From USC to the “A Million Little Things” writer’s room, Nikita T.
Hamilton, PhD. shares her experience and talks us through “how the
sausage gets made” in Hollywood. If you’ve dreamed of a professional
pivot to pursue writing or the entertainment industry, this is for you. Dr. Hamilton shares about her journey, and drops key
inspiration and wisdom along the way. She breaks down the different
roles and levels in Hollywood’s TV writers’ rooms and talks networking,
diversity, and finding your people in the cutthroat industry that is
The following features excerpts from an interview conducted with Dr. Nikita T. Hamilton in October 2021. Listen to the full interview on Apple podcasts or scroll down to listen right here on this page.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was one of many people who went to undergrad and wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I came in pre-med like many people come in pre-med or pre-law, but quickly admitted to myself that I wasn’t interested in being a medical doctor. I’d always been obsessed with TV, but never saw it as a career or really knew that it was a career.
I’m first gen, my family is from Jamaica, and it was very much the thought process of getting a career that is nice and sustainable and brings in a good paycheck. So I never really considered television or film as a career. Getting towards my senior year, I was double-majoring in psychology and communication. And what I really loved about communication at Penn Annenburg was looking at all of the media that I love so much in this analytical, theoretical way.
My senior year, I applied to do an independent study, looking at the evolution of the mammy stereotype for black women. And that had been influenced by an internship I’d done in New York right before senior year. I’d interned with a stylist and, you know, it was hard work, it was unpaid, I was just trying to get the experience. And at one point the stylist was like, “oh my gosh, you’re like the Jennifer Hudson to my Carrie Bradshaw”.
Right. And I was just like, that’s not the compliment you think it is. This character was so quintessentially, like a “magical Negro” / “mammy” figure in the film. And after that summer it was still on my mind – the fact that like this man had seen this film and it had influenced how he saw me. There was a direct correlation between a media representation and how he saw me. And just feeling like, you finally got a black woman on this show and this is how she’s represented. I was so curious as to where this comes from and other movies where black women, black men were made into these figures and I wanted to study it more.
So, when I got back to school, I asked a professor in Annenburg to be my advisor for an independent study. I still didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do until a friend who was doing her PhD was like, Nikita, you have an interest in representations of black women, what about getting a PhD?
I really loved the idea of potentially being a professor and getting tenure and just working until all the grandkids get to go college for free. So, I applied for PhD programs. I got into Penn and USC. And I was like, if I want to be studying something that happens in Hollywood, I should probably be physically in Hollywood.
So I came over here and, I’ll be honest, my PhD experience was not the easiest. I would label it as traumatic at points. And because it was traumatic, it really forced me to say, do you want to do this? Do you want this to be your life? Cause these are the kind of people you’re gonna be interacting with. This ivory tower is small.
And for however well some people are able to write theory and have conversations about the things that affect people of color and women and all of that, when the rubber meets the road, they are not very good at that. They’re great about writing about it. They’re very bad at living it. And I have to live it.
A lot of what had been bouncing around in my head was the fact that at these universities that have programs looking at media, they’re waiting for the product to come out, then they’re analyzing it and telling us that everything’s still bad. Which we already know.
It’s wonderful to have the numbers. I do think that these studios and networks like to see the numbers and that moves them, but it’s not really moving the needle much. I wanted to move the needle. Everything in academia is so reactionary. Even the classes I would take in the film school, in critical studies – I’m criticizing a movie that’s already out! They’re not gonna reshoot the movie because I tell them this character is racist or that, you know, you didn’t look at this character like a full human. It’s done. It’s in the theater.
So I said, what’s something I’m interested in that’s on the other side of this?
And I’d always enjoyed writing. It had been something I felt like I was really good at in school from a very young age. So, I got a new advisor and catered my dissertation towards putting me in front of the kinds of people I wanted to know or meet or have face time with that would help me on the other side of moving from academic into industry.
In my dissertation, I interviewed Black female executives. I was talking to them about how they negotiate for more Black women on screen. And it was really great to get face time with some of these women. Those interviews led to my management later on. I felt justified in utilizing this project, my dissertation, to have these conversations, learn more about the industry, learn what the people who get to make the decisions are thinking and how these Black women were negotiating with that.
