Shondaland Director Nzingha Stewart Reflects on Her Favorite ‘Scandal’ Episode

Director Nzingha Stewart
Annie Tritt for Variety

Nzingha Stewart doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t directing. Although she got her professional start working on music videos for artists including Jay-Z, Common, and Joss Stone, she remembers forcing her brothers to be in her plays when they were children. In the past year alone she has directed episodes of “Major Crimes,” “Good Girls” and literally every Shondaland series from “Grey’s Anatomy” to its new spinoff “Station 19,” “Scandal,” “How To Get Away With Murder” and “For The People.”

With such a large and diverse body of work for the 2017-18 television season, what sticks out to you as a highlight?

It was the last episode of “Scandal” I did [entitled “Good People”]. Shonda [Rhimes] wrote that episode — which already you’re getting terrific writing when you get an episode by Shonda — but it was a very quiet, very interesting episode. Normally when you have episodic shows they have to find a way to work in every single character on the show. This was not that. The majority of the scenes had either two people or just one. And being able to just explore who these people are, how they react was just amazing and rare and so special. And the two people were Joe Morton and Katie Lowes. Directing her to be in labor when she was eight and a half months pregnant was just insane, and she was really cool. Some of the scenes that were just one person scenes — Joe Morton talking to a toy — were amazing to see what he could do and the music he found in it. TV shows, they all sort of just fall into the template of the show, and you can say, “Oh I brought something nice to that” or “I liked what I did there,” but you don’t have as much ownership. This one was so different from a normal episode of “Scandal” — I don’t think we used even one standing set. It just felt like I could do something special.

What were you most proud of bringing to that episode?

We did this musical chairs idea where, because all of the characters are in [Quinn’s] head, it wasn’t scripted, but I said, “Why do they have to be in the same place in the room every time I cut to them?” Major pushback from the DP out of a sense of protection for Katie. He was like, “She’s pregnant, I want her to go home and get some rest.” But Katie would overhear it and be like, “I’m OK! I’m ready!” He was like, “You’re shooting all of these lines over and over again in different parts of the room. You have the words.” But I was like, “I don’t have the idea.” And the idea is, it’s more crazy if when you see them they’ve suddenly jumped over here or jumped over there. And I got to talk to another “Scandal” director and actor, Darby [Stanchfield], and she said she didn’t get it either on the day but [she] loved it when she saw it. “I loved that you were just very gently like, ‘I’m still going to shoot it. But thank you.'”

You have to protect your vision because as the director you’re in charge and no one else will.

But I haven’t always done that, especially very early in episodic I was so nervous and felt so super grateful if you’re saying we have to rush, OK I’ll just cut those ideas. Now the gratefulness is still there and so I want to give you my best work. You can’t see it yet because it’s only in my head, but you will and you’re going to be very happy.

What has been one of the best parts about being in the inner circle of Shondaland?

We have freedom within the words, and I could try anything within Shondaland. There is also just an inherent respect of women. I don’t have to jump any hurdles proving myself from day 1. They just see me at the table read and think, “Oh she must be qualified because they hired her.” I don’t have to do anything else after that.

What are the major differences you’ve noticed in how you’re treated now versus when you first started directing?

Right now I’m in a position where if I’m there, they wanted me — and I don’t just mean in Shondaland, I mean in general. So I feel like I’ve been treated with a tremendous amount of respect. I think when I first started that was not always the case — it was kind of never the case. And I remember my first job in episodic was very tough with one of the male executive producers. But yet, there was a DP who kind of saw what was going on and stepped up and said, “Oh that’s not true. You’re doing an excellent job. I heard the conversation, he’s wrong.” Youthfulness played into it, and I just knew in my head that he resented my being [there]. But I also knew inherently it wasn’t like that with other guys.

How do you respond when you encounter men on a job who are resistant to having a set run by a woman?

I have experienced some sexism from men, but I have learned while working to pretend the opposite is happening. Usually I will talk to them first and say, “Is there something going on? Is there something we need to talk about?” Usually I will do that — and not uncover them first, not go to anybody else first — because maybe they’re having a bad day, and I don’t want to get them in trouble if it’s that and I mis-perceived it. But if it never gets to the point of I need to talk to the producers about this, it’s just “I don’t like this vibe,” I don’t think it’s good to be the complainer. So I will pretend we’re having a great relationship, like “That was great! Aren’t we having fun?” They probably think I’m stupid and “Can’t she see I don’t like her?” But by day 3 they have been tricked into loving me. …They just start to come around from me thinking this is new for them and showing them some grace — unless it’s something that I think is getting in the way and people can see it. See them in a higher light and they will get there. I don’t think anything gets any better unless we show some people some grace and meet them where there are. But there is a line.

When you have encountered those things, what has kept you moving forward?

