Tracy Ofosuhene and Carissa Pinckney are the co-creators of new New York-based web series Living with Strangers. Based around some of their personal stories and living experiences while studying at NYU, Ofosuhene and Pinckney are aiming to diversify the sit-com with a millennial twist.
The series focuses on a group of strangers that end up flat-sharing in a small and boxy apartment, therefore getting to know each other pretty quickly, and pretty personally. The show wants to flip typical college student tropes on their head, and reflect the modern way we now live.
With episodes releasing this month, I caught up with the two filmmakers to talk about their own experiences at college, behind the camera and the importance of authentic representation on screen.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length*
SQ: Hi ladies! So your new comedy web series ‘Living with Strangers’ focuses on a group of college students that end up living together in a dingy New York apartment. It kind of feels like a millennial take on Friends! What drew you to the idea of exploring relationship dynamics and modern living in this way?
Tracy Ofosuhene: Well, they’re not friends…not yet anyway. We start the series with Nancy moving from Portland, OR to New York City to attend graduate film school and ends up living in an apartment with 4 undergrad students she doesn’t know. She didn’t meet them before deciding to live with them, hence the title of the show Living With Strangers.
Carissa Pinckney: Yeah the Friends thing is something that we have gotten before but I only watched an episode of Friends after we created this because people asked us this question! I know it’s super weird that I went so long without seeing Friends. After I watched the first couple of episodes I was like “oh! This is what all the fuss is about. I get it!” When I was growing up Living Single was more likely to be on so I watched more of that. Anyway, If we were to compare our show to another I think of Broad City or Insecure. Our experiences in New York are definitely the main driver of the story arcs. We wanted to bring to the screen the types of people we have encountered in our lives.
TO: The idea behind the show is very loosely based on a similar living situation I once had during my last year of college at NYU. I lived a two bedroom two sleeping loft apartment with 4 people in an old warehouse that was converted into an apartment building and most, if not all, of my friends and family who would visit thought my living situation was insane and very comical. A lot of wild stuff happened while living there, mostly due to the fact I was living with so many people I didn’t know. I did have my best friend living with me in this apartment and we were forced to step outside of our comfort zones. In getting to know our roommates we got a larger perspective of the world. We couldn’t escape it. We had to face it in order to get along and live together for an entire year. This was the reason why we wanted to explore relationship dynamics and modern living in this way…because I lived it, experienced it, and wanted to share it all. Now the story lines in the show are based on things that Carissa and I did or things that happened to us while we were in college. When you watch the show you might think some of the situations are insane or completely absurd and could never have happened, but SURPRISE they did!
SQ: You’ve made it very clear in the promotional material that you want to rework the stereotypes that often come with focusing on college students (jock, nerd, slut etc.), how did you go about making these changes and making your characters authentic?
TO: Well actually the stereotypes we subconsciously reworked have to do more with race, gender, sexuality, politics, and class.
CP: Yes. We felt like the stereotypes for people are so often just wrong! So we really worked to honour the things that we have seen with our own eyes and not what we have seen on TV or other media outlets.
TO: We have a queer Latina who is a virgin, not for religious reasons, but only because she just hasn’t had much experience in the sex and/or love department. We have a “bitch next door” Asian who has a sharp tongue and definitely not afraid to use it. Plus, she’s not dainty or fragile at all, which is a stereotype a lot of my Asian female friends say they struggle to fight against. We have a dark-skinned black girl who is carefree, highly intelligent, and sexually liberated. Even so, more importantly, she’s not demonised for being sex positive, but celebrated and loved for it. She’s also seen to be beautiful and desirable which is huge because it’s a struggle for a lot of dark-skinned black women to be seen in this way, myself included. We have a Nigerian-Iranian guy who is a very masculine, skateboarder, jock type, and gay. Finally, we have a white guy who people right off the bat think he’s gay just because he’s a little effeminate and his lifelong dream is to be a big women’s fashion designer, but he’s straight and the ultimate ladies’ man.
