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Friends with Money: Playwright Jeremy O. Harris

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Tori Sampson: I just want to let people know a little bit about you. You’re a Broadway playwright whose play got more Tony nominations this year than any play in history. You write for TV and film. You’re an actor, you model for Gucci, you’ve been close enough to Rihanna to smell her, and white people love you – which means you’ve been cancelled on Twitter at least twice. These are all really good indications to me that Jeremy is now rich.

Jeremy O. Harris: [laughter] I mean, I think that I am definitely rich to young Jeremy. I am very much richer than the average 30-year-old single Black male in America. But having grown up around kids who are actually rich, I feel like I have as much money in the bank as the kids that got to take a gap year after high school.

Anyway, I definitely know what my class is because it’s not like I have any real savings.

Like me, you didn’t grow up with money. As a child, what was your relationship to it?

To me, it was a fiction that someone could have a lot of money. It seemed like something I would only interact with in cartoons or movies, like Blank Check, but it made indelible facts of my childhood.

I also had a mom who made anxieties about getting money not super present for me, because she always made a way out of no way. So it was really easy to imagine that we were in a better space of middle class than we actually were. My mom worked three jobs and slept, like, no time most of my childhood. And for me, I was just like, well, my mom is a good worker unlike some people’s parents who don’t work hard. But it’s like, no. No one should be working that much and getting that little pay.

When you say your mom made a way out of no way, do you remember a specific time she did that for you?

She would work 14 extra shifts, not sleeping for a week. I remember, at one point, she became a telemarketer. It was a weird makeup pyramid scheme maybe, like Mary Kay. But even then, there was never a way for her to stably be promoted to another space, you know? And that’s just the fact of being a single mom in rural Virginia.

I used to get ideas of ways things might work out by watching sitcoms. That’s how I fantasized about my way out. When you were a kid, did you think about the way out of this? Was there an avenue?

So I had really shitty houses. Mom, thank you so much for putting a roof over my head at all, but we didn’t have a fancy place until I was in second or third grade and we moved into the Stony Mountain house, which my mom had worked really hard for. This was an exciting suburban dream. And looking back on it, I realize it wasn’t as huge as I remember it being.

I remember being like, “This is huge!” Because we’d lived in trailers and stuff before then, but it was a three-bedroom house. My sister had a room, I had a room, my mom had a room, there was a basement and there were parquet floors when you walked into the house. There were all of these markers of it being a nice place.

We lived in that house for, like, three years. I watched that house get built. And I watched my mom lose that house, which was really complicated and really sad. But that three-year stretch was probably the most stable we were financially, because in those three years, the lights were never off. Things were just really, really good. And I’ll never forget the Christmas [that] I really wanted a Game Boy Color with the Pokémon.

It was so funny because when I got to college, I remember there was one day when the lights went off for six hours and my white roommates freaked the fuck out. I was like, “You guys, this ain’t nothin’.”

I have a similar journey. And it’s interesting the ways in which it can be hurtful to get a peek into something that goes away.

Yeah. I mean, that was the thing with education. When we were doing really well, my mom made it a priority to put us in private school. [But] when she got a divorce, she didn’t have consistent child support, so [she] ended up taking care – fully – of me going to an expensive private school. And she worked the three jobs to make sure it could happen, because the minute she couldn’t afford it anymore and I went back to normal school, I was in hell for three years.

Because you got a taste of the good life.

I got a taste of the good life. I got a taste of people who actually cared about my development, how intellectual I was, my curiosities. And to be denied that was… it sent me down a spiral.

I think I will always act like a poor person who’s got money because I think it’s better. I’d rather be Molly Brown, from "Titanic", than Rose’s mom.

Presently, you’ve got at least seven solid toes down in the good life. Bring me to the start of that journey.

Okay, my journey in all of this started while I was still in grad school with you, right? Before that, for six years, I had been a writer’s assistant in L.A. I was so broke, but I was someone who had watched really wealthy white men do this job; the screenwriting job, you know? So I got to watch and be on the phone with them and see how they handled their deals before I got to school.

