Sterlings’ Fate, LeVar Burton Scene 5

[This story contains spoilers from the FX limited series Clipped.]

Adapting true narratives is often a tricky proposition. And it gets even trickier when it’s as unbelievable and unprecedented as the fallout from 80-year-old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s viral racist comments against Black people back in 2014 — just as Instagram and Twitter were in their infancy, and TMZ and Kardashian culture was extending their cultural imprint.

All of that fuels the FX series Clipped, which ended its limited series run on Tuesday.

Having as its guide the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast The Sterling Affairs from Ramona Shelburne (the ESPN writer also served as an executive producer on the series) was both helpful and challenging for Gina Welch, the creator and showrunner for the TV adaptation, whose impressive credits as both writer and producer include Feud and Ray Donovan.

Clipped, starring acclaimed The Matrix and Black-ish actor Laurence Fishburne as Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whom Welch credits for setting the stellar tone for the rest of the cast, and Married with Children and Modern Family star Ed O’Neill as Donald Sterling, whom Welch believes played the performance from understanding Sterling’s “deep neediness and insecurity,” caught both viewers and critics by surprise. Mainly, because the series wasn’t just about basketball and the scandal that forced the Sterlings to sell the team, netting two billion dollars in the process. Australian-born actresses and longtime Los Angeles residents Cleopatra Coleman and Jacki Weaver injected an unexpected feminine energy, adding texture and complexity to the series as V. Stiviano and Shelly Sterling.

Welch and her core team — comprised mainly of playwrights/screenwriters that include The Americans’ Tracey Scott Wilson, Damascus’ Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm and Pachinko’s Lauren Yee — chose a more introspective deep dive into society at large, touching on racism, sexism and classism, with echoes harkening back to FX’s 2016 breakthrough The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Welch to discuss her approach to Clipped, explain those LeVar Burton sauna scenes with Doc Rivers discussing Black rage, as well as exploring sexism, ageism, Barbara Walters’ impact on V. and Shelly’s fates, and if the Sterlings really paid for their sins.

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Why and how did you approach telling this story for television?

The podcast came to me early 2020, and I thought it was just an amazing story — full of absurdity and really rich characters. I thought it was a very entertaining look at this cost of systemic racism. But I didn’t quite know how to create an emotional connection to this story, until I started to think about trying to tell it through the point of view of Doc Rivers, who obviously was coming off a championship as the winning coach in Boston.

When I started reading about what was going on with Lob City [as the Clippers became known when Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan begin challenging the Lakers for the city’s affection] — and the Clippers’ roster at the time was one of the best in NBA history and had the first chance of winning a championship under Doc’s leadership — I thought, “Well, this really wants to be a story of what should have been the Cinderella season for this team getting T-boned by the tape of the rantings of their racist owner.” I felt it was a really great way of telling a story about the cost of living and working. and trying to thrive under the power of a racist, toxic, incompetent boss.

How did you get LeVar Burton, and is his role as Doc Rivers’ friend and confidante during those sauna scenes real or just mystical like an oracle?

We sort of leave that to the viewer in terms of how to interpret the reality of those scenes. The writers room really wanted Doc to have a confidante who could immediately understand the dynamics of his life working under Donald Sterling and being a celebrity of his caliber in Los Angeles. Doc was a consultant on the show, and when I asked him who he felt he could confide in at the time, he wasn’t really keeping confidence with anyone. Given where we wanted the conversations to go, we wanted to invite someone to play themselves who really had occupied space in American culture in the white imagination as a safe Black celebrity.

It was Rembert [Browne, one-time journalist and a producer on Clipped] who came up with LeVar. He called me from vacation in the Dominican Republic and, in brief strokes, talked about LeVar Burton’s impact as Kunta Kinte [in Roots] and the sort of arc of his trajectory as a performer through Reading Rainbow and Star Trek into someone who is considered very safe. I called Laurence Fishburne and asked him if he could get in touch with LeVar, and Laurence was like, “Well, I can do it, but I don’t think he’s going to participate in this.” It was just a coincidence, because we had already written the scenes more or less in the show, that LeVar Burton was interested in doing the show primarily if we could give him a forum for which to talk about rage, which was what we were all hoping for. The final conversations in episode six are directly from conversations I had with him about what he wanted to talk about.

