How Kenya Barris assembled an all-star cast for his rom-com ‘You People’
Kenya Barris is no stranger to starry projects. The writer-producer, 49, has built an impressive resume on TV, from developing America’s Next Top Model to launching Black-ish and its entire universe of connected spinoffs. But now, the Los Angeles native is making his film directorial debut, directing a stacked cast in the Netflix comedy You People.
Barris co-wrote the script with Jonah Hill, who stars as an unhappy finance bro and aspiring podcaster named Ezra. After an awkward meet-cute in the back of a Mini Cooper, Ezra (a white Jewish man) strikes up a relationship with Lauren London’s Amira (a Black woman). The two quickly fall for each other, but as they start to plan a wedding, they find themselves caught between their awkward parents — especially Ezra’s overbearing mother (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Amira’s intimidating father (Eddie Murphy).
With the film hitting Netflix today, EW caught up with Barris to talk about crafting a “love letter to the culture” and directing legends like Murphy and Louis-Dreyfus.
Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill in Kenya Barris’ Netflix comedy ‘You People’
| Credit: Parrish Lewis/Netflix
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis of this film? I read that it came out of conversations with Jonah Hill. Is that right?
KENYA BARRIS: You know, we kind of fanboyed out with each other. I was a huge fan of his for forever. But we started really talking because I was such a huge admirer of Mid90s. I thought he murdered it. I called him, and I was like, “Dude, you did something special. It resonated with me.”
So, we kept in touch. He would talk about black-ish and the stuff that I had done, and we were like, “Let’s get together. Let’s just talk and see if there’s something we can come up with. Let’s spend like 30 or 40 minutes talking.” And then that turned into a three-hour-plus conversation.
We started realizing we’re both L.A. kids. He was in a relationship with someone from another culture, and we had a conversation about how, in that situation, it’s not usually the [couple] that are the problem. It’s the people around them. We started talking about Jews and Blacks and how it’s an oppression Olympics, like, who has it worse? So from there, we started getting into our love of L.A., and we decided we really wanted to write a love letter to the culture.
What were some of the specifics you wanted to highlight in that love letter?
One of them is that L.A. is a really specific place. For instance, Lauren [London] and I grew up in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Jonah was from L.A., but he grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. But because of how L.A. is set up, a lot of times you’ll end up going to school in a really diverse situation. That was something that felt really specific to L.A.
L.A. has so many interesting things. We started saggy pants and khakis and Chucks, NWA. At the same time, you have skater chic and Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator coming up. It’s this mixture of everything, where the hood is 10 minutes from Hollywood. It’s a really interesting geographic setup for the city, and those are the things I think we wanted to show.
The entire cast is super fun, but I specifically want to ask about Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Eddie Murphy. What the process of getting them on board?
It was a dream. I was like, “This is not supposed to happen.”[[Laughs]Them responding to the material was insane. I was like, “Hold on, what?” These were our first choices, but we never in a million years would’ve thought that was possible. And you know, I hand it to Netflix because they wrote checks, and they put us in a position to win.
At that point, that’s when it started being a little bit weird for me, because when you’re put in a position to win, if you don’t win, then you’re a jerk. It’s like walking on to the Showtime Lakers or the ’91 Bulls. That’s a hard situation to walk into for a first-time filmmaker. But I’m lucky because I’ve been running shows for a huge portion of my career, so I think I got a lot of the nerves out, but they were still there.
Obviously, you’ve had a long career in television, but this is your feature directorial debut. Did anything surprise you about taking on that role?
Absolutely. When you get actors of that caliber, it’s the cool kids’ table, right? I think the difference between TV actors and people doing a movie is that TV actors are, like, going to the rock quarry. They know they’re clocking in, and they might be doing this for the next five, 10 years of their life. When film actors come in, they’re like, “We’re here for a month or two, max, and we’re movie stars.”[[Laughs]The talent management portion is something that I never had to really deal with. I’m glad I was able to experience it and get through it, but it was also something I wasn’t quite prepared for.
Would you say that was the biggest difference, between making TV shows and making this movie?
Yeah. With a movie, people are going to be in and out. They want to know how big their trailer’s going to be, and they want to do this or they want to do that. No one was a dick, but there’s a lot of managing personalities. That’s something that goes along with being a film director that I was not quite ready for. I had to sort of learn on the job.
What was your most memorable day on set with this cast?
Early on, we shot the scene where they’re picking the food. I walked in, and everyone was talking. They were enjoying each other, and they were bonding, but I needed to get to the scene, and no one was really listening to me.[[Laughs]I have a sort of soft, semi-nasally voice, and I lost it. I was like, “Guys, I’m not going to be the substitute teacher.” They all looked at me, and everyone was quiet, and then Eddie just laughed, like, “Oh, the substitute teacher! I get it.” At that moment, I could tell they really turned, and they were like: We’re going to help him get through this.
Is there something you feel you learned making this film?
I think I just learned patience. A lot of stuff I was lucky to have gotten from show-running. But I think I learned patience. I learned what it meant to know that you might want things to happen, but you have to figure out a way around it because you have a certain set-up or money or things like that. But in general, it’s just a much lengthier process. Television moves at such a different place. I don’t know that I was completely ready for it. But I learned, and I’m really happy with what we got to.
I also love that we got to put this movie out at a time when it’s so prescient in the conversation right now. There’s oppression in the world, and I hope it maybe calms some nerves and makes people think and talk and have different conversations than they might’ve had before the movie.
What kind of conversations do you hope people have?
In particularly about the Jewish-Black contention, or whatever you want to call it. The biggest thought I have — which I have honestly believed forever — is that we’re better together. I really hope people respond to that.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.