Karin Gist is shinning. The Star showrunner and executive producer is elevating television as one of the few Black female showrunners in the industry, and she’s taken on her role in stride. Still, Gist’s journey in TV which led her to the sets of Girlfriends, One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, and Revenge among others didn’t start off as seamlessly as one would assume. Ahead of the mid-series premiere of Star and during Women’s History Month, Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Gist about her career, why showrunning speaks to her soul, and how it feels to be one of the only Black women calling the shots in television.
Gist’s path to storytelling was unconventional to say the least. “I moved out to LA to practice law for about two and a half years, and honestly I was spending most of my day daydreaming in my law office just knowing that it wasn’t the right choice in life for me,” she explained. “I had this feeling that there was a now or never. Why not take a risk and try to do something that I thought I’d love? Ultimately, I ended up loving it. I love writing for television and telling stories. I tried to find a path to that even in practicing law. I moved from corporate law to family law at one point, and that was more interesting because of course, it’s stories about people and emotions. It was interesting, but still, I was yearning to do something more creative and luckily I found my path on Girlfriends — my first show.”
Throughout her career, Gist has focused on female-centric stories. For the Spelman alum, it’s been a blessing to put women at the center. “I’ve always said how lucky I was to fall into my dream job on my dream show, Girlfriends,” she revealed. “I was able to learn the craft and practice the craft but tell stories that reflected my life at the time and my friends at the time. That is such a rare thing, especially in this business, especially as a Black woman. So, that was a happy coincidence. I am drawn to telling stories about women, about women of color. That has become my drive in storytelling. I just so happened to get my first job on a show like that.”
Women like Yvette Lee Bowser, Sara V. Finney, and Mara Brock Akil kicked down the door with their Black female-centered stories, Living Single, Moesha, and Girlfriends in the ‘90s and early 2000s. However, though it has been nearly two decades since Gist started in the industry, the road for Black women is still bumpy and full off dead ends. “Definitely more doors are open now but there’s still a struggle,” she said thoughtfully. “We still have to fight to be heard and to get our stories told in a way that feels more complex and less one note. Of course, times are changing, but things still need to change. I’m a believer in moving forward for myself but also trying to open the door for other women after me so that when you ask the same question in five years to someone that I consider a baby writer right now, she’ll hopefully have a different answer.”
The opportunity to do Star — Gist’s first showrunner gig, was an unexpected blessing. “It’s been a crazy year,” she laughed. “I was not looking to move from Grey’s Anatomy. I was very happy there. It was a blessing and an honor to watch the way they do things at Shondaland, to watch the way Shonda (Rhimes) works. I was very happy, but then I got this surprise call out of the blue and was really excited by the possibility again of telling stories on a show like Star. It’s such a wonderful job, and the show combines humanity, comedy, and politics in a way that speaks to what I love to do and write. For me, Star was a perfect fit, and creatively it has been a joy and pleasure.”
In the company of Courtney A. Kemp over on Starz’s Power, Mara Brock Akil on OWN’s forthcoming Love Is____, and Janine Sherman Barrois on TNT’s Claws, among a handful of others, showrunning means having your hands in every single aspect of a television series. Gist walked me through a “typical” day on Fox’s Star. “It changes every day,” she explained. “But for the most part I tend to get to the office at about 7 a.m., and I try to use the first three hours of the day for writing or reading, and taking that quiet time to prepare myself for the avalanche of unexpected things that come up. Mostly it’s checking in with the (writers’) room; the room starts at 10 a.m. I’m there explaining or discussing what we need to accomplish that day — the story, going to meetings, prepping the next episode, a table read, or production meeting. I attend all of those; I do post (production) and editing. It’s a combination of a lot of different things, I wear a lot of different hats, but it’s fun, and I’ve learned so much. Someone was just asking me last night about this being my first year as a showrunner and how I learn things. I think it’s just along the way; I think the most important thing is to stop and listen and be really present in the moment. So that’s my day — wearing a bunch of hats, meetings, post, and writing. I have to fit in as much writing as I can –most of my day is writing.”
Though writing is still at the core of Gist’s job, her added responsibilities have shifted the way she comes up with storylines and dialogue. “I write faster now,” she revealed. “Also, I tend to constantly remind myself that I’m also a producer. I know that a sentence that I wrote probably cost x amount of dollars, or x amount of time to shoot, so maybe I can think of a different way to do it. I constantly try to get the best story on the page and then in my head (I’m) trying to figure out how to make it as production friendly as possible. That is something that I’ve learned to juggle, and it’s a big piece of the puzzle of this job. I wasn’t always thinking about that previously which is nice. It’s a freedom really to just put whatever and somebody else deals with the numbers.”
As a Black woman, Gist has always been vigilant about the struggle for people of color and women in Hollywood. Now, in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp along with talks of inclusion riders, she’s been diligent about creating a safe and transparent environment. “I think it boils down to respect really,” the Georgetown Law School graduate said earnestly. “To respect the other writers, the other crew members, the other cast members and try to understand even if you don’t agree with whatever position they have. Everyone has the right to think and feel a certain way as long as it’s not disrespecting the other person. For me, I desperately try to include that in the writers’ room especially very early on. I kind of jokingly made the writers say one thing they would pledge to do going forward and just to respect the other writers. I was determined to keep that in the forefront of everyone’s minds because creativity will die if someone doesn’t feel safe or feels shut down or silenced, so I think it’s important to respect everyone around you to get the best product. In terms of #MeToo, I try to be as supportive as I can, and as respectful as I can because I had been on shows… I came up on a show in particular where being the only female in the room or the only person of color in the room; you can feel marginalized. That’s something that I think won’t change until we have more diversity and inclusion in all aspects of this job. For me it’s about respect –respect is my number one principle.”
With Star returning for an explosive second half to its sophomore season, Gist hints that there is a ton in store for Star (Jude Demorest), Alex (Ryan Destiny) and Simone (Brittany O’Grady). “There’s lots, lots, lots of drama,” she teased. “Relationships will shake up the bag and mix things up a little bit. For the most part, the second half of the season is going to really look at the notion of fame and how badly people want it and what our characters will do to get it. It will also comment on America’s obsession with fame and celebrities. We have a lot of interesting guest stars, Patti LaBelle is joining as Queen Latifah’s mom, we have Brandy Norwood as her sister, and we have La La (Anthony) joining as (Evan) Ross’s mom. We get into a lot of the constructions of parental relationships and how your parents affect who you are and your art. We also have some surprises, but I’m not going to tell. There’s a lot of great music, Gigi (Keke Palmer) has a song that we open up with in the mid-season premiere that is fire right now, it’s called “Bossy.” We have a lot of great music, a lot of great stories, and the finale that we’re shooting right now is everything. I can’t wait for everyone to see what we’ve done, what the writers have come up with. I think it’s fantastic, I’m very proud of it.”
Gist’s experience on Star has only continued to invigorate her love for storytelling and putting women of color at the forefront of the narratives that she writes. Up next, anything is possible. “I think the world has opened to me and I’m really excited about developing and continuing to work on Star,” she revealed. “Also, developing more projects with (Lee Daniels). Right now they’re developing a pilot that hopefully will get picked up. I’m also starting to look at my own writing and hoping to meet some young women that I can shepherd along the way to continue to tell more stories about women of color, families of color, relationships, and anything that hits me.”
Watch the mid-season premiere of Star, Wednesday, March 28th at 9 PM ET.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami