Interview: Shea William Vanderpoort on ‘Harlem’ Season 2, Making the Jump to Director, and More


Prime Video’s Harlem returned with Season 2 last month, bringing in a new slew of challenges for its characters. The series follows Quinn, Angie, Tye, and Camille, a group of best friends who support each other through personal and professional challenges. In Season 2, the group pursued career opportunities, started new romantic relationships, began to question their futures, and more.

Recently, we had the chance to talk with Season 2 director Shea William Vanderpoort, who helmed episodes 6 and 7 of the season. Prior to joining the series, Vanderpoort directed for shows like First Wives Club, Kingdom Business, and the Issa Rae-led web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. He previously worked as a cinematographer and editor, with additional background in music and illustration. During our conversation, Shea spoke about his career and reuniting with Tracy Oliver, his approach to directing Harlem, and more.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: First things first, congratulations on Harlem Season 2! This season was so good, and the episodes you directed were so good. Can you talk a little about your Harlem journey? What drew you to the series, and how did you ultimately become involved with Season 2?

Shea William Vanderpoort: Thank you, first off. I really, really appreciate that. It’s really like the culmination of everything that I kind of set out to do. I think what drew me to it was, the energy of it is so pure and is so positive, and really just based in a lot of love and empathy for the characters, and allowing them to be full, I think 360-degree characters. You can make a mistake and that’s not the end of it. The characters can be flawed and learn from their mistakes and also grow. And you can even make the same mistake a couple of times, because, unfortunately, life isn’t like that, where it’s like, “Okay, I made that mistake. I’m never gonna make it again.” I think it really explores what it is to be human.

On a personal note, I started out with the writer and creator Tracy Oliver on a web series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that had Issa Rae on it. It really felt like us three as the creatives behind that. I was brought on by Tracy, and years later, it’s like here we are again. The second season of Awkward Black Girl was executive produced by i am OTHER and Pharrell [Williams], and then this [Harlem] also he’s involved in. So, it really was so much a full circle moment of everything we had set out to do and coming back together, because as much in this industry as we’d like to work with the people we want to work with, and help our friends out, it’s not that easy. There are a lot of other elements that are working, and everything just has to be right. Fortunately for me, Tracy gave me my first shot at television with First Wives Club, and I was able to do a good enough job where I was working a lot right after, and the timing worked out, and just kind of all the logistics worked out. It was like, “Hey, there’s a slot. Do you want to interview and meet the team?” Because you still have to talk to this entire group of people that are in motion. So, that’s how I got on.

Nerds & Beyond: One storyline I loved seeing on screen was the focus on mental health – and through the show, specifically Black mental health. A lot of that came through with Quinn, which really came to a head in episode 6. How did you approach bringing that aspect from page to screen in an honest way? What was it like to work with Grace [Byers] on that?

Shea William Vanderpoort: Oh, my God. First off, Grace is literally a dream come true as a professional, as a person. I don’t know if it gets better than that, in terms of her and this cast. They’re just so giving, so generous, and the prerequisite of all of this really is talented as well. I think sometimes we forget that we’re in a profession that requires you to be kind of the highest level. I mean not everyone has to be, but it’s helpful. That’s something that Grace is able to do just kind of effortlessly, is tap into her personal, her spiritual, her human spirit, and really put it out for us to see externally. She’s able to dig so deep within herself and pull-out whatever truth is in there and just show us on screen, which is really amazing, because I think one thing people forget is there’s like a huge crew of people just there watching you do whatever you’re doing. And sometimes we’re out on public streets, and we don’t have command of everybody around. So, you’re having to perform in front of strangers and still be truthful and vulnerable.

I think in that way we also just approached the subject matter as, “Let’s find the truth in it, and let’s find a nuanced way of expressing it.” Because it is something that is really an issue that you don’t want to just glide over, and especially when so many people go through that and don’t have an outlet, or don’t feel comfortable talking about those things. It feels like it’s just now entered the mainstream in terms of acceptability, in terms of people are talking about it. It’s one thing to talk about it with you and your people who are cool with it, but then [another] to get out there into the cultures and areas that it’s not normal, it’s not accepted and stuff like that. So, I hope that helps push the conversation along and get it out there.

Prime Video

Nerds & Beyond: You also directed episode 7, which held some tonal similarities to episode 6. For me, I saw it as largely striving to push the group forward in a more uplifting way, especially with the inclusion of Noche de San Juan. Did your approach change much or at all when tackling that episode versus episode 6, also considering the location shift?

Shea William Vanderpoort: I always approach everything in the same manner, where it’s like, find the way to be most understanding and empathetic of what the characters are going through. Be truthful and only show the truth. But then also, whatever that is, you can apply it across different aspects of the story. And there are the themes, and then there are the through lines, but then there’s all these other kind of side elements. It’s really important, with this cast and with this show, that every character has their motivations and has their reasons for doing things.

