.

“She’s not held the door for me once.”
And she really hasn’t. But, do I think that it helps that people might have seen her in the world and go, “Yeah.” Of course it does. You know what I mean? Sure, fine, whatever. But the people that open the door for me, the Kings, Yvette Lee Bowser, Greg Berlanti, you know.

And that’s the thing. Your answer makes me a better interviewer because it forces me to question what made me ask it, and why I’m trying to divide people.
I think people have asked me, when I was in Europe, promoting the show last year, someone said, [accent] “Vell, I vatched de show and it, you know, is very violent and you are a woman.” Now, here’s the thing about that. (a) Who wrote Frankenstein? And (b) Have you ever been witness to childbirth, because women know from violence. All I’m saying is that this idea that we, because of what we are, means we can’t write something different. It’s absurd in either direction.

You have a very passionate fan base, which is awesome. Are you content with that or are you concerned with trying to grow that audience?
Do you mean that you think I need to put more white people on the show?  

Oh, Jesus, no.
But you might have meant that. Not in a bad way, but that might have been where the question leads to, and not in a bad way. In a way, that’s realistic and sort of like, how do we expand the base of the show and do we make strategic decisions to go toward that? Let me just answer it this way: I sweat none of that. Here is the thing. Who shows up to watch the show is absolutely none of my business. I have absolutely no control of it whatsoever. I say a prayer several times a day about what I can control and what I can’t control.

On Starz, with the popularity of both Outlander and Power, they seem to be appealing to small but passionate bases.
They are. There was a great thing where a couple of my superfans were arguing about whether the sex scenes on Outlander or Power were hotter, and to me it’s, like, they’re niche-y shows but they start to have overlap. I would love for more people to show up and watch the show, but that may not be my destiny. My destiny may be that the show is going to be canceled in two seasons and that’s okay, too. Listen, I desperately wanted to succeed at GQ and rise through the ranks, and it didn’t happen and I turned out to be okay. At some level, everything that happens has got to be okay.

Courtney Kemp Agboh on ‘Great Female Characters’