Karen Pittman on the Wonders and Responsibilities of Joining 'And Just Like That'
by Hilton Dresden
04 February 2022
Karen Pittman beams through a Zoom screen, cheers-ing me with a coffee mug that says, "It’s official, you’re awesome," on it below a painted faux lipstick smudge. Over the course of our conversation, Pittman, who plays Dr. Nya Wallace on the Sex and the City reboot series, And Just Like That, reads more playful and bubbly than her character, a college professor and community organizer struggling to conceive a child. The two of us are immediately giggling about the lotus-like chandelier in her background, which seems to be growing out of her head, before she remarks on some of my "yummy" recent Instagram posts.
Pittman is a celebrated stage and screen actress, and has worked on and off Broadway for years, as well as in a steady string of supporting television roles, including on FX’s The Americans, Netflix’s Luke Cage and, perhaps most notably until now, as Mia Jordan on Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s Apple TV drama The Morning Show. As Jordan, Pittman plays a harried television producer, one of only a few people of color in the largely white, extremely chaotic world of a fictional morning news program. The Morning Show’s first season nabbed eight Emmy nominations and one win, and if the Screen Actors’ Guild nominations are any indication, season two could be poised to make an equally strong showing.
If The Morning Show is what first brought Pittman to our attention, it’s And Just Like That that cemented her status as television royalty. In her first scene, the one and only Miranda Hobbes (portrayed to Emmy glory by Cynthia Nixon) has just arrived for her first day of class to pursue a Master’s in Human Rights. Seeing Pittman’s character headed to sit in the professor’s chair, Hobbes blurts out something like, "Don’t sit there, that’s for the professor." When Wallace calmly explains she is the professor, Hobbes defends herself, saying she was confused by Wallace’s hair, having seen a photo with a different haircut online. What ensues is one the cringiest monologues ever committed to film and, as Pittman was quick to assert, awkward comedy gold.
From there, the relationship between Wallace and Hobbes first nosedives as Nixon's character continues to humiliate herself, but then slowly blossoms into a genuine friendship between the two women. Pittman plays Wallace as poised, no-nonsense and shrewd, but, as the series progresses, reveals a softer, more sensual side and becomes part of one of only a handful of sex scenes we’ve seen so far in the series, notable because of its prequel’s title.
I was captivated my Pittman’s radiant kindness and thoughtfulness. She graciously began by asking for my pronouns, and when I explained I was open to any at the moment, and apologized for the potential confusion that might cause, she responded, "We are living in the age where: I get to decide who I am and you need to respect that. Trust me, I appreciate that." As someone who worked as a background actor in one scene of the series (keep your eyes peeled for a pink beret in episode eight), I was eager to talk shop about the filming process and the experience of joining such an iconic franchise.
Our chat ranged from her relationship to the original Sex and the City and its overwhelming whiteness, how she navigated the responsibility of representing so many types of women historically erased by the show, filming that earth-shattering opening scene with Miranda and much more.
PAPER: I wanted to start by going back chronologically to how you joined And Just Like That. Were you a fan of the original series?
Karen Pittman: Oh, I was! For sure, I was. I think like everybody, I became enthralled with New York City life, and sisterhood, and womanhood, through these four incredible characters. And also, with the city of New York. It just made me want to be a New Yorker. With the Manolo Blahniks on cobblestones. It was very romantic and whimsical, but also very groundbreaking. They were doing something, and telling stories about how people really lived here. All of my friends and I would get together, and it was common ground for us, to sit down and watch a fun story that was enchanting, right? I’d actually met the executive producers on the show, John Melfi and Michael Patrick King, years ago when we did a pilot for Hulu, with... do you know Bridget Everett?
The comedian, yeah! She’s great.
