For Jamey Giddens, becoming a part of the world of soap opera writing and creation was the definition of manifesting his own destiny. From being a young boy in his grandmothers living room in Texas watching some of the most iconic soap opera storylines of the eighties to now helping shape and craft the newest nighttime soap obsession, OWN’s Ambitions, Giddens has come a long way from that little Texan boy watching television on his grandparents living room floor.
A longtime fan of both daytime and nighttime soaps, a young Giddens watched as the storylines were crafted and took keen interest in how they came together and slowly developed the passion he needed to now create his own dynamic and dramatic characters and storylines for OWN’s Ambitions. I sat down with Giddens for an extensive chat where we got to talk about everything from his initial love affair with 80’s soaps, the amazing characters and actors who he is helping come to life on Ambitions, if he thinks we may see a resurgence of the iconic soap operas of days gone by, and he gave one of his own famed “Wishful Casting” ideas, with an LGBT twist!
Michael Cook: Ambitions has come to OWN and you are seeing your lifelong dreams realized. What is it like to see it all come to life?
Jamey Giddens: It’s both exhilarating and nerve wracking. Exhilarating in that I am actually able to see promos, trailers and full episodes of a series I created actually airing on television. Not only television, but on the Oprah Winfrey Network! Oprah Winfrey is television; she has been for decades. Her name is synonymous with success in this medium. So to have the soap I created for a prolific Hollywood filmmaker like Will Packer airing on OWN is a dream come true. The nerves come in when I think about how badly I want the show to be a success and not betray their faith in me, or in Ambitions. Will is always telling me not to think about ratings too much, and to soak this all in and embrace how the fans are receiving it so positively. I am learning to do just that.
MC: So take me back; when did you fall in love with the classic soap operas? What were some of the ones that you initially fell in love with?
JG: I was raised by my grandparents in DeKalb, Texas, a small town with roughly two thousand people. If you’ve ever seen the series Friday Night Lights, it was a lot like that. Boys were expected to love sports, girls, Jesus and fast cars. I loved soap operas and carbs. I was mesmerized by the romance of Bo and Hope, a big-haired super couple from Days of Our Lives, played by Peter Reckell and Kristian Alfonso. Anne Heche played good girl/bad girl twins Vicky and Marley on Another World. I was obsessed with every single end-of-show freeze frame on one of Vicky’s nasty schemes. Once the shows were over every day during summer breaks, I would go outside in my grandparents’ backyard and pretend I was the Head Writer, continuing where the storylines left off. I also loved zany, glamorous Santa Barbara, arguably the first “dramedy”. My aunts and uncles watched nighttime soaps Dallas, Falcon Crest and Knots Landing. I became hooked on those shows from spending them with them. In my teens, I added Aaron Spelling sudsers Dynasty, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place.
MC: The classics like Another World are where so many of your creative ideas launched from. What do you think made those shows so magical?
JG: The eighties were a heady time for soaps. The shows had enormous budgets, even the lower rated ones. Larger-than-life romances, tightly-woven storylines featuring both international intrigue and relatable kitchen sink drama all managed to play out five-days-a-week set to popular music of the day. It was both wildly escapist and relatable, not to mention aspirational. I think that’s why so many little gay boys fell in love with soaps. They gave us a window into the world outside of our small town closets. For an hour a day we could escape our collective depression and live vicariously through the exploits of Erica Kane, Rachel Cory and/or Dr. Marlena Evans.
MC: Ambitions is a classic soap in every aspect of the word, but built for today’s era. Tell me about the story and the families on the show…
JG: One aspect of the soaps I loved as a kid that always irked me, is the black characters generally being relegated to the “B” and “C” storylines. If soap viewers of color were lucky the characters who represented us were the bland, dutiful cops or doctors, serving as the tireless best friends of the white characters. When we weren’t so lucky, the black and brown characters were thugs and petty thieves, often times illiterate and in desperate need of a white savior. Outside of a few standout storylines and couples like Jesse and Angie on All My Children, black soap viewers were given crumbs, despite black women making up the lion’s share of the audience for this kind of programming in daytime and in primetime. Thanks to the nighttime soaps of Shonda Rhimes, Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels, that isn’t the case anymore, at least not in primetime. When I learned Will Packer wanted to do a contemporary soap set in Atlanta, I saw it as an opportunity to tell those classic, fun, sexy, shocking stories that were only reserved for white characters in the 80’s; this time with black and brown faces front and center.
