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Interview: ‘Hand of God’ Creator Ben Watkins Talks Hollywood’s Fear of Religion, Creating 360° Portrayals of Black Women, More

Interview: 'Hand of God' Creator Ben Watkins Talks Hollywood's Fear of Religion, Creating 360° Portrayals of Black Women, More

Premiering on August 28, Amazon Studios pilot “Hand of God” follows Judge Pernell Harris, a hard-living,
law-bending married man with a high-end call girl on the side, who suffers a
mental breakdown and goes on a vigilante quest to find the rapist who tore his
family apart. With no real evidence to go on, Pernell begins to rely on visions
and messages he believes are being sent by God through his ventilator-bound son.

Written and created by Ben Watkins
(“Burn Notice”), the project marks the television debut of director
Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball, “World War Z”), and stars Ron
Perlman as Judge Pernell; Dana Delany as Pernell’s wife Crystal Harris; Andre
Royo as the slick, smart, gregarious, and greedy mayor Robert “Bobo”
Boston; and Emayatzy Corinealdi as Tessie, Pernell’s high-end call girl and

As the project nears its Amazon premiere, executive
producer Ben Watkins made time to talk with Shadow And Act about creating the
show and what audiences should expect to see.

JAI TIGGETT: Spirituality and religion can be controversial topics,
especially for TV. Did you have any pushback or hesitation about tackling it in
the show?

BEN WATKINS: I did. When we went out to pitch it,
people would be frightened to death about the idea of a show with the word “God”
in the title, and I actually got approached about changing the title and I said
no. Even as a writer I hesitated a little bit to go down that road, knowing
that it would scare a lot of people. But when I decided to write it I felt like,
“I have to write this, and even if I don’t ever make it I’ll never regret
writing it.”

And then I just pushed forward. Every time my
rational self would say, “You should pull back a little bit on that,”
I just had to remember what the purpose was and try to do what scared me.

And so you have a show where the main
character thinks that God is talking to him and another main character is a preacher,
but the show itself is not actually about religion. One of the reasons that I
make religion prominent in the show is because it’s one part of our society
that is full of hypocrisy. Some people who say they believe in God don’t necessarily
act that way, and then some people who don’t believe in God have a sense that
there’s something unexplained out there but they’re not trying to explore that.

JT: How did you come up with the concept for the series?

BW: It was a collection of a lot of different
ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. One of the themes
was zealotry. It has always fascinated me – whether it was John Brown or Nat
Turner, who were zealots about ending slavery – people who were able to do miraculous
things because they were so singularly obsessed with something, and how that
obsession affects the people around them. They of course thought that they were
inspired by God, and everyone else thought they were crazy. But there’s no
doubt that they were operating on another level.

The other theme I’m really interested in is
how ambivalent we are as a society about what’s going on around us. I think
we’ve done a great job of making our lives incredibly convenient, and so even
when we say we care about something we don’t really have to change our lives
because of that. We’ll write a check to fight global warming but we won’t sell
our cars. We’ll do just enough so that we can sleep at night. So I wanted to
shine a light on that with a character that goes from the kind of person who
doesn’t really care about anything to someone who cares about one thing so much
that they’ll do anything for it.

JT: The idea of corrupt judges and vigilante justice sounds
relevant to a lot of what’s happening in society now. With “Hand of
God,” do you plan to tackle any real cases, or fictional versions of real
cases? The Law
& Order
example comes to mind.

BW: I feel like the show will give me an
opportunity to touch on a lot of hot button issues. For me a lot of the topics
are conflicting, where we wish that there were just black-and-white answers, but
really a lot of times the answer is gray. Ferguson is a great example, where
there’s so much gray there but we want it to be black-and-white; that Michael
Brown could have been good and bad at the same time, but no matter what
happened before he was shot, you can’t tell me that he deserved to die.

Even looters – you can make the case that
looters deserve to loot. You can make the case that these protests aren’t only about
Michael Brown, but about the legacy of institutionalized racism and how it has
oppressed the black community. A lot of people want it to be only about Michael
Brown, and that makes it much easier to land on one side or the other.

JT: Were you inspired by any real events as you were researching
and writing the script?

BW: There weren’t specific cases, but one of
the ideas is these really popular preachers with huge mega-churches, and then
they’ll have a fall from grace. You could say that person was always a liar and
a hypocrite, but just the day before you were following the person devoutly.
And for me, the truth is that person is good and bad at the same time. Ted
Haggard, the preacher who ended up having an affair with a gay prostitute – when
you find out this thing about him, do you throw everything out the window? Does
he just become that preacher who’s been lying all this time, or is he still the
guy that his followers felt was great? To me it’s a fascinating question.

