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America Ferrera Talks Diversity With ‘Power,’ ‘Underground,’ ‘The Affair’ Showrunners

When “Underground” creator and exec producer Misha Green began working on her series for WGN America, she sat down with “Power” exec producer Courtney Kemp to pick her brain about what it takes to be a showrunner.

“She said, the gist was, ‘You can’t really know what the job is until you’re doing it,’” Green said. “Then she said, ‘If you’ve gotten this far, that means you can keep doing it.’”

Kemp recalled the meeting as well. “When I met Misha, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s got it.’”

Kemp and Green were joined by “Superstore” star and producer America Ferrera, “The Affair” creator and exec producer Sarah Treem and moderator David Friendly for a panel at the Produced By conference Saturday on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City.

Ferrera talked about the diversity on her show, which is set in a fictional big-box retail outlet. The actress joined the series as a non-writing producer when she was cast. She noted that when she read the script, she was intrigued that her character and others were not written as any specific ethnicity.

“You get used to reading scripts where if there isn’t ethnicity specified, it defaults white,” she said. The show’s focus on diversity extends to the writers room. “You can’t make a show about working in a superstore with a room full of white guys from Ivy League schools. You can have some white guys from Ivy League schools, but not all.”

When Friendly mentioned the long nights and seven-day weeks typical of many writers rooms, Kemp countered that she works to avoid having that kind of environment on her show.

“My writers are ten-to-six,” she said. “It’s five fifty-nine? Get out. I don’t do weekends unless we’re up against it. When I do a weekend, it’s come to my house, we’re gonna have some beers, we’re gonna chill, we’re gonna talk it out, but I don’t do that thing where we’re in the room all the time.”

Treem, who said that she runs a four-day week for her writers room, said, “I think that has something to do with being women running the show.”

“And moms,” Kemp added.

Green, whose show is about the Underground Railroad, the secret network that aided slaves in 19th century America to freedom, recalled the difficulty she faced pitching a show based on that concept. She told the story of emailing an unnamed agent saying that she wanted to do a story about the Underground Railroad.

“They emailed back and said, ‘That might be hard, because AMC’s doing a show about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.’ I read it back a couple of times and thought, ‘They have to be joking,’” Green said. “So then I emailed back and said, ‘Well, since it’s not an actual railroad, I think we’ll be okay.’”

The story drew laughs from the audience.

Kemp, when talking about the conversation she had with Green before the start of “Underground,” recalled it fondly.

“It was a very important day for me to be able to do that,” she said, “because it is very, very rare that you actually get to help another woman.”

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