OWN’s new romantic drama, Love Is___, is sure to be your newest television obsession. Set in 1990s Los Angeles, against the backdrop of Black Hollywood, it tells the story of how Nuri (Michele Weaver) and Yasir (Will Catlett) meet and fall in love. Drawing inspiration from creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil’s own relationship journey, the series explores the highs, the lows, and the magic of falling (and staying) in love.
I got the chance to sit down with series creator Mara Brock Akil, her husband and producer Salim Akil, and series’ leads Will Catlett and Michele Weaver for one of the most fun conversations I’ve ever been a part of. We talked about what made now the right time to tell their story, how Will and Michele got involved in the project, what they nerd out about and more. Keep reading to see what they had to say!
Jumping right into Love Is____, for Mara and Salim, it’s loosely based on your journey and relationship, so what made you a) want to create a show that was loosely based on your journey and b) if this is something you guys wanted to do for awhile, what made now the right time to do it?
Mara: Never intended on telling our, my, story, directly or sort of like inspired by, because as a writer and creator I can split my life into so many other characters, which I have done. This is an honest answer to a sincere question that has been asked of me and Salim, but really me because I’m the more public person. Salim doesn’t really go anywhere. So when I’m out and about…
Salim: Where is there to go? [laughs]
Mara: So when I’m out and about people will be like, “Can you tell me a) how did you guys find each other and b) how did you keep it? You seem like you’re always talking about how much you love him, you still hold his hand, you even talk about how great your sex life is and you’ve got kids and you’ve got this great career.” There was a point in our lives where, literally, we spent 24 hours together. People were marveled at that. People were like, “Okay, give it up.” It was like, “Well, then write a book” and I’m like, “No one has time to write a book, but I can tell you in a TV show.” And I think now because we’re 20 years together and the reason why art is important is you need some time to reflect. Some of the reasons how we have made it — we were doing it. We were just in it. But now you can look back and distill what was it about it that made us click, what are the key ingredients to our success and trying to answer that and be honest about… yeah, it’s magical to fall in love the first night, but you gotta be committed to that commitment of love. When you say you’re going to spend the rest of your life together it’s not always easy and that makes for good television and for good storytelling.
For you Michele and Will, how did you guys first hear about the project and what was your audition process like?
Michele: Well, I received an email with the breakdown inside and I said, “Oh, cool.” I read “bubbly.” I saw that it was Mara and Salim, and was “Oh, cool.” Nineties. Check. Awesome. And then I just auditioned. We went through the process and then I actually heard that Will was a) in the writers’ room and b) went in for Yasir. I heard he went in for Yasir and I was on the phone with one of our mutual friends like, “Oh my God, he would be perfect for that character.” Then, I ended up seeing him at the chemistry read and it was awesome. I was like, “Perfect. I don’t even have to worry. Let me just go in and have fun and not even think about it.” It was great.
Will: We [me and Salim] was dancing on Black Lightning. I was working with the King. From there, Mara came to set to visit and we had a beautiful conversation for an hour talking about Love Is ___ and the story that she wanted to tell and answering that question of “How did you guys make it?” From there, I was fortunate to go into the writers’ room with them and get to see Mara and her essence. Then Salim came in and shared his part of the story. Then her mom came in and said, “Yeah, Will would be perfect it.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to get the role now” [laughs].
Mom’s seal of approval is everything.
Mara: Oh right, she did. She was visiting the room. I remember that day. She looked over, she was having one other conversation about something totally different and then Will said something and she was like, “You should play Yasir, you should play Salim because you just remind me so much of Salim.” I was like, “Mom!” But she had no idea that he was even in contention for the role.
Will: Then we went through the testing process. I didn’t want to call Michele, because you don’t know. You hear about people testing, but you don’t know yet. I didn’t want to call and then it’s like, “Oh no, I didn’t get it.” So I said, “I’ll just wait. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.” When I saw her walk past I said, “Oh, okay [laughs]. This is going to be fun.”
Mara: That’s so great. I didn’t know that. That’s so cool.