Instead of accepting a more complicated
reality, we usually want to make it a yes or no answer. One of my favorite
characters is the one that Emayatzy plays. She’s a high-end call girl and if
you take that at face value, there’s all kinds of judgments that you can make.
But in the pilot she’s the only character who does not lie, and over the course
of the series the intention is to showcase her in a way that completely upends our
preconceived notions.

JT: I have to ask about that, because historically there have been a lot of black women to play prostitutes on screen, so of course there’s a stigma. What was behind the decision to have her play that role?

BW: One of my priorities as a writer is to portray black women in surprising, multilayered ways that they don’t always get a chance to be showcased in. I think black women are the most underappreciated element of our society and they don’t get the full 360° treatment in film or television. When “Middle of Nowhere” came out, it was a good example of getting to see all sides of a black woman. It’s not all perfect or all bad. So when I was developing the show I wanted to come up with a character that would be a vehicle in that way, who could reflect the limitations that have been placed on black women, and then also what black women have been able to do to empower themselves. 

So Tessie is a character who knows herself, and whether not we agree, has made some choices very consciously with a plan in mind. So when you see it at face value you’ll say, “Okay, there’s a pretty black call girl.” But what you get to eventually see is that this is a powerful woman who is one of the biggest factors in the show. So we get to reverse the stereotype and the expectation.

JT: What can you share about selecting the rest of your cast?

BW: A lot of the elements of the show just fell
into place. I think Marc Forster is one of the few directors who could have
handled this the right way. He was looking for something to do in TV, and he
read the script, loved it and came on. And literally within the same week Ron
Perlman had found out that he was going to be leaving “Sons of Anarchy,”
and he quietly put it out there that he was looking for a follow-up project. So
within a span of ten days I had given the script to my agent, gotten one of the
best directors in the world involved, and I’m sitting in a room with Ron

One of the first things Ron said was he felt
like he wouldn’t be the most obvious choice for the judge, and that’s exactly
what I was looking for. I wanted to get the right choice but not the obvious
choice; someone who had the ability to do it, but might be scared to do it. One
of the themes of the show is doing the thing that scares us. So I knew that he
was the right person.

Dana Delany plays his wife. She actually
wasn’t looking to do a project at the time. So we went through some incredible
powerhouse actresses in Hollywood trying to find the right person, and then
eventually her name came back around and we found out she was interested. And
she luckily took the part.

Then we got Andre Royo to play the mayor. This
is a guy who on “The Wire” was so iconic as Bubbles that it was
almost hard to think of him as anything else. And I think that followed him
around for a little while. But Marc and I wanted to get an actor who had a
completely different energy than Ron Perlman. I wanted the mayor to be black; I
had a whole backstory related to that. I wanted to have these two guys who have
been friends for a long time, know where all the bodies are buried, and as the
show goes on the goal that they’re working towards starts to fracture. Part of
it is that mayor Bobo has been put in place by this more powerful white man. And
then I get to upend it a bit in terms of how people perceive him. He turns out
to be incredibly powerful, strategic and calculating, and more than a match for
Pernell Harris who put him in place.

JT: Tell me about the process of developing the pilot with Amazon.

BW: I had written the script and had Marc Forster
and Ron Perlman attached. So we went in as a team and pitched to a few
different places, and Amazon was the most enthusiastic and made it clear that
they would give us a chance to do the show the way that we wanted to do it.

They really supported us creatively all the
way through. One of the advantages of working with Amazon is that they’re
trying to break new ground for themselves, so you’re not in a position where
you have to fit into whatever slot that they want you to be in. Broadcast
networks and even some of the legacy cable companies like HBO and FX, they have
developed sort of a brand and they want their shows to fit within that, but Amazon
is really defining itself. So it was a good opportunity.

JT: There hasn’t been a lot of information released about the
pilot to date. What do you want audiences to know, as they tune in?

BW: That’s a great question, I hadn’t really
thought about it. I’m really proud of the show. I’m proud of the work that we
did and I really want the opportunity to continue the story. Because of the
characters and the subject matter, but also because, as we all know, there are
not enough black content creators in Hollywood. It’s not just about jobs; that’s
crucial, but for me it’s also about being able to tell our stories with more of
a 360° perspective – the beautiful parts and the gritty, edgy, bad parts, so we
don’t have a glut of two-dimensional characters. You need black storytellers to
be able to give a three-dimensional portrayal of our stories. It’s
better for the entire experience, it’s better for the quality.

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