Interview: Showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar On Making ‘Black Cake’

Adapted from the Charmaine Wilkerson novel of the same name, Black Cake is an epic family saga following a series of life-changing events in the world of a woman named Covey. In anticipation of its streaming release on Hulu, Awards Radar chatted with showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar to talk about the making of this ambitious project. In keeping with the grand scale of the novel, Cerar explained the challenges and rewards of adapting a multi-cultural and mult-generational story.

Shane Slater: This story covers different generations and continents. How did this expansive project came to fruition and how did you become involved?

Marissa Jo Cerar: Well, I was sent the manuscript I think about three years ago. And I knew immediately I wanted to do it, for all the things you just said. It’s expansive, multiple timelines, locations. But it was really the characters, and how unique they were. And I hadn’t seen these characters as the main characters in a limited series or a premium series before. And so it came to me through my agent. But then I read it and I said, “I want to meet the author.” And I met Charmaine on Zoom, we had an amazing conversation. And we just sort of gushed over how much I loved the characters and where I saw them going potentially beyond the book and beyond season one.

Then we found out Oprah Winfrey and Harpo really loved the book as much as we did. And so we all came together to take this project out and Hulu was the perfect home for it. And I was just so excited to be able to take this family drama slash murder mystery, with this incredible intersectional diverse cast, and to make a premium, fun, thrilling series for the masses, but that also felt very character driven, very grounded.

SS: There are so many fascinating perspectives in the story. Was there any particular character that you were really interested in exploring? And how did that influence the casting of that character and the writing?

MJC: I’ve loved so many of the characters. I think, obviously Covey, who’s the lead. But Bunny, who is Covey’s best friend, I see them as soulmates. She’s the hero of the the book, and one of the heroes in the series. I just wanted to know more about her and I want to know more about her. It was always planned that we do, if in success, more than season one. And I’d love to know more about Bunny and what we didn’t see in all those years when we were away from her.

Lin (Covey’s father), he was a very aggressive man. And it was important to me to kind of understand what he was going through. It was an impossible situation. I wanted to make sure in an adaptation that we really made that clear that we really empathize with him and rooted for him. Because to see where he came from, and why he is the way that he is, was so important in our show. And so just expanding some of what Charmaine already put in the book, and bringing it to life was so important to me. Benny, obviously, was just such an interesting, complicated character.

And then Byron, this Black ocean scientist, with first generation immigrant parents living in the suburbs, living in Orange County, I just haven’t seen that character before. And I knew very little about ocean science. I know a little bit more now, now that I’ve done all the research and adapted this book. I wanted to just see new people that I hadn’t seen over and over and Byron, Covey, Bunny, they were certainly fresh characters.

SS: What was the casting process like?

MJC: It was very difficult. I mean, it was an international long search because we needed the specificity of different time periods, accents. We wanted authenticity in casting, meaning that, you know, one of our main character is half Chinese and half Black, so we wanted to honor that as much as possible. And so all of that made it complicated and challenging, but we did it. We did it with all of them, and I’m so proud. It felt impossible at the time.

There were some characters that were last minute. When we found Mia Isaac, that was step one, to play Covey. Covey is the soul of the book, and of the series and all starts with her. She’s the mother of this family in present day, so we have to make sure that she is someone we believe is an 18 year old girl, is a 16 year old girl, is a 20 something woman, we have to believe that she’s Jamaican, we have to believe that she’s falling in love for the first time, you know? We have to believe how scared she is when her dad forces her into this arranged marriage. It can’t feel like you know, a 30-year old woman portraying this innocent.

When I saw her on her first tape, I just knew. There was no Covey in my head, really, because I had never seen the actor, an actor like this before, until I met Mia.

SS: I’m always really fascinated to see historical depictions of Jamaica. Were there any particular references that you depended on to recreate this period of the 60s in Jamaica?

MJC: We were in Jamaica, in Portland filming. So we really just relied on our people there. And the book, because it was so thoroughly researched. And then, of course, obviously, our production designer, costume designer, our whole art department, hair, makeup. They just went through many photographs, they could find of real people in the time period. And then of course, we want to elevate and add some of our own unique style to some of the characters to make them stand out and make it their own. And a lot of the clothing is actual vintage clothes that we use for those time periods. So most of it is really just being there and talking to the people that live there, to make sure to let us know, are we doing it right? I hope that people can see just how much care was put into it.

SS: Was there anything surprising or particularly challenging about the process of this big international production?

MJC: I mean, bringing a huge production to a small community in Portland, and we weren’t at like a mega resort, you know? We wanted to be in the small community. So just bringing all of our stuff and our trucks and our equipment, and then the weather, making sure that the weather cooperated with us. So I think just bringing the whole production there to this community of amazing people was very challenging, but I just can’t imagine shooting anywhere else. It was tough, but so worth it because we had real people as a part of our background artists, as our cast, as our crew. And it just means so much and I hope it shows up on screen.

SS: The book references black cake, which is a very important part of Caribbean culture and cuisine. Did you have any similar kinds of food that represented something really deep and personal to you that you could have related to and brought to the show?

MJC: I do. And it’s funny, it’s such a perfect representation, because black cake is this marriage of cultures from the British plum pudding, and then it evolves into what the people of that community make.

I’m adopted, and my parents are of German and Eastern European descent. So my food culture is their food culture. I live in the Midwest and every holiday like Easter, my dad makes this pastry called potica. And I just remember, it has bourbon in it and it’s similar. Like, you’ve cooked through raisins and bourbon, and the whole house growing up smelled like bourbon, and I hated it. And I would put a hoodie on and I pulled a string because it just felt like alcohol in the house. It was so disgusting. But it’s just that memory. I remember the holidays, being home, being with my dad. And ultimately wearing a hoodie, rolling up this the giant dough, baking it, slicing into it, making sure the crust is just right.

And so for me, it’s the marriage of cultures in my family. It’s from my dad and his ancestors, even though they’re not my biological ancestors. But it’s so specific to my family. I have a daughter, and I can teach her and it will be part of our culture all coming together. And hopefully we’ll bring our own new traditions. My husband, his family being Mexican, we make tamales on certain holidays. And then at my wedding we did that so we brought his family and my family together. So my family is like the perfect concoction of all of these different cultures in this food, sort of thrown against the wall, which really connects to black cake. It’s different, but similar.

Black Cake is now streaming on Hulu.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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