I tell people I left academia because I didn’t wanna deal with the racism and the sexism. And they’re like, so you moved to Hollywood? That’s fair! But I get much less frustrated with people who are ignorant to something – cause oftentimes people aren’t necessarily being malicious, it’s ignorance – as opposed to academia where they definitely know better, because they write about it!
Right. Like you’re supposed to be like an expert on this.
Right! And I’m like, you know better. And I’m having to sit here and fight with you? Sometimes [in the entertainment industry] you are repeating yourself or feel like you’re teaching a lesson, but at least I feel like it’s not with people who I think know better and are being malicious. So it does have a different feel to me personally.
And I think that on this side [in Hollywood], people are more motivated to be better, as opposed to academics, because academics are very secure in their tenure status, and in their sense of being right. Every professor thinks they’re right all the time. And I’m sure if I was there, I’d think I was right all the time. It kind of gets reinforced, a lot.
So I decided I like it more on this side, and then it was from there it was just climbing the ladder and trying to break in. I tell anyone asking me about getting into writing or this industry: it’s talent meets luck and timing because you can be the most talented writer, but if no one’s giving you a chance to read your stuff, that doesn’t matter. But, I kind of had this perfect intersection where Penn and USC networks came together to get me that interview for Writer’s Assistant on “Atlanta”.
And that was my first step through into the room. From there it was more assistant jobs and climbing and then finally getting staffed in 2019. Now I’m here and it’s just a matter of continuing to try to climb the writing ladder. That was my journey into this thing, Hollywood.
How would you describe where you are at right now? When you meet somebody on the street and they say, “what do you do?”, how do you describe it?
I just say I’m a TV writer.
I let them kind of mull over what they think that means like, cause they’ll be like, oh, okay. And then some people will say, so you write on a show? Right now? That’s usually the entryway into the conversation because telling them my actual title within writing, most people don’t know what that is. So I just say TV writer, and then it’s like, what show? Sometimes they do know the show you’re talking about. Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t they’re much less impressed!
Right now, being on this show on ABC, that’s so popular, that’s pretty cool. Because people tend to recognize the name, even though there’s a lot of shows with similar names. It’s fun because so many people do really love “A Million Little Things” though, so it’s always nice to have convos about it.
One of the things about the entertainment industry is that it’s kind of shrouded in mystery for a lot of people. You were talking about that a little bit for yourself when you were sharing your story. Can you explain what your job titles are and what they mean?
I’m a story editor. So, that is the step above staff writer. So staff writer is like that entry job into the writing room – you’re the lowest level writer when you’re a staff writer. The step above me is an executive story editor. So that makes up the three lower level writing positions. The middle level is co-producer, producer, supervising producer, and then your upper level writers are co-executive producers, executive producers, showrunners.
So the co-producer level is still considered part of the writing team?
There are different kinds of producers. You have writing producers and you have non-writing producers. So there’s some people who don’t write, but they’re producers. And you know, we just kind of call them non-writing producers, but they’re more on the side of financing and development and they’re like execs.
But there are some of them who are really good at picking out writers and projects that they’re going to help sell to networks and studios. So you have some people who it’s like, that’s what they do, they’re producers. They’re very good at hearing a pitch on a project and being like, oh yeah, that’s a show we can sell to HBO or we can sell to ABC and I’m gonna help you with developing this into the best show possible, but they don’t write.
But writers, on our ladder, there is a “producer” level, and that just means we’re able to produce our episode of TV. We’re able to sit through the prep meetings, costume meetings, concept meetings, like all these things and literally help produce the episode, which is a little different.So they have the same title, but they mean different things.
This is stuff I didn’t understand until I was in it, which was also interesting for me to see as an academic, because I’d been looking at everything and I used to put weight on writers, I realized was so wrong, especially for TV, because especially if you’re lower level, you’ll get rewritten sometimes. Your name is on the script, but it doesn’t mean every word on the page is yours. It doesn’t mean every idea that happened was yours. And I used to be like, I can’t believe so-and-so wrote this thing. And now I know, as a viewer, you don’t know what position they are in. You don’t know what kind of power they had. You don’t know who the showrunner was. There’s all these other aspects of it that I think, because a lot of academics aren’t there, they don’t understand how the industry actually works.