Fantastic. So we did this really irreverent pilot. Really awesome comedy, where she was at the center of it, because she’s a superstar. And that pilot didn’t move forward, but I remember having such a great time with Michael and John, and John... I remember him coming to see a play I did. He’s just always been really supportive. So when I auditioned for And Just Like That, I remember seeing him on the Zoom, because you were still Zooming back then, and I saw him and Michael Patrick King and it felt like, "Oh, there go my brothers. It’s time to see if we can find a good playground to play on." And it happened to be this story that I could tell with them, and I feel so grateful to do it.
Did you identify with one of the four women back when you were a viewer?
I mean, I think the answer is all of them, at some point. At some point I was all of those women, which is what I think made it so iconic but so fundamentally female. Those characters lived in our social and cultural psyche, because they were such strong archetypes. And newly created archetypes. That we felt like we could identify with as we came into the 21st century. If we were going to be a woman of the world, we were going to be one of those women, running around New York City living her best life. But I definitely was one of those audience members that was like, "It would be great to see some women of color in that world. It would be really enlightening. And I’ve thought more about it as my career has gained steam because there are so many women who have come out to me and said, "Your representation really matters. You doing the thing that you do really matters to me, and it’s really important for me to see that." I haven’t completely stepped into the shoes of someone who can really inhabit that with a great deal of dexterity. But I definitely have felt like, "Oh, I see why it’s important." And I see why it was important for And Just Like That to be different. To be the next chapter of Sex And The City. Why it was important for them to make it diverse, and inclusive, like they have.
Because the original show, as great as it was, certainly was very white, and had its blind spots in terms of gender identities, and all of that... I think it’s safe to say that the reboot has taken large steps to correct those wrongs of the past, but I’m curious to hear more about your take on how AJLT has tackled that. Also, in keeping with the chronology, when you first received that script and read about Nya’s scenes, I’m curious about your first impressions, and if you were immediately drawn to this character, and what was on the page versus what you brought to this woman through your preparations.
Well, first of all, I did not get the entire script. They were super secretive. Super duper. And then all throughout the filming, when we would get scripts for it, they would be on a highly secure... FBI, CIA version of script-reading documents. But I only got the scene, and the names were changed.
Which scene was that?
It was that very first scene, where Nya walks in with braids. Miranda very cautiously [says]: "Hey, don’t, that’s where the professor sits." She’s like, I am the professor."
Oh my god, that scene.
[Laughs] That was the very first one. And like many women of color, especially women from my tribe, who saw that scene, they’d lived it. So it wasn’t very hard for me to understand the arc of what that moment might look like, and what that relationship might look like. Because, you know, I’m sure this has happened to you, you meet someone who’s slightly awkward, and weird around you, because they’re trying to figure out how to conjugate what you are, and how to approach it in a respectful manner. And they may just fuck it up. But you end up actually becoming friends with that person, and you endear yourself to them and they endear themselves to you. That’s sort of the way some relationships begin.
When I encountered that audition, I thought, "I totally understand this moment. These women are going to be friends. And by the way, I know this is Cynthia Nixon’s character." [Laughs] I know this isn’t Carrie Bradshaw, and I’m pretty sure it’s not Charlotte! They record your auditions and Cynthia saw mine and she said, "Oh, we have to have Karen, I love her work onstage. Can we really try to go for her?" I really didn’t think I got the audition. I thought, "Well, I tried. I really, really tried. And I love those guys, and I’ll have my chance. We’ve worked together before, and we’ll work together again. I know it." Which is how I approach auditions. If I don’t get the job, it’s not my time. Not my opportunity. So then they called me back and said, "No, listen, we’d really, really love to have you." "Oh, good! I need a comedy, after having done The Morning Show for eight, nine months." I need comedy. So that’s how I popped in there.
Yeah, that scene, like I said, I’m a super-fan of the franchise, so I had some people over, and we were watching it that Thursday night, and the air just left the room. Everyone was screaming.
