Interview: Anna Jones on MY AMERICA, political food fights, and Eddie Redmayne

Will Tilbrook 8 November 2016

With the US Presidential race coming to an end tomorrow, some people will have been breathing a sigh of relief that it has finally reached its closing days. Newnham College alumna Anna Jones, however, has seen this period of time as an artistic opportunity. In the week running up to 8 November, MY AMERICA, a six-part web series, directed and co-written by Jones, has been released day by day on YouTube, dramatising how divisive this election has been for ordinary people, and I ask her some questions about the project, politics, and her career.

How did you come up with the idea for MY AMERICA?

My husband, Jamel (J.S. Davall), and I had a strange and difficult summer – like so many of us. Brexit going the way of 'Leave' in June coupled with all the shootings by and of police this summer left us both feeling disenfranchised and anxious about the state of things in both our home countries (mine, the UK; Jamel's, the US) and wanting to do something about it as a means of catharsis through expression.

Since we moved to LA last year, Jamel has been Ubering as a day job and met an enormous number of people and had many interesting and often surprising encounters, which we began to think would make a great backdrop for a web series – which would massively suit the short form content. We kept asking writer friends to turn them into episodes, but they were all busy on their own shows – the great thing about being a writer in LA in 2016! – so we eventually decided to just begin to write them ourselves, a decision we're delighted now that we made. Even in the edit room now as we complete the series, we are continuing to re-write. It's proved to be a fascinating process.

When Jamel came home in July and told me a story about a Southern African-American couple getting into a food fight over Donald Trump in the back of our car on the freeway, we realized we had our first episode… and began to get excited about the idea of these being a series of political conversations that would also comment on and express the anxieties of the current moment. We began to carefully build out the others from there.

What is the purpose of the series? Does it have a message?

As we thought more about developing the series, we decided that it would be interesting to have a driver and passenger as our main subjects who were outwardly very different, but in fact share essential similarities and experiences of being at sea in the world. The series follows several days in the life of Lucian, a young/middle-aged African-American man and Carmine, a retired white Italian-American man – each from different sides of the political equation and the "black vs. blue" debate that has been so pervasive here recently. By making these men equal protagonists, we wanted to reveal both the differences that frame their existences and the areas in which they find common ground, both when together and when living out their stories separately. 

Additionally, Carmine's story is that of a man who is exposed to diversity and difference, and as a result, begins to very slightly change and open up to others around him and hopefully shed some of his unwitting prejudice. America (similar to the UK right now it seems) is a fractured and divided country in many ways, and in order for it/us to continue to live together, it struck Jamel and I that we've got to be able to see each other and listen to one another, regardless of how we may feel about each other's belief systems. We wanted to humanize both men, and in showing their struggles, create an equal degree of empathy for each of them, and so express their essential similarities. 

Both mine and Jamel's upbringings took place in very diverse environments, mine in Walthamstow, East London and his in East New York, Brooklyn and as a result, we both believe strongly in the healthiness of being surrounded by others of different backgrounds and beliefs, and want the world to continue to move towards increased diversity and acceptance rather than less… This series is our attempt to be a part of that crucial conversation. […]

Is it fair to say one of the key themes that seems to be at the heart of MY AMERICA is how personal politics can be? Was this important to the project?

Absolutely. In writing them, we thought a lot about why each of us has the belief system we have – what has informed it and why; our cultural backgrounds, our professional lives, our exposure to others, etc. All politics is essentially personal because of this, I feel, as much as people may try to/want to distance it from themselves; particularly in this election in which civil rights themselves feel disturbingly under threat. 

Episode 4, which was released today (Nov 6) really goes to the heart of this when Carmine takes an Uber with his daughter-in-law, Jess and they get into an explosive conversation with Alejandro, their Mexican-American driver after he unwittingly assumes they both share Democratic points of view, and thus plunges them into a massive argument over Hillary Clinton's veracity and the nature of "the elite". The tension that's been bubbling under the surface for Carmine's stay with his son and family explodes, and the argument around politics is shown to be deeply personal and thus difficult. 

Several friends here have talked about family members who are voting for Trump, and their difficulty with coming to terms with that choice, which struck us as fertile ground for dramatic storytelling. 

Episode 3 is based on the couple who got into the food fight over Trump and the woman's white grandfather… As we shot it, myself and the actors kept wondering how this couple could stay together with such different opinions and intensity of feeling; but the reality is of course that many people are in just that situation, and have to find a way through; which perhaps in some ways, in fact offers some wider sense of national hope… Hope feels in short supply at the moment, so we have tried to make a series that reflects a truthful ambivalence and uncertainty felt by many, but which does also try to point out where love and respect also lie, often in surprising ways! […]

Has this presidential election been any more divisive than previous recent presidential elections, in your opinion?