MC: The cast is diverse and features some pretty big heavy hitters interwoven with good old fashioned soap opera writing. One of the best things about Ambitions though, is the true diversity throughout the cast and stories. Tell me about them…
JG: Ambitions features five very unique families, all interconnected and featuring characters striving to achieve their goals at all costs. There are the Carlisles, a wealthy black legal dynasty; the Lancasters, a working class black family from the wrong side of the tracks who managed to produce the mayor of Atlanta; the Purifoys, headed up by a ruthless, white Big Pharma tycoon; the Latinx Trujillos and the Hughes, a middle class couple who relocates to Atlanta looking for a fresh start in their careers and for their fractured marriage.
Stephanie Carlisle (played by Robin Givens), is a top notch attorney married to philandering Mayor Evan Lancaster (Brian White). At the start of the series, theirs’ is merely a marriage of political convenience. As the story goes on, you get the sense that Stephanie and Evan might actually be meant for each other. They definitely crackle with chemistry while scheming together! Stephanie has never gotten over her college sweetheart Titus Hughes (Kendrick Cross), who married her former best friend and sorority sister Amara (Essence Atkins). When the Hughes return to Atlanta, it opens old wounds in Stephanie’s psyche, leaving her hellbent to destroy their marriage. Ambitions also features Rondell (Brely Evans), Evan’s opinionated sister, who runs the Lancaster family restaurant Thelma’s Place. Rondell is desperately trying to save her business and her entire neighborhood from mob-connected developer Greg Peters (Gino Anthony Pesi). There’s Bella Tru (Erica Page), a feisty, Mexican American fashion designer and Instagram influencer. Bella will stop at nothing to build her empire – even sleeping with the married mayor of Atlanta. Rounding out the main players are Carly Lancaster (Kayla Brianna Smith) and Lori Purifoy (Christina Kirkman), a pair of queer young woman who fall hard for each other despite hailing from warring families.
MC: Having someone like the indomitable Robin Givens as part of the Ambitions cast is a true coup. What is it like seeing such amazing artists like her acting out your vision?
JG: Our cast, led by the indefatigable Robin Givens, is absolutely incredible. She’s the sweetest, most gracious person ever, not just to the brass and her fellow actors, but to the crew. So she’s nothing like Stephanie [laughs]! Brian White is a very intelligent, funny guy who is truly fascinated by politics in real life. This adds a richness and depth to his portrayal of a flawed politician. Essence Atkins is the relatable actress and best girlfriend you’ve seen in practically every black sitcom ever, but she’s been hiding a ferocious drama thespian in there all these years. She was born to bring Amara to life. Kendrick Cross, who plays Titus, is such a gentleman. He’s a Vegan and I’ve never seen him have one unkind moment. He and Essence make Titus and Amara a safe port in the storm for our viewers. They’re our Karen and Mac from Knots Landing, if Karen cheated once. [Laughs] Gino Pesi smolders in every scene as dangerous Greg Peters. His humor and zest for life helped us transform Greg from “Evil White Dude” to a fully realized, if lethal, human being. Brely Evans as Rondell is truly our breakout. The audience can’t get enough of her! To borrow from Chaka, she’s everywoman. I can’t wait for the world to stand up and take notice. Much like Robin is the polar opposite of vicious, vengeful Stephanie, Erica Page is a heartfelt, honest soul which helps make outrageous, promiscuous Bella likable, even when we have her doing ghastly things. Kayla Smith and Christina Kirkman have poured so much into the Carly/Lori romance, which you can imagine is near and dear to my heart.
MC: Oprah Winfrey. She is clearly a fan of the show. What is it like working for a woman who has crashed through so many glass ceilings. Have you gotten some one on one time with our favorite daytime talk show host?