For Mara and Salim, were there certain traits in the actors and actresses that you wanted them to bring to Yasir and Nuri? How did the casting process go for you guys?
Mara: Well… I’ll let you talk about it cause I love when you do.
Salim: What you try to look for when you are casting is depth. I look for depth and the ability to emote without being obvious. I look for character in the person, not just them playing a character. What do they communicate to me without talking to me? When I worked with Will I knew that he had a depth to his craft that went beyond just saying words, so I knew that that would work. With Michelle, what I saw was the essence of Mara. She smiles a lot. Even when she’s working, she smiles a lot. For most people that can come off as a crutch; most actors, they use it as a crutch. But Michele was in character and I could see that something deeper working behind her eyes, even when she smiled. So when you see the show, what you’re watching is two people, two actors, who have depth and who created characters, yes, in some ways based on two people who are alive but also have added their own sort of flavor to it, which I think is important.
Mara: They also share an essence that is very much like the characters. When we pitched the show, I remember saying, “You know, he’s jazz and I’m top 40” or whatever. There is a difference in the characters that they represent as who they are, right? It’s funny because Yasir’s name means “rich” and there’s a rich complexity to Will. Nuri means “light” and there is a light in Michele that you cannot deny. And then, when you bring them into the room, they took direction [laughs], which is important because even though we’re called a TV show, we were trying to make 10 little movies and, to Salim’s point, there needs to be a lot of acting without words. It was going to be space in our humanity, in the show, and finding those ribbons and being able to hit the ground and ask so much of what people in our industry would say are fresh faces, new talent. We’re putting a lot on them, but hey, let’s rock and roll. And did we rock and roll? [laughs]
Will: We rock and rolled.
Michele: We went. We jumped high and we landed on our feet, thankfully [laughs].
Talk a little bit about your characters and where we meet them in the pilot.
Michele: Nuri is, like Mara said, bubbly, hardworking. She’s a dreamer who’s also willing to work for her dream. She believes in it. You meet Nuri at the very beginning, not the very beginning, but the beginning of her career as a staff writer where she heard voices really being heard. You get to see the complexity of “Yes, you’re hired but you’re still not the boss” [laughs] and that balance of being creative and being innovative, but also not really allowed to be yet. They hire you because you have a voice and then they tell you to shut up [laughs].
Mara: [laughs] That’s so true.
Michelle: So you get to see Nuri battling with that and you also get to see her as a woman in her twenties, still figuring out what she wants, even in a man. [She’s] dating a lot, [she’s] just bought a house. It’s that pivotal moment that we all go through where you’re really getting your feet grounded in your identity and your career and in your relationships. So it’s a great place to start.
Will: You meet Yasir having a conversation with his buddy Shawn, simply [talking] about, “I don’t need another woman, I need a break.” The essence of that pretty much carries him throughout the pilot, trying to find that one break, that one thing to get him to the next phase. Also, he’s in between two women.
Salim: Which ain’t never a bad thing [laughs]. Never a bad place to be.
For you two, what was it like getting to work with Mara and Salim so closely on set and to have them as a guide on how to navigate Nuri and Yasir?
Michele: It was great. I mean, to be directed by the woman that you’re playing is pretty cool. I’d just show up and be like, “Yo! Listen, girl, tell me. I’ll bring stuff but, you know, just mold me” [laughs]. So that was great. Mara is very creative, she creates that space where we can just live and be creative together. It was beautiful. It was a blessing that not every actor gets to do when they play a role inspired by someone. Sometimes they have to read about the person and do that. But I got to actually have a relationship with the person I was playing, which was great.
Will: I got a chance to catch Mara’s perspective of her husband. Also, when I’m around him, I would pick up a little bit of his DNA. It might not be on set all the time, but we be at a Whole Foods.
Will: And Mara said this about Salim, “You know you want more, but he’s not going to give it to you. He knows that you want more, but he’s not going to give it to you.” So I can put that into my role. And what I mean by that, we was at the Whole Foods, he was like, “Man, hey, how you doing?” I said, “I’m good.” *pause* “Alright man, I’ll catch you later.” [laughs]
Mara: You thought Y’all were going to have a moment.
