When I partnered with Apple TV+ and started my own film and television production company, Extracurricular, earlier this year, I knew I needed to find the perfect person to lead it – someone with a great sense of humour, dedicated to supporting emerging artists and ready to turn ideas into entertainment for people around the world.
I was so lucky to meet Erika Kennair. Her career has taken her from losing her dream job to winning awards, from 6am internships to producing some of your favourite comedies, mysteries, science fiction shows and documentaries.
Ahead of Sunday's Emmys ceremony, we asked Erika to tell us what it's really like to work in entertainment, what advice she'd give to aspiring writers and producers, her favourite shows and who she's rooting for this awards season.
Erika herself is nominated this year for her work on “The Flight Attendant” — so I hope you'll join me in cheering her and the rest of the cast and crew on this Sunday. Best of luck!
Podium: Tell me about yourself and how you came to your role at Extracurricular.
Erika Kennair (EK): I’m from New Orleans — we’re the Cubans that didn’t go to Miami. I grew up pretty working class. I loved entertainment but I didn't really know how to be a part of it. On my 21st birthday, I decided I was going to move to L.A. and go to grad school. I got into Loyola Marymount and did night classes while working full-time and doing internships.
I interned in TV research — pulling the ratings at 6:00 am and sliding them under people's doors — then I moved on to TV production and learned about budgeting. This was back when you would collate scripts by hand, so I got to see revisions as they were coming in and really pay attention to what was changing. And that was huge to see.
At Loyola Marymount, I was the nerd who loved workshopping. I loved helping other people with their scripts. I really cared about my classmates’ projects. And the more time I spent in the industry, the more I realized that was the job of producing. When I finished grad school, I got a fellowship in comedy writing – to give you a sense of my age, it was for a “Bernie Mac” spec script. But the more I was writing, the more I became fascinated with the other side of the desk. I remembered how much I loved helping my classmates and growing their projects with them.
That was when I decided to try development. I applied to the junior executive program at NBC and got rejected. Instead they asked me to kick start NBC’s diversity initiatives. It was a perfect opportunity for combining my skill sets. A few months in, I created a writing fellowship called Writers On the Verge. I got to launch a bunch of careers.
Then I became a creative executive at SyFy Channel and started working on spaceship shows like Stargate. By the end of my seven-year tenure at SyFy, I was producing shows that I really loved, like “The Magicians” and “12 Monkeys.” From there, I went to ABC comedy with a focus on international TV and got to laugh and travel the world and go to the Edinburgh Fringe a lot.
After ABC, I went to Berlanti Productions to oversee development for streaming projects. I got to develop and produce The Flight Attendant and an unscripted show called Helter Skelter.
And I was kind of happily going about my life when I got a call saying that Malala was going to start a production company and that she was looking for somebody to run it.
At first I thought I was too silly and weird to work with Malala and that she needed somebody very formal and prestigious. Then I met Malala and learned that she loves “Rick and Morty.” She's got a twisted sense of humor and very similar values and goals to the kinds of stuff I was looking to do. I excitedly accepted the offer — and I'm now here!
Podium: For anyone reading this who is thinking of a career in TV or film production, can you explain what a producer does? What does your everyday look like?
EK: A producer makes things happen. A producer might say, “I love this book. I think this is the right writer to adapt this book and I think that this actress would be wonderful to play this person.” A producer puts all those pieces together and then tries to sell it. Extracurricular has an exclusive deal with AppleTV+, but at other companies, we would take those projects out wide — to HBOMax, Hulu, Amazon, Starz. Once we package those things up and hopefully sell them, then it will be the usual process of developing the scripts, putting together writing staffs, shooting the episodes and then delivering them in post and then doing it again and again and again.
Podium: A lot of people might see TV shows and think: “I want to write on that show or I want to direct or act.” But I don't know if everyone thinks that about being a producer because it’s more behind-the-scenes. Was there a TV show or a movie or a moment when you realized this is what I want to do?
EK: The movie that made me want to get into entertainment was “Ghostbusters” when I was five – but there was no way that a little Cuban girl in New Orleans in the 80s had any idea that producing was a thing.
In grad school though, I attended a speakers series class that helped me understand TV executives and producers. When you’re starting out, you see the writers, directors, actors. It's a little harder to understand the producer role because some producers can be strictly finance. Some producers are more creative and some producers are producers because of a brand that they represent. And the kind of producer I am is a non-writing producer. My goal is to help negotiate between the buyer and the creators and find compromises that still support the vision of the creative while supporting the bottom line of the buyer. A big part of my job is being kind of the middle ground between those two — like a translator and interpreter.
Podium: Were your internships paid? Or were there other opportunities that you had to turn down because they weren’t paid? Did you notice a difference between people trying to make it in Hollywood without family connections or a strong financial support system?
EK: Yes. I could not afford to have unpaid internships. And I think it's great now that the majority of internships are paid in Hollywood.
As a college student, I worked two jobs to save the money that I needed to even get to L.A. Over the holidays and summers, I worked at an oil company where my dad worked. I was definitely a secretary — like I had to wear nylons. But it really helped because knowing how to be an assistant was huge when I got to L.A. And that helped me get jobs because I already knew Excel and how to make documents. Being a secretary at an oil company actually prepared me more for being an assistant in L.A. than working in a production office.