When the work is good, people can’t argue with that. I have had a couple of diversity hires, where it’s like “We need a woman — and she’s a person of color? Two at one time!” But I do know those couple of occasions I got back a call from the showrunner that was like, “I loved it” and I got hired again — and they will not hire you a second time if they don’t like what you can do. So the work stood on its own and then those people would recommend me to other people.

But internally, what did you have to say or do for yourself to keep you wanting to push through it?

You have to inwardly make a decision to not participate in any fear-based action. Because a lot of times they’re threatened because the newness is too much for them or they’re afraid you’re not going to do a job so they think you have to be micromanaged because they’ve never seen somebody that looks like you do that job. And not only that, they don’t see, on TV, people who look like you doing great jobs — in the White House or at their doctor’s office — and so I give them a little bit of grace and say, “They don’t see this a lot, it’s scary.” But I will not participate in anything that is fear-based. …I think women have to say to themselves going into [things], “I’m not participating in anything fear-based. I’m not not putting myself up for a job if x, y, z happens. I’m not not saying something if I don’t like something. I’m not doing something I think is wrong.” Especially looking back on all of that craziness [of] last year. It has to be an inner decision that shows up in your work and in each specific circumstance at work.

Do you feel like the projects you take on, even when in very different genres, have to share some common thread to get you to sign on?

No — and it’s probably because of how I started out in music videos. You work with a Jay-Z, who’s very different from a Common, who’s very different from Dashboard Confessional, who’s very different from Joss Stone — and there’s so much joy in, “I get to do something visually for Dashboard Confessional I can’t do for Jay-Z.” There’s an excitement that I feel like I get to do on “Scandal” that I don’t get to do on “How To Get Away With Murder.”

How much freedom do you think there is on television today to take risks and break traditional storytelling formulas and boundaries as you mentioned you got to do on “Scandal” this year?

It depends on the show. If a show is a courtroom show, there’s only so [many] things you can do because it’s built into the machine of the show and the audience wants to see some fireworks in a courtroom. They don’t necessarily want to see your artistic vision. But it is important to me, coming from music videos where your training ground is style and “How do you make somebody look cool?” For 10 years I had to sell America on this particular artist and I had to figure out, “Here’s how I can make them look cool to me. This person has style.” So when you do that every day for 10 years, I see why there’s a difference with directors that come from music videos like Spike Jonze or Francis Lawrence or David Fincher — their work looks different and it’s because every day you’re thinking about how to make something look cool and your eye is looking for references in photography or movies. And so going into episodic sometimes, I’m like, “I don’t care if it’s a hospital, how do I make it cool? How do I make it satisfying to direct?” We just did — I say “we” because I do think of it as a crew experience — “For The People” where we got to experiment with camera angles and shot composition and do things that we felt were very different from a courtroom show and felt young and fresh, and I felt so satisfied with that work, but it really was me going into it like, “This is only episode 4 and I’m only third director on this thing, we still have time to define the visual and experiment.”

What do you consider your big break?

They come in fits and starts.

Even today?

All of the time. I went to NYU — I didn’t go for film but I was directing all throughout college, and it was a lot of drug dealers who wanted to rap. Because there was that moment where once Jay-Z got on, everybody who sold drugs was like, “I can rap!” And that was another kind of training for directing because it was like, “Uh, he just showed up with a bag of cash. He might kill my a– if this isn’t good.” Now it’s like, metaphorically, if Shonda doesn’t like this she might kill me, but then it was [literal]. So you do work to have a lot of the fear. And that was the start of it. For music videos it was Common’s video for “The Light.” Everyone fell in love with that and it just opened a lot of doors. Then I wrote something that another director ended up directing — a feature — but because I got an executive producer credit it opened another door where I started getting work and consideration as a writer. And then when I realized “I’m not a writer, this is boring,” I knew what I had to do to get directing opportunities was write. And I say that because I think about every major director who’s African-American — from Ava [DuVernay] to Spike Lee to Ryan Coogler, all of them — they had to write their first movies because wasn’t nobody trying to hire them. I knew there was a point where I had to write because I was never going to get a break. So I wrote a movie for Lifetime, which did really well for them, and then I wrote another movie for Lifetime and had two movies of the week, and those were other breaks. So there were certain things along that journey that were big breaks, but you had to give yourself that break. …And then to get the Shondaland stamp of approval — the producers often make calls to recommend me — they want me to work!

Quite a few Shondaland actors have stepped behind the camera to direct episodes of their shows, which in a way is them creating an opportunity for themselves. When you have those actors or just new directors in general shadowing your work, what is the advice you want to impart?

When I’ve made a mistake is probably the best way to learn from me, and I would say the better things are to learn how I problem solve because there’s a demeanor that has to be addressed. You want to respect every single person, but problems arise, and how do you negotiate that? …And don’t be intimidated if you don’t know — you’ve got to keep working and you’ve got to prepare as much as you can. And trust the process because there’s an instinct that kicks in on set.