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Rising Through the Ranks: Henry Alexander Kelly on ushering in the Nicaraguan perspective for television

October 13, 2021
5 min read time

"Videogames," says Henry Alexander Kelly as to his start in writing.

"Videogames were my huge inspiration to create art! My mom introduced me to the world of Legend of Zelda and from there on out I was like, oh, these are stories; oh, I can do theatre. I can go write. Videogames were my gateway to storytelling. I was like, five or six years old; NES, let’s do this! From there it was cartoons, television ..."

High school is where Kelly’s expressive, natural storytelling skills started to really shine.

"I started doing theatre, and I was like, oh, this is so fun! I didn’t start really writing until — are you ready for this journey? — after high school I did community college and was like, I want to go work at Disneyland! Almost got a certain role I auditioned for, didn’t get it, but didn’t want to go back home — that wasn’t my thing. So, I went to work at the Tomorrowland attraction [in Disneyland]. So I got to tell stories as a tour guide doing all these magical things. After five years, I was like, it’s time to do the acting and writing thing I came here to do."

What ensued were the beginnings of musical, animated projects and three pilots.

"It’s so freeing just to write and create worlds. It’s so magical. I love weird, zany things. I wrote a one-act [script] about the Salem witch trials where I was like, what if they weren’t witches? What if they were just lesbians? Gay people roaming around, that’s why you’re a witch. A really intelligent person, you’re a witch. I feel like that makes more sense to me. I feel like there are no real witches, it’s just people being, 'You’re too smart, you’re a witch.' Even now it’s crazy ... I love weird worlds that reflect our current world and reality and make people think through laughter. My favorite thing to do is make them think, 'Oh, my God, is that me?!'" he laughs.

Audiences may have the opportunity to ponder that themselves, as Kelly recently had a production company option his Aztec mockumentary/comedy set in the 1500s. Think What We Do in the Shadows and The Office meets ancient Mesoamerica. Um, yes, please.

"I’m super-duper excited. During the pandemic, everything was shut down; work, theatre ... all of it was gone. I was like, what do I do? I looked up The Black List’s Latinx TV List," he pauses to dramatically stroke his beard.

"I had a week to turn something in, let’s write this!" he chuckles.

"So I got to thinking about what’s a time period that’s never been done. I was also drinking and listening to Hamilton ... for some reason googling stuff about Aztecs, and I was like, wait, I think this gonna work! A modern, weird Aztec story reflecting our current situation. In that time period, so many people from all over the world were in Aztec civilization; Spaniards, people from Africa, the Aztecs. It was a mixture of cultures. That’s why Latino exists. So the journey was I wrote that in a week — that did not make it into the program," he laughs. "But, then it got into the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which is a fellowship I love. From there, I wrote another pilot."

That second pilot led to a meeting about the first, proving that it’s always vital for screenwriters to have multiple samples waiting in the wings.

"There’s so much to juggle in this industry. You have to have multiples of things. You just never know what’s going to happen."

And it does all seem to be happening for Kelly, who’s originally from the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I’m from a small town called San Pablo, California that’s like, 20 minutes outside of San Francisco. Growing up, my childhood was a mix of anime nerdiness and caring, overbearing Nicaraguan parents. They’re like, you can’t go out, you can’t sleep over at your friends’ houses, these aren’t things. I realized I want to talk about my life, this mixture of nerdiness and getting in trouble: 'Oh, mom, I’m going out to do this' and then went out and did something else. You’re growing and learning ... Being first generation from a whole family that’s from Nicaragua ... it’s like two completely different cultures. I was the only one out of my siblings to be born and raised here. My siblings were born and raised in Central America and then brought here. Add on to the fact that they’re all way older than me, they’re like my three additional parents, essentially," he says with fondness.

"My mom had me when she was 40. So she’s in a new country, has a new baby, she’s raising this baby in not her own country. I feel like so much in my life, TV hasn’t explored before in a weird, funny, kooky way. That’s my goal with this: write a story that’s real and raw about first-generation immigrant stories that are not based in trauma, but are based in fun and joy, heartbreak and mess."

Which is directly in line with his advice to other writers: "Just be fucking weird. Can I swear? When I was young, videogames were truly my best friend. I felt isolated and alone. Just letting go of that part of your brain and truly allowing yourself to explore. Allowing your brain to go on these journeys."

He’s also a fan of finding a structure that works best for you.

"Whatever gives you the best work to finish a first draft. Give yourself grace ... and keep going," he said.

For Kelly, that means he gets his best writing done between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.

"I’m a massive night owl. My brain is just more active when the world is asleep; I can focus when everything is more relaxed. No one needs me, just my characters; we need each other. The second thing is, I read this article ... It basically said that in the nighttime, enslaved people in America had that free time. It was their own time to do whatever they wanted in their own home. So I often think to myself, is that genetic trauma? I’m Afro-Latino ... I think about that all the time."

When it comes to advice for other screenwriters: "Twitter is a good place to connect with people who are just like you. There’ve been so many great opportunities that have opened up for me there, but also ways to connect and help them. It’s beautiful to have this reciprocity. Especially after the pandemic happened, I thought, I’m gonna be more active on Twitter, and all this magic happened."

That reciprocity has been a huge part of what went into making Kelly’s dream of a Latinx writers meetup happen on Oct. 10 in L.A. after seeing an article about how severely disproportionate onscreen and behind-the-scenes Latinx representation is compared to the population of the United States.

"I thought, wow, we’re really not out there telling our stories."

The event, circulated through Twitter, was a huge success.

"Truly, I can't summarize it in one sentence. It felt validating, empowering, and most importantly, connective! I had to go into the restroom a few times to wipe away joyous tears. To see that many Latinx scriptwriters from all walks of life was beautiful. We're out here. Hollywood is not looking hard enough or choosing not to look for Latinx screenwriters, because we showed up and showed out. So many people felt so empowered. I heard comments from people like, 'a magical afternoon to see these Latinx people just be themselves without having to be a diversity quota' and, 'we could just be ourselves! Thank you for this space!', 'this was life-changing,' and, 'it was awesome to have scriptwriters from all skill levels, from people in the industry to people who are learning.' It felt very uplifting! I literally could go on and on ..."

Hopefully, this event is just the beginning of that joyous ripple effect. On a grand scale, Kelly hopes meetups like this one become annual events. Meanwhile, his goal is to "just create and be happy" and if his infectiously optimistic energy is any indication, I’ve no doubt he’ll achieve them both. 

"I’m Nicaraguan. I feel like in the artistic community ... whenever I see another Nicaraguan in Hollywood or see one on a show, it’s like catching a rare Pokémon. As time is moving on, all these Nicaraguan artists are showing up; we’re like, 'we’re here, we’re doing this thing, let’s show them what we’ve got.' Every Latinx country is so different and unique; I want to usher in beautiful Nicaraguan characters."

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