How Zola Writer Jeremy O Harris Overcame the Fear of Failure — and Broke Tony Awards Records
By Margeaux Sippell • July 21, 2021
Zola writer Jeremy O. Harris says that getting rejected freed him up to write what he wanted to.
Harris and director Janicza Bravo co-wrote the acclaimed Zola, which is based on a harrowing road-trip tale told in a Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells. He also wrote Slave Play, which is currently nominated for 12 Tony Awards, a record-breaking number for a non-musical.
In the latest episode of Demystified, from StudioFest, he tells screenwriter Lowam Eyasu how he overcame the fear of failure after a round of rejections from Hollywood.
“So many people would say ‘no’ to so many things, and I was just sort of like, well, fuck it,” he said. “Like, they’re saying no, I guess I just don’t know what anyone wants. I can just write what I want to see. And I think leaning into just writing what I want to see, and really being excited about no one wanting to see it, is where this sense of authenticity came from,” he said.
“It made me really feel unafraid of a ‘no.’ Knowing that the ‘no’ is probably going to come made me really unafraid of it,” he said. “Now I’m in this really interesting moment, now that people have said ‘yes’ and said, like, really loudly ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ more and more and more.”
Overcoming the fear started with writing his 2018 work Slave Play, he told Eyasu, who is working on her own first feature for StudioFest.
“I think there’s also a part of me that has a sense of failure in the sense of hearing, like, ‘studio system’ and what that means, and having friends who’ve been fired from jobs and replaced. And I don’t want these things I love to have someone else’s names on them,” he said.
“I’m trying to get over that hump of fearing failure and saying like, no, there’s no way I can fail because I don’t care, because when I wrote Slave Play I wasn’t writing it to go to Broadway, I was writing it to go to like the smallest theater in New York. So I didn’t have to worry about what someone on Broadway would think about it. But now I know that I’m working on films that are going to have, like, $20 million budgets or more maybe, so there’s a certain audience they are going to want for that. And that makes me nervous about what notes I’m going to get when I turn in the draft because that’s so much emotional labor,” he added.
“Navigating the notes process is emotional labor because a lot of the notes are probably great, but when when you’ve already committed to falling in love with an idea and it’s become real in your head, it’s like punching a hole in a universe, you know, to change it.”
Now, his anxiety doesn’t come from the fear of failure, but from the fear of letting his success affect his creativity.
“That changed my life, like, on a financial level. Now I’m trying to find out how to maintain that same fucking voice and that same honesty and while also knowing that, like, I’m taking care of my family and my three nieces and nephews and have dreams of being someone that can be a provider that feel tangible, and wondering if those things are in conflict with me being authentic to myself,” he said. “I think before it was like feeling like the ‘no’ was going to come no matter what, and just living in that, and now it’s more so coming back to that place and finding some new mode of the ‘Fuck it, what does Jeremy want to see?’ place.”
Main Image: Jeremy O. Harris, courtesy of StudioFest.
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