So when I was in grad school, I actually had this weird comfort where I could say, “No, that’s not enough,” because I knew it wasn’t life or death for me. It wasn’t like if I didn’t do this, I didn’t have anything to do for the rest of the year, because I really needed to be focusing on doing my school work anyway.

Let’s talk about scamming, because I don’t know if I should call you the King of Scamming or if you self-identify as the King of Scamming, but you’re a legendary scammer.

I’ve never identified as the king of anything but I do like a scam. I learned how to scam because it was the closest thing to stealing without stealing, because I have a lot of moral issues with stealing. And I get it, there are people who are like, “Fuck it, it’s not a crime if it’s from a chain store or whatever.” If it’s from a chain, it’s fair game? I think that’s the rhyme. But I can’t do that.

But I could figure out ways to manipulate rules or systems, or even people in situations, in order to get the most bang for my buck. I think about that a lot, especially when it comes to the arts, because I think the arts should be free.

I remember it started in high school when I would go to the movie theatre. Remember when movie theatre prices jumped from $8 to $15 in a week and no one even knew why?

I remember dollar-fifty theatres!

Yes! On Saturdays, I would go to this one theatre that would do dollar Saturday matinees, and my best friend [and I] would just go from movie to movie to movie, all day long, with our same big thing of popcorn. That was my first intro into scamming and I think it just evolved from that.

Have you scammed in Hollywood yet?

I think some of my deals could be scams, yeah. I definitely think that I’m getting paid outside of my worth. Well, maybe not outside of my worth, but outside of my resume. None of my films have made any money and yet we have been able to keep getting these really, really good deals that are more and more lucrative than I imagined. Mainly because of the power of a no, which isn’t a scam, it’s just a no. But I think that a no can also be a scam.

I love it. What is the biggest scam you’ve ever pulled off?

Getting a show on Broadway as a producer. I think that’s the one. Being a producer on Broadway wasn’t financial for me, it was about the title. I don’t need more money for this, but it does now give me the chance to be, like, a producer. Broadway producer Jeremy O. Harris. Which is something very few people can say.

But wait, you also did a public scam once. Like, you did one on a late night talk show.

I did, I did. I scammed [Steph]. That was very fun. I love [Steph] so much.

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Let’s go back to this worth vs. resume thing. How do you determine your quotes? And does your team influence that for you?

A lot of times, agents and managers don’t want to fuck up their bag, you know what I mean? So sometimes they’ll ask you to lowball yourself because they don’t want to get into a bad relationship with someone. Now if that’s happening a lot, then you probably have bad representation and you should go somewhere else. But a lot of [the] time, no one really knows what to ask for a young writer because everything works on precedent. And I think, especially as Black creatives and brown creatives, we need to have really good, smart representation fighting for us. I will say this, my lawyer is a bad bitch and it’s really amazing. I have a Black lawyer, which is something that other people told me not to get.

Why’s that?

Many people will tell you not to go with a Black entertainment lawyer, because they fear that racism will make it so that [by] your “bad guy” being a Black guy, people [will be] less likely to give you the thing. And I’m sure that’s true of someone, but I also think that, as the adage [goes], “Scared money don’t make money.”

So I’m not gonna be scared of white supremacy, because it’s gonna stop me from getting a bag if I work with other Black people. I’d rather change those paradigms by working with a really exciting Black lawyer who can be a real G about getting me the things I need.

There will always be one moment with some agent where you have to take that extra step to explain why something felt racial or why something was fucked up or why it needs to be the way. But the more people you can have on your team who know what it’s like and can just be like, “I hear you,” the better. I’m sure that happens with you as a Black woman.

Yep! And I’m tired. The way you’re describing what it means to be a Black person and asking for money, knowing your worth, especially if you didn’t grow up with money… tell me more, please?

