Damon Wayans talks about his new novel 'Red Hats'
Image Credit: Damon WayansDamon Wayans is famed for creating and starring in sketch-comedy show In Living Color, as well as for memorable roles in movies like Major Payne and The Last Boy Scout. But now Wayans is trying on a different hat—that of author. And the book he’s written probably isn’t what you’d expect from the envelope-pushing and ribald comedian. With his first publishing effort, Damon has crafted a novel, Red Hats (in stores today), an inspirational story about a recently widowed senior citizen woman, Alma, who rediscovers life through a special group of pals that call themselves the “Red Hats.”
The story is partly fact and partly fiction. The Red Hats certainly do exist—this writer’s sweet grandmother Lillian, as well as Damon’s mother Elvira, is in the loosely formed organization. But Alma, the woman at the center of Damon’s story is fictional and cobbled together from the actor’s own mother and friends. Here, in a Shelf Life Q&A, Wayans talks about how his unexpected book came to be, the resistance to it in the publishing industry (“How do we sell it with Damon?”), and who—Oprah? Mo’Nique?—he’d like to play the title character if the story makes it to the screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this for you? It seem like an interesting choice as a project for you.
DAMON WAYANS: There are a few things that really got the ball rolling on this. One of them is I was stuck as an artist. I thought, ‘What am I going to do to rediscover my love for show business?’ I made some decent money, and I was thinking about retiring, thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I got on a plane and went to Europe and wanted to find myself. I heard my whole childhood, little white kids saying, ‘I’m going to go to Europe and find myself.’
Oh my. So you went to Europe to “find yourself.”
So I went to Europe and found myself away from black people, except I ran into Lionel Richie in a restaurant in Paris. Keenan used to open for Lionel back in the day, so he has a great affection for Keenan, and they both went to Tuskegee. We were talking at dinner and he goes, ‘You’ve got to go out tomorrow night, we’re going to see Dita Von Teese.’ Told me how great she is. He’s just raving so much. We go to the show. She comes out onstage in some weird costume, strips down to pasties and this diamond studded thong g-string. The crowd is going crazy. She sits down in this apparatus that showers her with water, spins around, then gets up and leaves. Lionel looks at me and smiles and goes, ‘See it’s simple. The crowd is going crazy, and if she’d shown them any more, they would have been upset. That’s what we need to learn to do as artists, is to be simple.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ So then I was listening to this book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In the book it’s talking about the blockage that an artist has, and it’s really fear. Fear of the blank page, fear of the blank canvas, starting with nothing. I said: ‘I’m going to do something so simple.’
Which was to write a novel?
My mother had joined the Red Hats, this global support group of women. They get together, women over 50, who have finished child rearing and some of them are still married, some are divorced or widows. My mom raised 10 children and then we all left home, most of us are successful, but we all live in California. She still lives in New York. My mom doesn’t fly, takes the train; that proves how much she loves us that she comes all the way out here on a train. I watched her go from, kind of unhappy because her whole life was raising children and they left home, you have the separation anxiety. I saw her age 10 years after my brother Dwayne died—it’s not right for parents to outlive their children. Then she joined the Red Hats. I just saw these women, her hanging out with the Red Hats, talking, telling stories, I thought, ‘This is beautiful, now how do I make it work?’
And Red Hats was born?
So I started thinking about characters and borrowing elements of characters I know, older women, and I just wrote this book. Started with ‘What If…’ Who would need to join a group like this?
And that’s where you came up with the main character, Alma? Seems like a stretch for you, maybe?
It was just fun, like doing Homey the Clown from In Living Color—you find a voice that speaks in your head, in my head, once I know this character, I can just write it. So it was really fascinating and challenging to hear this voice in my head and write as a 64-year-old woman.
Was it strange to get into an old lady’s head? Because, you know, you’re not a 64-year-old woman. You built this character and then just wrote from her perspective?
It was great. I had to get into character like I would get into character for any characters that I do. So this voice is just in my head. I wrote the first 100 pages so fast it actually scared me. I wrote it in 10 days. I did 10 pages a day, sent it to my agent, they said they loved it. I had to embellish the story and the different characters. I’m pleasantly surprised and very proud of myself. It took courage that I didn’t have to write this.
When you pitched it around to publishing houses, did you get surprised reactions that this was the direction you were going in?
A lot of people loved it, but they passed. They said, ‘How do we sell it with Damon?’ I was at one point going to take my name off it and use a pen name, but my agent Lydia said, ‘Just hang in there.’
When you were writing it, did you ever put on a red hat or anything, just to get into character a little bit?
Nah, but I hung around with my mom, went to lunch with her Red Hats. I loved it. Just watching them and listening to what they talk about. It’s a beautiful organization that people applaud. They’re just humans trying to do something good with each other. They still have the same problems and fears and insecurities that everyone else has, it’s just a nice balance of women.
Aren’t the Red Hats basically just a celebration of life? Like, Hey, we might be 65, but we can still be fabulous?
I call it Sex and the City for old biddies.
It’s kind of Golden Girls but now. Maybe I’m looking too far into the future, but have you thought about movie or TV options for this? Seems like a perfect fit.
I would love to do it. I think Oprah would be great as Alma. Mo’Nique would be great. I wrote it thinking of a film. The way I write it — my outlines, my chapters are really in scenes. I broke it down like I would a film. It’s a challenge to write a book, especially when you’re used to writing movies because when you write a movie, you don’t have to give much description when you’re writing a script. You leave that up to your set designer. You have to build that world in a book. It’s a challenge but it was fun. I want the book to be successful.
Have you called up Oprah yet?
I think my people are working on it. I want the book to be successful. I want her to want it. She’s got a billion things on her mind that have nothing to do with me. If she embraces it I think it would definitely help and would be a wonderful thing for the book. I do think it’s definitely a film — or even a series would work.
It seems like it could be a very good series. There’s not a lot portraying this demographic right now.
Angela Lansbury left, and that’s it!
Is there a second book in this?
Oh, definitely, definitely. I’m thinking of things now. Because it’s global, I could take them to Paris. It’s like people who’ve never been out of the country or the state. There are some people who have traveled the world. So you have this great mixture of women that are very diverse in their worldview. Alma’s world view is very small, but her strength is strong enough to hold up the world.