“The man who killed James St. Patrick is (long pause) Tommy Egan,” declares Naturi Naughton’s Tasha St. Patrick to a dubious courtroom just before one more twist ended the debut of Power Book II: Ghost today.
Having premiered early this morning on the Starz App and just now on the premium cabler itself, the first spinoff in the Courtney Kemp created franchise was part throwback to mother show Power itself and a whole lot of leap into the future, literally and figuratively. With Michael Rainey Jr’s Tariq St. Patrick trying to get his mother out of jail for the murder of his father that she did not commit, Cliff “Method Man” Smith’s high-flying defense lawyer Davis Maclean and Mary J. Blige’s Queenpin Monet are finally introduced into the Powerverse.
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As actual patricide shooter Tariq juggles springing Tasha, his studies at an Ivy League college and securing his inheritance, he still has to come up with another $450,000 for Maclean to defend his remaining parent in what the younger St. Patrick terms “the biggest case of your career.” As well as getting into high credit classes via Albert Camus and tutoring a school basketball star, that means looking for a payday in the family business – AKA: the son is transforming into the father, but with a very different type of edge.
“There’s a consistent doubt in our abilities that doesn’t change as you get more success,” Kemp notes of those who doubt that seasoned pro Rainey could handle being one of the leads of Ghost at 19-years old. “It remains,” she adds of the incessant discrimination against African-Americans, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry in 2020. “The idea, again, just bears repeating, we have to be twice as good to be looked at half as well.”
Just days after the Lionsgate-owned Starz moved up the Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora) spotlighting Power Book IV: Force in the franchise cue, I spoke with a hunkered down Kemp about Ghost’s Anthony Hemingway directed opener, which she penned, and the future. Developing dirty cop drama Dirty Thirty for HBO as well as rolling out more and more Power series, the erudite EP also discussed premiering during the coronavirus pandemic and what a second season of Ghost could bring. Additionally, Kemp delved into freedom and politics in this year of election, the importance of Tariq’s school syllabus and shifts in the industry and the culture.
DEADLINE: So, as always, lets’ start at the end, or near end, Tommy Egan gets named for the killing of Ghost, a killing we know he didn’t commit. What’s up with that, a nod to the other spinoff?
KEMP: Oh. Tasha is out of options, right? Because her great escape plan was dragged, and they just told her they know that Dre is alive. So, what Tariq has put in front of her, and I hope this is what people understand, Tariq is saying, I’ll just say it was me. Just say it was me. I’m ready to step up, and she can’t do it. Now, if you remember, I think a lot of people are going to forget that Tasha’s last memories of Tommy are not great. Do you remember the last thing that happened between Tasha and Tommy?
DEADLINE: There was a fight after the death of LaKeisha (played by La La Anthony on Power) …
KEMP: Tommy came into Tasha’s house, and put her on her knees, and put a gun in her face. He came there to kill her because she killed LaKeisha. So, it’s not like she owes him anything at this point. Also, he’s not around. She knows he’s gone, and so, it’s a safe bet.
DEADLINE: As well as being a decent alibi for the moment, naming Tommy is also a great interconnected way to give life to a character we don’t see here and who is moving into his own series Force…
KEMP: Exactly, because what happens here, there’s an answer for later in the season.
DEADLINE: Now the first episode is out there on the app and on the channel, after all the anticipation, how are you feeling about Ghost coming into the world of coronavirus?
KEMP: Well, I don’t feel as though I have missed an opportunity. I think COVID changed a lot of things. This show wasn’t supposed to premiere in September. It was supposed to premiere in July. So, you know, so many things have happened differently than all of us expected. I thought my daughter would be in school right now. She’s in school, but she’s learning from…I mean everything is different. Everything’s different.
— Power Book II: Ghost (@ghoststarz) September 7, 2020
DEADLINE: You know, when you first introduced Mary J. at TCA over a year ago, it seems like another era now. We clearly see her role as the ruthless Monet now in the opener, but there’s clearly two giant worlds coming together as Michael’s Tariq meets up with her character’s family. Feels like that’s going to much more the central story rather than Tasha’s incarceration?
