Executive Producer and Showrunner, Janine Sherman Barrois, on Creating Opportunities for Women of Color in Hollywood
Janine Sherman Barrois is busy. Really busy. So busy, I had to catch her on the phone after she just got off a plane and on her way to a meeting. After talking for 20 minutes, she had to stop and get to her next appointment. We picked up the next afternoon and the conversation was squeezed in between appointments because she is busier than ever.
“I actually have so many things on my plate right now, my plate is so big that I now have to figure out how to have more time. It’s a good place to be in,” she said.
Barrios resigned with Warner Brothers to continue production with “Claws” and will develop new projects for the studio. Her calendar isn’t just filled with things to do in 2018. Next year, she is set to shoot a small movie, a pilot and continue with “Claws” which was just renewed for a third season.
“I’m a storyteller and this proves that I’m a visual storyteller as well as a writer and I just want to keep telling stories and put different narratives out there,” said Barrois.
The story of “Claws” is a multilayered one. Five women and friends ‘til the end are tied together, not just through their work at a stripmall nail salon in Manatee County, Florida - they’re also involved in a money laundering project with a pain clinic next door, where pills fly out as fast as the excuses to get them. When they need to talk personal business and the salon is too noisy, a nearby shrimp shack is the place to get a big quick and fried shrimp, usually eaten sitting on top of picnic tables.
The queen bee Desna, played by Nicey Nash, wants out and wants what’s best for her girls. But with the Russian mob taking over her southern bosses and henchmen, the nail artisans have their work cut out for them.
They’re funny, sad, inspiring and tragic all at the same time.
Barrois notes that at the core of her vision, she wanted to see women of color and see people like herself and people around her reflected on screen.
Born in Newton, Massachusetts and later moved to Virginia in her junior year of high school, Barrois said like everyone else, she loved watching TV and going to the movies and liked the popular offerings of the day.
“I loved “A Different World” and “Fame” the TV show. I liked the John Hughes movies like “Pretty in Pink” and those coming of age stories,” she said.
But she noticed that something was missing.
“I grew up in a very middle class environment so I didn’t always see and I still don’t completely see it, people of color, living in a middle class just dealing with the naturalistic ups and downs of life. So I think there’s always been a void there.”
Despite that, there were shows with all-white or mostly-white casts that she enjoyed and explored an alternative universe to those projects.
“When I would watch a show like ‘Sex and the City’, which I was obsessed with, I would just picture one of those women as being a person of color and I think a lot of people of color see that. We watch shows and we attach ourselves to the human side of the story and we just imagine that it’s our friends or one of the women looks like us.”
It was that imaginative setting, to create stories that hadn’t been told and to get them to a wider audience was a goal she didn’t want to stray from.
After graduating from Howard University, Barrois went to Los Angeles to work in the industry.
“I started working for different people and I always knew I wanted to write movies,” she said. “But I got a job working for a TV producer and I saw how writers in television got to tell stories every week and I was thrilled to do that.”
While working for others, Barrois began to put her ideas out. With mixed results.
“I got rejected countless times. The thing that I have that a lot of people that a lot of people who are successful have is stamina. The desire to keep going even in the face of adversity,” she said.
She supported herself with day jobs in the business but in order to make her own stories and projects come to life, she had to work when no one was watching, late nights and off the clock.
“I would come home and write late into the night and I would get stuff done,” said Barrois. “I worked for Eric Gold who at the time handled Judd Apatow and I might work for him until 8:00 at night and then I would go home and write until 3:00 a.m.”
That exhaustive schedule is how some ideas move forward, Barrois said, at the expense of others.
“I have been rejected so much and daily rejection or get ideas shot down that I no longer sort of live in the anxiety of that because it happens all the time,” she said. “I tell to aspiring writers if you want to write you got to be able to live with rejection because it happens every day.”
“When you’re in a writing room and you’re running around and you’re pitching daily, you’ll pick ideas that don’t seem to work. And you kind of fall down and you get back up,” she said. “As you start to realize that some of your ideas are good and some of your ideas are bad. And in order to find a difference, you have to pitch a lot of bad ones.”
Between writing and pitching, Barrois’ first big break came as a writer for “The Jamie Foxx Show” and that lead to other projects, including “Third Watch” and “ER.” She met people along with way who helped her develop her craft while navigating the treacherous waters that could drown any creative person working in Hollywood.
“I got mentored by executives, men and women. The Wayans were very mentory to me. (Producer and talent manager) Eric Gold. My biggest mentor, I would say there are two: Yvette Lee Bowser (“Living Single”, “A Different World”, “Dear White People”.) My longest mentor in terms of who I worked for the longest was John Wells (“ER”, “The West Wing”, “Third Watch.”)