Jacki Weaver as Shelly Sterling with Ed O’Neill as Donald Sterling in Clipped.

Kelsey McNeal/FX

In addition to racism, Clipped explores sexism, ageism, what some folks call “Kardashianism” and more.

With Shelly and V., I always saw them as two women who were evidently smarter than Donald Sterling —more strategic, more ambitious, more interesting, more dynamic — but who were operating in a world in which women’s only access to power was through men. It’s this sort of ridiculous dance they’re doing in the first two episodes where Shelly and V. are jockeying for a seat at the table through this kind of oblivious buffoon. What ends up happening to V. and the speed at which the internet turns on her and disposes of her, and the sort of narrative Shelly is able to slide into that makes her a hero of this story, feels like there are these classic archetypes that are available to women that they basically get funneled into at the end of the story that I think reduces both of their complexity and also sort of awards heroism to someone who didn’t deserve it.

One of the things I was really aware of that needed to fire between V. and Shelly was this generational divide. I think part of what is so different about V. from prior mistresses or assistants or companions is that she wants to be visible. But I also think she has a very modern understanding of how the internet has changed power, and Shelly doesn’t get it; Shelly wants to buy off the story or kill the story, or make it go away. She doesn’t understand that, on the internet, you can’t delete something; once it’s on there, it’s there forever. I think the conflicts between them across the generational divide is part of the heart of the show. And, of course, when you get to the end of the show then you start to see what Deja (Yvonna Pearson) talks about in episode three and that is: What is real power? Is real power being able to create a viral moment? Or is real power money, property, whiteness?

What I really like about V. and the performance of her is that you see she’s treating this as a job. [When] you see her in the first two episodes, she’s working for Donald. What ends up happening to her in the end, where she’s characterized as a grifter and thief, well the audience has seen proof that she wasn’t that. As nontraditional as it was, it was a job. Having an actress of Cleo’s caliber play this role [of V.] is part of the reason why it’s so dynamic, because she’s so smart and deeply insightful about what V.’s origins would mean for every scene. Even through the process of doing ADR, she would just come in with thoughts on tweaking little lines of dialogue based on things she felt V. would say or not say in the given scene, and for me that’s an invaluable point of view. She’s really a phenomenal actress and you see the way she changes over the course of six short episodes.

Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano with Carolyn Mignini as Barbara Walters in Clipped.

Kelsey McNeal/FX

How important was recreating those Barbara Walters’ iconic interviews?

We had heard about that interaction between Donald and V.’s lawyer Mac Nehoray and V. in the green room before the interview. What V. says in that interview has become an iconic meme. It goes around the internet like once a year —”I’m Mr. Sterling’s right hand arm.” When I found out about this very stressful encounter that happened right before the interview, I thought this is such illuminating context, because she’s completely spun around by this encounter and it leaves her in a place where she feels unable to be free in what she says about Donald. I think that you can really feel in her performance a fear of saying the wrong thing and, consequently, she becomes a little incoherent.

I ran into [Carolyn Mignini, who plays Walters] on the street, and I didn’t recognize her. She’s a brunette, she looks nothing like Barbara Walters. But she came into hair and makeup and she just brought the whole ambiance of Barbara Walters into the room. She really helped create the reality of those interviews. And I think part of the function of those interviews, if you look at them side by side in the episode, is Barbara Walters and Shelly are kind of in the same life stage. They kind of look alike; they’re both wearing these kind of funky leather jackets. There’s an immediate understanding of what Barbara Walters is offering Shelly, and then there’s a complete lack of comprehension when she’s sitting across from V. And those two interviews really ended up shaping the results of how people felt about those two characters in the court of public opinion.

At the end of Clipped, the Sterlings don’t have a team, but they’re actually richer than they’ve ever been. Is that really justice?

I think that’s the wild thing about it. You look at what Shelly worked out in her deal with the tickets and the VIP parking and the free food and drinks and the championship rings. Her name is still on the floor and codified in her deal that she’s the number one fan. Donald can’t go to the games, so that’s the loss. They’re still together, so it feels like the ban was cosmetic.  

All six episodes of FX’s Clipped are streaming on Hulu.

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