Kate Johnson | The Leslie

The Leslie captivated audiences after the first episode. Created, written by, directed, produced and starred in by Kate Johnson, the series explores what it's like for Leslie, a newly out lesbian as she explores the highs, lows and everything else in between as she navigates her new world. Check out what Kate has to say below.

netTVnow: Where did the idea for your series come from?

Kate Johnson: I came out a year and a half ago and I know many queer people in my life but none of them are in LA. They’re either back home in Arizona or elsewhere. I tend to be really shy and quiet and to go out and meet people is really hard and I didn’t know what to do [laughs]. I didn’t want to go the Abbey. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know what to do and I have an amazing group of friends out here and they were all so excited and all so accepting. They were so excited to see me so accepting of myself and they all really wanted me to go out and date, get a relationship and they also wanted me to get laid.

So it became this community effort to get Kate to go meet people but I didn’t know what I was doing and everyone was offering up this weird advice that was coming from a place of support and love but it wasn’t coming from a place of understanding. And it just made for these really weird experiences and advice, almost everything we’ve heard from Nick and Luke so far are things that men have said to me [laughs]. 

So all these weird things were happening and i just didn’t know what to do. So I was talking to my best friend and she goes, “You know, you’re kind of like Jenny Shector.” So I made this passive flippant joke about how I need to just make a movie about my life and then realized that could happen. I’ve always wanted to write a web series since I was in college but I never had the right idea and now here we are [laughs].

netTVnow: What was the process like for you turning your real-life experiences, which are pretty sensitive already, and turning it in to a story?

KJ: I think in terms of the story that we’re telling it’s very fictional, but in terms of what Leslie is experiencing and conversations that she’s having, that is very real. You know, there’s no Alex next door [laughs] I wish I did and there’s no Jen but the Leslie and Jen experience is an experience I’ve had…many, many times in my life [laughs].

One of my favorite experiences is when Paulie sends Leslie upstairs to make sure her bra and underwear match, that’s something my roommate did to me [laughs]. So the story is definitely fiction, but the process was this combination of having all these things that I want to touch on and things that happened to me but how do I make them fit into the story and how do I blend the two. It was a little difficult at first because I was really terrified to let Leslie be me. I kept doing this thing where I’d be like, she’s me but she’s not. She’s me but she’s not met at me, she’s different.

I started writing it before I came out to my family and my mom and I had this really long conversation when I came out and I’m like, “Not everything about me is suddenly going to be gay. It’s like being a writer, which I am.” And then two weeks later [laughs] I go to her and say, “So I’m writing this web series…about being gay…and it’s based on me and i’m probably going to play the main character!”

I was really nervous letting Leslie be me, giving her my voice and letting her sound like me. It wasn’t until I took that away and removed it and just let her talk like me that everything else started falling into place and suddenly she was brought to life and everything else sort of followed.

It’s been a very interesting experience because Leslie’s journey and the story of getting this made is super entwined and engrained into my own coming out story and I’ve had to come out to people because of it. So it’s been a really weird personal, personal experience. And once I removed that fear it just fell into place. 

netTVnow: I’m curious as to how the experience was for you of separating yourself from Leslie and vice versa.

KJ: The moment I feel like I found Leslie and her voice happens in episode nine. Leslie has a tangent really, at the beginning of the episode and that was the moment that I was like, “This is who this character is and when I looked at it, this is me.” I can’t be afraid to just let her breathe and let her be me and embrace it. And especially since it’s a comedy, if you can’t laugh or make fun of yourself, then you’re probably in the wrong business.

I’m in this writing group and one of the writers, when I first started working on it, I expressed the fear of making Leslie like me because at the time I wasn’t out. And he told me that, “all writers write about themselves in some way.” That really stuck with me and it isn’t any different, it’s just on a bigger scale.

netTVnow: What were the inspirations for the other core characters in The Leslie?

KJ: I think it was very much just pulling in those usual suspects in stories. The Paulie character is definitely the quirky roommate, I described Paulie in the script as the quirky best friend. Broad City was a big inspiration for the show and that Abby/Ilana relationship is something we see everywhere, where one character is functioning up here, while the other isn’t but somehow they work so well, that was what I wanted for Paulie and combining my three best friends into one person.

Alex was the love interest, you know the one that everyone sort of wants to be with. She’s so adorable and I told Diana (Spieller), that people are going to love you and seeing everyone’s reaction, I was right [laughs]. Originally though, Alex was someone that Leslie worked with was just really flirtatious.

