This week’s episode of All American season 4 was a monumental one for the show and the overall franchise as it was the directorial debut of star Daniel Ezra.
The episode, “Babies and Fools,” (the 12th of the season) showcases a lot for the character of Preach as the ordeal with Mo’s shooting comes to a head. There are also things with Billy (Taye Diggs) as he has his eye on being principal, Layla as she’s going through things with her father and so much more.
Shadow and Act spoke with showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll to talk about a ton of things, including having Ezra direct the episode, the storylines going on with both Kareem and Billy, the fandom shipping-certain characters and what the outlook is right now on expanding the All American universe even further.
What was it like having Daniel Ezra making his directorial debut and working with him in this capacity-- not only just in general--but for it to be this episode specifically, with a lot of issues going on specifically with the older Black male characters?
Daniel’s such an exceptional talent as an actor and just also as a leader on set. So when he first expressed an interest in directing, it was one of those things that was kind of a no-brainer. I was like, “Of course, you can do this.” He just has a natural gift for it. Of course, with him also being an actor on the show, we wanted to be very supportive of him expanding his role creatively. It really was a question of, “OK, what episode would be best for him to direct?” Because it also meant he had to be lighter in the episode that came before it because he’d also be prepping for his episode. And it all worked out for an episode where we’re dealing with the fallout of the Coop and Preach situation and with Mo’s shooting for that to be the one to let him think his teeth into, especially given the centering of the characters off Preach played by Kareem Grimes and Coop played by Bre-Z. And he just killed it.
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From minute one, even just from the script and when we sat down and talked through what was happening in each scene and the emotional life we wanted to give to what was happening, especially with Preach and his daughter Amina, he just got it. Right off the bat, he understood what we were going for and what would be required. And then, he had that extra perspective as an actor of how to really talk to the cast to get the performances he wanted. It was one of those things where every time you have a first-time director on set, whether it’s your cast or just a new director, all of us collectively hold our breaths for those first scenes or two. We’re like, “OK…is the vision going to translate? What’s going to happen?”
And it was one of those moments where just literally watching him in the first scene talk with a DP about what he wanted, talk with the cast about what he wanted…one of my other producers and I who were sitting on set just looked at each other and were like, “We’re going to be OK. It really turned out to be a fantastic episode. He has a great visual eye and a real gift for this, which is kind of annoying… because now we’re sitting here and we’re like, “What can’t you do?” We were extremely, extremely proud of him.
This episode puts a lot of spotlight on the character of Preach, who started as more of an ancillary character. Was it always the plan to make him such a big part of Coop’s story and getting story himself even?
Yes and no. When we originally conceived of the character of Preach, they were coming in to serve a purpose towards the end of season 1. And we knew it would be like a small, guest star role and maybe we’d see him every now and then, but probably wouldn’t see the character past season 1…maybe a couple times in season two. But the minute we cast Kareem Grimes in the role [we knew it]. And I had the pleasure of working with Kareem on my first ever episode of TV way back in the day on Bones, and he did such an exceptional job that he never left my mind. So fast forward years later and the writer who wrote the episode where we introduced Preach, we were sitting down and going over notes on the scripts. And I was like, “You know what? I know the perfect actor to play Preach.” And he was like, “OK… there’s this one actor I’ve worked with before and I would just really love to give him a shot at it. I think he’d be great.” We went back and forth and then realized we were talking about the same person. We both had Kareem in mind.
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So Kareem came in, read and blew us out the water like we knew he would. And the minute he was cast in the role, we knew that character was going to stick around. But even then, I hadn’t envisioned just how integral to the story he’d become, and that is a testament to Kareem as an actor and as a castmate. He just came in and he delivered consistently every time and he was elevating the material. It was one of those things where we could give him more and more because he was nailing it. So suddenly, it became a world where we couldn’t see the world of south LA, we couldn’t see Coop and Spencer’s story without Preach in it. So the role just continued to grow from there.
We also see Billy really gel into his role as interim principal and there is a lot of commentary here about Black men in education-- because as we know they are typically few and far between. How important is this to Billy and how important was it to have this storyline?
Significantly important. I will go ahead and confess my bias: my husband is a Black male teacher. So frequently, he’s the only one in the room. And especially at these younger ages, it’s so rare to see Black male educators and Black male administrators that are the leaders in these schools. So I really wanted to put that image on TV so that as our community is watching, that’s something that people also aspire to be. They’re like, “Oh wait, there are men who look like me that are in education shaping lives. There are men who look like me that care about my future, and that’s something I could be too.” Just being able to put that image on TV and honor my husband in that way was super important to me.
Also for the character of Billy, in real life, Spencer Paysinger, who the character of Spencer James is inspired by, his uncle was the coach at Beverly and ultimately became the principal of Beverly for a while. So that had always stayed in the back of my head from when Spencer had mentioned that. It wasn’t originally the trajectory we had for Billy, but the character continued to grow and expand. I really felt like it was the right direction for Billy to go in, as it’s the completion of the prodigal son returning home story. When we first met Billy in season 1, he was so adamant about keeping a distance from South LA and from the hurt and pain with his relationship with his father and his mother passing away. He put South LA in his rearview and never looked until he had to go back.
To see that story come full circle, where not only is he back and not only back coaching at his old high school, but now he wants to take on additional responsibilities. It’s part of his mother coming out of him, because his mother was an educator. We really talked about how close he was to her and how her death affected him. So to see him come full circle and realize that there is a large part of her in him that wants to help these kids be the best version of themselves, even off the field, it just felt like the right organic direction to take Billy’s character.
Fans have been shipping Layla and Jordan ever since earlier in the season. Considering the events of ‘All American: Homecoming’ last week and the future of Simone and Jordan, are Layla and Jordan finally a possibility?
You are not going to get me in trouble [laughs]. What I will say is that relationships are complicated and long-distance relationships are complicated. So what both Simone and Jordan are experiencing in the All American universe of both shows is the effort that they’re going to have to put in to make this work 3,000 miles away from each other and how easy it can be to rely on the support system and the friendships you have that are right there when the love of your life isn’t. And what does that look like and what does that mean in terms of close friendships, in terms of boundaries, in terms of respecting your relationship?
And that’s all stuff we’re exploring with Jordan and Simone, and with Layla and Jordan, and with Simone and Damon, and this is all part of young adulthood and transitioning into real adulthood, and figuring out what adult relationships look like and friendships when you are in a committed relationship. So that is all I will say about that.
The last time you spoke with us you talked to us about having an 'All-American' universe planned out. Given the success already of All-American: homecoming — do you have any updates you can share about where you plan to take the franchise next?
Listen, my brain is always circulating. My brain is always in the world of “How do I continue to make the All American universe relevant and current?” And sometimes, that means just staying within those two shows and sometimes that means there’s a world where there could be an expansion beyond it. But right now, truthfully, I’m really just focused on Homecoming and All American, because I feel like I haven’t finished telling those stories.
There’s so much now that they’re in college and in two very different colleges. You’ve got your two D1, predominantly white institutions, football-heavy colleges on All American, and then you’ve got your HBCU on Homecoming. And it’s such a critical four years in everyone’s life and there’s such a breadth of stories we could tell around that I’m really excited to get into. So that’s really what I’m focused on right now. Fingers crossed for a season five of All American and a season two of Homecoming, and that to continue to expand the world and the stories through those characters.
Editor’s notes: All American was renewed for season 5 after this interview had taken place; Penson Kareem also contributed to this report.
All American and All American: Homecoming air Mondays on The CW.