So, it’s like yes, they’re all going for Quinn – that was kind of the main goal – but at the same time, each character wants something. Grace’s character is going for her mental health, to maybe rediscover herself and what she wants and her drive. Camille [Meagan Good] is trying to get some work done, but also, she’s trying to get her mind off of this thing that’s going on in her personal relationships, romantically. Then Tye [Jerrie Johnson] is trying to get her groove back. She’s been going through it in terms of relationships, and maybe getting older and maturing. She’s kind of going [and] trying to get her fire back. Then Angie [Shoniqua Shondai] is dealing with her romance in the sense that, “Wait. Am I also maturing? Am I going to be this person that’s more dedicated to just a singular person?”

So, even though it’s all for Quinn, they all have their own reasons. It’s constantly keeping the characters’ motivations and goals in mind and feeling like [they’re] being pushed from behind and heading towards their goals. It really was taking what episode 6 started and pushing it over the top, but then putting them in a place that allows them to play and enjoy and kind of prosper in that sense.

Nerds & Beyond: Shifting gears a bit, you did start earlier in your career working as a cinematographer and an editor before you made the jump to full director. What pushed you to pursue directing? How do you think your prior experience helped you make that shift?

Shea William Vanderpoort: So, I came from illustration, and then music, and then transitioned into film, and I think what it felt like was a culmination of all of the prior art forms that I participated in. Doing illustration, it’s a lot of – I specifically wanted to do comic book illustration. So, you’re drawing in these little panels, and it’s a lot of composition, [which] correlates directly to cinematography and directing. Music obviously [is] sound engineering. Stuff like that plays a big role in filmmaking.

Then when I got to film, it was like, “Let me try everything, see what I’m good at. Let me learn every aspect and let me find where I belong.” And I really loved editing. It was the storytelling, the way that you arranged the images really tell the story, put the characters in a context. Then with cinematography, there’s something about holding the camera, being there in the moment, and it feels like you’re the eyes of the audience, or you’re giving the story context, which is everything. It’s everything because the way you film it can make it feel like it’s a drama, or it can make it feel like it’s a comedy. You can play with that.

I think exploring all those elements, it really felt like, “Oh, I think I might be a director,” because I’m able to have an understanding of all these elements. I had last minute added film as a major when I was already finished, and I kind of took the same mindset and realized I also used other people as a metric. Like, “Okay, what are they excelling at? What am I excelling at?” and realize that it all added up to directing.

Shea William Vanderpoort via Instagram

Nerds & Beyond: With that in mind, what are some of your career aspirations moving forward?

Shea William Vanderpoort: Moving forward, oh, my gosh. I have had the absolute pleasure of not just witnessing but taking part in – and from a very close distance – watching the astronomical rise of Issa Rae, and then Tracy Oliver. Seeing that, it’s so inspirational. It’s surreal because when I talk about Awkward Black Girl, it’s something we did, and it all happened so fast that it almost seems like a dream. It’s just like that, and time goes by, and all these things happen. But really witnessing Tracy just grinding, writing script after script, and just kind of not looking back – I have seen her launch and help so many people’s careers that I can’t help but have that have to be my next step.

For me, I think the part that feels good about accomplishing something – let’s say having your own show, or having your own film, or whatever it is – it’s more so about [that] I’m happy that I get to be in a position where I can work with people I want to work with, and hopefully pull people up that have helped me move forward. That’s my future aspiration, to create some original properties, and be creative, and have my own show and films, and just really follow in the footsteps of the Issa Raes and the Tracy Olivers of the world.

Nerds & Beyond: What are you most proud of with your episodes of Harlem?

Shea William Vanderpoort: What I’m most proud of – and I don’t know that this is directly related to the episodes – but it was just to walk into this amazing show, this amazing family that already existed, and just feel like I was at home from day one. It was probably one of the – in terms of logistics and timing and everything that we had to do – was one of the, or if not, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But because the leadership, because the crew, because the cast are so uniform and singular minded in having a positive set, having a positive energy throughout, and just focusing on what we are all there to do – it felt like it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done, like ever. Even though I know it wasn’t, it felt like it.

So, that’s what I’m most proud of, is being able to come in and achieve my vision with the crew and the cast, but also that it happened seamlessly. I came in on the very last block, which means I did the last filming and then the whole production wrapped. A lot of times people are ready to wrap up. They’re almost done, they’re like, “okay, season’s ending.” And we had to tackle some of the biggest stuff, especially the Puerto Rico episode.

Prime Video

Nerds & Beyond: One main theme Season 2 focuses is on is the idea of joy and the journey to find it. So, my final question today is, what does joy look like to you?

Shea William Vanderpoort: Joy to me is people understanding one another, people getting along. And I think being able to find joy in other people’s joy, like the idea of making somebody happy without the expectation that you get something in return. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why it is, but if I can make somebody happy, or make their day better and then not even know it – that makes me so happy. I don’t know why, but it’s such a great feeling, and I hope that more people can find that type of joy.

Nerds & Beyond: That is everything I have for you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I loved hearing everything you had to say.

Shea William Vanderpoort: Cool. Cool, thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thank you for the interview. This is cool. lt’s so fun to talk about it because it’s so important to me. I’ve dedicated my life to this work, and it’s amazing to even be in it.

Thank you again to Shea for taking time to chat with us! Harlem Season 2 is streaming now on Prime Video.

Julia is a writer/editor/content assistant for Nerds who joined the team in 2019.

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