These types of characters exist in the real world, but we rarely see them on screen. They are complex, layered and multifaceted people trying to figure out life and how to best live it. People in real life are complicated, messy, and are not be generalised into being one thing based on their race, gender, sexuality, politics, and class. We all have fears, dreams, ups and down, and multiple types of relationships. We’re all trying to figure out the complicated puzzle that is life and so it’s very easy to empathise with our characters because our characters represent these very real people. That’s how we made our characters really authentic. It’s all about empathy.
Also, Carissa and I didn’t have the typical college experience. Most colleges have a quad or campus that’s a designated area of the university within a city or town, but for us New York City was our campus. So, to be honest the changes we made to these stereotypes was just us writing what we know, have seen, and know exist. It was taking the obvious and writing it onto the page.
SQ: As black women filmmakers do you find it difficult to find authentic representation of yourself on-screen? Are there any existing characters or filmmakers that you feel share your voice/worldview?
TO: I did find it difficult to find an authentic representation of myself on screen, until Issa Rae and Michaela Coel came onto the scene with Insecure and Chewing Gum respectively. I completely see myself in those two women and the characters they play. I’m very awkward and have been known to talk way too fast and loud. I mean the main character’s name in Chewing Gum is Tracy for goodness sakes!
CP: Same for me the HBO show Insecure is a huge one! I really feel like a wave of change is happening in media with more inclusion and representation and I’m super thrilled to see it happening!
TO: As a kid, I watched A Different World, One On One, Living Single…you know most shows on UPN, but one of my all time favorite TV shows was Moesha. I loved Brandy! She was a dark-skinned black girl like me who was celebrated not just for being smart and talented but also viewed to be beautiful, and her character Moesha reflected that as well. I could see myself in her because she looked like me and she authentically showed the things I was going through and felt. She WASN’T the sassy sidekick or the angry black girl. She was just a normal teenager who dealt with typical teenage stuff like fighting with her parents, boy crushes, boy drama, making and losing friends, school, coming of age and figuring out who she was and wanted to be. Then after Moesha ended, there was a dark time in my life where I didn’t really see myself in anything.
CP: As a kid I watched a lot of Cartoons. I loved Hey Arnold, Doug, Recess and honestly saw more of myself in animated characters then the live-action ones. I have always been nerdy and overly moral so I did not really feel represented at all in live action until I saw Smart Guy.
TO: When Carissa and I conceived the idea of Living With Strangers back in 2013, there weren’t a lot of TV shows and movies where we could see ourselves. One example is remembering when the HBO show Girls came out. I didn’t see myself in the show. All the main characters were white and all the supporting characters were white which I found strange because the show is set in New York City. NYC is a diverse melting pot of disparate cultures. The show did get criticism for this so you do see people of colour in the later seasons, but how it first came out made it very hard for me to see myself in it and connect to the show…
CP: I kept asking myself as I was watching that show… what part of NYC is she hanging out in?
TO: Now there seems to be a resurgence of women and people of colour in film and TV. More importantly, there are people of colour and women playing lead characters that are more well rounded, strong, empowered, nuanced, complicated, flawed, and messy. They aren’t defined by their race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, or economic status. It’s just happened to be a part of who they are and an informative part of where they come from and that’s what our show is doing.
CP: Exactly! We are finally starting to see stories with non-white, non-cisgendered, and non-straight people who are telling the stories of their lives that involves their whole selves not just one aspect of their lives.
SQ: How did the pair of you meet and what is the dynamic like in your own working relationship- has there been many compromises as co-creators as opposed to just one single vision?
TO: Carissa and I met at NYU through mutual friends. In our entire NYU graduating class of 2012 from all the schools, about 3.6% in total were black so we i.e. the black students at NYU, we all kind of knew each other. Carissa and I would say hello to each other at social events and meetings, but it wasn’t until after we graduated and bumped into each other at an NYU alumni event in LA that we started to hang out and soon become close friends. After several months in LA, we both were feeling a bit creatively stagnant so I told Carissa about this TV show idea I was trying to figure out. She liked the idea and we started writing the show together.