Amongst my friends here, there is deep anxiety around the divisiveness of this election campaign in relation to issues of race, gender and wider civil rights. The anxiety around how the country can heal from that is pervasive and deeply unsettling, I believe on both sides of the table. I have a friend who is a Trump supporter who is deeply offended by the idea that he is racist and misogynist as a result (assumed by some), and that is highly problematic for him as much as it is for the other side. However, the divisiveness that many aspects of Trump's campaign and actions have provoked cannot be ignored because it has so deeply affected so many of us, and the worrying nature of that divisiveness is a lot of what the series is about, while trying not to point a finger at individual Trump supporters. Personally, I take heart in the fact that diversity is increasing daily in the U.S., and Jamel and I both believe that this will lead to a more harmonious future for future generations.

In the episodes, the people that are presented support Democrats, Republicans, and independent candidates: was it important for you to try and make your commentary non-partisan?

As a piece of drama, you need to have people of different opinions and beliefs in conflict with one another; so the diversity of opinions is necessary on a dramatic level, as is the attempt to make them three dimensional. In terms of political commentary, it was also important to us to show honestly the range of opinions in the country right now, and to respect where those belief systems may come from, and why they may be held. We'd like the series to be seen by a wide range of people from different political persuasions who all feel represented – both politically and culturally; and so wanted the conversations to feel as real and difficult as the ones surrounding us every day. 

We also wanted to show different geographic backgrounds in the series. The first episode starts with Sarah, a New Zealander living in the UK, talking about the impact of Brexit on everyday life to Lucian, an American, who also used to live in the UK. This sense of internationalism and moving around is so important to my generation's sense of its own identity, and I'm excited we were able to kick off the series in this way as it feels like a set of values under threat that are vital to defend going forwards. 

What made you want to get involved with film/theatre to start with?

I always loved performing as a child and the sense of playing out another identity with other people and the pleasure of that! I also loved going to the theatre – my grandmother who attended the Berg Theater in Vienna as a child – would take me to The National Theatre, and it entranced me. Similarly with watching TV and film in my teens, I began to get hooked on living inside other people's stories and realities from Sam Mendes' American Beauty to Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet. When I realized you could carve out a career directing while I was at Cambridge, I was sold and haven't been able to look back since, despite the precarious realities of the lifestyle of an artist!

Did you get involved with the film or theatre scene when you were studying at Cambridge?

I acted a lot in my first year, as well as playing the clarinet and baritone sax in many orchestras and bands. I started directing at the end of my first year with an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife' I made with my friend Seonaid Goody, now a puppeteer based in Berlin, and a host of other friends performing, writing music, etc. We developed it at Newnham, my college & Germaine Greer appeared at one of the previews in the Old Labs and gave us a fistful of twenty pound notes to help us take it to Edinburgh. Quite a moment! In my second and third years, I got more into the opera scene as a director, which was a wonderful way of combining my love of music and theatre in one. I directed Bernstein's Candide at The Arts Theatre for the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which was enormous fun, and then Britten's exquisite The Rape of Lucretia for The Cambridge Opera Society at St Edward's Church in my third year.

Sophia [associate producer] hinted that you may have a story about Tom Hiddleston from your time at Cambridge too. Did you know him?)

My time at Cambridge overlapped with an exceptional group of dedicated actors: Khalid Abdalla, Cressida Trew, Dan Stevens, Eddie Redmayne, Rebecca Hall, Caroline Horton, Sarah Campbell, Jot Davies and Tom Hiddleston among many others were all friends and making theatre at the same time. It was a really extraordinary time to be at Cambridge making work alongside them all, and sharing in each other's stuff. Super inspiring both then and now. Also many other life-long friends made through Cambridge theatre who are in completely different careers now – Mark Richards, Camilla Cope, Susie Cousins among them. It was a great way to make long-lasting friends.

I have a funny story about seeing Eddie Redmayne several years after leaving Cambridge. I went to the Yale School of Drama after finishing at Cambridge and then moved to New York for several years following that after getting married to my husband who I met at Yale. A few years into my time in New York, I was at the glamorous Met Ball, which was stuffed, as every year, with every celebrity you can think of, Kanye West was due to play amongst the Egyptian pyramids at midnight to a room of Mick Jagger, Karl Lagerfeld, Naomi Campell, etc. etc. I was there that night working as a cater waiter, dressed in a tux and bow tie, holding a tray full of champagne glasses trying not to think about how heavy it was, in one of the first rooms of the event surrounded by extremely valuable classical sculptures, when I saw Eddie come in with a friend of his. He came bounding over to say hello and gave me a huge hug, almost knocking over a neighbouring friend's own tray of glasses! We had quite a laugh to be both there wearing a similar get-up on opposite sides of the fence… the artist's life indeed… That was before his Oscar and heady and well deserved rise to fame when not many people there really knew who he was yet. It was a lovely moment.

Do you know what your next project will be? What is it?

Jamel and I are developing several ideas, including a comedic yet class-bound tale of three inter-generational cater waiters getting into trouble at a big event, which will involve working with many of the same actors and team as MY AMERICA. It would be a mistake to let go of such a great team! Separately, I have various other projects on the simmer, and a number of other actors I am eager to direct next, including my brilliant friend Emily Bevan, and the lovely Amara Karan (from HBO's The Night Of – who worked with our company on a play in Hackney two summers ago) with whom I'm planning a film.