The showrunner walks us through the series, films, and figures that have influenced her work.

The All American universe is expanding to Bringston University. Created by Nkechi Okoro Carroll, the upcoming CW spin-off All American: Homecoming (premiering Feb. 21) follows Simone Hicks (Geffri Maya) from the flagship series to college, where she strives to reclaim her athletic aspirations of conquering tennis.

In the vein of shows like A Different World and The Quad, the series is bringing the HBCU experience to television and highlighting Black excellence while exploring a formative, pivotal moment in a young person's life.

We spoke to Okoro Carroll about the inspirations — and one major frustration — that shaped her as a storyteller.

Credit: Getty Images

1. Shakespeare

While at boarding school in England as a child, Okoro Carroll was introduced to Shakespeare as part of her curriculum; he  immediately sparked her interest.

"There was something about [the work], even at a young age, that moved me," she says, noting that Twelfth Night is her favorite play, and Malvolio her favorite character. Okoro Carroll remembers being 13 and telling her mother she wanted to be a writer after performing in a production of Twelfth Night.

"I want my art to make people feel like this years after it is written," she says. "I always say William Shakespeare is one of the biggest things that has shaped me because at the end of the day, you can always boil it down to these human emotions and human beings that still resonate with people."

She adds that "the permanence and durability of Shakespeare's genius" inspires her projects, which are based on themes found in the plays he wrote.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Credit: Getty

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

For Okoro Carroll, the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the way it captured what high school students traditionally deal with, but through demons. Watching teenagers battle their emotions by facing actual monsters was incredibly empowering for her.

"Even into my 20s working at the Federal Reserve, we would sit around the trading desk and discuss the previous episode and how it accurately mirrored something going on in our lives," she says, "It doesn't always get the credit for how brilliantly it did that."  

Watching Buffy Summers and her friends inspired Okoro Carroll to forge a career in television, which allowed her to take her love of Shakespeare, writing, and being able to reach people and move it into what she calls "an immediate medium." She was doing plays in New York when she fell in love with the show, and knew that she needed to move to Los Angeles to get started on the next chapter of her life.

All American: Homecoming
Credit: Bill Inoshita/The CW

3. Making a difference

One of the reasons Okoro Carroll expanded the All American universe was to make a greater impact with her work.

"When I'm creating or developing projects, I ask if watching this will change someone's actions or change the world for the better," she explains. "If the answer is yes, then it is absolutely a project I want to work on."

Hearing how her shows have helped fans — a teacher who was able to have an honest conversation with a student about mental health because of All American, or a mom who found a way to finally talk to her child about his father's passing because of a story line — bring her a strong sense of pride.

"Anytime I can use my keyboard to change the perception of how someone looks at a young Black boy or change how the Black community looks at mental health while entertaining people — that's what keeps me going."

Greg Berlanti
Credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty

4. Greg Berlanti

Before Greg Berlanti was her friend and mentor, he was on Okoro Carroll's vision board.

"He served as an inspiration of what is possible," she says. "What he was able to accomplish on Dawson's Creek, I wanted that."

She used his career as a "guiding path," and now she's worked with him on three of the five projects on her slate.

"His ability to navigate the industry and build an empire the way he did has been such an amazing source of inspiration for me."

Nkechi Okoro Carroll

5. Acting classes

One frustration that pushed Okoro Carroll to carve out her career came from taking acting classes. During class, she witnessed how Black women were forced to play limited and often stereotypical parts — they were never lawyers, doctors, or bankers.

"That frustration of wanting to expand the type of roles Black women were given inspired me to make the leap from theater to TV," she shares. "If I want to see these powerful Black images on TV, I can't wait for someone else to do it. I need to do it."

Credit: Everett

6. The John Hughes explosion

The rash of 1980s films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, which Okoro Carroll calls "the John Hughes explosion," left a big impression on her.

"I love how even as a young Black girl from Nigeria who grew up in Côte d'Ivoire and was only in the States in and out during my youth, I could still relate to these kids," she says. "I've always been so fascinated by how a world that should feel like such a specific, singular experience can be transformed into something that a girl like me could relate to, and all these people who come together to make it amazing."

These films, in which high school experiences could feel like life or death, motivated her to want to create work that could be that powerful too.

Maurice Benard and Vanessa Marcil GENERAL HOSPITAL
Credit: Rick Rowell/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty

7. General Hospital

For Okoro Carroll, what's special about a show like General Hospital is that people watch it every day.

"My husband and friends always used to say, 'You talk about Sonny and Brenda as if they're your friends.' And I'm like, 'Well, I watch them every day, so they might as well be,'" she explains.

Whether revealing a shocking moment or depicting two characters entering a romantic relationship, the show elicits a strong reaction from her.

"I want to create content that people are so invested in that they forget it's a TV show and these aren't real people."

Watch the All American: Homecoming premiere Monday, Feb. 21, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CW.

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