Yeah. I think the number one thing for me is that my mom sort of carted me off down the Nile River to learn how the white folks spoke, so that I could get the things I wanted from white people. So I could have some protection against white supremacy, even if that protection is false.

There are coded ways of speaking that I learned from 14 years of White Supremacy 101, you know? You and I both are now, like, Yale-trained. So no matter what, there’s this sort of second language that will change the way people see us. I do think that it’s really important for me at least to recognize that privilege gives me an immense power to create inside a space of capitalism.

I could say, “Thank you, HBO, for the opportunity, but actually we haven’t liberated all Black folks, so I’m going to give this back to you.” I didn’t do that.

Navigating capitalism as a Black creative. Thoughts?

No one wants to be in a capitalist society necessarily, unless you’re evil. But there’s very little that I, as a creative, can do to completely unpin myself from that while also allowing my ambitions to see the light of day.

That’s something I’m constantly asking myself: is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to tell stories? And is it wrong to want to tell stories on a lot of different platforms and in a lot of different ways?

Does money liberate? No. But does it have the potentialities for liberation? Yes. So I want to try to use, in the smallest ways as I can, the powers that I have at negotiating, demanding more, and being heard in my demands, in order to create new spaces of transgression.

When I was doing my HBO deal, I cared less about getting the biggest number for myself [than] I cared about getting the biggest chunk of money that I could put back into the theatre world, some way, somehow. And the reason I did that was less so that Jeremy O. Harris could be named as this great Robin Hood of HBO – it’s so that the next time Tori Sampson is getting her deal, the next time Jiréh Breon Holder, the next time Josh Wilder...

And again, I just did a violence right there by naming only Black, Yale playwrights, but you know what? It’s a violent space and things get violent all the time, even when you don’t intend them to be. But I wanted it to be so that the next time a young Black writer is doing a deal with, like, HBO they can be like, “Wait, y’all remember that deal that Jeremy had? Because I do.”

You’re talking about the part of your deal with HBO that includes a fund for you to support new plays, right?

Yes. I decided I wanted to make two commissions with my $250,000 that I’ll get [for] each year that I have a deal with HBO. One commission for an older person and one commission for a younger person. Because one thing I know about capitalism is that we discard the old and we make it very difficult for the young to rise up.

See, that’s interesting. Breaking down, dismantling capitalism, is a huge undertaking. And we, as humans, are not ready to do it, but what can we do about how brutal and violent the system is?

Here’s my thing: I think all Black people should be Marxist, but I also think that the labour of being a Marxist is something that I shouldn’t have to take on.

I have too many rich, white friends who were yelling about Black capitalists. I’m like, “No, no, no! Beyoncé don’t need to be on the front lines for Bernie, neither does Rihanna!” I’m sure Jay-Z would be very fine with a lot of people getting more access to capital. I’m sure he’d be fine with socialism. But even if they aren’t, that’s not my problem because I can’t help the fact that years of y’all’s people – and by “y’all people,” I mean white folks – traumatizing us have made some Black people just say, “I’m gonna get mine and do what I need for me in this moment, for me and my family.” They’re doing the, like, the plane is crashing, I’m going to put the mask on me first and save my child second situation. The child being the rest of the Black community.

I could say, “Thank you, HBO, for the opportunity, but actually we haven’t liberated all Black folks, so I’m going to give this back to you.” I didn’t do that. But I said, “No, I will try to take what they’re going to give me and do what I can with it in order to bring more people along, in the hopes that other people will do what I’m doing.” Because I don’t trust the men in power in this state to dismantle this thing that’s kept them in power as long as it has. But I can trust myself to do the best I can to redistribute and welcome in new people into the bowels of power, the spaces of power, in the most responsible way Jeremy O. Harris can.

I love it. Another thing I love about you is, like, people don’t like to talk about money. But that’s not the case with you. Any time I’ve asked you about money, you’ve talked about it.

