Recently, Shadow And Act had the chance to visit the Tyler Perry Studios campus to get an up close, behind the scenes look at the making the hot new Will Packer-produced nighttime soap drama, Ambitions, which will air on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on June 18.
Robin Givens and “Ambitions” crew set up for one of her scenes. Photo: OWN
Driving onto the southwest Atlanta campus for the first time is as awe-inspiring as you would think. Immediately, you’re confronted with all the possibilities encompassed by the “American dream”, fully realized. Rising heavenward is the sign bearing Producer and Director Tyler Perry’s name and logo for his company; its lettering is reminiscent of the iconic Hollywood sign that stretches across Mount Lee, 2,200 miles away. Beyond this is a sprawling group of buildings on 300-plus acres that house the sets for a number of Perry’s and other producers’ projects, including The Kingdom, as seen on The Walking Dead.
Assorted tractor trailer-sized trucks carrying equipment used to build the sets dot the manicured landscape. A number of tents and lean-tos make up the typical on-set “cafeteria” holding a vast expanse of food options for crew and cast. The strangely reassuring scent of sawdust, suggesting creativity and productivity, subtly floated through the air.
Actors, make-up artists, journalists, directors of episodes four through seven, along with assorted assistant directors, etc., gave us a warm and slightly bemused welcome before quickly returning to all of the action swirling around them. Compelled by curiosity, journalists peered silently over the shoulders of the directors at the two banks of monitors capturing the action taking place on the other side of the wall, in a room set up as the office belonging to the father of the character of Stephanie.
L-R: Ben Barker (Script Supv.), Christal Roberson (Dir.), Paige Simpson (Mgr. of Scripted TV), Robin Givens (“Stephanie”) on the set of “Ambitions” Photo: OWN/Eli Ade
Actors Robin Givens (Riverdale), Steven Williams (The Chi, True Detective) and Donna Biscoe (Greenleaf, Night School) drifted back and forth from the “office” between takes, with Givens cracking jokes during breaks. What viewers won’t see as they watch the episode is that the sensational crimson-colored dress Givens is wearing in this take, fit for the red carpet or runway, is paired with camel colored Uggs, which are handy during the twelve-hour long days on set.
Givens, during one of several roundtable sessions, shared that she was already juggling a full plate when her agent approached her about doing Ambitions. She’s a recurring character on Riverdale, which shoots in Vancouver, and The Fix, which shoots in Los Angeles. “At first,” she said, “I didn’t even tune in because I was so immersed in these other things but then once I really read the script, I just didn’t want anybody else to do the role!”
Ambitions, set amongst the Atlanta legal and political glitterati, has all the classic elements of a nighttime soap. There are warring families, bad marriages, rivaling siblings, wealthy villainous businessmen, rebellious teen daughters, daddy issues, mommy issues, angelic girls next door and dangerous vixens. Givens’ character, with a wardrobe that makes the mouth water and the wallet cry, would fall under the latter category.
Co-creator and executive producer Jamey Giddens, made an unscheduled drop-in to one of the roundtables and described his initial conception of Stephanie. “I originally wrote Stephanie as this ice princess who was seething. Who was the smartest one in the room but like, the patriarchy just keeps holding her down!” he laughed. He credits much of the evolution of the character with the actress herself. “Robin took the character and added many layers to it. Evan and Stephanie were meant to be this icy couple who only married for convenience but Brian and Robin bring so much heart and humor to it,” he said.
Giddens, who was a journalist at the beginning of his professional life, revealed he has been an avid soap fan since he was a child in small-town Texas watching soap operas with his grandmother. “If you know anything about rural Black families, you know we watch the soaps and the Price Is Right! I just grew up loving daytime and primetime soaps. If it [was] soapy I was watching it!”
After becoming an influential soap blogger for some time with his landmark soap site, DaytimeConfidential.com, ghostwriting for daytime soap legend Victoria Rowell and writing his own soap drama for Urban Movie Network, Giddens was approached by writer Yolanda Lawrence (Riverdale, Empire) when, due to contractual obligations, she was unable to write for Ambitions.
Giddens admitted he was intimidated but also excited. He originally brought what he described as a “small town soap like a Black Peyton Place” to producer Will Packer. The Girls Trip producer had a slightly different vision. “Will told me, “I want it to be about politics and glitz and glamour! I want different social structures. I want a dirty mayor who everybody wants to sleep with!” That main character of the morally challenged, sought after mayor became Evan Lancaster, played by Brian White (Scandal, Ray Donovan).
