Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s new FX series Kindred is a 21st-century adaptation of Octavia Butler’s iconic sci-fi novel. It’s a haunting show about a modern-day Black woman who is continually snatched back and forth through time from her home in 2016 Los Angeles to a Southern plantation in 1815.
In her first leading role, Juilliard graduate Mallori Johnson portrays Dana James, an aspiring TV writer trying to find her place in the world after her grandmother’s death. However, just as she begins to settle into her new home in LA, she is violently ripped from the present and thrust into the past, a place that has intrinsic links to her bloodline.
Ahead of Kindred’s Dec. 13 premiere, Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Jacob-Jenkins and Johnson about the beauty of Butler’s work, updating the story, and why it’s never been more relevant.
“I reread [Kindred] for the 15th time in 2010 on the floor of my bedroom,” Jacob-Jenkins recalls. “I was living in Berlin, Germany, at the time. And I closed it and said, ‘This is a television show.’ And that was the beginning of my trying to make it happen. It took six years of tracking down the rights, convincing everyone to give me a shot, and taking it to the amazing people at FX, who took a chance on it before we were picked up. This has been how I’ve spent a very good chunk of my life, and I’m super honored. It’s the honor of my career to bring this to its next iteration.”
For Johnson, who has always been a fan of Butler’s work, getting the audition for the lead role was a dream come true. “I called my mom and was like, ‘Guess what I get to audition for?’ It wasn’t even a difficult decision,” she explains. “I had read the book previously, so I was already a fan of Octavia Butler. I had read Fledgling first. And I was always a sci-fi fan. I love expansive, imaginative worlds. And to see an expansive, imaginative world centered on Black people was everything. So to be a part of that, I was running toward it. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it. And I’m so grateful to have gotten it.”
Once Johnson was onboard, and the rest of the cast was fleshed out, Jacobs-Jenkins and his writers made other important decisions, including updating the book from 1976 to 2016.
“We decided very early on that it wanted to be in the contemporary moment because we didn’t want to make something that felt like a museum piece, that felt safe, and that the audience would feel like it could hold it at a distance,” he explains. “We wanted something that felt immediate, that seemed to talk to the present day. That asked what we would do today if that were to happen to us. So that was the main gist of it. It required then changing a lot of other things. This book, though amazing, is 45 years old almost. That’s a long time ago. I’ve been impressed by how well people have taken to this transplantation. I’m hoping that viewers go along for the ride.”
Another notable change in the series is the character of Kevin (Micah Stock). In Butler’s novel, Dana and Kevin are married. However, they are just getting to know each other in the FX series. “Though I love Kevin in the book, there are certain things about his behavior that I have a hard time imagining a young woman of color putting up with in the 21st century,” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “And so I thought, this is an opportunity to think through a fresher way to step into what Octavia was ultimately up to. She wanted to depict something quite radical for the time, which was a loving, interracial relationship. She wanted to create a situation in which there was something at stake in these two people going back together. And I felt like that’s what we were trying to honor, ultimately. And I wanted to see, and this is hopefully the end game of the series if we can build a compelling, truthful, complex portrait of an interracial couple today that is committed and serious in real-time. That’s the challenge the other writers and I took upon ourselves.”
Like any project that depicts enslavement, Kindred can be challenging to watch, nor was it easy for Johnson to immerse herself in Dana’s world. However, the actor knew how important it was to get this story right.
“I just let myself go through the wringer with this show,” she explains. “That was the only way I knew how to do it. I didn’t have a process. I was coming out of school. I didn’t know what it meant to wake up every day and be the only person there some days, doing a scene every single day for every minute of the day. It was a lot of rigor. It was more rigorous than I had ever known in school. So it was one of those things where it was trial by fire. I just let myself get burned up in the process but in a way that was so beautiful to me. I do welcome that in my artistry. I like to experience everything the character is experiencing and let myself go through it. I feel that’s the best way to access the truth of what the story requires of me.”
Kindred will air exclusively on Hulu starting Dec. 13.
Watch the interview in full below: