Kayleigh Llewellyn’s semi-autobiographical series In My Skin arrived on Hulu yesterday and as I said in my review I think it’s a really sharp take on queerness, mental illness, and class — but I was frustrated with the show’s treatment of one of its few characters of color.
It’s so rare to really like a thing but also be frustrated with a thing and then get to talk to the people who made the thing! I spoke with Kayleigh and director Lucy Forbes about these issues as well as lesbian adolescence, the economic challenges of the industry, and the upcoming changes behind the scenes of Killing Eve where Kayleigh is on the writing team.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Drew Gregory: Something I love about In My Skin is that it’s a queer narrative but the conflict isn’t really born from the queerness. How did you find the balance between writing about Bethan’s home life and writing about her queer journey?
Kayleigh Llewellyn: For me I was quite keen on not doing a coming out story, but almost the pre-coming out story — the dawning realization that maybe you’re a bit different. Coming out stories are, of course, important and very needed but I was kind of aware that we don’t see the step before that as often. And it was a really integral part of my life. I think it probably is for a lot of lesbians. I don’t know about gay guys. It’s a slightly different set up. But for teenage girls the way we are in schools we’re so tactile with one another and we have such intense female friendships as teenagers that they’re almost like platonic love affairs. They’re the first person you speak to in the morning and the last person at night and if you argue then it’s the end of the world. So it was quite easy for me as a baby lesbian not to realize I was a lesbian because I thought all the girls were doing this. We’re all really intense with each other, we’re all really tactile with one another. And it wasn’t until I was almost 16 that I started to go, Oh no I might be a little bit different. I’m not the same as everyone else. This isn’t just a friendship. I want something more. I really wanted to depict that on screen. It’s a slow burn thing.
And in terms of balancing it alongside Bethan’s home life, I wrote it in a way where it’s her relief. No matter how bad things get at home she’s a teenager and teenagers are ostensibly selfish. So she can go through something really awful at home and then just completely compartmentalize it because the really prissy girl wants to sit with her. If she was writing in her diary that night she might not even mention what went on with her mom and dad but she would be like oh my fucking god Poppy wants to sit with me! So it runs along the home stuff as the light in Bethan’s life — the stuff she’d get excited about.
Drew: I definitely felt that. There’s a lot in the show that’s really difficult but those brief moments where you just feel this crush of a teenager are so nice to watch. But besides her queerness Bethan is having to deal with a lot. I know it’s based on your life and something that really stuck out to me in the show is when Bethan wins the writing contest and how supportive her teacher is of her. It made me think about how the industry and really any creative field can be really restrictive if you don’t come from an upper or upper middle class background. How has making your way into the industry been for you? And did you have that kind of support system in high school?
Kayleigh: In high school, similar to what you see in the show, I had a few teachers who were just brilliant and I’m still in touch with them now. Particularly I’m thinking of my drama teachers and my English teachers who were so supportive. They formed a haven. The theatre in our school — and I think it’s the same all over — was this haven where the weirdos and the outcasts could go and find safety and community. I’m still so fond of those people. And it definitely set me up to go on and pursue the career that I have now.
Beyond that, here we use the term benefit class. I don’t know if you guys use that term. There’s the working class which is thought of as honest blue collar kind of people and then there’s the benefit class which is below that where you’re really struggling. You’re on the breadline. And that’s how I grew up.
It’s not easy for people like that to make it in an industry like this. Throughout my early career I definitely had moments where I thought, Okay I’m going to have to quit. I cannot survive doing this job. And then every time at the last minute a friend bailed me out or a job came along at the last minute or in one case I had to turn to a charity in the UK called the Film and Television Charitable Fund that helps people who are struggling in the arts to stay afloat. When I was at rock bottom they swooped in and helped me out with a bursary so I could stay in this business. If it wasn’t for people like that I wouldn’t be writing now because it just didn’t seem viable for me. There’s no bank of mom and dad to help you out. But luckily I managed to crawl my way in and here I am now. But it’s not easy for people from lower income families to break in at all.
Drew: And yet that authenticity is felt so clearly in the show itself. It’s evidence in its existence that when people who have an experience are able to actually write about that experience you’re going to get stories that are better and more authentic.
Kayleigh: Yeah absolutely.
Lucy Forbes: Hello, Lucy here. I’m so sorry. Just wanted to say I’m here.
Lucy: I’m so sorry I’m late.
Drew: That’s okay!
Kayleigh: Hey Luce!
Lucy: Hi! My DOP that I worked with on my last shows was just nominated for an Emmy. We got lost in a very high emotional phone call. (Benedict Spence was nominated for an episode of The End of the Fucking World that Lucy directed.)
Drew: That’s so exciting!
Lucy: But please accept my apology for being late.
Drew: That’s okay! We were just talking about Kayleigh’s experience breaking into the industry without the economic privileges that make it easier to do so. And if you don’t mind talking about it, Lucy, I’d love to know your own journey. Because of the show I have an idea of Kayleigh’s background in a way that I don’t for you, so I’m curious about your experience and whether you had some of those economic privileges that make it easier or whether you have a similar background to Kayleigh.
Lucy: I think Kayleigh and I’s backgrounds are different in a way. My experience breaking into the industry was I just worked my way up from the bottom. I just really wanted to work in television and I started out as a runner. I worked on lots of different kinds of television shows — lots of terrible, terrible shows — and just worked my way up. Then in my mid twenties I was sort of thrown behind the camera when I was on a kids television show and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I started working in sketch comedy but it was really tough to break through as a longform director.
It’s really the Me Too Movement and things like Free the Work that have enabled female directors to be given more of a chance. I was banging on doors for years and years trying to get my first longform jobs. I have to thank Kayleigh for believing in me and giving me the chance to show what I’m capable of. So in my experience it was tough to break out as a female director, but In My Skin gave me the amazing opportunity to do so.
Drew: I want to switch gears a bit and talk about Poppy. At the start of the series she seems like a basic mean girl but then I felt a certain connection between Bethan and Poppy. Maybe I was just so in Bethan’s point of view but I’m curious what both of you hoped to accomplish with that character. Do you think she’s just manipulating Bethan for attention or do you think she has her own latent queerness that she’s working through?
Kayleigh: Well, it’s hard with sexuality because it can be so fluid. I think very few people are 100% straight or 100% gay. So there is a part of her I’m sure that could be swayed but the character is a master manipulator. She’s very smart. She’s not out and out a bad person, but what she loves is the chase. She enjoys the act of plucking someone from obscurity who she didn’t previously have a relationship with and making them fall for her whether that be a platonic or sexually driven thing. She just likes the act of getting someone obsessed with her. The moment she feels that she’s got that obsession she’s bored and onto the next and that person gets dropped. It happened before Bethan and it’s going to happen again immediately after Bethan. She’s going to keep doing that probably until she goes to therapy. But I don’t think she’s a lesbian. I think she just really enjoys attention. I think lots of lesbians have experienced that straight girl who wants you to fall for them.
Kayleigh: And then gets bored with you.
Kayleigh: It’s common.
Drew: I’m curious, Lucy, in directing Zadeiah Campbell-Davies (who plays Poppy) was there a shift depending on where you were in the arc and how Bethan was seeing her?
Lucy: I think we knew from the start that she was trouble. I don’t think we tried to hide that fact. But we wanted the audience to believe for a moment it might be okay. We wanted the audience to believe Bethan’s experience so we embraced their friendship in a way that makes it a lot more painful and surprising when it gets ripped away. It’s getting that balance right. I think we all know deep down that Poppy is a problem but we don’t know how bad. At the end when she rips Bethan’s heart out we want to really, really feel it, so it’s just about getting that balance and the performance right.
Drew: I did want to ask about the casting of that character because I think Zadeiah Campbell-Davies does such a good job layering her and going beyond the archetype when given the chance. But it wasn’t lost on me that she’s a person of color and Bethan and her friends are white and one of Poppy’s friends is also a person of color. Whether intentional or not, the mean girls being people of color in a largely white narrative is something of a trope. Were the characters written as a certain race and if not how much of that dynamic was thought about when casting?
Kayleigh: That would’ve actually been a cool thought to subvert the white mean girl thing but sadly I hadn’t been smart enough to have that thought—
Drew: Oh no I’m saying it’s a trope to have a person of color be the mean girl.
Kayleigh: Oh really? Okay. I’m thinking of like Mean Girls with Regina George and all that stuff. More the case for us because we’re casting in Wales — we wanted to have Welsh performers when we could instead of having English people putting on Welsh accents — it was just about finding the very best people for the job. Our casting director Rachel Sheridan — who’s really brilliant — was trolling youth clubs and high schools and we did open calls for auditions. Of course we want diversity within the cast, so we’re conscious of that, but beyond that it’s who are the very, very best performers because that’s going to be what makes the show. Particularly because they’re younger it’s a taller task. We need them to have such emotional range and yet they’re such young performers so it was purely about who is the best for the job.
Drew: So they were all written without a specified race? Not necessarily Bethan, but Bethan’s friends and the other students?