Packer, who began his roundtable remarks by expressing his appreciation for the journalists who came to preview the show, brimmed with enthusiasm for Ambitions and its main characters. “There are places we’ll take them that I love seeing a Black couple go to. There is a complexity and nuance to this that we don’t get a lot of opportunities to do. When I do a feature film, I don’t have time to go in and be this nuanced with characters. There’s gonna be things they do that you cheer for and there are going to be things they do that will drive you crazy. That’s when you know the narrative is well thought out and it’s real. We’ve had such a lack of that with folks that look like us and that’s the thing that I’m most proud and excited about.”
Evan and Stephanie: A Thin Line Between Love and Hate
Although at first glance Evan seems to be the dominant and most powerful person in the marriage and the community, he is revealed to be much less powerful than he seems. The women in his life are all strong-willed, opinionated, and not above manipulating him in order to achieve their own ends, or literally holding a gun to his head to do so. As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that he is often pitifully and frustratingly at their mercy. White joked, “Sometimes when I read the scripts I say to Will, “Damn, can I stop taking Ls?” He continued, “Evan loves strong women, but the downside for him is that he also loves to be the boss. And I don’t think in any of his relationships with any of these women he’s the boss!”
Photo: Robin Givens (as ‘Stephanie Carlisle’) and Brian White (as ‘Evan Lancaster’) having a moment in “Ambitions.” Photo: OWN
Evan and Stephanie are a physically striking duo with a complicated relationship; a marriage that is partly one of convenience and for the furtherance of their wealth, power, and status and partly, perhaps, of love. Part of the fun for the viewer is in figuring out what proportion. When Givens playfully asked White if Evan loves Stephanie, he replied, “Oh desperately!” with a laugh. “No seriously, they have a Beyoncé and Jay Z type of love, a Bill and Hillary type of love. There’s competition there. She is the first woman he put on a pedestal and he’s always been chasing that pedestal to be worthy of sticking out his arm and having her be there. One of the thorns in his side is how to elevate himself to be worthy of being on top of the wedding cake with Black Barbie.”
This Marriage is Messy and Crowded
The third person in the Lancaster marriage is Bella, Stephanie’s stylist and “friend.” Played by Erica Page, she is also Evan’s side chick, but not your ordinary side chick. Bella isn’t afraid of doing what it takes to get what she wants and doesn’t shy away from placing demands on Evan. “Bella makes bad decisions along the way to get what she wants,” Page explains. “She’s determined to launch her fashion line. She grew up in The Banks, her Mom had her really young. She just wants to make it. She wants her company to make it and she will do whatever she can to make that happen. But, she really does feel remorse over the things she does.”
Bella (Erica Page) is a side of trouble! Photo: OWN
Hell Raising Big Sis With A Heart of Gold
Further complicating Evan’s life is his older sister Rondell. Played by bubbly, extremely charismatic Oakland native, and former singer, Brely Evans who also co-stars with Page in the comedy series Last Call. Giddens revealed that Rondell in the original script was conceived as Evan’s aunt but that was changed to his sister as they moved into production.
Evan and Rondell love each other, but continually clash because they each see life so differently even though they grew up in the same household. Rondell is your ordinary, everyday, relatable entrepreneurial homegirl to Evans’ extremely bougie, self-obsessed, tightly wound, highfalutin’, puffed up Atlanta power broker. Rondell, also an ever-present thorn in Stephanie’s side and very much the moral center of the series, symbolizes the young, working-class Black woman whose energy sustains friends and family and whose creativity, can-do attitude, and inventiveness drives popular culture. “I like most that she’s strong, that she’s determined, and that she cares more about others than herself. She does have selfish reasons for doing some of the things that she does. However, it’s really rooted in others,” Evans said about her character.
As a couple, White thinks Stephanie and Evan are symbolic of many high-visibility power couples. “These couples,” he said, “have an agreement that ‘We’re partners, we’re life partners and we’re together to make millions of dollars and change our communities but it’s gonna require major sacrifices.’ A lot of what you see in this show with Stephanie and Evan mirrors real life and the sacrifices couples have to make to have it all. Why don’t more couples have it all? Because more couples can’t go through this.”