KEMP: I had this comment from a commenter on my Instagram, and he was like, there’s no way I’m going to believe that Tariq is running an entire drug organization, and I’m like, he’s not. He’s not. He’s finding a family that’s already doing what they’re doing, and he’s finding a surrogate mother in Monet Tejada. So, there’s a natural way of thinking about this, which is that when you become, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, what do you look for? You look for a family.
So, yeah. Absolutely, these worlds collide, but I think in Monet, you see what Tasha could’ve been, had she been fully realized. Had Ghost, in a way, not pretended to be something he wasn’t, and had she not been the kind of legit Galatea, to his Pygmalion, I think she would have potentially become someone like Monet.
DEADLINE: It struck me in this first episode, the distinct relationship Monet has with the NYPD, as opposed to the way Ghost (Omari Hardwick) and Kanan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) rolled. Monet is the one in control here in a situation that is very unlike what we’ve seen in real life, and to be honest, what we see, week after week, on most procedurals. Obviously, the show was written and film months before the uprising and protest we’ve seen in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but are you leaning in to making cop corruption a big part of Ghost?
KEMP: I would say that it’s hard to talk about the text of Power Book II: Ghost within the new lens that everyone’s talking about with cops. I have never written hero cops. That’s never been part of my journey as a writer, from the beginning of my career. Not just Power. I always wrote on legal shows that we were on the defense side. So, the cop was never the hero.
So, I’m not so invested in creating that sort of procedural show, we got the bad guy narrative. I never have been. That’s never been part of who I am as an artist. So, that’s not new. I think a crooked cop on the take is a staple of many shows that I have done. So, it’s not like I’m doing, I’m not breaking new ground there, and what I am doing is I’m talking about the realities of being a major drug dealer, which is that you have to have some kind of help and support. You can’t just run around the streets. You will get caught. The reality is how you get caught, what you get caught for, what you have to do. There’s a lot of compromises being made.
DEADLINE: Those compromises here in Ghost also involve a real power play by the Democratic Party to re-write the resume of their now dead Lt. Governor candidate and put his criminal empire of Tasha’s shoulders in order to contain any more scandal. In this year of election, there’s a bit of risk in that narrative, and I wanted to get an idea why you chose to turn the spotlight on the underbelly of Empire State politics like that now?
KEMP: I mean, if you’re familiar with New York politics, as I know you are, you know that Tammany Hall never really went away, but I’m not skewering the Democrats. I mean, that’s my home party. I don’t mind saying out loud I’m a Democrat. I just think that we don’t do business any differently than the Republicans. We just sign our checks for different causes.
So, you know, influence is influence. I don’t know that I’m trying to get at any kind of political agenda, because I’m not. I think I’m just trying to tell a story of humans, and human behavior, but if you think that political influence isn’t part of how cases are prosecuted in this country, I mean, that’s just silly.
DEADLINE: Fair point. What is not silly is the range and scope that Michael has revealed in a series that he is one of the leads of. He wasn’t even a teenager when he first showed up as a rich kid with a chip on his shoulder on Power and now he’s toe-to-toe with Naturi, with Oscar nominee Mary J, with Method Man. From your point of view, as the creator, and as a parent, let’s be honest, what has that looked like and felt like, for you?
KEMP: You know, one of the things that’s coming up now, as we talk about Season Two, is getting into sexuality with that character. It’s hard for me, because I’ve known him since he was 11. I can’t look at him in that way, and that’s just something that we are, we do have to talk about young people, and sexuality, of course, because it’s college. Well, pre-COVID. The college that you and I went to, but I think that it’s, for me, his acting ability was apparent when I met him, at 11, and he learned a lot of great things from working for years with only adults.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
KEMP: You know, he worked with Naturi, and Omari, and 50, and Joe a lot, and so, he soaked up a lot of great lessons. He was learning, and he was in the best trade school for a young African American actor possible. You know, in Episode 2 of Ghost, he has a scene with Glynn Turman. What? I mean for him, I think we’ve been basically creating our own university, and our own graduate school. It’s been interesting to watch Michael, also, who hasn’t had the opportunity to go to regular high school, who hasn’t had the opportunity to really be with people his own age so much, now gets to be surrounded by people his own age.
