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Hollywood power couple and impressive multi-hyphenates Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil have given us several seminal series of the course of their 20-year careers, including Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane and Black Lightning. But for their next project, the couple decided to draw from their unique romantic and working relationship to create a series inspired by their lives and history together.
Love Is_, which premieres on OWN Tuesday (10/9c), follows the 20-year romance between aspiring writers/directors/producers Nuri (Michele Weaver) and Yasir (Will Catlett) starting from their first meeting in 1996. After the pair meet through a somewhat chance encounter in a coffee shop and then run into each other a year later while shopping. it feels as though forces beyond either of them are working to bring them together — seemingly for good reason. Nuri and Yasir's chemistry is so powerful, the pair wind up telling each other "I love you" on their first date.
In order to make this instant spark believable, it was crucial to find leading actors who could not only embody Mara and Salim's personalities, but also ground this whirlwind romance in believability rather than fairy-tale romanticism. For the role of Nuri, whose name literally means light, the Akils happened upon relative unknown Michele Weaver, whom Mara says embodies Nuri's light spirit while also making it clear that "she's a fighter [and] she's complex." And for the role of Yasir, the producing couple didn't have to look far. Will Catlett was already working with Salim on his CW comic book drama Black Lightning, on which Catlett played drug lord Lala.
"I just thought he was super talented. And Mara has a tendency to sort of raid my shows for her own benefit, so when she saw Will, she was like, 'I want him on my show,' and I was like, 'well he's on Black Lightning,' " Salim told TV Guide at the ATX Television Festival, prompting his wife to share her version of events.
"No, I scooped him up because he was right for the part," Mara clarified.
Inspired by Catlett's work on his web series, Mara originally invited him into the writers' room for Love Is_ before noticing his similarities to her husband, which is where she got the idea to cast him as Yasir. "And then when we put the two of them [Catlett and Weaver] together, the chemistry was immediate. And it was like a no-brainer," said Mara.
The connection between Nuri and Yasir is portrayed with such authenticity in part due to Catlett and Weaver's natural connections to these roles, and the real people that inspired them. During the audition process, Weaver said she felt instantly drawn to the role of Nuri, a kinship which made sense once she actually met Mara. "Mara's just a great spirit so it was great to even just meet her and be like oh, okay, she's like me. We're just bubbly and believe in the unbelievable and we're willing to go after it," Weaver said. "And that's really what Nuri does, so it was great."
"I would say mine is simple," Catlett added. "Salim, which is the character Yasir, just needed an opportunity. Will Catlett just needed an opportunity. So I used that to connect to the spirit of the role. And then when I'm around Salim, if I can catch just a little bit of his DNA, just a little bit of his glow, then I knew that I would have the necessary tools to tell the story."
And while it was love at first sight for Nuri and Yasir, and the Akils in real life, that doesn't necessarily mean that either couple's relationship isn't without its obstacles. In the show, Yasir is living with another woman when he meets Nuri, who in turn is juggling her own stable of casual relationships while avoiding commitment to anything beyond her new house. While neither Mara nor Salim detailed exactly which struggles in the fictional relationship were drawn from their own, Salim did admit that it was an adjustment for him to become comfortable mining from the harder times of their lives for the show.
"You want to be honest about what you're putting out there so that it feels real," Salim explained. "So the process [of making the show] was the same. I think the creativity and the thought patterns changed because you're dealing with your own life and there are moments when you're like sh--, I don't want that out there. I don't want people knowing that about me. But those are the moments that you probably should put in. So the thought process of editing yourself, or wanting to edit yourself, I think was demanding."
On top of recreating several tent pole moments in their relationship, for both good times and bad, Mara also secured multiple real-life locations that played pivotal roles in their lives, such as the coffee shop where they first met and the furniture store where they re-met one year later. This process was a unique one for Mara, who also directed the series premiere, as she attempted to translate her intimate experiences to the screen.
"I tried to block the memory of the place, which was really special for me reliving that, retracing our steps again," Mara said.
In addition to acting as somewhat of a time capsule for Mara and Salim's relationship (albeit a very fictionalized one), Love Is_ also captures a very different era in Hollywood, both in terms of the content the industry was producing and the opportunities that were available for black men and women. When the series begins, Yasir is a determined, but unemployed writer-director while Nuri writes for the fictional sitcom Marvin. (In real life, Mara got her start writing on South Central, Moesha and The Jamie Foxx Show.)
For Mara, revisiting this era brought up fond personal memories but was also a reminder of how undervalued television created by and starring people of color was in the '90s. "There's a lot going on now that's respected, getting nominated, going to the Emmys, winning awards. Well, those '90s black sitcoms, they were not loved or valued in our industry except by really the black audience," Mara reflected. "I wanted to show the humanity in trying to make that [television] when you knew it was not really valued in larger culture, that it was still something that you were prideful of and it was a time that was celebrated and there were thinking people, caring people making this television, trying to get it right."
Mara points to that moment in the '90s as the "foundation" for the era we live in today, where the stories and voices we get to see are far more inclusive. And it'd be hard to undervalue how crucial the work Mara and Salim have done throughout their careers has been in helping us get to this place. From Mara's groundbreaking hit sitcom Girlfriends, which was a witty, nuanced exploration of black womanhood, to Salim's celebrated adaptation of Black Lightning, which gave The CW its first black superhero show, the Akils have always used their platform to push television forward, and Love Is_ is no exception.
"I think it's really time for this idea of otherness in this country to die," explained Salim. "What we tend to do in our shows, especially with Love Is_, is to show the humanity of characters, so that people can see themselves, one, and so that other cultures can see that we have more in common than we have not in common. And hopefully if you can get people to respect your humanity, they will stop shooting you when they pull you over, they will stop handcuffing 10-year-old children and scaring them until they pee on themselves, they will let you sit in Starbucks or in any space in peace. So I think that it's important [to tell these stories] for those reasons."
"For me personally," Weaver added, "growing up I didn't have much women to look up to on television and so it's very important for us to all see ourselves on TV, just because none of us are alone and especially at a time like this where there's so much rage and so much depression, it's the most comforting thing to know you are not alone. And so that's why I think it's so powerful. And that's why I also love Nuri so much, because even though she is a black woman in black Hollywood in 1997, I really feel like any woman can relate to her. She wants what all women want: they want to be able to find love but also be able to go after their dreams. And that's something you don't get to see."
Love Is_' title ends with an empty space because Mara wanted it to be clear that there is no single definition of love and that everyone needs to fill in what that looks like for themselves. And though Love Is_ does tell a particular story about a particular couple in a particular era, everything Nuri and Yasir go through in their courtship captures the authenticity and universality of falling in love fast and figuring it out later, no matter who you are, which is part of what drew Catlett to the project.
"When you telling any type of story, I don't believe that there should be a 'black' in front of it," Catlett said. "You know, it's a story about love or it's a story about art or it's a story about pain or dreams. Any common human being walking this earth with a sane mind would understand that story. And that's the beauty of it — when you can look at something and you don't even think about that. You just see love for what it is. And I think if more people would see love for what it is, then they won't put a barrier in who they would marry based on their skin color. So when telling this story — although it's told, portrayed by people who wear this shade of brown — it's many shades because love has many shades and different colors, and it's multi-faceted and it doesn't fit into any box that you can fit it into."
Love Is_ premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on OWN.