Using the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta and its working-class counterpart Bankhead (colloquially referred to as The Banks) as metaphors, White also spoke explicitly to the economic diversity found in the Black community and how normal it is to find extreme class differences within Black families. “We have a very white collar family with Stephanie. Evan’s family claims The Banks. We’re seeing all the different strata and economic diversity that makes up the Black community. There are also political differences. Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson, right? They’re both Democrats but they don’t see eye to eye. I think we’re seeing all of that.” Often ignored in mainstream television and film, this dynamic potently drives the drama on Ambitions.
When Your Soror Straight Up Demolishes “Girl Code”
Stephanie, a lawyer herself, is the daughter of an extremely powerful and well-connected attorney. She sees herself as carrying on her family’s legacy and makes many of her personal decisions with an eye toward how they will impact the family. “Stephanie’s parents are like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth so she struggles with her moral compass but she does have a sense of justice,” Gidden said. Stephanie is also an important link to the show’s other power couple; Amara Hughes (Essence Atkins) and Titus Hughes (Kendrick Cross). Cross and Atkins arrived later to chat with the press as neither of them had scenes that day. They’ve also worked together before in the movie My Other Mother. When discussing the Hughes couple, Packer enthused, “This couple is the heartbeat of our show. If you don’t care about the Hughes, if Titus and Amara don’t do it for you, then good luck; continue to go worship Satan!”
Amara is the archetypical angel in terms of TV drama. However, she is a fallen one. Amara and Stephanie were sorority sisters at the same college. During that time Titus was Stephanie’s boyfriend. Amara broke “girl code” by sleeping with Titus some twenty years back. Amara, before the fallout with Stephanie over Titus, was like a member of Stephanie’s family. She was close not only to Stephanie but also to her parents, so this particular betrayal cut like a searing hot, salt-laden knife.
Atkins admits, “I can’t really sit here in defense of Amara. Like no, there was some foul behavior!” She goes on to describe her view of Amara, “She’s a heroine but she’s also flawed. I find that to be fascinating. I don’t want to talk about perfect people. They don’t exist and the fun of this journey in particular for me is this dynamic and figuring out how they work through it. I like to talk to about the darker sides of humanity.” Cross blames Titus’ indiscretion with Amara as being caused by an emotionally distant Stephanie. “When things went wrong with Stephanie, Amara was there.”
And Amara’s been there ever since but not without some major bumps in the road, as the audience will discover in the very first episode. Atkins explains, “When you get together in college there’s a lot of growing and a lot of changing that happens. Individually and within the dynamic. That’s why I think as much as this show deals in broad drama it’s also grounded in truths like jealousy, like holding grudges.”
Will This Nice Guy Finish Last?
Titus, nice guy though he may be, works for an evil pharmaceutical company Purifoy, in its intimidatingly powerful legal department. Stephanie, whose sister died of a drug overdose, is on a mission to take the company down. She is also still biding her time for the opportunity to pay Amara back for her next-level treachery. “Amara’s like, that was twenty years ago! You aren’t over that? And the fact of the matter is, no, Stephanie’s not over it, marriage aside, success aside, she’s not over it and that’s real,” said Atkins.
Amara has also proven to be disloyal to Titus in some serious ways and, like Atlas holding the heavens on his back, he struggles to keep their marriage on an even keel. Cross confesses his personality is very close to Titus’ in real life. “I’m the forgiving type,” he said, “especially when it comes to people who we’ve spent a lot of time together, and friendships. I fight for my friendships. That’s what I like about the story. It’s a man fighting for his woman.”
It isn’t clear if the flame has died for Titus with regard to Stephanie since he seems to studiously avoid being alone with her. Cross reveals his character still had his heart set on Stephanie even after his initial fling with Amara. “He tried to get Stephanie back but she had moved on.”
Ambitions promises to deliver everything we could want in a nighttime soap! There are intriguing storylines that are scandalous enough for the drama but are grounded in reality, and experienced leads Givens, White and Atkins come through with quality acting marked by focused energy and flair. The folks behind the scenes like Packer, Giddens, Sheila Ducksworth, and Benny Boom have a proven record of supplying top quality, audience-pleasing material.
Ambitions premieres Tuesday, June 18th on OWN!
Photo: Robin Givens (as ‘Stephanie Carlisle’) and Brian White (as ‘Evan Lancaster’) having a moment in “Ambitions” | OWN