How To Make A Sitcom Safely During Coronavirus: Have The Cast Be The Crew

A screen grab from the Connecting pilot: (top row l-r) Otmara Marrero as Annie, Ely Henry as Rufus, Preacher Lawson as Ben; (bottom row l-r) Parvesh Cheena as Darius, Jill Knox as Michelle, Keith Powell as Garrett, Shakina Nayfack as Ellis. (Courtesy NBC)

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The life of an actor isn't always glamorous. But that may be especially true during a pandemic.

The new NBC sitcom Connecting... was shot remotely at the actors' homes across Los Angeles, with cast members serving as their own crew. That let them start shooting earlier than other productions, filming in August and September.

Among the stars are 30 Rock's Keith Powell and his wife Jill Knox.

"Jill and I have to do so much work before we even begin acting," Powell told LAist, referencing the work that goes into setting up the shots (and pretty much everything else) themselves.

They've even created their own alter egos, which have earned a place on the call sheet: Keith is also Francois, the person who sets up the camera, the lights, and the sound. And Jill is Colette, who manages the production design, art direction, props, and location scouting.

Wait, what is location scouting when you're remote shooting from home? Picking the right room in your own house, of course.

Jill Knox as Michelle in Connecting. (Keith Powell for NBC)

"We have probably the biggest home of the cast, and they really use every inch of it," Knox told LAist.

The show, built around a group of friends staying connected through video calls, has what could be considered a gimmick at its center. But it also goes beyond that, tackling some of the real issues that have plagued all of us since COVID-19 first led to stay-at-home orders.

And filming your own scenes yourself, at home, can be just as isolating — no sets, no trailers, no chatting over craft services.

Powell and Knox, being married, are the only two actors who get to film their scenes in the same room with one another, which Knox said made a huge difference.

The unique filming setup means none of the actors can actually look at each other while they film; they're only hearing each other's voices.

"We have a Zoom camera, and we have a shooting camera, and we can hear what they're saying, but we have to act and focus into the camera lens," Knox said. "So we're doing all of these incredibly emotional scenes looking at a black dot."

THEIR FICTIONAL DOPPLEGANGERS

In Connecting, Powell and Knox play married couple Garrett and Michelle. The role was close enough to their real lives that Knox said she felt like the parts were written for them. One part of their lives that matches the new characters: Powell is the chef in the family, constantly cooking meals for the two of them.

"He cooks for me, he cooks for my girlfriends," Knox said. "We have Sunday night dinners at our house, where everyone comes."

Along with acting, Knox is also a visual artist who recently finished working on a fundraiser for charities that benefit Black lives.

"Then when I read the script, it was talking about how Garrett is this phenomenal cook, and how I was selling masks for essential workers," Knox said. "Does the showrunner follow us on Instagram?" Knox joked.

The show also features the friends longing for the return of the family dinners Garrett and Michelle once hosted, watching them eat their delicious meals sadly over Zoom.

THEIR PROTOTYPE

Powell previously created web series Keith Powell Directs a Play and Keith Broke His Leg, which he wrote, produced, and directed. He's also directed an episode of Superstore and several short films.

That producing and directing experience came in handy here, helping the technical side of the job go faster. Powell and Knox's first time acting together as a fictionalized version of their real selves — they did the same thing in Keith Broke His Leg.

"I feel like there would be no Michelle and Garrett on Connecting without Keith and Jill, the characters on Keith Broke His Leg," Powell said. "We learned how to work from home and how to work with each other during that process, and it actually made us fall in love with the process of working together."

Powell had previously been developing Keith Broke His Leg as a TV series, and the line producer of Connecting thought of them for the new show because of her familiarity with that project.

"Most actor couples don't have the opportunity to act together very often," Knox said. "And so the fact that we did that, it feels like riding a bike doing Connecting."

Like his previous work, Connecting tackles serious issues. The new show's topics range from strained domestic life under quarantine to Black Lives Matter protests.

"I'm thrilled that we've been able to address [these issues] in ways that I didn't think we would be able to on network television," Knox said. "If somebody feels like this could be worded better to really reflect my experience as this person, as this body, as this black female body, this trans body, they're so open to those conversations." (Their co-star Shakina Nayfack is trans.)

"I feel heard, and I feel seen," Powell said. "I've been a professional actor for 21 years, and this industry has not always been kind to smart, young Black men. And there is so much stereotyping, and so much people wanting to put you into a box of their own making, because it feels easier for them. And it's safer for them."

Powell said that while he's considered a "successful" actor, there were years of unemployment because he wasn't being seen or heard for who he is as a human being.

"As a performer, I was being put into a box that someone else made for me," Powell said. "And it's been really frustrating, and hard, and discouraging. And finally to get a role where I am seen, has made me look at the industry, and humanity, in a different way."

"I get to actually be a Black person on this show, instead of having directors [deciding] maybe I look Latino today," Knox said. "When I got out of grad school I just always got that, 'Hmmm, you're just not Black enough' face. And in this [show], there's no question of whether I'm Black or not. And it's f—-ing liberating."

WHAT THE 2020 VERSION OF FRIENDS LOOKS LIKE

While the cast is diverse, the characters' storylines aren't centered around their diversity. Powell said that for that reason, it makes the show feel like a modern version of an NBC classic.

"This show is Friends, the 2020 version. But it's now the way that friends really have always been, which are a diverse body of people, all coming together and having a commonality of the human experience," Powell said. "I'm happy that at 8 p.m., America can watch a show that has primarily minorities on it be human and relatable," Powell said.

One of the first episodes closes with the group watching the George Floyd video together (virtually), its impact reflected differently based on their own backgrounds — including the way the video hits Garrett and Michelle as a Black couple..

Powell also appeared on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, which tried to tackle current issues in a whole different way.

"What I feel like The Newsroom was trying to achieve was trying to re-litigate matters that had already been settled, and what I feel like is so beautiful about this show is it speaks very much to the now," Powell said. "What I love about the show is that it deals with all of these tough things that we are all going through in this country so beautifully, and so gently, and with humor, and heart, and accessibility, that it's a show that can only happen now."

WORKING FROM HOME

Powell expressed mixed feelings about the coronavirus realities that created the situation for this show, including sadness about those who've lost their jobs and the many Americans suffering right now.

"I do want to be back out into the world, I do want to travel for work, I do want to go to sets and not have tons of very expensive equipment taking up all of the space in my dining room," Powell said. "But there is something really quite wonderful about working from home, when we have a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler. So being able to work here, with her in the background basically, is kind of a blessing that I didn't ever think we'd be able to do."

Knox is also happy staying home, for now.

"I am not someone at this present time who is champing at the bit to go back to any sort of in-person anything," Knox said. "We're not hosting anybody in the dining room, so let that be the storage area."

She's on the faculty of Pomona College, where she teaches acting — but had told the school that if they wanted to go back to in-person teaching this fall, she wouldn't do it.

Powell said he wishes there was a way for the economy to bounce back and people to go back to work, but where they could still have that opportunity to work from home.

"Grey's Anatomy, they can't perform surgery on the kitchen counter? Come on!" Knox joked.

And if all goes well, Knox hopes they'll be doing more episodes — maybe about what happens after the election.

Connecting... premieres Thursday night at 8 p.m. on NBC.