From Podcast to Broadcast – The Making of FX’s “Clipped”

“There was always that sense when you covered the Clippers like something bad was about to happen,” recalled Ramona Shelburne during a TCA press conference for FX’s limited series Clipped, based on the award-winning ESPN 30 for 30 podcasts she reported on and hosted, The Serling Affairs. “Just when they were doing everything right, they get a reputable coach in Doc Rivers, they get Blake Griffin, who's a bona fide superstar, they get Chris Paul, who wanted to play for them, they get JJ Redick, who is a free agent. There was this sense of, can they win in spite of them? One of my early stories on this, I had a line that everyone who plays or works or coaches for the Clippers has to make their own peace with what Donald Sterling was. You have to decide, ‘I'm going to compartmentalize this, I'm going to win in spite of him.’ You think you can do it. And yet, I think in this show, we see maybe not.”

(Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for FX Networks)

(Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for FX Networks)

Adapted by fellow executive producer and showrunner Gina Welch, Clipped centers around Donald Sterling, his wife Shelly, his mistress V. Stiviano, and the Clippers’ new coach Doc Rivers. “For me, Doc is really the emotional centerpiece of the show,” Gina Welch revealed. “Doc, who had played for the Clippers in '91, coming back to coach this team after winning a championship with the Celtics, really understanding both the high stakes of that season and also, the high hopes in that it would have been really a history-making championship had they been able to win it, and letting the audience connect to that and care about that trajectory as it is headed for a collision with the sort of chaotic love triangle spinning out of control. So that's really why we started there is because the show, in essence, is about the costs of living and working and trying to thrive under the power of a racist incompetent buffoon who's abusing the power.”  

Playing that “buffoon,” aka Donald Sterling, is a TV legend uniquely poised to handle a despicable role with sympathy, Ed O’Neill. “He had a lot of money, and he knew how to use it,” Ed said about the system in place that allowed Donald Sterling to live outside of social checks and balances. And while his portrayal was largely informed by Gina’s writing, there was one historical fact that gave the actor an in to his portrayal. “He changed his name. It was Tokowitz. So he was a product of some racism himself as a young man, and I think it affected him negatively in some ways. He was a self-made man. Somehow that affected him badly. It's no excuse, but also, it was a certain time when he was a boy. It was a bit different historically. When he graduated law school, very bright guy, he thought he would get into a law firm, and he got the thumbs down, so I think he had a bit of a chip starting out on his shoulder.”

“One of the overriding scenes of this story is female power,” added Jacki Weaver, who plays Donald’s wife. “Shelly Sterling is ultimately the winner here, the winner over everybody. She outsmarts and outwits all those guys in that bastion of male supremacy, men's sports, with her superior business acumen, her negotiating skills. Shelly was running most of that real estate. She's the strength. I think her story strikes a nerve for women. Shelly Sterling is a softly spoken, ladylike, small woman, being underestimated by certainly most of the men and humiliated with his endless affairs. And yet, in the end, she knocked it out of the park.” To tap into Shelly Sterling’s whimsical voice, Jacki Weaver revealed her secret sauce – drinking half-and-half before every take.

On the theme of female empowerment, Australian actress Cleopatra “Cleo” Coleman plays Donald Sterling’s assistant and mistress, V. Stiviano. “I had just moved to L.A. when this all happened,” Cleo revealed. “Something that I've really enjoyed about making this show was when all of this happened, everyone made a decision about the content of V.'s character based on what we were all seeing, which was interesting. But it's been really satisfying to find out more context and understand where she was coming from. I approached playing her with compassion, and I obviously had a lot of fun. It's fun and absurd as well. It was mostly in the writing. It was in Gina's work. I think it was so sophisticated and had such an attention to detail and an understanding of you're a result of your experiences.” But like most actors taking on a role inspired by a living person, Cleo looked beyond the page to inform her portrayal of V. Stiviano. “Having lots of YouTube videos to watch also helped as well.”

Playing Doc Rivers, the heart of the story for Gina Welch, is screen legend Laurence Fishburne. “I had the good fortune of having the opportunity to meet Doc before I got to work,” Fishburne shared. “I actually had a small gathering on a Labor Day at my house, and Doc came and hung out with me and some of my friends, one of whom is a real sports aficionado, somebody who has an encyclopedic knowledge of sports. So it was really wonderful to watch the two of them argue about, let's say, Bill Russell and his career versus another great basketball legend's career for about two hours. And just observing the two of them go at it was all the research I needed to do for Doc.”

With Donald Sterling’s racist remarks bowling over the momentum that Doc Rivers and the Clippers made that season, there was no way to make Clipped without a lot of care and consideration. Co-writer and producer Rembert Browne explained how the writers handled such heavy topics in a way that wouldn’t feel like a burden to viewers. “Our writers' room is where a lot of that tone came from of there is levity, but let's actually as a room talk about what it feels like to exist in racism, like us telling personal stories about the conversations you have off to the side, how you present yourself publicly, how you deal with stuff. And so, by the time it came to writing, we had an idea of where we wanted to land it. And there was never a moment where it was like, let's gloss over how terrible this thing was. We want it to feel visceral. I think having a writers' room where you had three black people in the writers' room, and you had that type of perspective, was really helpful by the time the scripts started and the actors came.”

And the rest is history, literally. The first two episodes of FX’s Clipped are now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes launching on Tuesdays through July 2nd.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).