Temi Wilkey: ‘My impulse is to write things that show that people are - warts and all - essentially good.’

The actor, theatre-maker and podcaster speaks to emerging screenwriter Billie Collins about generations of queerness, women being funny and joining the writers’ room for Netflix’s Sex Education.

29 May 2020

Last year, Temi Wilkey’s Making It podcast became the soundtrack to my commute. On my way to serve alarmingly neon slushies, I’d listen to her honest and inspiring conversations with emerging theatre-makers. I loved Wilkey’s enthusiasm and curiosity, and this year (post-slushies, pre-lockdown), I booked a ticket to her debut play, The High Table. It follows Tara, whose perfect Nigerian wedding to her girlfriend is jeopardised when her parents refuse to attend, claiming same-sex love to be incompatible with African values. Tara’s ancestors are called upon for their blessing, and the play is at once beautifully intimate and expansively epic. Wilkey also co-founded Pecs, a Drag King collective who produce critically acclaimed shows celebrating queerness and inclusivity, and more recently was in the writers’ room for smash hit Netflix comedy Sex Education

Also a mentee on the high-end Dancing Ledge Bursary scheme, as Temi embarks on her first solo TV project, I spoke with her about optimism, making the move to screen, and just getting the words down.

How did you start writing?

I haven’t really been writing for that long, around two and a half years. I did the Royal Court Introduction to Playwriting Group, where you have to deliver a play at the end of the initiative. I handed in my first draft at the beginning of 2018, and it was the first time I’d ever finished anything. I’d dabbled with poetry when I was younger, but not properly. Maybe a year after the first draft, the play had a rehearsed reading, I signed with my agent, and then found out it was going to be staged. It was a bit of a whirlwind!

You have such a varied range of disciplines – acting, writing, and drag performance with Pecs. Is that variation important to you? 

I think I always felt like writing, or doing anything outside of acting, was just in order to give me a space to perform. With Pecs, there was so much ideologically that I was obsessed with, but also it was an opportunity to be on stage. I left Pecs last year; I loved it, but I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a professional drag king, or a director, so what am I doing?’ I wanted to perform, but also to have some kind of creativity behind that. 

Sometimes when I’m in a rehearsal room and I’m just an actor, it can feel like I don’t have much of a voice. The High Table was the first time I’d not been in something I was creatively helming; which was liberating in lots of ways, but I also really missed acting. I think I struggle to not be super involved in the things I do and going forward I’d probably want to be in the stuff that I write a lot more.

This year, The High Table premiered at West London’s Bush Theatre. Can you tell me about where the impulse to write it came from?

I auditioned for Fun Home (the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir). Cherrelle (Skeete) who played Tara in The High Table was playing Joan in Fun Home. I was interested in what Joan’s story would be. Fun Home was one of the first times I’d seen a lesbian story on stage, and there were ways in which it resonated with me, but I also felt it could have resonated with me more. So I wanted to write about generations of queerness. Also, I was thinking about precolonial countries and their attitudes towards same-sex relationships, and re-writing the idea that countries that are homophobic are homophobic because they’re bad. It’s actually that they were influenced by the UK, specifically true for Nigeria. 

What was it like to get such a positive response to the play?

It was amazing, and kind of overwhelming! I find it surprising that people responded so strongly, because it feels like such a personal story. I sort of expected people to hate it; I expected black people to hate it, and I expected queer people to hate it. It was a real surprise that so many people who are all of those things, none of those things, one of those things, responded so positively.

The play seems to have such a broad range of influences. Where do you look for inspiration? 

I read a lot of Yrsa Daley-Ward, the climax of the play really comes from a poem she wrote. Another seed came from Master of None. Lena Waithe has this amazing Thanksgiving episode. It was the first time I’d seen a black lesbian story on screen, and I was like, ‘wow, my life matters!’ That made me feel really empowered to start writing The High Table. Also, Wole Soyinka’s version of The Bacchae inspired the scale of it. It’s a Greek myth that he’s sort of translated into a Yoruba setting, so the feeling of myth was partly influenced by that.

I loved the warmth of The High Table. It feels similar to your conversations on Making It. Do you think of yourself as a hopeful or optimistic writer?

It’s interesting, because people ask you questions like that and you’re like, ‘I dunno, I haven’t written that many things!’ At a Q&A about The High Table, someone asked, ‘why did you make it funny?’ and I was like ‘I didn’t know it was funny!’ 

Now I think about it, especially in lockdown, all I watch is comedy. I think hope is really important, and I am probably quite an optimistic person. Even though you never want to put yourself in a box, my impulse is to write things that give hope and show that people are - warts and all - essentially good. 

You’ve recently been writing more for TV; what’s that shift from stage to screen been like?

It’s been fun! I got a bursary to write my first pilot, bashed out a first draft, and then got to do the Sex Education writers’ room. So, I’d done something shit, then got to learn how TV works and how to structure a series, then went back and redrafted it. With acting, it’s good to do both stage and screen because they inform each other. 

Screen forces you to really feel it, with stage there’s a precision, and there’s something amazing about being so declamatory. It’s the same with writing. Writing for screen is forcing me to write visually. When I write for theatre, I don’t give a shit about what it looks like – I just want it to say something. They feed each other quite well. 

The bursary you mentioned is the Dancing Ledge Productions bursary, right? You’re being mentored by Lucy Prebble [Succession]. How did that come about?

I was sort of talking to Lucy beforehand, when I wasn’t sure if my play was going to be programmed. I messaged her like, ‘can I talk to you, I don’t know if this is normal’. She was really supportive. And then she read the play, and sent me an email like, ‘d’you wanna write for screen?’ I scrolled down, it was this bursary, and I was like ‘obviously I want to do that, thank you very much!’ 

