You may not know the name Felicia D. Henderson, but you know her work as a television writer and producer. Newly signed to a multiyear, overall deal with 20th Century Fox, Henderson will continue as a producer of “Empire” for a fifth season while also developing family dramas, comedies and adapting graphic novels. Her lengthy resume includes two years as a co-executive producer on Netflix’s Marvel drama “The Punisher.” In addition to “Soul Food,” Showtime’s longest-running African-American-themed drama series, where she earned three NAACP Image Awards, Henderson is also known for writing and creating such half-hour hits as “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Family Matters,” “Moesha,” “Sister, Sister,” “Soul Food: The Series,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” BET’s “The Quad” (also Executive Producer) and “Gossip Girl” to name a few. She has also written for such comic book series as Teen Titans, Justice Society of America and Static Shock for DC Comics.
You began your career with shows like “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Family Matters,” and you talk about how you had a boss who encouraged you to write scripts after you had made comments about scripts. Was that something that you had the vision to do eventually? Or was it just something that fell into your lap?
It’s only in retrospect that I’ve realized that I’m exactly where I was supposed to be. You know, when I look at my life now, I’ve written in, what was then, diaries since I was 7 and 8 years old, but nothing in those diaries was ever true. I would write, Dear diary, Today when I flew to the moon …
So, I did that since I was young and my father kept them, and I still have a lot of them. I was full of a lot of angst. I was like, what was I so, like, deep about at nine years old? (laughing) And then I wrote for the school newspaper, and for the yearbook in high school, and at UCLA for the Daily Bruin. Then when I got to grad school, I was the editor of the MBA Newsletter, so really, I was always writing. I always took creative writing classes, I was always in AP English and creative writing because I enjoyed it, but really, I thought that I was going to be a doctor. And you know, I just took another path. I was always good at math and science, my bachelor’s degree is in psychobiology, but it was getting an MBA that basically was a fellowship from NBC and the Peabody Foundation that paid for my graduate education. That’s what led to my access to NBC after graduating, I was in the management training program, and that was my first exposure to scripts.
I’d never seen a script before. I didn’t know anyone in the business or any of that. So, it was my boss at NBC, while I was in that program, who encouraged me, and he said, “Have you ever thought about writing?” Because I was so fascinated by it, on every single page, and I would ask so many questions about the story and the structure, and “why didn’t they do this instead of this?” And, “did you think that would have been a better story than that?” And [he said] “I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic!” (laughing) It was he who said, “There is this program called the Warner Bros. Writers Program, I think you should think about applying.”
I was reading someplace that when you were a child you were plagued by illness, and you were in the house a lot, so you developed a fascination with comic books and cartoons. Do you think that your fascination with cartoons as an adult started when you were a child?
Absolutely. When you spend a lot of time by yourself, or, if you’re an only child, even if you’re not a sickly child like I was, I think that having a very creative imagination sort of saved me. I can’t imagine who I would be, who I would have been or what my experience would have been had I not had that imagination. I think I would have felt lonely, or just probably sad.
Even today, I really like spending a lot of time by myself, but I don’t ever feel lonely even when I’m alone. I never do, I really like being by myself, and I think it is born out of that time, of not being able to go out, and growing up in Pasadena, in Los Angeles County at a time where smog was unbearable, so there were days where it was like, oh, this day we have a smog alert, if you have respiratory problems than you have to stay inside, and it would be another day, like, I can’t go outside, and literally the smog was so bad your chest would hurt. So, yeah, that was when my mom would be like, “You can’t go outside.” Or some days you can’t even go to school, so they’d send packages of work home for me. I had a built-in ability, if you will, to spend time alone, and then I had a very active imagination.
Isn’t it amazing how a lot of times those things that happened to us as kids that appear to be, at the time, the worst things in the world, can end up being blessings later on?
I think so. This is a total sidebar, but I just spoke at a conference recently called The Blueprint, and it’s basically to help people get their lives on track and follow their dreams. My particular session was called, “Permission to Dream,” and I was so, like, “What am I gonna say, what am I gonna say?” It took forever for me to write my speech, and that’s exactly what I talked about is what you just said. Is that, you know, when I was that young, at 2 years old and had a horrible accident, where they have those big, giant, heavy percolators, they used to call them coffee pots, and I got ahold of a cord and pulled it down on me in the kitchen. Thank God that I was 2, and I was very small for my age, nobody thought I would grow up to be five foot eight and a half (laughs) but I had this tiny little body that was burned over 75 percent, but I grew into this big, tall, person, so, it turns out now I just have a couple of burns. I went through a lot of health problems because of it, but I grew up thinking, I can get through anything because I survived that, so it’s obviously always about what attitude you bring to it.
