Kindred spirits

Kindred spirits

March 28, 2023


Kindred stars Mallori Johnson and Micah Stock join showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to share their experiences of working on this eight-part adaptation of Octavia E Butler’s novel, which blends time travel with a focus on 19th century slavery.

At a time when a single television series can draw inspiration from a broad range of genres, US series Kindred stands apart: it’s a drama that blends family, romance and relationships with elements of science fiction and psychological thriller, while telling a story that explores the era of slavery.

Based on the novel by Octavia E Butler, it centres on Dana James (Mallori Johnson), a young black woman and aspiring writer who has uprooted her life of familial obligation and relocated to LA in search of a future that feels like hers. But before she can settle into her new home, she finds herself being pulled forwards and backwards through time.

She emerges at a 19th century plantation, one indelibly linked to Dana and her family, and must race against the clock to confront secrets she never knew existed.

Produced by FX productions for US streamer Hulu and arriving internationally on Disney+ on March 29, the show has been adapted by showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Watchmen, Outer Range). Janicza Bravo (Zola) directed the pilot.

Johnson heads a cast that also includes Micah Stock as Kevin, who becomes romantically involved with Dana and is also taken back in time, plus Ryan Kwanten (Thomas Weylin), Gayle Rankin (Margaret Weylin), Austin Smith (Luke), David Alexander Kaplan (Rufus Weylin), Sophina Brown (Sarah) and Sheria Irving (Olivia).

Here, Jacobs-Jenkins, Johnson and Stock speak to DQ about their interpretation of Butler’s novel, shifting the story’s ‘present day’ timeline from 1976 to 2016, and why the series transcends genre.

Micah Stock and Mallori Johnson in Hulu and Disney+ series Kindred

Branden, what were your initial thoughts about the book and how you would adapt it for the screen?
Jacobs-Jenkins: This has been a passion project for a very long time. It’s been a favourite book of mine for a very long time, but it was when people [began looking] at television as really the vanguard of the dramatic form that I thought to myself, ‘This is the perfect book for that.’
It’s a book about the feeling of passing time, of watching human beings develop from literally crib to old age. And I just wanted to build out and explore all of its themes about bearing witness to something over time and getting to know people over time and how relationships develop.

Because you’re such a fan, does that mean you were quite faithful to the book, or did you have to bend it and adjust it to make it fit a television structure?
Jacobs-Jenkins: I’d say it depends on your definition of faithful. I feel like I’ve been very faithful to the spirit of the book, but I think there is a really bold choice early on to take a book that was written in 1959 and set in 1976, and set it in 2016. And of course, that requires you to shift all kinds of things. Suddenly, cell phones exist and you can’t necessarily buy a house for $20,000. But every step of the way, I wanted to make sure all the new invention felt like it was ingrained with the original thoughts of Octavia Butler because I revere her mind and her work so much.

How did the decision to set the series in the modern day change the story, with characters having a cell phone to hand, for example?
Jacobs-Jenkins: It was interesting for me because I had to really sift through all of the assumptions one could make about anyone or anything in the 1970s versus now. It was surprising what was the same and what was different, but it was also an opportunity to try to deepen the themes of the book itself.
At the time, Butler was very much pioneering in this work, and we didn’t have nearly as much language as we have today to talk about some of the themes she was working through.
I just tried to be inspired by that difference. I tried to bring in this next iteration. I wanted it to be a celebration of the book and not a replacement of it, because I always feel like the best adaptations don’t replace the original thing. They send you back to the original thing and make you appreciate it differently.

Johnson plays aspiring writer Dana, who finds herself pulled back and forth in time

In terms of the story’s themes, are they particularly relevant to life in America today, or are they enduring themes that are still present?
Jacobs-Jenkins: It’s everything and nothing, right? It’s called Kindred. It’s about family. Unfortunately, we all have family, we all came from someone and that’s just humanity. That’s one of the major preoccupations of the book: what’s the family you think you have versus the family you really have, the family you choose, a family that chooses you?
But it’s also talking very explicitly about the psychological legacies of American chattel slavery in history. That’s just, for whatever reason, a theme that seems to never get old for us. It may go into a closet from time to time, but it seems like an essential part of the American fabric and, honestly, the world fabric.
It’s a hodgepodge, but hopefully it’s also entertaining and it’s a thrill ride that inspires and makes you feel satisfied as a viewer.