“I worked for nine seasons on two of his shows. I was on “Third Watch” and then I was on the last four years of “ER.” Through him, when you’re working at such a competitive, renowned writers themselves, I probably wrote between both shows about 30 scripts. And it’s through that process that you get better.”
It was through those shows and the work going into those productions that she used her time working for others polishing her work.
“If you’re around great people or get to write for a Sally Field or a Stanley Tucci or Forest Whitaker or some of the best, your craft gets better. And that’s what I got on "ER" and on “Third Watch,” she said. “Now you see a lot of people of color working all throughout the business but back then it was extremely hard to get in those camps.”
And that’s Barrois’ mission: to make sure people of color are there, in front of and behind the camera. That’s what drew her to “Claws” when she first saw the script.
“When I read it I literally thought Eliot Lawrence’s script was brilliant. I felt that he had a modern day Tennessee Williams’ voice and I truly had not read something that was so compelling, so layered about women,” said Barrois, who added that at first, the characters were written racially nondescript.
“When I read it I understood what the buzz was about. It’s truly one of the best developed scripts ever. In terms of the characters, they just pop off the page.”
The different personalities: an African-American woman in her 40s, an Asian-African American millennial, a Cuban lesbian, a poor white southern belle and a white woman who tells tall tales (her true background has yet to be revealed) -- all converge in a chippy, brightly colored, messy low-style nail salon.
It’s far from chic and elegant and neither is the clientele. But it’s a space where women from all income levels can relate to.
“I think it’s very real. There’s this anonymity toward it but also an intimacy toward it. It’s a sacred place for women to come. I think that’s why we tell stories in nail salons,” said Barrois.
And they’re not just keeping busy doing nails. This season, a Russian mob feminist is taking over the money laundering business from the white southern men who were once in charge and now taking a backseat to the women.
“I think that women for so long have been the wallpaper and they sat in the background in society and these women want a piece of the pie. They want power, they want sex, they want money, they want influence and they do not count themselves out because they’re in their 40s, they do not count themselves out because they work in a strip mall.”
Barrois wouldn’t deliver details on what to expect this season, but she said we’ll get a better understanding of how the characters were formed and what their experiences were before getting to the salon.
“You’re going to peel back more layers behind them and you’re going to learn more about Polly, about Desna, about Quite Ann. As you go through different layers you’ll understand them better,” said Barrois. “As much as we have this big crime arc, we also have an opportunity, even with Desna and (her autistic brother) Dean to actually understand why these people are the way they are.”
I asked her for at least one hint.
I got one, albeit opaque and revelatory at the same time.
“I can just tell you the Russians are here. So it’s going to be complicated,” said Barrois with a laugh. “Desna is going to have a new complication with that. You’ll see a lot of the relationships tested. I think you’ll be happily surprised but you’ll be emotionally moved. It wouldn't be “Claws” unless it has the ups and downs.”
If you caught episode two of season two this year, you were treated to another project about relationships. Barrois’ short film “French Fries” debuted after the episode. It’s part of Refinery 29’s Shatterbox film series.
The story: a married couple going through the eternal battle of compromise.
“A couple who had been married for some time but who had been struggling with different issues. Him staying home to pursue his dreams, her going out to work and having to provide and put her dream on the side. It’s was a great jumping off to do a deep dive into a marriage,” said Barrois.
It’s part of an anthology that’ll be on TNT and it’s a project produced by women of color. Seeing her vision, the story of “French Fries” on the screen was huge.
“Pitching, trying to sell something and be responsible for the creative decisions and then know that at the end that it’s going to get on the air or in the theater and that people were going to see it was very, very empowering,” she said.
Barrois is not all work and no play. In her spare time, she enjoys contemporary art and goes to museums. She lists her hobbies as enjoying and collecting modern art. She also enjoys “kicking it with friends” and traveling with her husband.
As a success story, as a woman of color and as a storyteller, Barrois has one sage piece of advice for aspiring writers and people who want to see their vision on the screen: write. Write all the time.
“A lot of people think they want to write. But a lot of people do not write daily. If you want to be in television or film, you really feel this is what you want to do, the first thing to do is to sit down and do it,” she said.
“The people that I’ve seen in my life who have ‘made it’ or are having successful careers doing it are people who have stamina. They have been able to pick the ups and downs, and when they’re down they figure out how to push through that fear and continue to write. It’s not easy. It’s a marathon and if you keep doing it you will eventually reap the benefits of it.”
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