Yeah, I love it. I think it’s really important. So that’s why whenever a classmate asks me, when someone on Twitter asks me, I try to say it. Because that’s one of the only small tools we have in disrupting capitalism and heteropatriarchy: by telling people, “This is how much I made,” “This is how much they’ll pay you for this,” “This is how you do this.” Otherwise it’s gatekeeping. The gates are kept locked with secrets that should be transparent facts of our business.

Yes, like Michaela Coel said in a speech. She said, “Money is nice; transparency is better. That’s what I’m after.”

Speaking of Michaela and that idea – she said no to Netflix. And telling people you can say no to a million dollars from Netflix opened up a whole generation of Black writers and how they can navigate this business.

I know that, as executives, that makes your jobs harder, but at the end of the day, I don’t care how Netflix works for everyone else. She said she didn’t want it to work like that for her.

I don't trust the men in power to dismantle this thing that's kept them in power. But I can trust myself to welcome in new people into spaces of power.

How is your life right now with money? Is it stressful? Does money stress you? Is it, “more money, more problems,” or is that just a lie to make poor people not want anything?

I think it’s actually a lot less stress because now I can make sure that my family is taken care of and I’m taken care of. And I love having a business manager because I have never been good with money. You know what I mean?

How so?

I’ve always been able to survive, but I’ve never been someone who’s like, “Okay, I have $200. This has to last me for four weeks.” It’s like, “I have $200. I need to do these things, but I really, really, really want to do this thing and I think that my personal happiness is maybe more important.” I’m chaos, right?

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I’ll do the math and I’ll be like, “Okay, great! If they give me my phone bill on Friday, that means I don’t have to pay it until two Fridays from now. Which means that if I spend this $200 going to this one restaurant that I really want to go to because I really think I deserve it this week, then I can get the money for the phone bill on the next Wednesday, if I do this job and that thing and take that extra shift.”

I would gamble with my money in a weird way in order to give myself some semblance of the pleasures of normal life, so I wouldn’t feel like [I was] in abject poverty for all of my twenties. That’s what’s made this moment feel crazy. I’m just like, “Whoa, I don’t have to worry about if my phone bill will get paid!”

One thing I didn’t realize is that, let’s say you get a $500,000 paycheque from writing a movie, right? Only $250,000 of that is yours. The other $250,000 is taxes and agents and shit, and maybe even less than that, which is something that’s crazy.

Say you get a cheque – you, Jeremy O. Harris, get a cheque for $500,000. Walk me through every step of it.

I’ve never gotten a cheque for $500,000, by the way. [laughter] I just wanted to say, I just want to let the record show. But I have gotten really big cheques. When you’re on Broadway and if your show is doing well – and mine was – you get cheques that are for, like, $15,000-$20,000 every other week or something like that, which is crazy. You’re like, “Whoa, this is wild.”

So when those cheques were happening, I was doing what my lawyer told me to do, which is, if you get a $15,000 cheque, $7,500 has to go away from you immediately [for taxes]. I would try to do that. And then when it got too untenable to do that, that’s when I got the business manager and they started doing that. And now I don’t actually think about money too much. I have a business account, I have savings, and I have another credit card.

I don’t have a credit card yet. I’m terrified of them actually.

I had bad credit from my twenties. Basically, because I never put my name on anything, I never owned anything in my twenties. Like, I was completely free of credit. So if I want to buy a house at some point – which I wanted to do but then I gave my entire down payment away as the pet project grant – I have to wait to have some semblance of a credit score built up. That’s why I have to use my credit card so much.

Put me on some quick money management game.

For me, it’s 50/30/20. You put aside 50 percent of your earnings on your needs, 30 percent on your wants, so that’s going out to a dinner or whatever, and then 20 percent should go to savings.

And 50 percent of the needs, that’s your rent, your groceries, clothes…

Yes, and car, etc. And then if you’re making $200,000 a year, obviously 30 percent of that doesn’t need to be on your wants unless you just want a lot of shit. But you can put more money into your savings then.