You know, I had multiple people say to me, oh, we don’t know that he can handle it, which is you know, verbatim what was said to me about Omari, and I think it actually is an indication of the lack of belief in African Americans, that is pervasive in our business.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
KEMP: If you had a kid who was non-black, or not of color, who had grown up playing a character, who was a huge, huge central part of the action, of the last three years of the show – No one would ever say, oh, he can’t do it, but there’s this doubt here.
There’s a consistent doubt in our abilities that doesn’t change as you get more success. It remains. The idea, again, just bears repeating, we have to be twice as good to be looked at half as well. In his case, it always makes me kind of sad, in a sense that people don’t appreciate him the way that they should. The fact that the audience is so angry at him all the time. That’s his performance. They believe him. The fact that the audience hates Tariq, that’s that performance, you know?
DEADLINE: One element of that performance that got a lot of space in the first episode was Tariq’s take on Albert Camus’ The Stranger, which is also the title of the episode. The first-person narrative novel mixes absurdism and existentialism and at first glance seems completely alien to Tariq and his background. He doesn’t even finish the book in time for the verbal exam on it and yet in a second go-round, he unveils new meanings to Camus’ book to those who’ve studied it for year. A smooth move …
KEMP: Well, thank you. By sowing in his syllabus and using great books to be the seeds and the anchors of these episodes in the first 10 episodes, we’re using the format of the great books to give him an education, and to ask for him, what do those great books say about the drug dealing world? What do they say about the life? What lessons can he learn from great literature?
DEADLINE: That’s a hell of an Easter egg…
KEMP: Yeah and that’s kind of where the mix lies, and it’s a cool kind of thing. If people want to read along, they can. I don’t know that people will, and it will still be fun. It’s super fun. I think also another Easter egg that I would say, is the transformation of Method Man into the character of Davis MacLean, which is pretty amazing.
DEADLINE: Clearly you are thinking deep into a second season though none has been announced yet, but I wonder what your thoughts are on the business right now?
KEMP: What do you mean?
DEADLINE: Well, you mentioned earlier how you thought COVID had changed things, from premiere dates to production, like when you guys had to hit the pause button over a sick crew member. For you, what are the next steps as the industry re-opens slowly?
KEMP: Yeah. Business has changed a lot. So, now with COVID, it’s changed how we’re approaching everything. I think everyone is worried about money. I think everyone is worried about what we call COVID costs. I think everyone is concerned about how to make the best television, while still making smart and safe choices.
It’s actually interesting. There’s been a lot of pressure from the network to get onto very specific schedules around shooting. It’s a different STARZ than it was, and it’s a different time that it was.
KEMP: The crucible in which the original Power came to be, that crucible was a slower pace. It came really from that old HBO style of really of supporting the creativity at a slower pace that Chris Albrecht was a part of. Right now, we really have to put the pedal to the medal, in order to bring these shows forth. It won’t affect the quality, but it does change how much time you have to do everything.
DEADLINE: Then there are racial and social evolutions that we may be on the cusp of out of more tragedy…
KEMP: It’s very hard to be creative during the pandemic, and I don’t think you can isolate the pandemic from what’s been going on with the uprising. I don’t think you can isolate it from what’s been going on with politics. I don’t think you can isolate it from a lot of things.
So, I think as an African-American, as a woman, as someone who’s invested in, frankly, my freedom, and the freedom of others who look like me, it’s been an incredibly difficult six months in which to be creative, and that level of pressure to be creative. At the same time, I have to be grateful every day that I do have a job, and I continue to work, you know?
DEADLINE: What is the personal difference?
KEMP: For my own self, usually I’m in New York at this time of year, prepping the new season, being part of the new season. I am not in New York. I’m in Los Angeles, because I can’t. There’s no way, with a 14-day quarantine on that end, that I can be a parent, and travel. I’m a parent at this time. That’s a different experience than being a parent at any other time, in my lifetime.