As the interviewer says, Courtney Kemp Agboh’s career path has been amazing. Noobs and olds can learn a lot from her rise to – can you stand it? – POWER!
by Libby Hill
As Power settles into its second season, the Starz show is amping up both the pace and tension, in an attempt to take the good thing it had in season one and make it great. Showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh took time to sit down with Vulture at the Austin Television Festival to talk about the show — which was picked up for a third season today — why she doesn’t feel responsible for creating great female characters, and her disappointment at never taking overEntertainment Weekly.
Tell me all your things, because your career path is amazing.
So, my things: I went to graduate school for English literature. I thought I was going to be a professor, then I ran screaming from there into magazine journalism.
I worked at Mademoiselle and then it shut and I worked at GQ for three years, during which I was freelancing. I wrote for Vibe; I did music reviews; I wrote for Time Out. I was desperate to get into Entertainment Weekly or New York Magazine. Like, desperate. Couldn’t get that job. God was like, “Guess what’s not happening, girl?” Then I also really wanted to be the first black female editor-in-chief of Vogue or Entertainment Weekly, of course.
That was the dream.
That was the dream. And the dream, you know, didn’t happen. Then I went and I wrote for J.Crew for a while.
You tell me, “I wrote for the J.Crew catalogue,” and people need to hear this. People need to hear that it’s hard and you work a bunch of crazy jobs and you end up in a completely different place than you thought you wanted to be.
Absolutely. By the way, my big break in TV was my magazine article I wrote about interracial dating, which these two guys wanted to turn into a TV show. But it took three years from the time that I quit GQ to the time that I moved out. I mean, it was a long process.
That’s amazing. Then you started out as a staff writer on Bernie Mac.
Well, I came into the comedy world, and I’m not very funny and I fucking failed.
Well, I think “failing up” is what we call it.
But see, here’s the thing. In hindsight, it looks very good, but at the time, I got a new job in a new career and I failed. I didn’t get asked back. Luckily enough, I really wanted to write a one-hour drama anyway, so I wrote a one-hour CSI spec, and I got hired on Injustice, where I worked for Robert and Michelle King, who I ended up working with on The Good Wife. So my whole career, there has been a lot of good and bad.
How did you make the leap to showrunner?
Well, there’s no leap. There’s staff writer, and I worked my way up. The shows I worked on got canceled every year, and then I was on The Good Wife for three years, and the idea [for Power] started to come together and I pitched it. I had a couple more years in the wilderness and then they finally said yes. Slow and steady work. Which is why when young people say to me, “How can I get my show on the air?” I say, “You can’t.” You can get your show on the air, maybe, but you won’t run it. If you want to be a showrunner, you have to work your way all the way up. That’s how it came.
Well, there are those, like Josh Schwartz with The O.C., who come in as these wunderkinds and are immediately relevant. But that’s not realistic.
Well, it happens. Also, in my case, this was the first show I ever pitched, it’s the first show I ever sold, it’s the first show I ever wrote for money. I mean, yes, lightning in a bottle, but I had worked for ten years. Josh, when it happened to him, it wasn’t like he hadn’t written a lot of stuff, it just had never gotten made. Greg Berlanti wrote ten pilots before he broke through. It’s like people only see the success part; they don’t see how much work goes into it.
What did you learn from making season one of Power?
I kind of know a little bit what I’m doing. That was a big revelation, because I had never done this before, and I learned that I could trust my own taste. I could trust my instincts. It didn’t mean I had all the experience or I knew everything, but I could trust myself some.