Thank you for talking through the different roles. I think it’s really helpful for people to hear somebody who knows the industry talk about it because otherwise it seems like, I guess some people just write things and then make those things.
It’ll be five years come October that I’ve been working in this industry and I still catch myself cause sometimes people will be like, oh, are you on this show to write the Black character? And I’m like, what? I can understand how you think that because you don’t know how this job works. But it’s like, no, I get to write the whole script. I get to do dialogue for all the characters. They don’t just bring me in for the Black ones. This is how writers’ rooms work.
Now that you’ve been involved in different roles in the industry, what is compelling to you right now about being a story editor and being in the room?
Well one, I just like crafting story and characters and new characters. I was always making up stories and just keeping them to myself as a kid. But I didn’t have a skill to know how to end stories. Anytime I find something I wrote, it’ll get to the middle and I just didn’t know how to end anything so I’ll be like, “oh, they’re in a spaceship..what’s gonna happen? Oh, we’re done. You finish it.” So, I love being able to craft something that feels satisfying, beginning, middle, and end.
I also love the opportunity to be able to have conversations or storylines that people don’t know about, or that the average American doesn’t experience, because I do feel like TV is an opportunity to teach and inform, in a way that is entertaining and satisfying.
So I love when I have the opportunity to make those kinds of stories and I love comedy. I love making people laugh. Having some really good jokes in a script makes me really happy.
I love the job as a whole. I get to sit in a room and discuss people who aren’t real. There are times where I’m like, y’all need to calm down because these people aren’t real. These people aren’t real, but we’ll argue about them like they are, you know. It’s just a fun job that I feel very blessed to have. I know so many people want these jobs and I get to do it and see how the sausage is made and be a part of that on different levels.
I love when I get sent off with the script and just get to like craft something and infuse it with me. When you’re on a show, you definitely have to stay within the realm of what’s being created, but it is fun to craft story, even within whatever parameters of the show that you’re on.
And you’ve made some of your own work as well. How is that a different process?
With my own stuff, it is different, but some of the building blocks are still the same. My short film “Call Out Black”, was made back in 2018. At the time my friend Paige and I were both assistants and I said we should create our own projects that can exemplify that we have the skills that we’re saying we have. I’m a writer, you are an exec slash producer. If we do something that is an example of that, then we have that. We were creating a sample of work to show people.
This was a script where I was holding my own, getting notes, communicating with my production team, my director, and filming it, scouting locations, having all these conversations, I got to see the process from start to finish, because I was an executive producer on this project in a way that I never had been before. We’re talking a difference between a budget of like $4,000 on this versus a budget of like 2 to 3 million an episode on television productions. These are very different things. But still, getting a taste of what that looks like and then going and sitting down for the editing process and making some of these decisions, I really liked.
I felt a lot of love in completing that project, in getting it done and the support for it.
Then, finishing the project, applying to festivals, and getting into a festival here was really cool. Getting to go see it on a movie theater screen. I don’t think I ever wanna see my face that big again, so it might be better on a TV than a movie screen.
And what’s kind of funny is that this thing is a sample of our work, and it ended up being on Fox Soul this year. It got picked to be on Fox Soul Screening Room. So, this thing keeps returning, you know, or sadly keeps being relevant, because of the subject matter.
But Paige and I were talking and I was like, we made this thing in 2018 to show that we could make something and that we knew what we were doing. And that our job titles were deserved. And it’s still getting love today, years later, which is really cool.
So yeah, it does feel different when it’s yours and you get to imbue it with even more of yourself. I haven’t had my own show yet. That’s coming.
Sometime this decade.
What is something you would recommend for people who are looking to pursue writing or producing?