And what does it practically entail?

It depends on your mentor. Lucy’s been really busy because she’s had a huge play on at the Old Vic, and then was making I Hate Suzie. Maybe with a different mentor, it would work differently. For me it was just kind of like: here’s some money, get on with it, send me a first draft, and I’ll do some notes. And that’s kind of what it’s been like since.

As emerging writers get more traction and opportunities, I’m curious about how you balance that career progression with staying true to your own voice, doing the things you really want to do?

It’s an interesting question, especially as I want to act as well. At the beginning of the year I was finding balancing both parts of my career really difficult. I learned that I have to only take on stuff that I really wanna do. The same goes for writing really, but I haven’t felt I’ve been pulled away from my voice. Sometimes things come through and I’m like ‘oh that sounds okay,’ and then I think ‘something better might come along, and if you take this opportunity, you might not have time to do the other thing’. There’s so much I’m passionate about, and a lot of the things I’m having meetings about come from me. When you’re pitching your own projects, it doesn’t feel too hard to keep your voice.

Focusing on stuff you’re really interested in is great advice. I think maybe writers can feel a pressure to apply for certain programmes or opportunities, like they have to do everything?  

Because I got the Sex Education job so early, it feels like I’m learning on the job. There’s only one programme I really wanted to go for, which is the BBC Comedy Room. Not the drama one, which I was surprised by. It’s only been through lockdown that I’ve realised ‘actually, I think I’m more interested in comedy’. It’s about interrogating yourself. Especially with programmes like that, it’s sort of like ‘I have to give up 9 months of my life’. Seeing it as giving up the time, rather than like ‘woah I’m gonna be paid for 9 months!’ helps you to really listen to yourself. And sometimes you do need to throw yourself at everything. I think there are different seasons of your life, it depends at what point you’re at.  

Sex Education was your first time in a writers’ room. What does that involve?

There’s the creator, showrunner and then like - in our case - four or five other writers, and two script editors. And together you decide what’s gonna happen in each season. Laurie [Nunn, creator of Sex Education] is very much running it. She has a brilliant touch where it feels like she’s in control, but everyone has freedom to bounce ideas around. You go through character by character first, then episode by episode. 

And then does each writer get assigned certain episodes, or do you write them together?

It depends. It might be like ‘you don’t have enough writing credits to write that episode’, or ‘actually you’re busy doing something else’. I don’t think it’s always for sure that everyone gets an episode.

Sex Education has such as distinct identity visually, but also in the humour and world of it. How do you fit yourself into that, and get the tone right?

You’ve got the showrunner in the room, and the script editors to keep you on track. I’m also a huge fan of the show, so it sort of felt like I was being paid for fan fiction. And if you’ve been chosen to be in that room, you probably have the sense of humour, or the kind of vibe that goes with it. The show I’d done just before I left Pecs was called SEX SEX MEN MEN, and I walked into my interview like ‘I have no problem talking about sex.’ So it’s partly that you’re chosen because you’re suited to that kind of dynamic, but if you love the show it’s quite easy to slot into it. 

Are there certain themes or ideas that you feel like you’re not done with yet? 

Sexuality. There’s probably more to mine there! Colonialism for sure. Female friendship. Pretty much all my own projects that I have lined up have female friendship at the root. I enjoy looking into black history, and I’ve also written about assassins. I quite like taking something genre-focused and then making it different in some way.

In lockdown people might be finding it hard to get writing. Are there any tips or rituals you use to get in the zone?

The main thing I’ve learned from my podcast is that everyone has their own thing. The act of writing is so personal and getting yourself to do it is such a personal thing too. I’ve been exercising a lot, which I guess is less of a writing thing, and more of a mental health thing. I take loads of breaks. I write for an hour, but 15 minutes of that is me lying down and coming back to it. I was in a webinar where Charlie Cooper [of This Country] mentioned a book called Daily Rituals about the routines of all these successful or artistic people. I never do the same thing over and over, but it can be useful to see the wide range of things others do. I think mine is just trying to get to my desk by 10am, having a go and taking lots of breaks.

Looking after your mental health as a writer is so important, making sure you’re okay, and in the right space to do it. Jumping about a bit, but if you had free reign to do anything at all, what would it be?

Oh my god, free reign… There’s a play me and my friend made that I would really love to make into a TV show. It’s about two queer best friends who share a bedroom - a really goofy comedy. I guess it’s all the things that I’m literally working on that I would love to do! The assassins show, I’m also thinking of something about private school. Just like… Stuff with women being funny. Weird women in normal circumstances, or normal women in weird circumstances!

These all sound amazing! And if you had one piece of advice for emerging writers…?

It’s just: write. And not just to young writers, but to anyone who feels disempowered within the industry. I definitely felt quite disempowered as an actor, which is probably why I started writing. It’s opened so many doors that I never expected in such a short space of time. Obviously it doesn’t happen like that to everyone, but I think everyone who thinks they might want to write, should write. But also, to people who are writers, rather than just talking about ideas, or feeling like you can’t, or that you need to read loads of books on structure – just write. I think you write the best when you’re truest to whatever you want to do, and you can go back and make it better later on. It’s super boring, but ‘just write’ would be my only advice.

It’s great advice - it doesn’t have to be perfect first time. Just get it down. 
Ideally it would be terrible. The shitter the first draft, the better!

 

Temi Wilkey is an actor, playwright and screenwriter from North London. She has just completed her first writersroom for Netflix's Sex Education S3. You can follow Temi's work here.

Subscribe to Temi’s podcast 'Making It with Temi Wilkey' here.

Billie Collins is an emerging playwright and screenwriter from Merseyside, most recently with work at the Lowry Theatre Studio and HOME Manchester. You can follow her work here.