CP: During the time we were becoming friends we also were both going through our own miniature housing crises and ended up becoming roommates for two plus years. We definitely know each other extremely well. We have a great balance to our relationship. We often see things very differently and then we are forced to debate and recon with those thoughts in an open and honest way. I really do think we are always striving to get the best out of one another and to get the best out of whatever we are working on.
TO: The best way to describe our working relationship, in regards to Living With Strangers specifically, is that I’m pregnant carrying the Living With Strangers baby and Carissa is the midwife/stepmother to the baby. She makes sure I’m pushing the best version of this baby possible.
TO: We work really well together because we don’t compromise on our vision and opinions. We’re completely honest with each other and we can debate for hours on the direction of a character, a scene, or other ideas and it always results in us coming up with something great! Our cast and crew have had front row seats to view how well we work together and they praise us for it. We build on each other’s ideas and something just clicks into place.
SQ: Your show boasts a widely diverse crew, the majority of which being women. Did having a team like this differ from any other productions you’ve worked on?
TO: Yes, yes, a THOUSAND TIMES, YES! I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts where I got my undergrad degree in Film. All the student film sets I was on consisted of mostly men and sadly it’s reflective of the entertainment industry itself. I worked on American Idol and Hell’s Kitchen as a P.A. right after I graduated from college and most recently I worked on the set of Creed II. All three had mostly a crew of men in their camera, production, and sound departments. Now, the industry is getting better at hiring more women in male-dominated roles. I was the E.A. to the executive producers of the show East Los High and they really pushed for more women and people of colour to work in front and behind the camera, which I thought was inspiring. I saw them do it and it really made me believe it was possible. The only thing that felt different on my set than the others I’ve worked on was it felt more inclusive. Everyone felt represented and that their existence mattered so much so that they felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas with no fear of judgement and with no fear of being dismissed.
Ironically, I didn’t consciously have the goal of mostly hiring a diverse crew of women. I just know and surround myself with a lot of talented people who I wanted to work with and they just so happen to be women and people of colour.
CP: I have been lucky enough that most of the works I have been part of have been very inclusive so for me this is a continuation of my normal work environment. With that said I did love having all the women on set. I think the way women lead and work together is so collaborative and inclusive.
SQ: So while we’re waiting for the new episodes to drop…. Which was your favourite one to film and why?
TO: That’s a hard question to answer. It’s like picking your favourite kid and I love all my kids. We shot the 4 episodes simultaneously over the course of 7 days meaning, for example, the first day we shot scenes from episode 2 and 3 then day two we shot scenes from episode 1 and 4. All the episodes were very fun to shoot because we worked with a great cast and crew. We all really got along and sometimes couldn’t stop laughing and joking around on set because the scenes we were filming were so funny and everyone we worked with is so talented. Carissa and I made sure the cast and crew felt like the show was theirs to take ownership of. We wanted it to feel like a collaboration so a lot of the times the cast and crew threw in the own ideas on how to heighten the humour in a scene or add creative ideas.
Now, I can say which episode I was the most nervous and felt the most awkward filming…which was the episode with the sex scene. It was my first time filming one and I was great at it! But, I felt a little weird directing my actors on when to climax and timing it at the right moment when another actor catches them in the act. It felt like somehow I was invading on someone’s intimate moment, which overall wasn’t so intimate when you have a small crew of people filming you. Filming sex scenes is NOT SEXY at all. But I did a great job and feel confident I can direct more in the future.
CP: It’s funny you say all that Tracy! I always joke with her that she has a calling as an Adult film producer and director. I still think that might happen one day even though Tracy is sure it will not. When you see the episode she is referring to I think the world will agree with me! I felt like all of Roger’s reactions in character were the most fun to film.
SQ: And finally what date can we expect to see the release of Living with Strangers?
TO: We are airing part I of Living With Strangers, which consists of 4 episodes, on Thursday, April 18th. You can watch them on Vimeo at www.vimeo.com/lwstv or on our website at www.livingwithstrangerstv.com/episodes. Also follow us on instagram @livingwithstrangertvseries!
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here