Radha Blank on turning her Netflix film The Forty-Year-Old Version into a TV show: 'Hell f---ing no'
After a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, The Forty-Year-Old Version, the debut film from multi-talented New York artist Radha Blank, finally dropped on Netflix this past weekend.
The film shows a version of the real Blank, "a teaching artist, child of artists, encouraged to tell stories," as she tells EW, who decides to make a rap mixtape to channel her frustrations with a stagnant career as a playwright.
The foundation for the Lena Waithe-produced movie actually comes from the writer, director, and star's own actions. Blank really did perform a live mixtape as her alter ego RadhaMUS Prime in 2014 at Joe's Pub in New York, which subsequently lead to a web series with a similar narrative to The Forty-Year-Old Version.
While Blank is officially done with the cinematic version of RadhaMUS Prime, joking "I won't be doing a Fifty-Year-Old Version or a Sixty-Year-Old Version," the filmmaker spoke with EW about becoming a director, standing up to Broadway's gatekeepers, and why she doesn't see herself being a lead actress again anytime soon.
RADHA BLANK: What do you think? You think I just came up with The Forty-Year-Old Version on my own? Of course I was appropriating his title. It just felt like the right title for the film. I guess the commentary would be that there should be people who look like me in stories like his.
In the film, it so organically shows you saying “the forty-year-old version” during a freestyle, that I wanted to know if that title came to you during a real-life freestyle, or if you thought of it while writing the script.
No, it was a little more thought behind it. I was again sending up his films. It didn't come out of freestyle. It was that since it was a web series.
There's a lot of great themes and moments and things you're able to include in the film. It's a great New York film. There's a lot of interesting commentary on Black women in their 40s. A dope battle rap scene. What are the things that were really important for you to include in the film?
Just real New Yorkers. Real New York. I wanted it to feel authentic. I see a lot of people who make films that are supposed to take place in New York and either the cast feels sparse or the streets feel naked. And I just wanted it to feel chock-full of New York.
What was your thought process behind balancing the narrative of the film with your music performances in it?
I didn't have a thought process. I just let the film tell me what it was. If something didn't feel like it fit, I would just take it out. I wanted to make sure that the narrative was there and make sure that the music had a space. I'm the child of a musician. I also make music. And so it really wasn't about me thinking, it was more about me listening. If something felt it was going on too long. I had to pull it out. I wanted it to be a full and resolute movie.
I imagine for some audience members, there’s a part of them that wanted to see your character rap even more, and finish that mixtape.
Yeah. I mean, it's a movie. It is a movie. It's not a musical and I'm not trying to solely promote music. I'm just trying to tell an authentic New York story. The goal is not to be a hip-hop star, but to use hip-hop as a meditation so to speak. So it's going to show up in many forms. Someone said on Twitter, there's not enough rapping in the music in the movie. And I was like, really? There's 14 different times people are rapping. Maybe hip-hop doesn't show up in the way that they want it to, but it's there. People from the culture see it from Da Beatminerz beats to the freestyles to the battles. It's chock-full of hip-hop. I think maybe it's just not hip-hop in the way people expect it, you know?
Quite a few people have gone to the Sundance Film Festival with a project they wrote, directed, and starred in, but very few win the Directing Award after, like you did. Did getting that award affect your aspirations in any way, or was it the cherry on top of what you'd already accomplished?
No, I don't make films to win awards. Robert Townsend calling my film a masterpiece, that's award enough for me. And I really do make films to touch their audience and this hasn't yet touched its audience yet. So I'm really looking forward to that day. But no, I was not expecting that at all. It meant a lot getting it from Sundance, as I was groomed in a number of their labs, but I don't think a person sits down and makes a film and thinks I want to win an award. If they do, then they might want to rethink that. They might want to go into fashion or something else, because that's not guaranteed. And it doesn't mean that the film is a good film that touches people. That's not a guarantee.
