The Force Awakens

Television and film have long been empires dominated by men. Yet a galaxy of Sarah Lawrence alumnae—among them writers, directors, producers, actors, and agents—have become behind-the-scenes stars in the entertainment industry.

The Force Awakens

Even as a young child in Tangier, Sanaa Hamri ’96 felt she had so much to say and share with the world. “I didn’t know it was going to be through filmmaking,” Hamri says. “But I think I naturally gravitated toward that.”

Not that her journey was straightforward. Hamri had hoped to act on the Broadway stage. But, she says, “Having to sustain oneself in New York City without money can send you in a different direction.” In classic Sarah Lawrence fashion, she turned her role as a receptionist for a post-production studio into a music video editing gig by teaching herself the complicated Avid editing machine. In six months, she was the go-to music video editor for top hip-hop and R&B artists. Then Mariah Carey, whom Hamri counts as a mentor, hired her to make Carey’s 1999 music video, “Thank God I Found You (Make It Last Remix),” featuring Joe and Nas.

More recently Hamri has moved into film and television, most notably as executive producer and director of the Fox hit series Empire. She’s directed three successful movies, including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, and TV episodes for Desperate Housewives, Glee, Nashville, and Elementary. On Empire, she sets the direction of everything visual and tonal. She works closely with co-creator Lee Daniels on music and vision. She also supervises guest directors. “I’m in all the details and nooks and crannies of everything, down to the shoe choice of the guest star,” she says with a laugh.

Hamri is one of Hollywood’s rare creatures—a woman in a powerful, behind-the-camera role. In a 2015 New York Times Magazine cover story, Maureen Dowd reported on “pervasive sexism” in Hollywood, including the startling statistic that, in 2013 and again in 2014, female directors accounted for only 1.9 percent of those directing the 100 top-grossing films.

Hamri is joined in Hollywood by many fellow Sarah Lawrence alumnae. Laura Bickford ’84 has produced 16 films, including Traffic, Duplicity, and Beasts of No Nation. Katherine Pope ’94 is a former executive for NBC and for Chernin Entertainment, where she was executive producer of New Girl. She now heads the television division at Studio 8. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro ’99 is creator, writer, and producer of Lifetime’s celebrated UnREAL, a bitingly dramatic rendering of the truth behind reality shows like The Bachelor, which Shapiro witnessed firsthand for several years as an associate producer. Darnell Martin ’86 has directed both films (Cadillac Records, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I Like It Like That) and television episodes (Grimm, The Vampire Diaries, Chicago Fire, Law & Order).

“The disparity we see between men and women in our industry is stunning,” says Gabrielle Carteris ’83, who has worked as an actress since the late 1980s. A member of the Beverly Hills, 90210 ensemble cast in the 1990s, she’s appeared on Touched by an Angel, NYPD Blue, Nip/Tuck, and most recently as nurse Amy Wolfowitz on Code Black. Today she’s the president of SAG-AFTRA, the 160,000-member national organization formed by the merger between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

When Carteris isn’t acting, she’s traveling around the country, talking with union members to understand their needs as performers. She feels she makes a deep connection with the union membership because, as a performer, she shares the same interests and concerns. “I’m getting ready for the TV theatrical negotiations, which is a really important contract for our members,” Carteris says. “I believe in unions, and I believe that we all need the support of strong contracts behind us and safe sets.”

DiDi Rea ’73 was born into a theatrical family. Her mother, Betty, was an actress and later a casting director. Her father, Oliver, was a theatrical producer and co-founder of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

“Being a woman, it’s been an interesting journey. I’m seeing the difference in my daughters’ generation. But they still have a ways to go.”

As a child, Rea had free rein of the theatre after school, but by the time she got to Sarah Lawrence she was determined not to follow the path of her parents. Then she ran into now-retired theatre faculty member Shirley Kaplan. “She helped me find my heart,” Rea says. “She taught me how to find out who I was in the true nature of Sarah Lawrence. She set me about my path.”

Eventually that path led Rea to become an agent in New York. In 1983, after her first child was born, Rea says, “I was an anomaly in New York City—an agent who was not only female but gestating. Nobody did it then. It just wasn’t done. It was very lonely in that there wasn’t a community.” She opened her own agency in the late ’80s, then moved to Los Angeles, where her second daughter, Josie, now a Sarah Lawrence student, was born.

For the past 15 years, Rea has been co-owner of D2 Management. Her clients include Lupita Nyong’o, who won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Patsey in Twelve Years a Slave. In fact, Rea was instrumental in Nyong’o auditioning for the part. She had received the script for another client, Garret Dillahunt, who plays Armsby in the film, and thought Nyong’o would be a good fit for Patsey. The breakout role was actually Nyong’o’s first professional job after graduating from the Yale School of Drama.

“I feel very privileged,” Rea says. “I’ve worked incredibly hard to get where I am, but I feel very lucky. My partner and I have turned down opportunities to become part of bigger management companies in order to keep the integrity of our lives—and the ability to make choices. Being a woman, it’s been an interesting journey. I’m seeing the difference in my daughters’ generation. But they still have a ways to go.”

Other Sarah Lawrence alumnae are part of Rea’s vanguard as well. Blair Kohan ’89 is a partner and motion picture agent at United Talent Agency (UTA), whose clients include Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jill Soloway. Debra Zane ’83, founder of Debra Zane Casting, has worked as casting director on a long list of major films, including The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part I and Part II, Revolutionary Road, Dreamgirls, and American Beauty. Novelist Ali Liebegott ’98, MFA ’99 is a staff writer for the Emmy-winning Amazon original show Transparent. Filmmaker Ivy Meeropol ’90 directed and produced the 2004 documentary Heir to an Execution, which examines the case against her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Heir to an Execution was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Force AwakensJenni Konner ’94 was showrunner, writer, and director of the HBO series Girls. Along with Lena Dunham, she is the force behind the feminist newsletter Lenny and the production company A Casual Romance. Konner started out as a writer, along with childhood friend and then-writing partner Alexandra Rushfield ’93, for the Judd Apatow sitcom Undeclared. Back then, in the early 2000s, Konner wasn’t thinking much about writing parts for women. “I was so happy to be at the table that I was not even thinking about it being female versus male,” she says. “That came to me much later—after working for Judd—when I went to other writers’ rooms that weren’t nearly as magical as I had experienced and realized that there was a lot of sexism and that most female parts in mediocre sitcoms were really wives and girlfriends.

“I didn’t pick up on the brokenness in the system and how I could fix it,” she adds. “It took me five to ten years to fully form that idea and realize that I needed to work to change it.” And she has. This fall, HBO will debut what Konner is calling “Lenny Shorts.” The series, Konner told the Huffington Post, comprises six short films made by “female-identifying people based on short stories by female-identifying people.”

“We’re just trying to push the ball forward for women,” she says. “We’re trying to find female-driven work and put it into the world.”

There were many women so happy to be at the table that they would try to do the job like a man, Konner says. “There’s so much value in doing the job like a woman in every business,” she says. “It’s so obvious that we could use both. So why not use what you already have rather than fight it?”

That’s a sentiment Sanaa Hamri can endorse. “I encourage women to get into the workforce, work hard, add as much as they can, and learn from people around them,” Hamri says. “I’ve learned from women and I’ve learned from men. You can’t approach it with a chip on your shoulder regarding males. What I try to do is learn from men and women and develop their best qualities. You never know who your next mentor is going to be.”