JG: I haven’t met Ms. Winfrey yet but I hope to soon! I do know she reads all the material, weighs in on cuts and promos, casting, you name it. I hear she is pleased with Ambitions, which is the best seal of approval ever. She did a fun promotional video with Robin to kick us off. She called the show “scintillating” and “salacious”. I’ll take it! [laughs]
MC: The Daytime Confidential podcast and website are where you poured so much of your creative juices in for so long, including your Wishful Casting pieces, many of which clearly were followed closely by soap writers. Any wishful castings that you could think of right now that would be amazing?
JG: I will never stop wanting Vanessa Marcil back at General Hospital as Brenda Barrett. The woman is a ratings juggernaut and is magic opposite Maurice Benard (Sonny) and Ingo Radamacher (Jax), both of whom are still on the show. Same goes for Victoria Rowell (Drucilla) at The Young and the Restless. As for Days of Our Lives, I would really like to see Martha Madison and Brandon Beemer back full-time as Belle and Shawn Douglas Brady. Hello, the married children of the soap’s two biggest supercouples should be in fictional Salem U.S.A! I’d love for The Bold and the Beautiful to cast Drew Garrett (ex-Michael, General Hospital) as Little Eric, the long-lost son of Deacon Sharpe (Sean Kanan). Tuc Watkins would make a fun recast of Philip Chancellor III, the heir to Genoa City’s wealthiest dynasty, who faked his death rather than come out to his feuding mother and stepmother. They could pair him with Kevin Fisher (Greg Rikaart), as Phillip helps Kevin come to terms with being obviously gay. As for my own soap, Will and I have talked about how amazing it would be to bring Susan Lucci on in Season 2. Can you imagine her and Robin going head-to-head? Okay, I better stop there! [Laughs]
MC: There are so many rumors about the ABC shows possibly being re-birthed in some form. Once and for all, do you think there is a possibility that it could happen?
JG: Anything is possible. Hell, we get a new Spider Man franchise every two years. Why couldn’t One Life to Live have another life? Same goes for All My Children. I can tell you, we get more hits on DaytimeConfidential.com when we blog about those classic soaps than the four currently airing. In this digital era, someone will figure out how to make those classic soap brands viable again. I’d also love to see Procter & Gamble do something with their soap catalog.
MC: Many say that the Real Housewives franchise is today’s modern soap opera, but shows like Ambitions are showing that there is true life left in the classic genre. What do you think today’s modern day soap equivalent is, or could it be a hybrid of both?
JG: There’s no denying reality shows have captured a large chunk of the viewing audience, but series like Game of Thrones (a soap with dragons), Queen Sugar, Pose, Vida and so many more have proven and continue to prove scripted TV can still be lucrative and viable. Granted, the average soap will never even come close to getting the budget of a Game of Thrones, but the one thing GOT has in common with reality TV is they both explore complex human emotions by constantly pitting opposing forces against each other. It”s Drama 101. Get two people (or groups) in conflict in a room, or across a battlefield and you’ve got a story. When those Real Housewives get back together at the end of the season to hiss and claw at each other, while Andy Cohen watches with glee, it’s very much like when Erica Kane and Brooke English would go at it on All My Children. The trick is finding a way to make scripted soaps economical and sustainable.
MC: What’s next for Jamey Giddens?
JG: Right now I’m busy promoting “Ambitions”. We live-tweet each Tuesday night using the hashtag #Ambitions, and also work to engage our viewers on Instagram, Facebook and at fan events. Other than that I’m brainstorming Season 2 storylines, while awaiting word on a pickup. So tell everyone you know to watch us Tuesday nights at 10/9C on OWN!
MC: What gives you pride?
JG: I’m very grateful to be a college-educated, black gay man living out my dreams in America in 2019. We have a long way to go, especially given the current Administration in Washington. But when I think back to that sad, lonely, fat, closeted kid, who only had his soaps and Jackie Collins novels to comfort him back in Texas, I’d like to think I make him proud.
Ambitions airs Tuesday night at 10:00 PM on OWN (check local listings)
All Art Courtesy of OWN