I would say try making your own project. It doesn’t need to be something super expensive. My friend from high school and I recently made a web series. We were doing six episodes, and my suggestion was, let’s do two each on our own. So each of us got two solo episodes and then we did two together. He’s pursuing writing and I said this shows that you can write on your own, you can write in a team, and that we’re gonna create these things.
And it’s just straightforward comedy. It’s about two best friends who are very different, but have some similar annoyances with the world. We filmed everything in two or three days, with friends of his playing some of the different roles. So it’s just pulling from what you got and it doesn’t have to be super expensive. The main cost was me flying to Seattle because I was like, oh, you have people there. If I try to do it in LA, it’ll be harder.
He’s great at editing and directing. And through that process he was nice enough to show me how he creates shot lists. So that was the first time I got to practice creating a shot list – which is the kind of a thing a director would do. I got to try, because I do want to try my hand at directing at some point. So I think there are great learning opportunities. I got to write, I got to act, and I got to produce. Then he put it up on his YouTube and I put it just up on my IG.
Getting people’s eyes on it in that way is great. Then you have something to point people to when you’re trying to get representation when you’re trying to have these conversations, cause they’re gonna ask, do you have a script?
That’s another thing. Do you have a sample? What have you done? And this way you can say, “oh, I can send you the link”, or, “it’s on my website”. It just makes you seem more prepared and really you are more prepared because you have something to talk about and to show them. I do run into people where they’ll tell me they want to get into writing and I’m like, cool, what have you written? And silence. So you’re a writer who’s not written anything – that doesn’t really help you. You are gonna wanna work on that sample or samples.
When the time comes, you need to have it. It’s luck meets preparation. The preparation part is on you. So when the luck comes, you’re just going through the door.
A common theme I’ve heard in these interviews is definitely, if you wanna do the thing, you have to start doing the thing.
Yeah. And I also get being in your own head, because this isn’t anything we got taught in grad school. I wasn’t in grad school for screenwriting, right? And so I think also with that first draft, it’s so easy to get in your own way, cause you’re like, oh, this is gonna be terrible. But, I think what helped me going through this is the benefit of us having gone through grad school.
Think about how many times you’ve had to rewrite a chapter. Right? The idea of having to rewrite something does not offend me. At all. It doesn’t bother me. My dissertation, those chapters, there must have been five to 10 different versions of every single chapter.
So when people get stuck, I say: the first draft is always bad. You just need to write it.
And academic critique can be…
It can be so harsh! You could have your advisor like what theory even is this? What are you even trying to say?
So, I’m not precious with my stuff. And I think that’s the benefit of having been a PhD student, I think at a certain point it gets really hard to hurt our feelings with our writing. When someone’s like, oh, I might like to rewrite this line, I’m like, “okay, fine”.
Or like the first time I got a script back and I think we had to do three drafts or something. And the person I was co-writing with was like, I can’t believe we have to do this many drafts. I was like, we only have to do three? Great.
I worked on the same document for over a year. The idea of working on the same script for three weeks… I was like, fantastic! It’s done. The thing is done. Great.
Granted, you’re gonna have to do some changes probably throughout when you’re actually producing it. There’s gonna be times where, talking to the actors or talking to the directors, they’re like, can we tweak this or do that? So you might have to do some edits then, but it’s done. In less than two months you are all done with this script. It is written. It is produced. It has been shot. It is in editing. It is not the dissertation you’ve been working on for a year and a half to two years of your life.
So I think that we’re kind of built for being okay with critique.
The only time that I would really feel pushback is if someone’s changing the concept itself that’s being written about and I’d be like, okay, I’m fine with us using different language, but I don’t want us to lose the meaning behind this thing. Or I said it this way, because this character is such-and-such culturally or racially. Therefore, this is how; that’s the time that it’s like, let’s have a conversation about it.
But for the most part, you can’t hurt my feelings. I did a PhD.
Yeah, you were also alluding to this, but the passage of time gets a little warped. I spent eight years getting a PhD. So, when people say, starting a new business or a new creative practice is gonna take, you know, months or even a year I feel like… that time is gonna pass anyway.