How would you describe the style of the show and how it changes across the eight episodes?
Jacobs-Jenkins: It’s very interested in time and experience of time, and things moving slowly, picking up and slowing down again. In terms of style, in some ways it’s an homage to a psychological thriller. It has as its antecedents something like Rebecca, which is a movie I love. I also think it’s like a gothic romance – a woman is questioning her sanity and a universe that may or may not be sentient.
At the same time, there’s something very absurd at the heart of it, and a lot of people find themselves surprised by the show’s relationship with humour. The best work runs the gamut of emotions; it gives you the room to feel all kinds of things about anything you want. And myself, the writers and the artists involved, we really took that to heart.

Mallori and Micah, were you familiar with Octavia Butler’s work?
Johnson: The first thing I read of hers was Fledgling, and that was the coolest book ever. I mean, to have a young leading girl who’s this vampire – that was so dope to me. I’d never before read any sort of science fiction or imaginative, expansive world that centred on black people in that way. I just thought she was such a hero. I thought she was so revolutionary for that. And when I read Kindred, I was like, ‘Oh, this woman’s a genius.’ So I’m so excited to step into this project. And I just wanted to give it all the honour and respect that I could possibly give Octavia Butler’s legacy.

Stock: I was aware of Octavia Butler in a cultural context but wasn’t that familiar with her work until this came. And then I got the script and my first attraction then was Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ name. He was a friend and a writer who I had admired for many years. And so once that process started, I read Kindred in one sitting and I thought, ‘Maybe this will happen for me.’ It opened up this whole world, and my becoming a fan of Octavia and her writing ran parallel to our process in making Kindred.
During shooting, I couldn’t get enough. I’d spend all day representing Kindred and then at night I read Fledgling and Wild Seed. It was fun to become a fan. I was a sci-fi nerd as a kid but she wasn’t on my radar and I’m so glad she is now.

Stock’s Kevin is also transported to the 1900s

You mentioned it’s sci fi and fantasy, and Branden actually described it as more of a psychological thriller. Where would you place it, or does it transcend genre?
Johnson: I would say it does transcend genre. There are so many elements of this story that it’s really hard to lock down a specific genre. What makes this show so special is it contains everything a viewer could ever want. It’s a horror, it’s a thriller, it’s a psychological thriller, it’s a fantasy, it’s science fiction, it’s a historical fiction. It has everything. There’s something for everyone.

Stock: That sloping off of genre is really evident in the fact Branden and Octavia are kindred spirits in that way. Even though Octavia was known for being a science-fiction writer, Kindred certainly fits into so many different categories. That’s why Branden ended up being the person to adapt this work with such a perfect mixture, because Branden understands that reality is not one genre. The reality of this situation is tragic and horrible and hilarious and terrifying all in the same moment. That meeting of minds we’re pretty fortunate to have.

Mallori, how do we meet Dana and how does she react to suddenly being in the 1800s?
Johnson: We meet Dana as this young aspiring writer who is just trying to make it in LA. She packs up and moves all the way across the country and is trying to be accepted by her family as an artist. And it’s just not working there. She’s all over the place. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing. She just moves into this big house. She’s financially irresponsible, she’s crazy. But at the same time, she’s met with this inexplicable phenomena that happens to her and it becomes quite clear as it happens that she is someone who is actually a very determined, resourceful and instinctively on-her-feet type of thinker.
There’s something so special about Dana where there’s strength and poise in the way she makes these decisions as she goes about this incredible, crazy journey into the past.

The supporting cast includes True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten

What was it like to switch between the past and present in terms of filming?
Stock: It was really physically taxing, in addition to the obvious mental and emotional gymnastics it required. One of the tenets of the show is we only see something in the past if one of [Dana or Kevin] is present, so that requires at least one of us to be there at any given time. It was nice at least to have someone who understood the mutual exhaustion, although certainly Mallori bore the larger portion of that.

As the showrunner, what challenges did you face in development and production?
Jacobs-Jenkins: Definitely Covid. Definitely hurricane season in Atlanta. It’s been a wild time to try to make television. I know a million people who are doing shows right now and it’s like one escape room after another. But I would say that, for me as a showrunner, I just wanted to create a world that was friendly to fans and newcomers.
Half of our crew and our staff were absolute Octavia Butler stans, and it was a real pleasure to work with them every day. I wanted also to create an environment in which people felt safe to do the work they wanted to do. That’s half of your job as a leader. You’re holding this village together that’s unified in one task, which is making a show.
It’s a seven-day-a-week job but, at the end of the day, you’re just trying to honour the book and make something people want to watch and you want to watch. That’s what it boils down to.

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