KANA FELIX: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
PORSCHA WILLIAMS: I was born and raised mostly in Chicago. When I graduated high school, I initially went to Alabama A&M University to study journalism and engineering. Once I started there, I discovered that I wasn’t excited about those fields so I decided to do something else. I took a gap year or maybe two off, then I transferred to Columbia College [in Chicago]. Columbia is a great school because they have a lot of resources. It’s just up to the students to utilize them. The alumni network is pretty cool too.
Len Amato, who is the head of HBO Films, went to Columbia. Which is a connection that allowed Lyn Pusztai [the former industry relations coordinator at Columbia and current professional development specialist at the Harold Ramis Film School] to get me an interview there and I eventually became an intern, which was my first job in LA. I also have other connections associated with Columbia. One of my favorites is George Tillman Jr., who directed “The Hate U Give” (2018). We met when he had a meeting with the agent that I worked for at CAA and as I showed him in, I mentioned attending Columbia and how great it is. He has been a constant source of inspiration since.
FELIX: What was your journey to LA like?
WILLIAMS: I know this sounds cheesy, but I’m a big “energy” girl. I try to stay positive because while this industry can be cool and rewarding, it’s challenging! I [once] made a vision board. On the vision board was a trip to Mount Shasta, which is Earth’s root chakra. I really feel it aligned me and for a while after that, I felt my life really changed for the better. Things just started to line up.
I also had HBO on my vision board and I was trying to get in as an intern, without bothering Lyn. So I tried to do that, but I was not successful, and they chose their interns for their other departments. So I reached out to Lyn, and asked, “Hey, do you know anyone at some other production companies?” And she said, “I do but this just came in for HBO Films and I think you would be great for it.” Isn’t that funny? As soon as I gave up on myself, what I wanted landed in my lap.
FELIX: What happened next?
WILLIAMS: Well I didn’t land a job right away. So many positions require you to have agency experience, which I highly recommend because it prepares you for the next step in a big way. So, I tried to figure out who could get my resume into an agency. I interviewed at a smaller agency; they didn’t hire me. I interviewed at CAA and they told me that while they liked me, it would be a couple of months before they could hire me. It’s the best agency, in my opinion, so I just tried to keep my head above water until they could get me in. I worked odd jobs. It was tough, and at one point I didn’t have enough money to pay rent because rent is so high in LA. Luckily, I had two friends who were like, “You’re not going home. You can sleep on our couch.” I don’t know what I would have done if it had not been for them.
FELIX: How was working for CAA?
WILLIAMS: I started in the mailroom. The camaraderie there is profound. I appreciate the memories. It’s almost like a sorority/fraternity because we all bond down there. We spend so much time together, we vent to each other, and we learn the whole system together. The mailroom is excellent because you get to go in and see how everything works instead of just getting thrown into one department.
CAA is huge. You have TV, film, music, marketing, speakers, sports, the list goes on. So, if you get to where you think you want to go and decide you want to change, you can change it within the building. If I wanted to go into music, I could go up to the music floor and tell one of my friends, “I’m looking for a music job.” I started out in film and decided I wanted to go to into TV. So I went from the film floor, to the TV floor, and I told my TV friends, “Now I’ve decided I’m interested in television, so when you get TV jobs, send them to me so that I can apply.”
I highly recommend it CAA. I can’t speak for other agencies because I feel like CAA had a combination of not only being a more powerful agency but also having a kind of family element to it. The assistants bond.
FELIX: Why did you decide to switch from film to TV?
WILLIAMS: I realized that I consume way more TV than film. As wonderful as film is, I just wanted to be in a space where I was happy. So I followed my heart. I switched over to TV at the beginning of 2018 and it was definitely a learning curve because I had been in film for a couple of years and knew almost all of the film names like the producers and executives. I was starting from scratch in TV.
FELIX: What does your day look like as TV assistant?
WILLIAMS: Usually, I’ll come in and obviously there’s the rolling of the phone calls, which is answering and making calls on your boss’s behalf, connecting them to people. So rolling of calls and scheduling, that’s basic administrative work that’s expected from all industry assistants. Also, we have a lot of scripts come in. We read them, talk about them, share our take on what we think about the scripts. I work in two departments: TV development and TV business affairs, so I also get to look at the different contracts and get a better idea of the structure of the television landscape.
