“If you look at me,” says writer/executive producer Janine Sherman Barrois, “it’s, ‘hmm, she looks like she can write Waiting to Exhale really well.’ Because that’s often the perception. Then when you read me, it’s, ‘She can write about Irish cops, Black dynamic, Black cops and epic crime drama really well.’ And that’s the thing about racism: you often have these perceptions until you prove yourself.”
Racism or no racism, and no matter the initial perception, Janine Sherman Barrois has the gift of the pen. Growing up in racially segregated Newton, Massachusetts, watching Hill Street Blues and cops shows with her father and brother, Janine took an interest in writing about life, death, crime and politics, which would eventually pay off in spades.
Earlier this summer, Barrios—former executive producer on CBS’s insanely popular Criminal Minds—landed a multi-year overall deal to create television shows (as in plural) at her former home Warner Bros. Television. For any writer in Hollywood, landing an overall deal at a major studio is the stuff dreams are made of. But to return to the lot where it all started, as a graduate of the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop and later as a writer on several WB shows (The Jamie Foxx Show, ER, Third Watch) was a truly a gift. But finding your way in an industry sorely lacking in diversity requires hard work and the willingness to stick your neck out for mentoring and chase your dreams.
Barrois and I sat down in Hollywood to discuss her time on Criminal Minds, the road landing her deal with Warner Bros., how she hopes to use her voice to shape the future of television and her willingness to take a risk.
EBONY: In the past, we’ve talked about leaving something you are comfortable with in order to get to the next “big thing.” How difficult was that for you to leave Criminal Minds, a show you’d been on for five years, in order to pursue this deal?
Janine Sherman Barrois: I think a lot of people think you ride out what you’re on until it ends, and then you start creating. But the thing is, when you get on something good, it might never end. And the hardest thing about taking a risk is that it’s so much easier when you hate your day job; when you love your day job it is hard. I’m standing on set of Criminal Minds thinking, “This is weird because I never left something I loved.” I actually love these people. I love the crew members, the cast members, the writers, I love coming to work, I love sitting on set, I love the money I made, I love the freedom I’ve gotten, I love the show. But something in my gut says I know I have to give this a try.
EBONY: But you had a deal at ABC Studios just prior to this?
JSB: I had an overall deal at ABC Studios, but the weight of the deal—even though it’s an overall development deal—is funded by me being laid off Criminal Minds as an executive producer. If you look at it on a business affairs level, people might call it a “show-verall” versus an “overall” [deal] because it’s economic justification. It’s a common thing. I would have to develop television shows at night after leaving Criminal Minds. I wrote and sold a medical thriller, Cold Blood, to ABC under that deal.
EBONY: That must have been tough to do at night, because you probably felt like you left it all on the lot at CBS.
JSB: Yes, sometimes it felt like I left it all on the table there. At Criminal Minds, I was in charge of running the room, breaking the stories, giving notes to writers, seeing if stories work, making sure it works with the actors… it’s a lot. That’s 24 thrillers a year, and the craziest thing is, I had it down to a science. I loved my job, but I wasn’t particularly challenged. I thought I’d already reached as high as I was going to go, and I’m thinking, “I’m cool with that.”
EBONY: So was there overlap with the ABC deal and your new deal? How did this all develop?
JSB: Literally, the day I heard Cold Blood wasn’t going from my agent, I got a call that Warner Bros. wanted to meet. And I said, “I don’t want to meet, I can’t go over there and do a song and dance, I don’t want to sell myself.” I just did not want to go. A week later they still want to meet, so I went. So from January on, they started talking to me. It wasn’t like they made an offer immediately, they started talking, and they talk slowly. (laugh)
The next thing you know it’s February, and then the president of the studio invites me out and says, “Look, we want to help you get a show on the air because you are focusing on EP’ing a show and you are not fully focusing on your voice. Your pilots you’ve done in the last few years are awesome, but we just need to get you in a situation to help get it on the air.”
EBONY: How’s that for someone believing in you and for incredible timing?
JSB: The people at Warner Bros. were advocates, and although I didn’t really realize it, they were watching me from afar. I kind of “came up” at that studio. I’d been on Third Watch, I’d been on ER and other shows.
