If the ‘50s were the golden age of television, then call where we are now the platinum period. Once upon a time, “proper” actors would poo-poo the idea of doing TV. Cut to today and some of the best art is being created for television, and right now, along with entertainment and escapism, we’re looking to culture-conscious people who can center Black stories. Detroit native Carla Banks-Waddles has been working in Hollywood for over two decades, and she recently inked a deal with NBCUniversal to be the co-writer and showrunner of a new drama series, At That Age.
The pilot was greenlighted in March 2020 and is set to be directed by Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee. At That Age will follow a wealthy Black family from Harlem who’ve built a real estate empire. In the vibe of HBO’s Succession, we’ll see complicated sibling dynamics around legacy and control play out, while also dealing with the issues of gentrification and community.
“For me, for this project – and any project, really – it’s just about the characters,” Banks-Waddles says. “It starts with: Who are they? What is their relationship to each other? What makes them fun to watch? It’s about understanding the characters and their depths and being able to connect with it.”
Banks-Waddles has already forged a bond with NBC, acting as a consultant on Season 2 of the series Good Girls and then moving into the role of writer and co-executive producer in Season 3, which is where she’ll be with the upcoming season which is in production when we speak in early January. Fans of the outrageous show starring Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman will remember that Season 3 ended rather abruptly – blame it on COVID.
Banks-Waddles promises that they’ll wrap up that plot line a little tidier and that we’ll get a better glimpse into the inner workings of sexy bad boy Rio, played by Manny Montana. “This season, now, people can look forward to learning a little bit more about what makes him tick and more into who he is,” she says.
Writing and telling stories was always her thing. Banks-Waddles graduated from Cass Tech and went on to Northwestern University where she majored in journalism, “Because the creative thing was always scary to me. I really didn’t know what to do with it.”
Journalism felt like the safer, more respectable bet, but, she says, “While I was there, I was able to take all these classes in radio, television and film and really sort of see what that was like.” What she learned was that she could make a career out of the creative side of storytelling. She recalls a class taught by the Black woman writer Delle Chatman, who had written on an episode of Quantum Leap in which white time traveler Sam Beckett jumps into the body of a Black cowboy.
“I was just fascinated by that, how she was able to bring herself into that show, and how that episode would not have existed if not for a Black woman being there and saying, ‘This is what I think we should do,’” Banks-Waddles says.
“It really sort of opened up the world to me.” She says she needs structure, and so, having a job where she can write creatively but do so in a contained environment with a team who forces accountability, and then go home at the end of the day, strikes the perfect balance.
She settled in Los Angeles with her husband after completing the University of Southern California’s graduate screenwriting program in 2000. “I feel like a Californian now.” About the lessons on storytelling she brought with her from Detroit, Banks-Waddles says it’s how to center one’s own experiences and self.
“I don’t think I valued that at first, you know? I didn’t see how much bringing me into the room, that gave me stories to tell. I grew up in the inner city; I didn’t grow up privileged at all – that’s a story. My mom is still in the house I grew up in. I’m a product of Detroit Public Schools. That’s a part of my story, too.”
She says, “There’s not one Black story, but, for me, I always want to tell stories that feel authentic and real to who I am as a Black person in America.” The tales of tragedy and brutality have their space in the ethos, but, Banks-Waddles says, “They aren’t our only stories. I want to tell stories that capture all of our humanity and all of who we are, and the Black joy that we also experience.”