Somebody asked you how it was being a black woman working in the industry. And you responded that is wasn’t one of your favorite questions because it’s like any other industry. Do you get that question a lot? And how do you respond?
Oh my God, yes. From either young people, students, professionals, reporters, young executives, and even the students I teach – I’m a professor at the University of Texas, in Austin – I get it from them too. If I do any kind of panel, doesn’t matter the audience, I get it. I think that it frustrates me more, to be honest when it is a predominantly black audience because I get worried for my people, that they’re focusing on all the ways that a system is designed to keep us down. And if we focus on all the ways that it keeps us down, as opposed to ways to conquer anyway, it’s a waste of our time.
How are you teaching in Texas?
How in the heck am I doing it? That’s a good question! But I commute! (laughing). I literally get on a plane, every fall. I will go on Saturdays or Sundays. I will teach two classes on Mondays, and every Tuesday morning, I will get on the 7:30 a.m. Delta flight and be back in L.A. by 9 a.m. local time.
Do you ever think that you are overdoing it? Or do you enjoy being consistent in having a full plate?
You know what? Every once in a while, there is a bottleneck and then I’m like, ah, God, it’s a little crazy! Like, ugh, why do these things happen like this? But for the most part, it all works out well, and I’m only doing exactly what I want to do. I’ve gotten very good – I wasn’t always – at saying “no, I’m not going to do that,” or “no, I don’t want to do that,” even as recently as setting up these interviews. Two or three of them were doing pieces on the Me Too movement, and wanting my opinion, and I just said, “I’m not doing those.” Like, I don’t really feel like I have anything else to add to a very, very rich conversation and a very necessary one, but I don’t have anything new to add. So, I don’t do what I don’t want to do, to be honest, and I’m doing only the things that I enjoy.
When I need time off, I’m like, I’ll see you guys. I just spent four days at the spa, a resort and spa that I went away to. (laughing) And I’m like, I’m going away, I’m tired, so I try to, you know, certainly practice some self-care. I spend a lot of time with family and friends; I have nieces and nephews who are the true center of my life. My dog is in the car with me, so she won’t want to hear that they are the center of my life, and not her. But they are, and I am an important figure in their lives, and so I have to be there for them. When I’m in Texas, I Skype with them and sometimes do homework with them over Skype. So, my life is full in exactly the way that I want it to be.
Some people say that at the end of life, a lot of older people say, “I wish I wouldn’t have worked so much,” but then I think to myself, how many, many MORE people say, “I wish I would have worked more and made something of my life?”
I’ve wondered the same thing! I mean, I want to leave it all on the floor, and if there is something that I am interested in, then I want to say that I’ve tried that. I pride myself … I don’t want to have regrets, personally or professionally. So, I spend time with the people I love. I sometimes integrate the two, like I took my 13- and 17-year-old nieces to Comic-Con with me recently because I needed to spend some time with them, but I was also on a panel.
Have you ever had a situation where you brought somebody who wasn’t industry related into the industry and then you regretted it?
That is such a good question. You make me think of a story about that. When I was working on “Moesha” – I didn’t bring them in because I wasn’t the showrunner – but that was the case where the showrunner felt like we have an obligation to our community, and ended up hiring a PA that was recently out of prison. Like, you know, “he deserves a chance,” and we were all with that. But it ended up being way too interesting if you will. And it started to be like, this was a bad idea. But we didn’t say, “We’re never doing that again,” we just said, “Wrong one,” “We’ll try again.” And, you know, I believe in that.
And, my brother will kill me for telling you this story. But I once had to fire my own brother. He was a PA when I was doing a show and he did something very dumb. And, you know, I’m kind of known for being about business; I’m a great mentor, and I think I’m a great boss, but I also am not about bullshit. And he did something dumb that [I thought]: Now how can I look all of these people in the eye – who I’m [looking at] like, “if you are not here and ready to do the job then this isn’t here for you” – if I let my own brother get away with what he’d done? So, it was very, very painful. I think I cried for two hours afterward, the night that I had to say, “I can’t keep you.” It was very painful, and for my whole family, it was just a nasty moment. And yet, of course, we survived it, but …. That was like, maybe I can’t hire family – which was always sort of one of my romantic dreams, that I can just be surrounded by family in my business life, too.