Will: Yeah, but there was no moment to be had. But I liked it because [there was] just no bullshit. You’re not going to have a moment that doesn’t need to be a moment. So I would put that in the role. When I was done with the conversation, I was done with the character [laughs].
Mara: Also, we’ve talked about [how] it was inspired by… but Nuri and Yasir have to take off on their own at some point down the road. I want people to forget about me and Salim. It was great to launch it from that place, but they have got these characters. They are ready to soar with them as Yasir and Nuri. I think even in season one, you’ll soon forget about Salim and Mara and think it’s [solely] about them.
Like you said, the pilot is a really great way to establish that [the show is] inspired by your relationship, but what are the challenges in creating a season of television where you do have to make the audience, or you want them to, forget that it’s based on real life and let them [Will and Michele] take off on their own? What are the challenges in writing a season of stories where you have to make that space and make them separate things?
Mara: Well, you make the space. You do make the space. It’s really the craft of being a storyteller. I think that’s what’s special about this [ATX Television] festival and why people are so…. excited about it. That wasn’t the word I was looking for, I was looking for another one, but they’re almost fervent about it because they really appreciate great stories and you do have to make space for the right story. So we manipulated some of our real facts. I use tentpole moments of our story, and the essence of who we are is true, but that’s how you build a character. You build their essence. So we built the essence of Yasir and Nuri and also gave them their goals.
Salim: The thing you also do is create a world. And I think Mara did an excellent job at creating a world that we haven’t seen before. I don’t think that there is anything like this on television. The way that we shot it… we used to joke with each other early on in our careers that we were being treated like a genre. People were acting as though black shows were genre and it was just a show. And I think what Mara has done is taken this world and created an atmosphere. It really is you go[ing] into a different atmosphere. It’s almost like Westworld. You go into a different atmosphere, a different place, adding onto the fact that this is the nineties when I said this thing about genre, we used to say we were going to enter our shows for the Emmys in the foreign category because they were treating us like we were foreign. But now what Mara has done, in my opinion, is created almost a foreign film. You are steeped in cultural specifics that expand beyond the culture, right? But you’re in that focus, and it’s shot so beautifully and told from a woman’s perspective. It’s a woman’s gaze. The reason I encouraged her to direct this is because it had to be a woman’s gaze. She had to look through the lens and create this world. So I think to your question, I think it’s not difficult because she’s an artist and she’s been doing it so long that what you’re actually watching is not difficult. What you’re watching is the extension of expertise.
I have one last fun question for you guys. Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have some kind of inner nerd. What is something you guys nerd out about?
Michele: Ah! Too many things!
Salim: For me, it’s comic books.
Makes total sense.
Mara: For me, I just accept that I’m a nerd. I went to Northwestern and it’s a school of nerds, but I try to appear hip and style myself or whatever. But I’m just like an inner nerd. I actually sometimes… I love people, I love my husband, I love everybody here, but I really love being with my characters. I really love their world. I dig them. Sometimes I just want to get with them. So yeah, I guess technically writing would be my nerdy thing.
Will: I think the self-help section [laughs]. I think I nerd [out] a little bit there. Everything I pick up and read is something to do with self-help.
Michele: I guess I’m just still five years old, so I still swing on swing-sets. Like if I see a playground, like I’ll always have to talk to myself [and say], “No, you don’t have time to stop and go swing on a swing. Just keep focused” [laughs]. I still do cartwheels and stuff so I guess that’s a little nerdy.
Mara: You do?
Michele: Oh yeah, in the park, I always have to do a cartwheel before I leave, you know?
Mara: That’s going into a script! [laughs]
Next time you see a script it’s for sure going to be worked in there somehow.
Mara: And that’s how we separate them because I stopped doing that.
Michele: I’ll probably stop eventually, at some point. Then one day I’ll do it and I’ll be like never again.
Photo Credits: David Lary
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.