No matter what you do, that time’s gonna go! So what do you wanna do with it? Do you wanna be doing the thing you wanna pursue or not? Cause no matter what 2025 is gonna show up. Do you want it to show up with you closer to what you wanted to do or not?
I felt behind coming into this industry. I was 29 when I got that assistant job, the first one, and I was like, oh my gosh, I’m so behind. Other people come here at 22 and they know what they wanna do, but I’ve been doing a PhD this whole time. Thankfully I moved from assistant to writer relatively quickly. It took me two and a half years to get staffed. And even in my head, I was like, this is going so slowly.
But in the grand scheme of things, your dissertation took up time. Your degree took up time. I took six years to finish the PhD, and for me that was quick. In the grand scheme of things, some things are gonna take a little bit more time and that’s okay.
Your age shouldn’t be the thing that you’re ruminating on right now. It should be, how are you building your skills? How are you doing this thing? And still today I have to sometimes have those conversations with myself where I’m like, your career is going at the pace your career is supposed to go at.
We’re in a society that is so age and time obsessed. It’s difficult. When you’re seeing people who got a job at 18 or 19, and you’re made to feel like you’re behind the ball. But that’s just not the truth of the matter. And even, when you’re in the academy, there’s this death of expertise happening to deal with, where anyone’s commenting on anything on social media. And you’re like, did I just spend 7, 8, 9 a decade becoming an expert in this field, and there’s a 25 year old who just has feelings on Instagram, what am I doing? It takes kind of having to remind yourself of the importance of that training, the meaning behind it, and that your journey is your journey.
You definitely have people who come into writing and it’s like, they had a great short film that went to Sundance and now they’re an EP at like 27. That’s gonna happen. And it’s just like, you have to embrace that your journey is your journey. Your path is your path. And because of how you came into it, no one can write the way you can.
Yes! What would you say is a rose and a thorn of being in the entertainment industry for you?
A rose and a thorn? Well, I think one of the roses right now is the acknowledgement that writers’ rooms, casts, and behind the scenes talent need to be more diverse than they have been.
But diversity is not equity, and that’s a thorn.
You might get brought into the room. You might get brought into the set, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being listened to in a way that is impactful.
Every place is different. Every showrunner is different. But I think sometimes, that’s the thing that I’ll be like, oh my gosh, I’m so glad I’m here. And then okay, wait, are they actually going to listen to me? Are they actually gonna hear what I’m saying? Are they actually gonna implement these things? So I think that’s kind of a rose/thorn.
I think some people grapple with the question of “why did they bring me here?” Because I am the diversity or because of my talent? That’s a thing that I think a lot of people of color, a lot of people in the LGBTQIA community, maybe even within the disabled community, ask themselves. Am I here because you think I’m talented or am I here because I’m checking this box?Sometimes I feel like it doesn’t matter. If that’s why they brought you here, use it the way you wanna use it.
Those are things that stand out to me, I think as a Black woman that I think about a lot, especially if I’m getting onto a new show.
What does a typical day look like for you as a television writer?
My day looks like, well now, we’re all on zoom over here; but, the typical day is coming into work, you’d be coming into a conference room and sitting around a table, all of the writers and you’re talking about, it depends on where you are in the season. You might be talking about the season as a whole, looking at it from 30,000 feet, or you’re talking about individual episodes and what’s happening.
The writers are all together until it’s time to send off a writer or writers to work on the episode more closely.
What I always tell people is we get to the point in the room where anyone could write an episode. We all have the same knowledge of this episode. But then it’s a matter of who the showrunner is like, oh, these people are writing this episode, so they’re gonna go off and they’re gonna work on the story area.
Then they go write a general look at part of the episode in paragraph form. That would go to the studio and network where they would get notes, and then they go work on the next part. The outline all happens, review happens again, then they go write the script. That’s how that works. But the rest of us are all still together talking about the next episode and the next episode and the next episode. So we are pretty much all together until it’s time to go off and work on whatever you’ve been assigned. So it’s never just that these people come into a room, get given episodes, and just leave each other. We definitely would not have a cohesive story.
