All American, one of The CW's biggest hits, is expanding its footprint at the network with a new spinoff. Also set within the world of sports, the spinoff is switching from a high school setting to college. All American: Homecoming's backdoor pilot is airing as a part of this season, which is the show's third.
The spinoff will follow a young tennis hopeful from Beverly Hills (Simone Hicks, a recurring character on All American played by Geffri Maya) and an elite baseball player from Chicago (Damon Sims, played by franchise newcomer Peyton Alex Smith) as "they contend with the high stakes of college sports, while also navigating the highs, lows and sexiness of unsupervised early adulthood at a prestigious Historically Black College."
The pilot will see Simone, Spencer (Daniel Ezra), Jordan (Michael Evans Behling) and Olivia (Samantha Logan) spending a weekend at Bringston University, a Historically Black College. While Simone wants to get away from her parents instead of seriously considering it as a college choice, she finds more at Bringston than she anticipated.
Ahead of the episode, Shadow and Act sat down with showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll and Geffri Maya to talk about the episode bringing All American: Homecoming to life. Carroll says that she always knew that she wanted to expand the All American universe, though she didn't know exactly how it would be done at the time.
"I pretty much knew from the start," she noted. "From the moment I took over as showrunner on All American, [it was] one of the first things I said to our studio chairperson at the time, Peter Roth. We were out to lunch and I said, 'I'm going to create a universe and we're going to keep this universe going for 15 years on the air and everything.' And he looked at me and laughed. He was like, 'OK.' And I was like, 'No, I'm actually really serious.' And he was like, "Oh, OK. Well, when you're ready to talk about those spinoffs and how that universe could work, let me know.' There's still so much life in the mothership show and so much stuff I plan on doing with these characters, so I was looking at a way that if I spun off the show, what way should I do it where I wasn't stepping on anything that I was planning on doing on the mothership show? The goal wasn't to take stories from the mothership show and ship them out. It was like, 'OK, what world and storyline could run parallel to what is happening on All American and feel of the same universe without feeling like we're stepping [on] any of our storylines?'"
It was also an interesting choice to set the spinoff at a fictional HBCU outside of California and to put Maya's Simone at the helm, especially since Simone wasn't initially meant to be a long-term character on the show.
"My character originally was only supposed to be on All American for three episodes...maybe five," the actress told S&A. "So it's a very beautiful transition. It was very jarring, but at the end of the day when blessings come, you just have to be prepared and ready for them. I am ready and I'm super excited to just continue on the legacy of the show and be able to create another legacy and be a part of this universe that people have grown and love."
In the project's development, Carroll explained that it became increasingly clear that Simone was the perfect choice to be the key to the new series.
"We have been blessed with such an amazingly talented ensemble cast led by Daniel Ezra, but the show really has become not just about Spencer's pursuit of his football journey, but about all these teens' pursuit of whatever their dreams are, on the field or off," she said. "The question then became: 'Who's the best person to use our entry point?' And the truth of the matter is, I wanted it to be a female. Because All American is sort of male-led, I really wanted it to be a female character. And we have so many talented female characters on our show. And for a number of them, I'm not done telling their stories on our show, so I didn't want to take them off the show yet because they're still so involved in the storylines. I still have great journeys and plans for their characters as they graduate high school and go on to college and their careers. I'm like, 'Oh no. They have to stay in the All American world for me to continue to tell that story.' And so it started to narrow down the field for me."
In this narrowing, with a character like Simone who you could do so much with, and an actress like Geffri Maya who won them over from Day 1, it was a no-brainer.
"The truth of the matter is that Geffri Maya is just truly, truly special," added Carroll. "We knew it from her first audition. It was just something about it. There was just something so exciting about her and so much potential about her character that immediately where we [wanted to] see where this goes. And then once she actually stepped foot on set with our other actors, and especially with Michael [Evans Behling], the chemistry was just fantastic. And she fit in as if she'd been part of the show from Day 1. We actually pivoted the storyline to keep her on the show because we loved her so much. As we dug more into her past and her relationship with her parents and her athletic dreams that she put on hold for everything, it sort of started to manifest itself and it suddenly became clear, like 'Oh, we still want to keep sports at the heart of the show with All American: Homecoming.' It really just became an organic thing whereas the idea was forming that I wanted to do a spinoff at an HBCU, everything that Geffri was bringing to the character of Simone and the direction that character was going in lends itself to, she was absolutely the perfect person to be our entry point into this new world."
On her role in the spinoff and where Simone stands at this pilot, actress explained, "I think that one of the most exciting things for me about the pilot was being able to kind of see outside of how we know Simone from All American...how we know her as the mother of her baby, how we know her as the girlfriend and now wife of Jordan, how we know her as the friends of Olivia and Layla and all these people that she's attached to. It was really beautiful to be able to see her true self and true essence come out...or at least have some sort of identity that was allowed to be connected to her and her truth and her transition."