FELIX: Can you speak more about development and what it looks like?
WILLIAMS: Development is basically taking a story from an idea or pitch, to a TV show. If you’re a person who is pitching an idea, I would say to you that it’s about connecting to the executives that will enjoy your story. Your pitch could be a treatment, it could be a full script, it could even be a PowerPoint presentation. What’s important is that people love it. For instance, when I was at New Regency, we took a pitch to HBO as a PowerPoint. It was a very cool story and HBO bought it. Don’t get me wrong, some people want scripts, some people want scripts that are based on books, some people want scripts that are specs or that are original ideas, some people will take a treatment or a pitch document. There’s not one hard fast way to get in.
FELIX: Does it seem to depend on the production company or the project?
WILLIAMS: It seriously varies. Even what one company wants could change if the development executives running the company change. It’s a combination of different things. This changes so often that agencies typically meet with networks every couple of months, or at least annually, to ask them what they are looking for.
FELIX: What inspires you about writing?
WILLIAMS: I initially wanted to produce because I’ve always been the fixer/liaison. I’ve got so many hours doing that because I’m that person in my family. Recently, however, this changed because I realized that I can be a television writer and possibly make a change while doing something I love. Narrative changes how we interact with one another. I’d love to be a part of making sure we all see each other on the big screen in very humanizing ways so that we can treat each other better.
FELIX: What kinds of things are you interested in writing?
WILLIAMS: Dark comedies; I love “Fleabag,” “Atlanta,” and “You’re the Worst.” I love comedies with social commentary like “Dear White People” and “Black-ish,” which actually won a Peabody for that! Comedies based in realism are big for me as well. “Better Things” is at the top of my list.
FELIX: As a woman of color in this industry, have you felt welcomed or frustrated?
WILLIAMS: Both. I feel frustrated because I have had, I’m not going to say racism, I’m going to say I’ve had biased things happen to me. For instance, when I was in the mailroom, I hung with this one girl because we had similar personalities, we are both the go-getters. So we would do the exact same things, and one of the heads of the mailroom, a white guy, would call her assertive and he would call me aggressive. He congratulated her on being decisive while he told me I needed to be more polished and not so loud. She was white with blonde hair.
I also experienced microaggressions, almost on a daily basis, and occasionally even from people whom I admire. I usually have an afro and sometimes I use product that makes the curls fall around my face as opposed to standing on top of my head. Someone I look up to literally said to me one day: “I like your hair like this, it looks less aggressive this way.” That bothered me because she essentially admitted that the way my hair grows naturally out of my head seems aggressive to her. Not my actions, not my words, just the way my hair grows out of my hair.
I run into those things often. On the other hand, I think this is a really good time for me to break into the writing circle, because people are focusing on women with the #MeToo movement. They’re trying to shuffle out all of the people who don’t treat others with respect, and usher in some diversity. I know that change is happening slowly but I think that I do feel welcomed because I have the opportunity to be a part of the new age if I work hard enough.
FELIX: Do you have any advice for women who might be interested in going on the path you’re on?
WILLIAMS: If a woman wants to do anything in this industry, I highly recommend working at an agency for two reasons. One, agencies are the hub of information and you’ll learn about whatever you’re interested in and get job opportunities there too. And two, when you go into these agencies as an assistant, as you begin to grow, the people you were assistants with begin to grow too. Suddenly you look up, and your friends are executives, writers, directors, managers, agents. These will be the people that you create content with, and you’ll already know and like them.
I would also recommend talking to other women and finding advocates and mentors. I’m not well-versed so much in the industry that I could be a mentor to someone who just got out here, but I could be an advocate. Advocates are as important as mentors; try to get both of those. I would say treat it like dating, you know? You meet people, see if you click with them, if you have the same tastes, if you like the same things, and if you do, you’ll probably hit it off and continue to talk and if you don’t… all is well.
You can follow Porscha Williams on Instagram here.