I think someone who's focusing on those things might be setting themselves up for disappointment. I try not to take anything to heart. The criticism, the praise. A lot of times I make stuff for myself and my immediate audience. And that's usually folks who have gone through some similar experiences, but that's not my aspiration, the awards. It's great because it might give an unknown actor in the film an opportunity to do another film, and might pull some attention to them that they weren't getting before, but I don't look for personal validation in that. Maybe if I was younger, but the fact that I finished a film and I feel good about the film and the actors in it gets a chance to shine. We've won. Again, I am waiting for the day the audience gets it, because that's who I really value is the audience.
After this, do you want to direct everything you write, direct things you haven't written, write things for other directors?
Yeah. I'm hoping this is the beginning of my career as a director.
Looking at the success of your film, or Katori Hall seeing success with her TV series P-Valley this year, do you feel like Black female playwrights often have to do work outside of Broadway to finally get the recognition from Broadway that they deserve?
I can only speak for myself. It doesn't seem like theater had a real interest in me until I started writing for TV, and even then I still wasn't getting my plays produced. Maybe now that I made a film, I'll get my plays produced. Either that or they won't produce me at all because they don't like what I have to say about theater. I'm glad that there's an opportunity for Black women storytellers who work in theater to work in TV. I found TV is more invested in character these days, so it would serve them right to hire more playwrights. But yeah, I don't know. I have no idea what is happening in theater these days. I just know that after COVID, it will probably have to reinvent itself.
Yeah, I ask that because the film deftly touches on the immense difficulty Black female playwrights face getting their projects transferred to Broadway.
That has nothing to do with them. That's the gatekeepers and the gatekeepers pandering to their membership. There are probably, for the 10-15 women I could name, there are hundreds of women, Black women, hundreds of queer people, hundreds of Asian, indigenous, Latinx playwrights waiting for a chance to be portrayed while some of these main stages are doing another revival of Oklahoma!. We so need to see that again. “We'll do it this time because it's people of color and disabled actors.” Oh yeah? Thank you for advancing everyone else with this multiracial, multiethnic version of a play that's been done a million times.
What would really impress me is that they would invest in a contemporary play about disabled people, a contemporary play about, I don't know, a mixed raced lesbian couple. That would f---ing impress me. But these revivals... I'm probably not a good person to ask about theater because I haven't worked in theater in a very long time and it's taken me making a film for theater to take notice of me. So I'm sure that there are other people who can speak about what the current issues are in theater. I just know the gatekeepers need to change or people like me will be left with a story of adversity where theater is concerned.
Do you see this film as something that could be expanded into another project, like a TV show?
Oh, hell no. Hell f---ing no, not if I can help it. I don't know why people do that. I want to be a filmmaker, I want to make films. I'm not interested in expanding the world of something just because. If people like it and they enjoy it, then great. I hope it inspires people. I hope it heals whoever needs to be healed, but I can tell more than one story. I'm not thinking, “Oh, we got to catch this lightning in a bottle, let's do this again. And then let's do the Asian version of it and make it a musical and do The Forty-Year-Old Version in Taiwan.” No, this is it. I hope this is it.
And no, I won't be doing a Fifty-Year-Old Version or a Sixty-Year Old-Version. This is it.
I saw it mentioned before, but why would you not want to really act in your work again?
I'm not an actor. I played myself and it was fun to send myself up. It also was an opportunity for me to talk about my family, to shed some light on these two artists who raised me that maybe not many people know about. But I'm not an actor. I wouldn't even insult the craft by calling myself one. I'm not trained. I don't go to auditions day in, day out. I'm not sitting at home by the phone waiting to hear if I got that audition after a seventh call back. I don't have the stamina or wherewithal that actors have. Especially after being in this film and knowing what it takes to carry a story through character, I just have way too much respect.
I'm not saying I wouldn't show up in a friend's film and play a small part in something, but I'm not interested in replicating this. I played myself once and that's it. Playing me, it actually is not that challenging. Playing an essential worker working in a factory, who is working 12 hours a day while her kids are in school. I don't know if I can play that woman. I don't know that I have the range for that. And so I would leave those acting roles to the real thespians.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.