With all the chaos at the end of the 89th Academy Awards, when the underdog coming-of-age indie Moonlight bested Damien Chazelle’s buoyant musical La La Land for best picture, it was easy to forget that no one would have been on that stage without Tarell Alvin McCraney. The 38-year-old playwright, on whose script In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the movie was based, wasn’t as much the public face of the film as its breakout director Barry Jenkins.
But the themes McCraney explored in his uniquely intimate story—the first with an all-black cast and LGBTQ themes to win film’s top prize—were born of a very personal, raw expression of what it feels like to grow up black and queer in the projects of Miami.
McCraney has another story to tell in the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) drama David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Winfrey has raved about the series, calling it “poetry on TV.”) McCraney’s first outing as a series creator, alongside showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence, David is an unfiltered glimpse inside the foot-in-both-worlds life of David (Akili McDowell), a 14-year-old prodigy from the South Florida projects who attends a magnet school.
McCraney chatted with Fortune in July about moving on after the Oscars, creative growing pains, and crafting a story for TV that explores the “dexterity you learn in one socialized environment and the total new morality you learn in another.”
Fortune: How did winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and Moonlight’s win for best picture, impact the way you thought about your career? Did you wake up the next morning feeling added pressure?
McCraney: No one’s ever asked me that. Most people want to know “How did it feel to win?”—and I still don’t know. I was still very much processing that I had an Academy Award in my hand for a script I’d written when I was 23, in the wake of my mother’s death. That’s really what I was thinking that night. I know some people were upset about the results, but I thought, “Well we’re here now. The best thing to do is to move on,” which for me meant going home and reading applications. I run the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program and I had to read all the applications by March in order to accept a new class by April.
You’re likely the only Oscar-winner in history who had that on his to-do list after leaving the stage.
(Laughs) Probably, yes.
Had David Makes Man taken shape at that point?
I’d been working on it with [executive-producers] Mike Kelly and Melissa Loy at Warner Brothers. We’d been rejected by HBO for a 30-minute version of the show and were figuring out where to pitch next. I’d also started talking to Michael B. Jordan about exec-producing. To be fair, the show is still a half-hour in my mind—but a half-hour in theater terms rather than TV. In theater, a half-hour is one act.
So you always think in theater terms, no matter the medium?
I think of a beginning, middle, and end. David is a series that has no kind of finality to it. So in that way I know it’s TV, and not theater.
I heard Winfrey herself was in the room when you pitched at OWN. How did that feel?
Well, it was complicated because she wasn’t actually supposed to be there. And I don’t mean Oprah is not allowed to do things. (Laughs)
But she likely isn’t normally in the room for most pitches.
Right, and not only that, she literally left a meeting with [OWN parent company] Discovery executives to come say hi, and then Michael B. Jordan and Mike Kelly ask her to stay. And she sat right in front of me. I’m a bit of an anomaly, especially in the presence of Michael, who is very effusive, in that I’m a little dour. I said, “Hello Miss Oprah” and tried to shake her hand. She pushed my hand away and gave me a great big hug. “Moonlight was fantastic, thank you for being here. I’m going back to my meeting now.” It was another day in my life that will live in infamy.
Similarly, when I was 16, some friends and I were downtown Miami doing auditions for college. This woman comes down the street yelling and says to me, “Little faggot boy, you’re not going to get into Juilliard. But you’re going to get to Broadway one day.” She told my friends they weren’t going to get into Pratt and Juilliard, and then walked away. And all of that came true. The language that lady used was harsh, but it was one of those times when things felt bigger than me, and that I should stay ready. I remember telling Barry on Oscar night: “There’s no other way any of this could have gone. This is how my life works.”
In a lot of ways, David Makes Man is an extension of Moonlight in terms of the setting, the visual style and the coming-of-age story you’re telling. To what degree do you see this as a companion piece, but also as distinct? Are you ever worried about repeating yourself?
I’m not worried about the similarities. I pitched the show from a place of personal anecdote and also curiosity: What are the mechanisms we put in place as young people that control and guide us? And when do we outgrow those mechanisms? Also, I love telling stories about young black people from my corner of the world. Most people can’t distinguish Homestead, Fla., where David takes place, from Miami, where Moonlight takes place. People say, “Oh, they both take place in Miami.” I’m like, “They’re not the same at all.”
The tropical setting of both David and Moonlight creates almost a veneer of beauty because it’s in such stark contrast to the boys’ lives. I think we are more used to seeing these stories told against the backdrop of a concrete, urban environment.
Yes, and not only is there a veneer of beauty, but the character of David, unlike Chiron in Moonlight, lives in a totally bifurcated word. It seems lush, but right across the street is one of the most racist suburbs in America. David is literally bussed from one world to another. But where Chiron lived, we never saw white people. Barry was very deliberate in that choice.
David and Moonlight also have incredible performances in common, especially those given by their young stars. How important is it for you, if at all, to cast actors who can relate to the stories you’re depicting?
My audition process never has anything to do with asking where people are from. Akili, who plays David, comes from a very supportive home and is a middle child; Nathaniel McIntyre, who plays Seren, is a Broadway baby and comes from a two-parent household in Long Island. They are both very different from their characters. What I do ask my actors is: What do you connect to? And when they got in front of the camera, the amount of respect and openness they had was incredible. I was a good actor at their age, but I could not do what they do. They have a level of generosity I just didn’t have.
What has been the hardest part of making an hour-long drama that you didn’t expect? Have you felt artistic growing pains in segueing to TV from theater and film?
There have been a few. I am highly aware of what I don’t know about how TV series audiences engage, what those numbers mean, what gets paid for, and what doesn’t. I’m the type of person who, if you tell me on the outset what you want, I’ll do it. But if you wait until after I’ve already done something and then go, “Can we make it more like this?” then I get kind of manipulative. “All right! I’ll show you what you think you want because, until you understand the reasoning behind what I’m doing is, you’ll second-guess me. I’ll second-guess myself. And we won’t get the best work.” More often than not folks are like, “Oh okay, that’s the better way.” I think some people were nervous about that kind of collaboration because, again, I’m a theater person.
Also in theater you experience the real-time effects of your decision-making. TV requires a longer incubation period and there are more voices chiming in.
Yes. When you hear something in front of an audience, there’s an immediacy; you feel something different. On the show, we’re looking at monitors and figuring out what adjustments to make as a group.
What stories, whether on TV, in film, or in books, gave you comfort or allowed you to escape when you were a kid?
It’s interesting that I became a playwright because I definitely saw more TV and film as a kid than I ever did plays—definitely reruns of All in the Family. I also loved The Carol Burnett Show. I was obsessed.
What did you love about it?
[Actress] Vicki Lawrence. And I followed her to Mama’s Family too. I thought it was an amazing group of people. I loved seeing them crack up and break on stage. And they didn’t care! It made all so much more endearing. My love for that type of collaboration definitely grew out of watching those shows.
If you could give your younger self advice, say when you were David’s age, what would you tell him?
“Stay calm. Keep calm.” Everything was an emergency for me at that age. I developed a kind of inability to enjoy the moment. Like when I was that 30-something-year-old at the Academy Awards whose movie won Best Picture and wasn’t able to go, “I won Best Picture, let’s get drunk!” Instead I was like, “Cool. I’m going to drop you all off at the party and go back to the hotel.”
Wait, so you really did skip Oscar parties to go home and read?
That’s absolutely what I did. I stopped at Vanity Fair, took a picture with [actress] Halle Berry. Then [actress] Ruth Negga asked, “Can I have a picture too?” I was like, “Of course.” Then I got into the SUV, went back to the Four Seasons and read those applications. (Laughs)
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