The show serves as a full-circle moment for the actress who is an HBCU alum. She graduated from Clark Atlanta University, so she knows full well the experience of being a student at an HBCU in Atlanta. Smith, her co-lead, is also an HBCU alum.
"When you really break it down, this is a show about two Black athletes going to an HBCU...[and it's] on network television," she continued. "[It's] the idea of being able to create a platform that's going to one day be a part of this propelling of normalizing [and] seeing people who are able to reflect each other. Having been an HBCU alum and being able to play a character who goes to an HBCU, it's all about that reflection and it's all about being able to see ourselves."
She also pulled from her experience as an HBCU student to inform this version of Simone. "I feel like kids especially Black boys and girls, need to be to romanticize also going to an HBCU like we do all these PWIs and all these Ivy League schools," she said. "If we can do that, then we can do that with things that were created for us. It's okay to watch proudly and say, 'This was made for me.' It has to be reflected in the media. It has to be talked about. It has to be shared. It has to be glorified and uplifted and celebrated. Like Peyton [Alex Smith] mentioned the other day, there are a lot of professional athletes that are literally going back and giving back to HBCUs, or you have these kids who are being recruited to go to HBCUs to play these sports that they're fantastic at and that they love. It starts with an example and we just have to continue leading by it, whether it's with the pen, whether it's financially giving back to these schools they can continue to prosper, etc. It just has to be a constant domino effect of support and foundation. And I think that being able to showcase shows like this, being able to show these kids that you also are worthy to be celebrated enough to watch every week and to build a story and a world and characters, they'll get the picture because they deserve to see themselves."
Another intentional decision outside of setting the show at an HBCU was using the sports of tennis and baseball at an HBCU.
"The minute I knew I was going to do an HBCU, the next thing I did was pick the sports they're in, and those sports were on purpose," Carroll said. "Baseball is a very personal sport to me because my son plays baseball. I'm hugely obsessed with the sport, and it has such an interesting, complicated legacy with the Black community. We have the legacy of the Jackie Robinsons of the world and the Hank Aarons of the world, [but] our legacy in the sport is slowly being eroded. Our percentage participation in the MLB has significantly decreased from what it was even 10 years ago. And one of the interesting things that are happening is for the HBCU schools that still continue to have a baseball program, for a number of them, the baseball program is literally the most diverse, integrated thing about the HBCU. Black baseball players pretty much only make up about a third of the team. It's such an interesting microcosm on a campus that's predominantly Black to have this sport where on the baseball field, Blacks are still kind of the minority at an HBCU. Truthfully and honestly, I wanted to gift a sport back to us, back to our culture. It's a sport that we're sort of getting priced out of."
And for tennis, Carroll wanted to tribute Black women. "it's a sport that not only do I love, but I feel like Black women especially are not given their flowers enough," she continued. "And you look at people like Serena and Venus Williams, who I'm huge fans of, you look at the Coco Gauffs of the world, you look at Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens. The sport becomes so complicated for them. They're not just allowed to be great. It just feels like they don't get to just be great in the sport, it comes with such a burden of their Black femalehood. And that just felt like something that I really wanted to explore...the responsibility that Black female tennis players especially feel within the sport to represent, and the extra burden that gets put on them. And frankly, I want to give these women their flowers while they're alive to see it. The show is a gift to them and my way of saying thank you for being amazing and badass."
As for what's to come, the pilot introduces several other characters are introduced that will have a major role in the series to come, including those played by upcoming Homecoming series regulars Kelly Jenrette, Cory Hardrict, Sylvester Powell and Camille Hyde. Aside from setting the stage for those characters, it also lays the groundwork for what will be the future of Jordan and Simone's relationship.
"I think moving forward people will be able to really see Jordan and Simone for who they are together and apart," said Maya. "I think that the beautiful thing about their relationship, especially because they are so young, is that everything that they have done has been for each other. And in this transition in college, these are the years where you really start to experience things that kind of are telling to who you are as a person. I think that college and this moment of these decisions that they have to make for each other, with each other, but for themselves at the end of the day, it's really going to determine their strength. Their strength as a couple. And it's going to push the boundaries of their love. It's going to push the boundaries of their friendship. I'm looking forward to seeing how we create that for them."
The actress already understands how fans may feel about what's to come for the duo. "People, especially these kids on Twitter, they 'ship' Jordan and Simone [laughs]. But as life continues to grow and prosper things start shifting, things start changing, decisions have to be made and you kind of have to reassess and really discover why you truly love someone, what support truly means, and what a foundational relationship really looks and feels like. So I really think, yeah, it definitely puts the test. So of course with love there's good and there's the bad, there's the indifference. So I think that what people should be excited for is that rollercoaster. I think it's going to be a crazy ride. I really do."
The All American: Homecoming backdoor pilot of All American airs Monday, July 5 on The CW. All American: Homecoming, the series, will debut in 2022 on the network.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.