Kayleigh: Yeah there was no race taken into account other than the assumption that Bethan is probably going to be white because it’s autobiographical and based on me. But yeah beyond that it was completely open.
Drew: On a similar topic, Kayleigh, I know there was some pushback on Twitter when you shared a picture of the all-white Killing Eve writers room. I want to talk about this because I think it ultimately falls on people like us to be the ones to change the industry. I’m white and I’m a lesbian and I’m a trans woman and I think it’s my responsibility to create the industry I want to work within instead of waiting for those with even more power and privilege to start caring.
Kayleigh, as a lesbian and as someone who grew up without a lot of economic privilege, and Lucy, you were talking about breaking into the industry as a woman, do you think about the other people in the room when you take a job? Or when you’re putting together your own crew are you thinking of who’s in that room and how to include people either who have the same marginalized identities as you or who have marginalized identities you don’t have?
Kayleigh: Yeah, absolutely. And increasingly so. It’s tricky on a job like Killing Eve which I took not knowing who else was employed. You find out on the first day of work who else is there and as a new writer the more power I get in the industry the more I can use that to leverage raising up other minorities or less represented people. But going forward I think the last few months have really shone a light on how much this industry needs an overhaul.
It’s clear the time for excuses is over now and it’s going to be about action. And specifically in regards to Killing Eve I know the team there are working on some really meaningful changes not just on the writing team but every single department to make sure there’s diversity across the board. And on a personal level that’s something that I’m very passionate about. The more I work in this industry the more I feel like there’s no point being here if I’m not lowering the ladder down and helping other people up. So yes I’m committed to that.
Drew: I’m happy to hear that and I’m happy to hear about that with Killing Eve. Lucy, I’m curious what your feelings are. Is this something you consider when putting together a crew?
Lucy: Well, you know, I think Kayleigh sort of touched on it. In the past I’ve always been as mindful as I can about diversity and inclusivity, but then it gets to a point where I’m not in charge of money or budget or how much things cost. But as Kayleigh just said we can’t make excuses anymore and ultimately moving forward we have to make those meaningful changes. I’m about to start shooting a BBC drama and we’ve talked a lot about making those meaningful changes.
I’m very committed to it as much as I can moving forward and the production team I’m working with is the same as Kayleigh mentioned with Killing Eve. I don’t think we can make excuses for the past anymore or really dwell on what it was like, because the world has literally truly changed. I think the best thing for us to do is make sure moving forward we consider everyone. The industry has always been exclusive and like Kayleigh said it’s about bringing people up the ladder with you and I intend to do as much of that as I can. And I have in the past but you know we all want to do more and be better.
Kayleigh: It’s just a better industry with more diversity in it. It’s going to be more enjoyable to shoot shows and there are going to be better shows on TV. We’re going to make better content so it serves everyone to increase diversity.
Drew: I think that’s a really great point. It’s like what I was saying to you earlier about In My Skin. I think a lot of shows that are about people who are poor become poverty porn. It becomes about the social issue first, but not seeing the characters as people. That happens because the people making it are coming from upper and upper middle class backgrounds whereas when you watch something like In My Skin the autobiographical nature of it is really felt and I think it just makes for a much better show.
Kayleigh: I think about the trauma porn/poverty porn thing a lot. To me it’s always such a flashing neon light that says the person who made this isn’t really poor. Or they’re not really aware of the thing they’re writing about. Because when you’ve actually lived it you realize that you find a way through. Life isn’t bleak all the time. We learn to make do. So yeah I agree with you.
Drew: I really hope you’re both right that things are going to change. But it sometimes feels like every few years there’s a moment like this. There’s a moment of like why is everyone nominated for the Oscars or the BAFTAS white and then there’s a bunch of conversation and then… not much really changes. But I hope this current moment in time actually leads to some structural changes. I guess we’ll see.
Kayleigh: This needs to be the time that sticks. I know the actions that I’m committed to carrying on for the rest of my career. I can very confidently say that. And my peers, Lucy included, all feel the same way. I think it lit a fire in us and if we’re the people inheriting the industry then I hope this is the time that it changes for good.
Drew: That’s great to hear. Speaking of the future, obviously things are uncertain with Covid, but I do feel like this first season ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. Are you thinking about making a second season if given the opportunity? Is there anything you weren’t able to achieve with the introduction of these characters that you would want to achieve moving forward?
Kayleigh: Oh we’d love a second series. It’s so different here to America where we have six episode series and then with something like In My Skin because we’re all a new team we only got five episodes. I’m doing this struggling magician act to cram the story in five half hours. So there’s so much you can’t put in and I already know exactly what happens in series two. There’s so much story left to tell.
In My Skin is now streaming on Hulu.