I know! Because you’re like, "Miranda... Oh! Oh! Miranda!" And one of the things that Michael said to me is: "Miranda is probably one of the most — is the most loved, of that quartet." And I thought Cynthia Nixon just did a great job of shedding all fragility in the moment. And deciding that she was going to just muck up her character a little bit. She was going to make her a little messy. After seeing her seasons of Miranda as very, you know... not ever mussing, being mussed, in a way, especially around her career. We were going to see her for the first time step her foot into it. For me, it was really important to embody a Black woman who sees her going through the machinations of trying to figure out how to correct herself, versus Nya apologizing for Miranda’s gaffe, she just lets Miranda figure it out. I think that’s a lot of how it works, nowadays. Because there’s been this really strong response, what I wonder is how many people are affected by this notion of cancel culture, where if you make a mistake, a gaffe... Oh, you didn’t mean it that way, you’re going to get thrown out of society, you’re going to get canceled... I think there is some fear that she’s, like, a "Karen." I don’t think so. I think she’s just a human being that said something politically incorrect, but apologizes, and we move on into a good friendship. Do you know what I mean?
Totally. I actually really admired that the show was willing to take these women who we have been with for so many years, and it really isn’t afraid to make them the butt of the joke, and make them go through these mistakes, and goof-ups, in order to learn and to grow. It sounds like you feel similarly. I think there was a way where they could have written this show where they didn’t tackle anything difficult like that. So I applaud the writers for not being afraid to go there, and have Miranda and Carrie and Charlotte mess up and look bad.
I also thought it was really, for me, and my friends, to have sat in these awkward moments... I thought it was funny. It was entertaining. You know?
Exactly. That scene was so funny. I saw some reactions online about people just thinking it was so horrifying, but, I mean, I was laughing.
If you’re cringing on the inside, that’s something to experience too. It’s a full service story, ay! Cringe, laugh, giggle, cry. Do those things. But I also feel, again, back to that idea of when I came into it, I certainly had fertile ground in my life for being amidst a sea of white women, in white spaces, as it were, and having to navigate that. With all of the education and style and the way you present yourself, you certainly can encounter some weird awkward moments like that, in spite of the fact you’re well put together. People are still trying to figure out how to be politically correct. And for me, it was really important, "OK, I’m going to bring this character to life, she’s going to be different from Mia Jordan, different from what I did on The Morning Show.’" But she is also going to be this super generous human being around this conversation of what it is like to talk a little bit about race politics, and put that in humor. Because I definitely feel like the last several years we have been on opposite sides. And having any sort of discourse around race, or the introduction of race into our conversations, is awkward, and cumbersome, and we’re often super clumsy about it. But I don’t think that that means it shouldn’t be talked about. I think part of what I love about this show that has come out in me, is normalizing the conversations between people of different genders and different races, normalizing the conversation of: "Hey, I’m different. This is how I want to be referred to. This is how you talk to someone, or this is how we include my race, or ethnicity, in a part of this conversation." I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In that way I think it’s part and parcel with the groundbreaking history of the show, that they’re introducing these topics to this audience.
So you touched on some of the fan reactions — I’m curious to hear more about that.
Once the show came out, I was like, "Everybody’s going to love it. I’m totally optimistic.’ So when people had knives out, I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?" Some of the feeling was, this needs to change, you guys need to change. Sara’s character Che needs to be included, la la la, Nya’s character, Miranda needs to confront her otherness... But then some people were like, "Why did you change it? Don’t change! Change it, but don’t change it like that!" It was definitely a knives out experience. But a lot of that has rolled off my back, because I know what’s coming. I know what’s on the horizon for this series. For this season. So I know that people are going to be like, "Oh, they did the thing that I thought they weren’t going to do.’ Or: "They’re doing more than I ever expected them to do with this." The feedback has been like, "Oh, this character can’t just be there to serve the white character." And, as the season has gone on, now you’ve seen Nya in her relationship with her husband, and you see that really her arc isn’t just about being Miranda’s professor, it’s about her struggles with IVF, and managing her own expectations for her life... And what does it mean to be a Black woman in a great relationship with a great Black man, and then decide not to create a Black family out of that? Are you kidding me? That’s also an interesting conversation to have. And I can’t wait for the audience to see the rest of the season, because I think they’re really going to be moved, and entertained, and laugh, and really be surprised.