Podium: That’s great advice. A career path isn’t always this straightforward succession of jobs that build upon one another until you find your dream job. But sometimes the jobs that you take just because you need money can end up teaching you the most essential skills — like how to be in a work environment.
EK: A very specific example of that is, when I was a temp in L.A., I was up for two jobs at once. I was interviewing to be an assistant on “The Simpsons,” and it was all I wanted. It was like my dream. At the same time, I was temping in post-production at Searchlight.Ultimately I did not get The Simpsons job because I didn't know anybody. I didn't know when I applied that that was like a Harvard network. So somebody — you know, “somebody somebody's” — got the job. But Searchlight turned out to be an incredible place. And even though I didn't think I wanted to work in feature post-production, I learned so much that applied to development and writing through that work.
I think that sometimes people think that there's a really set path to being in the entertainment industry – that you have to work at an agency, then get on a desk and then get promoted on that desk. I did not follow that path, and I feel like I am a better producer for having a varied experience.
Podium: With the Writers on the Verge program and diversity initiatives, you've really made shepherding new talent a part of your career, making sure that you can help people who don't have the Harvard network find opportunities.
EK: I like new, fresh things. I get excited about shows and movies when I feel like I haven't seen them before — and that comes from people with different life experiences and different perspectives.
It's always been a priority of mine to find those voices. When I came to L.A., I basically was too out of the know to understand that I didn't belong here. It's great to have a very well-connected network and that is helpful. It is a lot harder on your own – but I do think that having that varied experience and that different point of view is going to be really helpful.
Podium: What sort of fresh new things have you seen in Hollywood that have really excited you?
EK: I'm really excited to see that there is an increase in representation behind and in front of the camera. Buyers tend to gravitate towards who and what they know, but I love when I see people taking risks — like “Fleabag” was a complete risk.
Right now, the risks that I adore: “We Are Lady Parts” on Peacock, I think it’s brilliant. “Reservation Dogs” on FX. There is a documentary that came out about a year ago on Netflix called “Speed Cubers” about competitive Rubik's Cubes. Those are some of the things that I've been very excited by.
Podium: So the Emmy’s are this Sunday — how does it feel to be nominated?
EK: It is so exciting. “The Flight Attendant” was a project that I fell in love with right away and was a dream. I adore that team. It was amazing just to make this bright, sparkly, beautiful thing that also is a mystery and also about addiction and trauma. And the fact that it got nominations was the icing on the cake. We have nine Emmy nominations, which is incredible. And everyone who got nominated is just brilliant and amazing. I'm so excited to root for them.
Podium: Do you have any plans for watching the ceremony?
EK: So, funny story. I am a named nominee as a producer in the comedy category. I got my invitation with my plus one and then, because of the Delta variant, it was rescinded. I got a beautiful stationary invitation and then got an email a couple of days later that was like — just kidding! We can only send four people from each show. And so obviously the showrunners and the stars should be the ones going. So I was going to have a pajama party but now HBOMax is going to have a viewing party for the nominees who can’t attend in person. Yes, I had the pretty gown and then I returned the pretty gown — kept the earrings. We'll be going to a very small reception where we all have to be vaccinated and have proof of a negative test. And we'll be watching it on a screen there. And then the nominees – hopefully some winners – will be coming back to celebrate with everyone.
I've been to the Emmys before. It would have been nice to go as a nominee. But that said, this is all a victory lap. So I'll take what I can get.
Podium: And hopefully there will be many more Emmy nominations and wins! Is there anyone other than The Flight Attendant crew and cast that you're rooting for?
EK: I adore Bowen Yang and really, really hope he wins. I think “Lovecraft Country” was canceled too soon and Misha Green is a genius, and I hope that she gets some recognition for that as well.
Podium: What advice do you have for anyone aspiring to a career in TV or film production?
EK: My husband is a TV writer and executive producer. He was in love with “Superman” and looking for an internship at the company that made the show Smallville. He interviewed and they called him — and this was the day after Katrina where it was bad news for everyone in New Orleans [where he’s from, too] — and they offered him an internship on a reality show. My husband said he only applied to work on Smallville and they changed their minds and gave him the job! It was one of those examples of: ask for what you want even if you might get told no. He eventually became a writer on the show, a writer-producer for three years and that launched his career. I think that's an important lesson, especially for women who feel like we can't speak up or we shouldn't speak up.
When you're a student, use that as your VIP pass into conversations with people. When I was at the SyFy, we shot a pilot in New Orleans and one of my old professors asked if she could bring some students to set — and one of them was asking all these super smart questions. She asked if we could do an informational interview and I was really impressed by her. I brought her on as an intern at SyFy and she was incredible. Then she became my assistant for several years. Now she's at AppleTV+ in features and she's doing really well. When I was in grad school, I would write papers on things I cared about so that I could meet people. I was really into kids’ programming so I wrote a paper about “Lizzie McGuire” and interviewed the showrunner. Because I was a student, it was a lot easier. Reach out to your role models while you're in school and you'll make a connection.