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Chivalry | Interview with Wanda Sykes (Jean)

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How did you come to be involved in Chivalry?

I met Sarah Solemani at a party once and she mentioned that she wanted to do something with me. I knew her as a writer so I was like, ‘cool, yeah, if you have something, send it my way.’ Years later I get a text from her saying, ‘I wrote this thing with Steve Coogan that I think you’d be great for. I’d love for you to read it.’ I read a couple of the episodes and I was into it.

What piqued your interest?

I thought it was very timely. I loved the character of Jean and of course, Steve Coogan is so funny. So that was very exciting. And the idea of shooting part of it in London was very cool. I didn’t realise it would be during a pandemic! I was shooting another movie so we had to squeeze in some dates but I was really happy it worked out.

Jean is the head of a Hollywood film studio. How does she fit into the story?

She’s an executive and one of her studio’s films, ‘A Little Death,’ is in trouble [for its sexist content] so she brings in Bobby (Sarah Solemani) to get everything back on track. By putting a woman in charge to direct, it makes the optics a little better, so Jean is playing politics. It’s her role to put out fires. She knows it’s an awful film but she’s trying to get it made to save her job. She’s hoping all the difficulties going on with the film will go away with this new approach of, ‘hey, there’s a female running it, we’re back on track now.’

Is Jean likeable?

I think she’s a typical studio executive. Not necessarily a nice person. She’s old school and she’s been around for a long time; she yells at people and wields her power. She’s all business. Even when she’s at home, she’s having phone calls and conversations about work.

What did you particularly like about playing her?

I loved the idea of this black woman who is also a lesbian and has already had to navigate race and gender in the industry, now navigating the Me Too movement. Before, people would look away or say, ‘that’s just the business, of course that’s what happens, it’s a man’s field.’ But Hollywood is evolving and it’s no longer acceptable, and Jean, who has previously been on the receiving end in situations, now finds herself as the one committing the felonies.

So could her days as a studio executive be numbered?

I would say she’s always been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t think she ever thought she would ride off into the sunset, because it’s show business and one day they’re going to show you the door. This isn’t the kind of job where you last for a long time and then retire. You just try not to burn too many bridges because you might move from one studio to another. She is trying to hang in there until it’s her time to go.

Does she have any other distinguishing characteristics?

Her style. I love her fashion sense. How you represent yourself is important. Jean looks like she is a powerful woman. The stylist on the show had a vision and when we had the fitting I was like, ‘I love everything, this is great.’

How closely does the Hollywood depicted in the show resemble the real thing?

Of course it’s a comedy so it’s a little exaggerated, but it does happen. There are movies that get made that people know are awful but they owe somebody a contract or never have the intention of releasing them. The wheeling and dealing and the throwing each other under a bus is very typical of Hollywood.

How does that compare to your own experience of the industry?

I’ve only had maybe one incident where the director was an asshole and yelling. It just doesn’t make for a pleasant environment. No one wanted to be there. So I’ve been very fortunate as far as sets I’ve worked on and people I’ve worked with. It’s been pretty much a great experience.

Why do you think the post-MeToo world of Hollywood makes compelling comedy drama?

What I find funny is watching people trying to figure out how to navigate this new environment. It’s hilarious because it shouldn’t be a struggle to try and figure it out, it’s like, just behave yourselves! It should be pretty simple but instead all these people are having conferences and basically trying to educate people how not to be jerks. It should be your factory default to not be a jerk!

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