It’s a lot of us sitting around together and talking. That’s another thing I tell people who are interested in writing and think I get to spend all the time by myself. I spend more time with my coworkers than most people I know in other jobs. I’m always with people until I’m on script. Basically I’m always with people.
Do you have any general advice that you’d like to give to somebody who wants to pursue writing for TV? And any particular advice for people of color or other people who’ve been typically excluded from those spaces?
My advice would be, write what you’re passionate about for your sample. I think a lot of times people look for what’s cool, or the thing that’s in right now. Should I be working on sci-fi? Should I be working on this kind of story?
I don’t think you should be concerned about what’s popular right now in the industry. I think you should be concerned with writing the thing that you are most passionate about. That’s the advice I was given on Atlanta. Write what you care about, because that’s going to best exemplify your voice and your passion for what you do. So even if you’re like, oh, this is the most basic story, it’s the most basic story written by you in a way that no one else can write because you’re you.
And then I think for my Black, Indigenous, people of color folk: you’re gonna run into ignorance. You might run into straight up racism. But you run into that anywhere in the world, so why not get paid better? Just kidding. I would say that you should find your tribe of people for support. I feel really blessed to have other Black women writers, who I know I can talk to and ask for advice. And then also outside of just finding other people of color, if you find someone, regardless of race, who supports you and your work and wants to be a mentor, keep in touch with that person.I have a mentor, who I was her assistant and she has been invaluable to me with different things.
I think also make sure that there’s someone who has the job you want. I’m a big advocate of having people who are at all different levels in your circle. I know some people who are like, I only want a mentor who’s the CEO. And I’m like, why can’t you have the mentor who’s also the manager? Who’s above you, still above you, but they’re able to kind of tell you what’s going on and maybe you don’t consider the manager, the mentor, they’re just like a friend or a colleague or whatever. But I think that you should have different people at different levels around you. So you can talk to people who are on the track to what you want.
I’ve found that invaluable. I want to be a showrunner, so having a mentor who is a showrunner has been really great for me because there’ll be times where I’m like, how do I handle X? Or, why is my boss doing Y? And I feel like I’ve gotten kind of invaluable advice from all of those people and from that support system that I’ve been able to build. So if you can start doing that and even from the start. Even if you’re in the room, find a writing group of people who you get that from.
I’m in a writer’s group here. It’s all Black women. I found it so good for my soul to have these other women. And we’re not all even TV writers. Some of them are working on novels. Some of them are working on kids books, some of them are working on graphic novels. It’s all different. But it’s all writing and we’re all able to support each other in our endeavors. And when we are critiquing each other’s work, we are getting to see different perspectives.
I think it might have been Issa Rae who was like, yeah, you need to find the people who are still on your level and you all come up together. I very much believe in that, but you still need to have those mentors who are upper level and who you can talk to. So I think it’s just spreading your networking to give you a support system, but also informing you on what you’re reaching for and where you’re trying to get to.
That’s great advice across fields, especially for people that are trying to career pivot. I would not have finished my PhD until at the last moment I found somebody who was interested in investing in me and stuck around for a little bit. So I believe mentorship is really transformative.
Thank you so much. This has been so informative. Where can people find you if they want to connect on social media or see some of your projects?
It’s @nikitathamilton on both Instagram and Twitter. My website is www.nikitahamilton.com and on there you can find, “Call Out Black”, my web series I did with my friend Raul, called “Best Friends” and some stand up stuff.
Dr. Nikita T Hamilton defended her doctoral dissertation, “Disturbin’ the Peace: Television Disruption and the Roles of Black Women” at the University of Southern California in 2017. Nikita is a former Annenberg Fellow, Page Fellow, Compass Fellow, and Cup Fellow, whose research focused on representations of Black women in television, cultural studies and gender. Nikita lives in Los Angeles where she writes, acts performs standup and participates in conversations, examining gender and race and entertainment. She’s worked as a Writer’s Assistant for FX networks, ABC studios and Marvel television, and held the position of Showrunner’s Assistant for Universal Television. She was a Staff Writer on season four of Freeform’s The Bold Type, and is currently a story editor on ABC’s A Million Little Things.
Check out the full conversation at The Millennial PhD Podcast.