'We need to recognise one another's similarities and common humanity'
PUBLISHED: 08:00 12 January 2017
ZOE PASKETT talks to the creators of a new series, My America, exploring conversations in the back of an Uber in the run up to the US election
“I’m used to Los Angeles, which is non-stop work and I woke up in Belsize Village today, the quietest place in the world, and I was like, what am I supposed to be doing?” asks Sophia Jennings.
“I went out and everyone was diddle-daddling. I don’t know what to do without work, so I just started working from home again.”
Before Christmas, Jennings had been producing a series about the US election, with high intensity, creating and releasing everything within the space of a month: “It was like opening night every day for two weeks!”
My America is a six part web series set in LA that follows Uber drivers and their passengers for one journey per episode. Released in the days running up to the US election, the characters discuss a range of political opinions with varying levels of tolerance and disagreement.
“It was a good project to make a study on the city as seen through the Uber space,” she says. “You’re not in someone’s home, no one really owns the space, except for the driver but because they’re being paid for the service, there’s no real, clear owner.”
Written by actor Jamel Davall and director Anna Jones, who recently moved together to LA from De Beauvoir Town in Hackney, the series is inspired by Davall’s own experiences as an Uber driver. He plays the character of Lucian, with whom he shares some similarities.
“His point of view as an artist who happens to be a black man in America is obviously something crucial that we share and was key to who the character is and how he sees the world and those he encounters,” he says.
While the majority of the writing is fictional, some of the script is based on true life events. In one episode, a couple break into a food fight in the back of the car over the woman’s support for Donald Trump – this happened while Davall was driving them on the freeway. Jones says that a few of the characters were written around the actors who played them.
“The way in which Lucian feels at a loss artistically in response to world events, particularly the heightened exposure and reporting of police involved shootings of black men, and a sense of being out of control certainly echoed how both [Duvall] and I have felt recently,” says Jones.
“Being in LA is very much a selfish experience, it’s all about you and your career,” says Jennings. “I think he felt, why am I putting my effort into getting an agent when people are getting shot. When there’s such turbulence in my country, why is this what I’m spending my time on?”
My America, as well as discussing people’s individual politics, also touches on the power that the arts and creative media hold in affecting change. Jones feels that, as a storyteller, she can create understanding and empathy for varying points of view, which she sees as increasingly crucial now in order to counteract fear mongering politics.
The team all feel that the series will continue to have gravitas despite the elections having already happened.
“Just because the election is over, it doesn’t mean that we’ve reached a logical conclusion,” says Davall. “As long as we live in a democracy, there will always be conflicting values in open discussion. The political climate will never be neatly packaged.”
Jennings finds it “much more powerful as a story now that the election’s over. I think it showcases that space between the two parties that Americans are struggling to find.”
All of these concerns were brought into the script, but with such a range of political and personal beliefs being portrayed throughout the series, how much did the other cast members identify with their own characters’ stances?
“I honestly cannot tell you,” says Jennings. “There were a number of actors who we got really close with for a day or two and then they went on their way. There was a general feeling of everyone thinking this election was nuts.
“There were so many different types of people on set. It was more about the experience of the election than the beliefs of the crew, which I appreciate because at that point I was so sick of hearing the same rhetoric.”
“I think we come down on the side of dialogue,” says Jones, “and the need to see and recognise one another’s similarities and common humanity.”
All three spend time between London and the US – Jones and Davall’s production company NYLon Projects worked with the Rose Lipman Building community art centre – and Jennings thinks there’s “something to be said for London and LA as complementary cultures.
“London has the sort of introspection that LA lacks. London is where you come to write and develop your work; LA is about money and making things happen. If you can pull off the intellect of London and the opportunity of LA, you can make a nice career for yourself…or at least, that’s what I tell myself!”
My America is available to watch in full online at myamericaseries.com