A daring new web series by Rekha Shankar, focusing on women of color and the struggle to make it in a creative field will be starring a Denton native, Rachel Pegram. While we were in New York City last week we grabbed a drink and chatted about the challenges of creating a web series, and why you really do have to hustle to make your dreams a reality. Read on to find out more about their project, Hustle, and see the sneak peek they released yesterday.
WDDI: How did Hustle come about?
Rekha: Hustle came about because a manager reached out to me and asked if I had a pilot. So I took a pilot writing class and the first idea I thought about was the fact that I never see women of color on TV, and people who have to try really hard and fail a lot. Because that is my experience.
WDDI: Write what you know.
Rekha: I went to film school and I freelanced a ton of really shitty night jobs - 6am to 2am. Taking cabs back to my house so that I didn’t get murdered on the way home. Things like that where it’s like - oh yeah, this is a lot of people’s experience. So I wrote my pilot about that and I also really love Scott Pilgrim, and I’m a video editor, so I incorporated a lot of that when I wrote the script. So I wrote it and was really happy with it - and in true Hustle form I submitted it to like 15 contests and everybody rejected it and nobody understood what it was. So I determined that I would just have to make it. Since no one was going to say yes to me, I was just going to have to say ‘yes’ to myself. 2 weeks later I got into the New York Television Festival.
WDDI: Rachel, how did you get to know Rekha and get involved with Hustle?
Rachel: I met Rekha because of a sketch show at Upright Citizens Brigade - and so I started following her work. There is a great sketch that she did called Quiet Chef that is amazing. It was a real gem. So I auditioned and that’s how I got the part.
WDDI: How much of the web series is written right now?
Rekha: One episode has been shot. Two other scripts have been written. I want to see if we make our goal, because then I can adjust my scope for the other episodes.
WDDI: The show is focused on not seeing women of color in not only the media, but it also sounded like in your scope of influence as these upstanding figures to admire or live up to. What was that like growing up?
Rekha: I had a really early affinity for cartoons - especially animal cartoons. Big Arthur fan, loved Spongebob. I loved old television, like old sitcoms. Then I had this big gap where I didn’t watch anything, television, movies - and didn’t really read much for awhile. I looked back and thought, ‘Oh my God, who would I relate to in books? Who would I relate to in movies?’ Mindy Kaling on The Office was one of the first times I saw an Indian person have an actual role on TV. I still didn’t think of TV writing as like a job. I just started noticing things like that - then it became really hard to not notice. I didn’t feel entitled to major in film because I didn’t see that for myself. I didn’t think anyone would want to hear from me. I wondered if I would have to make fun of myself, do I have to do the stereotypical things? The industry will tell you that you have to be a specific type of female to be funny. There are 3,000 men doing the same thing. I was reading the advertising for some comedian and it was like, “She’s not Zooey Deschanel and she’s not Sarah Silverman.” So she’s not a singer and she’s not this other comedian? Yeah, I get it. No one would ever advertise for Patton Oswalt by saying, “He’s not Jerry Seinfeld and he’s not a slice of pizza!” They feel the need to put women into these labels so you can digest them and once you notice it, it becomes very hard to engage with it anymore.
WDDI: Why do you think that is?
Rekha: I think it comes from the people up top. People don’t hire anybody that doesn’t look like them. Maybe not maliciously, but they hire their buds. Who are their buds? People they went to college with. It’s institutional. Maybe noone is saying, “I didn’t hire you because of your race,” but then when you’re looking for commonality and shared experiences, it often goes back to race.
Rachel: I think my parents had great intentions for me growing up, so they put me in private school, which I know was a strain because we weren’t wealthy. I went to St. Vincent in Bedford because my mom works for American and we would commute out there. It was a predominantly white school, and I was the only black kid. Then when I went to Guyer it was predominantly white. I feel like I just struggled - and I didn’t fit in at my predominantly black church or with the people at school. At school I was the black girl and at church I was too white. I still find myself struggling to find a more diverse friend group. I think I didn’t notice the lack of representation in the media growing up because for so much of my time growing up I was trying to be white. I think all of my role models became white people in the media, because that was the world I was in. Ultimately I find myself wondering, “Who would I want to be? But who isn’t just sassy, or just loud, or isn’t two dimensional, or shows a range of experiences?” There was a surge of these black shows in the late 90’s; Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, Girlfriends, My Wife and Kids, Moesha, Family Matters - and then it was like, well we did that.
Rekha: That thing of, “Who would I play?” is so big in the world of UCB. If I got called in to do an impression, it wouldn’t matter how good my impression of Hillary Clinton or anybody is, they would never cast me to do it. There is nobody like me important and impersonate-able enough for you to cast me as. It is very limiting.
WDDI: Rachel tell us about your character.
Rachel: My character is Paige, who works at a publishing company. She is a personal assistant to a very wealthy author, and she is in constant battle with a privileged white lady who effortlessly just gets lots of things because she is very distantly related to the author.
Rekha: The series has frequent examples of men being promoted over women because it happens all the time. I have literally done jobs where I have trained men and they make more than me. Even when I find out and broach the subject I still don’t get equal pay. So that is the personal assistant aspect to Paige, that she is indispensable to her boss. It is based on the freelance and permalance lives of people chasing creative goals in New York and the various daily villains you encounter.
WDDI: Have you had any experiences like that in your life?
Rachel: Not in my normal jobs, but I have in casting. When I get called in for some things I’ll notice they have called in every person of color and they are all fighting for the one role. Like you’re fighting all of these people who shouldn’t be your competition because nothing else is about you is the same - but they’re just looking for one funny person of color. It feels like you should be treated as individuals with the differences and nuances that we are, instead of just filling in a role. Oftentimes those roles are very two dimensional, they’re not fully written.
Rekha: That is so accurate because it is tokenizing and de-individualizing.
Rachel: That is what makes the hustle even harder. The fact that Rekha is doing this - for women and especially for women of color you have to be working all the time to put out your own things instead of waiting for your opportunity because it may literally never come.
Rekha: That’s what it is, even if you have fewer gatekeepers with the increase of online media, it still takes executives approving the new gatekeepers. So there is still an institutional aspect that is difficult to beat.
WDDI: So beyond creating it, what is likely going to be the hardest thing for Hustle?
Rekha: I have been making videos for a few years now, and it is a very sensitive process for me. I cannot get a single website to take videos of mine. I actually sent in the Quiet Chef maybe three times and they rejected it. I applied for a grant there and they verbatim said, “We want pitches that are more in your voice, like the Quiet Chef.” But, they didn’t accept that. It’s sort of damned if you do, or damned if you don’t. You’re either whitewashed for not talking about race, or you talk too much about race if you do talk about it.
WDDI: How do you deal with the comments that are left online?
Rekha: In real life people wouldn’t say some of the stuff they’ll say online. In real life you also don’t talk to every single person that you walk by, or that walks by you. But, if someone ‘walks by’ your video and thinks, “I hate this person because of the way they look,” they can just leave a little comment with you and you’ll see it, and it sticks there. It is a weird perverse underbelly.
WDDI: It’s cool that you these smart, courageous people around you that are willing to show up and be funny.
Rekha: Showing up is everything in the world. I’m so thankful for the people who get involved.