We’re At Home With Showrunner Alena Smith

Alena Smith sat down with The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk in the latest episode of “At Home With The Creative Coalition,” a podcast featuring unplugged and uncensored conversations with today’s biggest stars. In the newest episode, Smith opens up about what made writing on The Affair so enjoyable for her, how she decided to take on a challenging period piece about Emily Dickinson, her unlikely casting of Wiz Khalifa, and much more. Highlights below.

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Highlights from “At Home With The Creative Coalition” featuring Alena Smith —

On her favorite part of writing The Affair:
“I guess the first thing I want to say is that the writing and acting shines. And again I want to root that back in our theater training… The Affair to me transcends being a soap opera or family drama or murder mystery because it’s about ideas. The fundamental setup of The Affair is that nobody sees things the same way and nobody’s narrative is totally reliable. And that is portrayed as each episode is told from different and divergent perspectives of people who ostensibly shared the same experience. So, there’s an existential level to the writing, there’s an ontological level to the writing, and I loved that. And that was the most exciting part of it for me, as well as writing for these great actors.”

On how she decided to write a period piece about Emily Dickinson:
“So, I have always loved Emily Dickinson. I started reading her poems in high school and right when I graduated from college I read a biography of her, and I really related to the person that I saw in that biography, particularly in her younger years. Her extremely close, but sometimes confining, relationship with her family, her ability to see the infinite in the small, and I think also I was taken with the extreme ironies in her life. The fact that, you know, she was never published while she lived, and yet her legacy has been so enormous. And the fact that she writes about the deepest experiences of the human condition but her actual day to day life was so limited: she basically never left her little house and town. And, for whatever reason, she kind of entered this pantheon for me of ‘weirdo artist that I was interested in.’ So, I guess it was, like, 10 years later, I found myself in L.A. thinking like ‘What can I make a show about that I’ll never get bored of.’ And, somehow, I got this idea that I wanted to write about Emily Dickinson, and that I wanted to use Emily Dickinson’s story as a way of holding a sort of unexpected, uncanny mirror up to the 21st century. So, in a way, I was using Emily Dickinson as an avatar for myself. I was using her coming of age story as a way of telling my own coming of age story.”

On how Wiz Khalifa ended up playing Death in “Dickinson”:
“Well, it really felt like kismet in a lot of ways. We have this character who is Death, inspired by Emily’s poem, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me,’ in which, the speaker of that poem, Death comes and picks her up in a carriage and rides around with her. And I wanted to make that a literal experience that we would get to have in the show. And so, when Death comes to pick up Emily, he’s played by Wiz Khalifa in a top hat and tails. And when I was putting together a mood board of what I saw for this character, I put a picture of Wiz Khalifa on the mood board. And then one of our producers said ‘You know, I actually know his manager, we could probably just get the script to him.’ And we sent him the script, and pretty much immediately he said ‘I want to do it.’ And I think it’s because he understood the character. Like, he understood the sly subversion we were going for. He understood the look, the relationship he was meant to have with Emily, which is sort of half-flirtatious, half-mentor, half-writing instructor, half-therapist. He’s really her guide, in many ways, and I needed someone to step into this role who could be larger than life and who could kind of, like, explode the fourth wall of the show, in a way, and we were so lucky to get Wiz.”

On the decision to cast Ziwe Fumudoh as Sojourner Truth:
“So, Sojourner Truth came about because Ziwe, who now has her own talk show on Showtime– in March 2020, when I was hiring writers for season 3 writers’ room, I knew Ziwe from Twitter, I knew her as a comedian, I thought she was hilarious. I DM’d her on Twitter, and said ‘Do you want to be in the Dickinson writers’ room.’ She said yes. At that point, we thought that it could be maybe in person, in L.A. No! Absolutely not, turned out to be over Zoom in a pandemic. As we were writing it over Zoom, Ziwe was posting this show on Instagram called “Baited”… it was basically, like, avant-garde performance art about race and identity and gender and sexuality in the context of the Black Lives Matter uprising and the pandemic. And she was handling it all with such grace and humor and just, like, razor-sharp grasp of the culture and where we were at. So, she was in our writers’ room at the same time that she was doing this, and we were like, ‘We have to write a part for Ziwe.’ We decided to cast her as one of our historical cameos and we made her Sojourner Truth, and we didn’t realize at that time that Ziwe would turn out to be one of our biggest celebrity guest stars because, within a year, she would have her own show on Showtime and, when she showed up on set, we were all completely star struck by her.”


More about “At Home With The Creative Coalition”
Hosted by The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk, “At Home With The Creative Coalition” brings listeners intimate portraits, key moments of discovery, and “art and soul” conversations with iconic entertainment industry personalities from the big screen to the boardroom, from L.A. to D.C. Listen now at http://thecreativecoalition.org/podcast.

Upcoming guests include Justin Bartha (“The Hangover,” “National Treasure”), Kerry Ehrin (“The Morning Show”), Evan Handler (“And Just Like That…,” “Californication”), New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Isaacs (“Compromising Positions”), International Bestselling Author Patrick McGinnis (“The 10% Entrepreneur,” “Fear of Missing Out”), Ken Olin (“This is Us,” “Thirtysomething”), Joe Pantoliano (“The Sopranos,” “The Matrix”), Yolonda Ross (“The Chi”), Reid Scott (“Echo”).

Previous guests include Jason Alexander (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Shiri Appleby (“UnREAL”), David Alan Basche (“The Exes”), Asante Blackk (“This Is Us”), Carly Chaikin (“Mr. Robot”), Wilson Cruz (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Alan Cumming (“Schmigadoon!,” “The Good Wife”), Ethan Cutkosky (“Shameless”), The Creative Coalition President and actor Tim Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Lea DeLaria (“Orange Is the New Black”), Griffin Dunne (“This Is Us”), Michael Fishman (“Roseanne,” “The Conners”), Jim Gaffigan (“The Jim Gaffigan Show”), Willie Garson (“And Just Like That…”), Judy Gold (“The Other F Word”), Nicholas Gonzalez (“The Good Doctor”), Clark Gregg (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”), Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Middle”), Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Jon Huertas (“This Is Us”), Jason Isaacs (“Star Trek: Discovery,” “Harry Potter”), Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Chad Lowe (“Supergirl”), Aasif Mandvi (“Evil”), Rachel Mason (“Circus of Books”), Marlee Matlin (“CODA”), AnnaLynne McCord (“Let’s Get Physical”), Eric McCormack (“Will and Grace”), Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Katherine McNamara (“Shadowhunters”), Marta Milans (“Shazam!”), Rob Morrow (“Billions”), Kathy Najimy (“Younger”), Haley Joel Osment (“Future Man,” “Entourage”), Bill Prady (“The Big Bang Theory”), Jessica Queller (“Supergirl”), Anthony Rapp (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Mona Scott-Young (“Love & Hip Hop”), Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), Krista Vernoff (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Matt Walsh (“Veep”), Alfre Woodard (“Clemency,” “Luke Cage”), Constance Zimmer (“Good Trouble”), and David Zucker (“Airplane!,” “Scary Movie”). 

More about The Creative Coalition
The Creative Coalition is the premier nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) social and public advocacy organization of the arts and entertainment community. Founded in 1989 by prominent members of the creative community, The Creative Coalition is dedicated to educating, mobilizing, and activating its members on issues of public importance. Actor Tim Daly serves as the organization’s President. The Creative Coalition also creates award-winning public service campaigns including #RightToBearArts to promote the efficacy of the arts. For more information, visit https://thecreativecoalition.org.