But the timing was unbelievable. One day I’m coming into work—I’m telling you, in the back of my head, I’m going back to Criminal Minds. Warner Bros. puts a figure on the table that was just amazing and said, “We’ll give her a bungalow on the lot, she will develop, she does not have any assignability the first year, we are going to focus on getting her a show the second year, we will give multiple years.” And I literally felt like, “Oh, this what it feels like to be a guy in the ’90s!”
I was literally in the parking lot shaking. Actually I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get this offer. I went in my office and cried, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like someone tapped my bedroom, tapped my house, seen my dreams. So this situation gives me multiple shots. For example, I can do two projects, supervise a third, have something at a network, and at Netflix, Hulu. If one thing falls, I can put another one into the system. I don’t care about the venue, I just want people to see the stories.
EBONY: How important was mentoring in getting to where you are? You worked extensively with John Wells on Third Watch and ER. Would you consider him your mentor?
JSB: He was my mentor. I think especially if you are a woman, or if you are minority, you need somebody of power to back you and invite you to the party. John invited me to the party and stuck by me. On Third Watch, when I messed up, for example, when my script wasn’t as good, I got notes, criticism from the best. When you’re around the best, you have no choice but to up your game or get out of the game. And that’s very much how he runs. If you can play the game, you stay; if you couldn’t, you were gone. Through my years with Wells, it became very clear I knew how to write cops well, I knew how to tell these stories well.
Before we go on, I just want to say something about inspiration. I hope coming back to Warner Bros. is inspirational for others. People on the lot, the waiters, the commissary, the security guards, they’ve all known me for years. They’ve seen me grow. And now to see someone like us, who has my track record, who has been mentored there, get the red carpet treatment, riding around on the cart with the president of the studio, creating, laughing, talking about intellectual property is just huge. So I am proof that it can be done.
EBONY: That is a good message indeed. Tell us about your typical day.
JSB: My deal started on June 1, so I met with the president, Peter Roth, and we talked about what he wanted. He was very, very clear. We are focusing a lot on intellectual property because it is so big right now. I spend the mornings thinking of ideas and I spend the afternoons in meetings with other presidents, vice presidents, senior VPs of drama and development, focusing and carving out what ideas we are going to spend time on and focusing on what to send to the market. Then I start to write pitches based on that.
EBONY: What kinds of stories do you want to use this opportunity to tell?
JSB: I want to tell stories that are shining a light on African Americans, and I also want to show that we are the same. We have humanistic stories. We’ve always been here, we just weren’t allowed to shine.
EBONY: How will diversity factor into your hiring? Do you intend to continue staffing with people of color, like you did on Criminal Minds?
JSB: That’s exactly what I will do. The funny thing is that we think there’s this dirty little secret, a meeting to exclude us. But the problem is, they’re not thinking about us, so we need more of us to get the shots. When you are in a decision-making capacity, you use that to make a change. I did that in hiring on Criminal Minds, and when you look at the staff, it was half minority. They are the talent, but half of it is just knowing who these people are, knowing how to get these people in a room. And when they got in the room, people read their material. It didn’t matter what color they were, nobody cared, nobody knew, we just knew their stuff on the page was just off the chain.
The people who have been maintaining the status quo sometimes don’t know the names. A lot people don’t know that there are Black production designers, Black costume designers, talented Black writers, directors and crew, so we have to help each other. You win the lottery if your show gets on, and if it stays, that crew is staying a long time, so you want to get people there at the beginning. And the truth of matter: diversity is not hiring somebody from Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, saying, “Hey, do you want to be a writer?” Diversity is giving a person of color who’s been in the game, doing the game, a shot to continue to do it on high level. People think it’s hooking up. It’s not.
For me, it’s not enough that I got this opportunity. I want people to know that I helped give some other people opportunities.
EBONY: What is your take on the browning of television? Are shows by, about, for and featuring Black people a trend, or is it a movement propelling us towards more diversity in viewership and more diverse programming?
JSB: I literally pray that it is not a trend. I pray that the world has finally seen that we are all sorts of people, all of our stories are valuable, and we’ve broken that thinking that when you have Black people leading shows nobody will watch it. No. Everybody will watch it. Empire’s proven that, Scandal has proven that, same with American Crime. Black is the new Black, and it will always be here.
Lisa Bonner is an entertainment lawyer with offices in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @lisabonner.