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In this CarterMatt exclusive interview, McBride talks to us about writing this episode, why doing a story about family was so meaningful, and also how the casting process came about for getting Louis Gossett Jr., Gladys Knight, and Clifton Powell on board as his family.
CarterMatt – When did you first decide that writing a Hawaii Five-0 episode was something that you wanted to do?
Chi McBride – If I can indulge myself for a minute, I just want to talk about [showrunner] Peter [Lenkov]. Peter is many, many things. He’s a very talented writer, and that much is evident by the three d–n television shows he’s running. He is a generous and collaborative showrunner and executive producer; I consider him a friend.
Peter just stepped out on faith after I pitched this idea to him, and he just said ‘write it.’ When I turned it in, he was pleasantly surprised and really encouraged and nourished my writing. He gave me this opportunity and gave me the guidance and instruction in terms of things I wasn’t familiar with — like formatting an episode. I’ve actually been writing for years without knowing it. A lot of the one-liners that Grover says, Peter gives me a lot of elbow room to say things that may fit better; or, he gives me an opportunity to have one take for me and he uses some of that. Lo and behold, I’ve realized ‘that’s writing.’
Character and dialogue are two things that I’m really familiar with, but being able to put that into a structure and a timeframe that gives CBS enough time to sell some soap and some cars, that’s a very deft trick. I’m no more at an expert at it now as I was then, but I understand it. That’s given me the opportunity and the impetus to continue writing. I owe all of that to Peter. Many people who are professional writers have a long process to go through, and I pay that a lot of respect and a lot of homage. Just because you get hired as a writer doesn’t mean you’re going to start writing right away. You could end up in a writer’s room and spend a whole season getting someone coffee. Then, the moment you go ‘I think someone should…’, they can then go ‘shut up and get me another sandwich’ (laughs). That can be the life of a fledgling writer. It’s just like professional sports — you gotta carry the veterans’ bags.
Peter leap-frogged me over all of that. How do you pay someone back for that? I try to pay him back with the work I do on the show, and by letting people know about him. Let me tell you: Peter’s a guy who hates when people compliment him. When people recognize him, he gets embarrassed — which is good, because I’m going to do that now (laughs). People should know what kind of a guy he is, because the job that he has is very difficult. Remember The Ed Sullivan Show? You may be too young to remember that but I’m not. They would bring the guy out to spin the plates on top of the sticks and keep them going. That’s Peter. He’s really an incredible guy and I really appreciate the opportunity he’s given me so much.
Let’s then talk about the idea of Thanksgiving, since this is an episode that is so much about family. What was it about this idea that spoke to you?
It dove-tails from your first question. When deciding that I wanted to write, I realized that if it was going to be my initial foray, I wanted to pick a subject matter that people could identify with and they wouldn’t compartmentalize by certain norms or preconceived notions. Family is universal; it transcends all of these phony-baloney barriers that we’ve put up against one another. You can’t pick your relatives. Just because you have the same DNA and the same blood coursing through your veins doesn’t mean necessarily that you are going to get along. The harsh reality is that people are individuals; they have their own personalities, their own quirks and sensibilities. You would hope that in being brought up with the same values would be the nucleus for family, it is not without its share of conflict.
What was the process like when it comes to casting, and what was your reaction when you learned who was playing some of these parts?
It’s another thing that I have to credit Peter for. He didn’t say ‘go write it and we’ll do the rest’ — he involved me in every single aspect of the process. Let me tell you — I have never read, written, or responded to so many d–n emails in my life (laughs). Although it is a dream of mine that before the end of my career I would like to have a job like Peter’s and I would like to run a show, it really gave me pause! I don’t typically look at my phone, because all that’s on it is news and it is all bad, unless I really have to for business or I’m trying to talk to my wife or my kid. He just involved me in just about every single aspect of the process, to the point where I would get emails saying ‘so there’s this picture we are thinking of putting up on the fireplace’ — which nobody is going to even see in the episode — ‘what do you think?’ [My response was] ‘The picture is fine! Just email me about something important’ (laughs).
But, that’s all part of it. Everybody has a job to do and every department is important. It requires a lot of approval and it is a lot of work. Peter is involved in every aspect, which is why I have so much respect for him.
As far as the cast is concerned, I went out to everyone I was interested in having do it and I got everyone I wanted. I think the most gratifying part is just having Lou Gossett reading it and saying ‘yeah, I’ll do it,’ and then having Gladys Knight reading it and saying ‘yeah, I’ll do it’ or having Clifton Powell saying ‘this looks cool. I’ll do it.’ Every individual who was cast in this episode was wanted and needed and appreciated. We had an incredibly good time. I was very excited to hear about everyone signing on — it was almost surreal. It was almost like it wasn’t happening to me.’
You talked a little bit earlier about showrunning, but do you think you would also be open to writing another Hawaii Five-0 episode down the road?
I don’t see why there wouldn’t be room for both! Peter and I have discussed an idea that sparked a conversation about me writing that. I’ve turned in a draft of that, so we’ll see what happens and how everyone feels. I’d love to continue to tell a story or two on Five-0.
There are a couple of old sayings, one was taught to me by Peter and the other one is in my head. The first is ‘writing is re-writing,’ and there’s nothing more true than that. The other thing is that ‘writers write,’ man. You can’t call yourself a writer unless you write. If it’s all in your head, you have to put it down someplace before you are a writer. Now that I’ve had my first foray into the profession by getting something on television, I gotta write something else if I want to be a writer. I do enjoy the process very much and I do think there’s room for both. When we’ve had our run [on Five-0], the that’s something I will continue. It’s a really creative process — when I’m writing, I’m acting. I’m acting things out and seeing if they fit and I’m differentiating all of these characters from my own and giving them my own voice. It’s a lot of fun. If I can just do that and leave the other stuff for someone else to do (laughs), it would be even more fun.
But everything is a series of moving parts — if you’re going to participate in one, you have to participate in all of them. Be careful what you wish for.
What do you want to see from McBride’s big episode of Hawaii Five-0? Be sure to share right now in the attached comments! (Photo: CBS.)