Cynthia Nixon directed episode six, "Diwali." So what was that like, because she’s your scene partner as well?
I think this is her first episodic television foray. It was great. She’s an actor’s actor. She’s a director’s actor. This is my first nude scene, naked scene, in television. Simulated sex scene, or whatever. And I had such nerves around it. A lot of vulnerability displayed in the moment for my character, and for my character’s husband, LeRoy McClain. As a female actor, you’re very sensitive about when you expose your body, when you make your actual, physical presence in that way, when you share it on screen. You always are very, very careful about that, because that shit is meme-able, OK? That shit lives in the world forever. So you just want to make sure that it actually was going to do something for the story, it’s going to do something for the character... it’s relevant, you know? So I definitely would not have seen myself doing that with any other director. Cynthia is just really warm and thoughtful. Or in any other production. With Michael Patrick King, and John, I knew they were going to make sure it was very beautiful, and tender, and sweet. There were notes in the script about: this is what it should look like, Naya’s on top... And so, it was very specific and really beautiful. She’s just a joy to act with. A lot of fun. Very early on, we had great friend chemistry.
COVID I’m sure has complicated things, but you talk about that organic friendship you developed — do you feel that the cast has had the chance to really bond off-set?
Inherent to doing episodic television is that you’re sitting around in your chairs waiting for the next scene to get set up. During the filming of The Morning Show season two, we really did have to keep our distance. We couldn’t be on set that long. This is prior to there being a vaccine, when we were filming that. But by the time we got to filming And Just Like That, the summer of 2021, there was a vaccine, almost everybody was vaccinated who was on set by August 2021, so we could sit around in the chairs and talk to each other without hindrance, without feeling like "I have to keep my distance." So we did build those behind the scenes bonds. Kristin was fantastic. We bonded over dealing with her daughters and their hair — Kristin has adopted two beautiful African-American girls. We absolutely had the opportunity to bond. It was special. It really is. My social media person has put this picture online of us during one of our photoshoots for press, and we’re all seven of us lined up. It was just such a special day. Because we were bonded. I felt really strongly about the women that I worked with on that show.
You’ve done so many different roles in your career, and are now reaching this new level of visibility. I’m wondering what other types of characters are you most eager to play next?
It’s such a great question. I mean, a lot of it depends upon the collaborators, for me. I don’t want to tell just any story for any character up there. But I definitely feel like it’s time for me to start being in a leadership position in storytelling. Which looks like a leading role. I’ve spent a lot of time in the experience of supporting really extraordinary, fabulous women, like Jennifer and Reese, and even going back to Keri Russell in The Americans, and in the theater... I’ve spent a lot of time observing women, specifically white women, in leadership positions, in the jobs that I have had, and I think that it’s important for women of color to assume leadership positions in telling a story. Not just because of what it does for the story, but also what it does for the other actors, and how to be in that role. I think I have a good understanding of it now. I think definitely women who are in love, and who are happy, and who are complicated. There are people that I’d love to work with, actors I’d love to work with...
Can you name any of those?
Well, all the beautiful Black male actors out there, Mahershala Ali, André Holland was a colleague of mine from grad school... all the cuties. I also am a big fan of Jessica Chastain. But again, it is a question of who the storytellers are, and how to collaborate. And really, I think, the question is what kinds of stories do I want to tell next. I think there is so much more work to be done societally and artistically with the conversation about how we find common ground. I think my experience of having gone through this really extraordinary time of political unrest and societal unrest, has been "OK. There’s still a lot of work we have to do as human beings to figure out how to come together." We paid a lot of lip service to that, but perhaps there is a lot of good use in telling stories where people find themselves on common ground that they never imagined themselves. And how do I tell more stories like that.
Photos courtesy of Warner Media