You know, from the craft services person, I was like, “One day it’ll be my sister,” who is a really good cook and is amazing, I’m like, I’d like her, and I’d like this, I’d always had that dream. And it hasn’t worked out that way, ’cause they have the nerve to have their own lives. But my brother’s one of my best friends, and he’s a very successful editor in reality television now, he’s on a big show right now. He’s been very successful and worked over ten, twelve years. But it was a very big learning moment for him, and he struggled for a couple of years after that and couldn’t get a job, which was hard for me. And I’m like, you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t hire him, you’ve got to let him find his way, and he did. I think his first shot back in the business was on “America’s Next Top Model,” and he just knew what the opportunity was and he got very serious. And, of course, he got married and had children, and all that grew him up real quick, too.
So you want to help people, you have a good heart, but then you understand that everything you put together, or everything that you’ve done, that it can change in an instant and you’ve got to protect it.
That’s right! And that is in personal and professional again and, you know, one of those things I talked about at that conference yesterday was that sometimes you’ve got to clean house, and it’s painful. And, on the personal and professional side, where you have friends, where you’re like, I’m carrying this friendship. Or, you know, people that you keep giving a break to over and over again, and yet the break doesn’t stick. I’ve had all those experiences, with students, with people I’ve brought in to give them their shot.
One of my dear friends is Sara Finney Johnson, who’s this great, amazing talented writer, she’s like my sister, she co-created “Moesha” and “The Parkers” and I first met her on “Family Matters” and she worked on the Quad with me and we’re dear friends. But, you know, she’s kind of known, when we’re working together, she’s “the nice one,” people say (laughing). Because she’ll say, “Just give them another chance,” or, “You don’t know what they’re going through.” And I’m like, “Sara, I can’t teach them what their mama didn’t teach ‘em.” You know, when you get the opportunity, you’ve got to be ready for the opportunity. She’s like, “But everybody didn’t grow up how we grew up,” and I’m like, “You know what? I need to spend my time with the ones who get the opportunity and know it’s an opportunity.”
Absolutely. Now as part of your new deal, you’re going to be working with “Empire.”
It’s going into its fifth season. I’m literally driving into the office as we speak.
What is it like working on a show like that? How important is it for other producers to be on the team, to bring new ideas, or collaborate on ideas for a long-running show? Does it help or hurt the original vision?
I think it helps, you know when a show is in its fifth season, and the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, they were very clear to me that that’s why they were after me to come on. It’s in its fifth season so, with anything, you just need a breath of fresh air, you need new ideas. Sometimes, with all of us, you’ve been working on it so long, you can also just tend to kind of get stuck. There’s a wonderful showrunner, Brett Mahoney, and I’ve been working there for a month and I’m like, I love this guy already. He really knows how to be collaborative, he really invites all voices to the table; he welcomes the fact that I’m like, No, I haven’t been here the first four years, but what about this, or what about that? It isn’t always the right choice, or they’ll tell me sometimes why we can’t do that, but they welcome that I’m a new voice. So, I think it’s very important, if I were the showrunner for a fifth-year show, I would welcome new voices for sure. I’ve just finished the second season on “The Punisher,” and so I just I believe in mixing it up ’cause I believe that mixing it up is good.
What is your new position and what exactly does it entail?
I have a new overall development deal at Twentieth Century Fox that allows me to develop comedies and dramas for network, cable, streaming, any of that. And I will write, produce and direct those projects. As part of that deal, I will be a consulting producer on “Empire,” while I develop my own new ideas until I’m working on my own ideas. My goal is to build a company.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about, too. Water Walk Productions, give me a little more detail about that?
Water Walk Productions is my company. The company will not only for the stuff I write, produce and direct, but, I’ve always been a mentor, I’ve always had a mentor’s heart and I’m also a teacher, so, it will also be a place for young writers to come and for me to develop the next generation of content creators. And not to mean, [but] if you’ve done it before, I don’t want to see you. I look forward to being a part of who the next generation of content creators are and being part of their success.
How important is it to volunteer?
It’s very important, I mean, to me. Like, I’ve just been so blessed, and part of that is from people who were volunteering at some organization that took an interest in me, and it’s a privilege to be where I am. It is as important to normalize my existence for people who look like me, as it is for people who don’t. Because for people who look like me, I give them hope. Seeing me there, particularly teaching in places where so many students say they have never had a black professor, let alone a black woman professor. It’s why I speak on panels; it’s important to give those people access, and it’s important to see people who look like you so they know they can do it, too. But it’s also important for people who don’t look like you. It’s also important for white America to see me in these places so it normalizes it for them, so they go, “Oh, I’ve seen someone who does that and who looks like that, I should hire someone like that.”