So you would put more into your savings and keep the needs the same. If you’re taking anything away, always take it out of your wants?

Yeah, yeah.

“Scared money don't make money.” I'm not gonna be scared of white supremacy because it's gonna stop me from getting a bag if I work with other Black people.

Okay, Jeremy, let’s get into some fun stuff. What is the most bizarre thing you’ve observed in this world of richness?

Well, I definitely know that there are weirder things that people feel like they can just tell you. I now know so many more people who have [had] work done and how common it is.

Plastic surgery?

Yeah. Also, it’s really funny to realize that people aren’t kidding [when they say] rich people just get to live a different life. There are people I know who have this valet service, where they’ve traveled so much that there’s someone waiting at the airport to pick them up at the gate – every time they fly on this one airline. They have made it to a certain level that they can do that. And usually their jobs have been flying them around a lot.

Have you ever traveled like that?

No, but I have been invited on PJs which is also…

What’s that?

A private jet.

I’m uncouth, don’t do acronyms with me. So you’ve been on a private jet before

No, I haven’t been on one because I think they’re immoral, but I was invited on one. I think they’re bad. Also, it was the beginning of Covid-19 and someone asked me to take a private jet with them from London to L.A.

Wow, and you said no?

I said, “No, thank you.”

This is a question I’m asking people, Jeremy: why don’t rich people pay for meals and things? Is it how they stay rich? Is it part of the community that’s unspoken?

I think it depends on the rich person, because I had a friend, a very good friend, Sam, who created Euphoria. And Sam’s wife [once] said to me that, “The richest person at dinner should always pay for it or at least offer.” And she said it like a joke but it stuck with me. And I was like, “I agree.” So I do it, but there are friends that get upset about it.

My thing is that I started making a bunch of money in grad school. So when I would go out with my friends who didn’t have money I’m like, “Yo, let’s go do this, let’s go do that!” And they would be like, “Well, I can’t afford to go to that place.” I’m like, “No, I’m asking you to go here because I can afford to take us to this place. Let’s go.”

You’ve done that for me plenty.

Yeah, but I definitely think there are people who don’t like that because it makes them feel weird or guilty. So I think it’s a two-way street with why that doesn’t happen more often.

Well, for the record, I don’t feel guilty about it. I love it.

Honestly, when I went out with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Phoebe was like, “I’m paying for this.” She’s like, “I have an Amazon deal, do you?” I was like, “Good point.”

You know the story about Oprah and Gayle, and Oprah is like, “Whenever Gayle and I go out, I pay for it the one time, she pays the next.” They ping-pong back and forth. It’s like, “Yeah, you both have money. That makes sense.”

Yes. But also, if you’re friends with Oprah, Oprah should always pay. Oprah is literally a billionaire. You don’t get to stop paying until you stop being a billionaire. If I go to dinner with a billionaire? Actually, that’s a lie. I did go to dinner with a billionaire and they did not pay for it. Hmm… wow.

Do you ever think you’re going to feel rich?

I think I feel rich now, even though I’m technically not rich, so I probably shouldn’t feel rich. I have rich friends who are like, “Honey, you’re not rich.” Wealth is owning property to some people. And I don’t have any of that. I have no wealth that I can pass onto another generation. I just have money. And again, in the grand scheme of things, not that much money.

I have as much money as someone with a really good job from 25 to now should have. That’s how much money I have. And so I think the thing that makes it feel richer is that it happened quicker, like access to that happened so much quicker.

And in the public eye.

And in the public eye. And I think the potentiality for me to make even more money is probably greater than a lot of people. I could ostensibly do the same things that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has done, or if I wrote a musical that made the kind of money Lin-Manuel made, I could have access to some real things that you can’t if you just work as a lawyer. But yeah, I think I will always act like a poor person who’s got money because I think it’s better. I’d rather be Molly Brown than Rose’s mom.

Molly Brown?

Yeah, from Titanic.

Okay, I saw Titanic in third grade and that was enough for me. I was like, “Okay.