One of the things after coming out that I’ve noticed is how straight men interact with me differently and it’s like I cease to become a woman and I just become a lesbian and apparently that’s different from being a woman [laughs]. So it’s these guys are the ones who were giving me the advice the most. They thought it would be so easy to take me out and find someone to hook up with [laughs]. So that’s where Nick and Luke came from to really round out this group, this disconnect between what a straight man thinks of how to pick up women compared to how a woman who knows how to pick up a woman. 

The Jen character is really interesting because she originally was supposed to be a one-off character but as I got into the story, it become obvious that she needed to be brought up more. And I thought [laughs], “I can’t write a story about a gay woman without her straight girl crush.”

netTVnow: Your cast is extremely diverse which isn’t surprising given it was shot in LA but it also was surprising because it wasn’t something that was flaunted around either. Was casting as diversely as you did something you took into consideration?

KJ: Thank you! I entered into auditions with the idea in mind that I want to cast this as diverse as possible. At the same time, these were also the best people for the roles, so it kind of worked out that way. What I was nervous about was the fact that we were navigating on a small budget and so we’re putting things out into the world and because of that, you can only really work with what you’re given. I forgot who I was talking to this about but a lot of the submissions i received in casting were really diverse and that was really exciting because it was something that I consciously wanted to do but at the same time, I didn’t know what my resources were going to be in order to make it happen.

netTVnow: When you originally wrote the series, were you always going to play Leslie?

KJ: I was really writing it originally as a sample to show to people and so I took the pilot into my writing group and basically what we do is read 10-15 pages aloud together and give each other notes. So I took episode one in, after I blindly wrote it the night before [laughs]. So I took it in and at that point I wasn’t thinking of being her but for the class I just read for her and the very first thing the group said to me after reading it was, “You’re going to play her, right?” And then that’s when it hit me, “Oh, yeah I should.” So from there, I just knew I’d be playing her. 

netTVnow: The series has picked up a lot of steam. What’s that like for you and the rest of the cast to see that?

KJ: We have a big group chat between the six of us, I don’t know whose idea it was but it’s a hot mess of fun [laughs] and it’s wacky. It’s hard to wrap my brain around because it’s one of those things that you hope for but don’t think it’ll happen. It’s incredible and we’re all just blown away by it and it’s fantastic. We all believe in this story and I think sometimes those guys believe in it more than I do in some way, so to see people reacting to the series is gratifying. I see people say, “Oh hi, I’m Leslie,” it’s insane. I don’t have any words because that’s just so great to see and hear from people. 

netTVnow: You talk about the series being low budget but it honestly looks amazing.

KJ: Thank you because Joe Van Auken is insanely talented and made everything just look more amazing than I thought it would be. 

netTVnow: What are some things about the filming process you learned with this being your first web series?

KJ: I actually contemplated shooting the series episode-by-episode but ultimately we filmed the entire series over a course of six weeks. We shot Saturday’s and Sunday’s for six weeks and had 11 days total, the last weekend we only filmed Saturday. When we first started we thought we were going to be in for really long days, which is typically expected but we found that we all jived and clicked instantly that we honestly got done so quickly.

What became clear to me from the beginning was that I needed to write a story that I know I can make. When I first conceived the show there were 20 episodes and we spent a lot of time out, following her to work, meeting her family, all of that but knowing what my budget was really helped lay the groundwork for everything else that came after. So from my writing standpoint, I want to tell a simple, funny story. So we condensed everything to the apartment, Alex became the next door neighbor, which was really interesting from a writing standpoint because how do you make a character actively date, while keeping her in one location. It was a really interesting challenge but I think it worked out really well, we very much explored and used our environment as best as possible. 

netTVnow: What’s your favorite thing about web series?

KJ: I think from a writing standpoint I like being able to see that short form storytelling more, it’s interesting and it’s kind of difficult, I like that challenge. What I love as a fan of web series is that it opens up a whole new door for generation of storytellers. You know there’s high schoolers who are knocking out like 100-episode series and it’s just insane but now you get an instant reaction to things and you can put it somewhere, where someone can view it. The best way to learn how to tell a story is to tell it and hear reactions from it. That’s so cool to me and it’s also really exciting because we’re creating what the medium looks like. In the last ten years, these sort of stories didn’t exist and now they do. Suddenly we have something new and it doesn’t have rules yet. It’s a completely new and inventive way to tell stories and it allows a space for people who wouldn’t have the opportunity to tell stories or have stories about them told.

netTVnow: Any upcoming projects we can share?

KJ: I think season two is official in all our hearts just working out a few kinks and I think we’ll be good to go. But when we just about wrapped, Sam messaged me about this web series idea she had because she’s very much an actor and wanted someone to help and bring it to life. So she asked if I wanted to work on it, she pitched me and we worked on that all Spring and Summer so stay tuned for that!

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