You’re like, “Titanic chopped on arrival. No, thank you.”

Well, Molly Brown is the character that Kathy Bates plays. And she’s new money. She gives Jack a nice suit so he can get on the boat. She’s really kind, but all the other people in first class look down on her because she’s new money.

Old money mentality just makes you a horrible person.

Yeah, I think it makes you a horrible person.

I think I feel rich now, even though I’m technically not rich, so I probably shouldn’t feel rich. I have no wealth that I can pass onto another generation. I just have money.

Do you feel like there is a difference between how money works in theatre and how money works in Hollywood?

Yes. One world has money and the other one doesn’t.

It’s that simple?

I think it’s that simple. And I think theatre is a place where they don’t have money because they are scared to make it. You know what I mean? They hide it under this idea that they’re non-profits and I’m like, “No, that’s bullshit. The minute you have a successful show at your non-profit, you raise the ticket prices and tell all the poors to stay outside and get it when they can.” You know what I mean?

I do.

I’m like, “Either you actually want to be spaces for the people or you want to be places that make money. And if you want to be a place that makes money, you are missing a lot of major opportunities. Like the fact that you aren’t allowing a brand like Calvin Klein to sponsor a season by making sure all your actors are wearing Calvin Klein underwear is stupid.” That’s easy money, steal from that corporation, you know what I mean?

Is that just smart business or is that a scam?

I think it’s a scam. I think for it to be a business move, you have to actually care about it and want to grow it and I’m just like, “You should get that money, keep it going and do something new after that.” Because you can’t make these companies think you actually want them or need them either, which makes it a scam.

Oh, I like that definition of a scam, that’s a very good one.

Yeah, yeah. I didn’t scam HBO necessarily. I’m in business with them now. But I think that the original coup was a scam. The coup itself was a scam but now it’s just business.

What do you mean “the original coup was a scam”?

Getting them to pay for the theatre thing was a scam at the beginning. I don’t even think they knew what they were saying yes to. And then once it happened it’s like, “Well, scam accomplished. Now we are in business.”

And this is what I admire most about you: you can scam people and then do professionally good business with the same people you scam. Also, I wanted to talk to you about broke habits that you still have.

What counts as a broke habit? I love McDonald’s so much. And no matter how refined my palate gets, I will always be like, it’s late night, time to order McDonald’s, or, time to go and get a honeybun from a corner store. There are some weird comfort foods like that, that I really vibe to. I don’t give a fuck about shoes. I hate shoes.

I hate that for you.

I just don’t get it. That’s one part of Black culture that I’m like... I would rather wear the same black loafers every day for six years but have the coolest coat. I would spend $10,000 on a coat in a second, but if you asked me to spend $20,000 on a Rolex, I’d be like, “Ha!”

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought? Your most expensive piece of clothing, since that’s what you care about.

I got a really cool ring for someone, and I got an UGG + Eckhaus Latta coat for myself.

How much money is enough money for you?

I think the amount of money I have now is enough for me, honestly. But if I made that every year for the next decade, it would be great because then I could have savings. I could give some to my nieces; I could help put them in college if they wanted to go. I think for me enough money would be enough money to have a savings account for my nieces that would allow them to have the kind of college careers they wanted.

My last thing is not a question, it’s just a request that you just say really nice things about me to Julia Roberts one day.

I’ve never met her.

When you do though?

Okay. [laughs] Okay, I will definitely do that.

Thank you for being so open and transparent about money and about your life – just all the work that you’ve done to pull the veil back about how we make money, when we make money, when to say no, when to say yes, and how to pour back into the communities. And I love this idea of using capitalism for liberation. Thank you so much.

Oh my god, I love you so much. You’re the best.

Tori Sampson is an award-winning playwright (her recent play “If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka” was a New York Times critic’s pick) and currently writes for “Hunters” on Amazon Prime. She is a proud Bostonian and lover of all things Julia Roberts and AJ1 sneakers.

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