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Simone Nathan, Kid Sister is a semi-autobiographical Jewish comedy set in Auckland.
Screenwriter Simone Nathan talks with Joanna Mathers about writing for Taika Waititi, working with Amy Schumer and making her acting debut on her own series, Kid Sister.
Simone Nathan was “patient zero”. Born in New Zealand
The then New York-based writer and actor was the first of his friends to catch Covid in early 2020, as the dead piled up in morgues.
“It was weird and scary,” she says. “But I made a blog about it [for a friend’s magazine], and people started messaging me from all over the world. So I ended up feeling connected to people in a way that I hadn’t felt in ages. I got a lot of attention.”
She returned to New Zealand shortly thereafter. “I had finished a job, my boyfriend lives there, and I was like, ‘What am I doing here?'”
We chat via Zoom on the eve of her shiny new TV show, Kid Sister. She recently moved from Aotearoa to a cramped sublet in Sydney, with her comedian boyfriend Paul Williams (Assistant Taskmaster on Taskmaster NZ). She’s busy preparing a major pitch.
“I do two shows at HBO, so it takes up a lot of my time. I also have funds to work on a sequel to Kid Sister, so I’m working on that.”
Covid-19 blip aside, Nathan’s last eight years have been characterized by astonishing success.
Alongside Kid Sister and Our Flag Means Death, Nathan worked as an assistant on Inside Amy Schumer, wrote a pilot that garnered industry hype in the US, was chosen for a prized writer’s grant , earned his master’s degree in screenwriting from the prestigious New York University. Tisch School of the Arts and created a TikTok channel that has been viewed over 13 million times. She is only 30 years old.
Nathan is modest about his accomplishments. “It was a bunch of very lucky coins that fell the right way.
“People talk a lot about the multiverse, and I totally think there were so many ‘sliding door’ moments that led to where I am today. There could be another me sitting somewhere. , waiting for a job.”
If her New York Covid blog was an exercise in connection, she hopes Kid Sister will be the same. The first reactions are promising.
“There’s this amazing group of young Jewish women that I know, who are mostly based in Wellington. They read the script to do me a favor. One of them told me that they didn’t never felt so represented,” she explains.
Kid Sister is set in a world hidden from many of us. It is a space of beauty, ritual and tradition, the esotericism of modern Orthodox Judaism.
Nathan’s Jewish heritage provides the foundation upon which the show is built. The first episode begins with a funeral, laying stones on a grave. But there is also the difficult intersection between tradition and identity as a woman in the 21st century. The scene is covered in female desire, framed in humor, and it’s shocking.
“My style of comedy is a bit outrageous because I’m used to writing for an American audience. And it’s a comedy.
“I hope the older members of the community understand that this is for a young target audience. And I hope we can tap into the hard and beautiful parts of everyone’s culture.”
Kid Sister was written when Nathan was working as a creative writing teacher in New York, after graduating from Tisch. She sought representation and created an embryonic show, the story of a young Jewish woman in Boston, as one of her samples for agents.
“I had written a feature film and I had an hour-long drama, so I thought I should add a half-hour comedy to that. I really didn’t think it would be picked up, because that it was so niche.”
It would take Kid Sister a few years to catch the right person’s attention, but they were fertile years. Through contacts in the industry and due to the hype generated by a pitch she had written, she found an agent. And one of the jobs he was offered was a stint with HBO on a show called Our Flag Means Death.
Nathan says no one knew Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby would star on the show. But there were early hints of a possible Kiwi connection.
“[American creator] David Jenkins spoke with a Kiwi accent in the writing room [when he was working on the dialogue] main characters. He asked me if he was offensive, I said no, but that was pretty weird! When we found out that Taika and Rhys were the protagonists, it made sense.”
Nathan was in New Zealand when the series was filmed, so she couldn’t visit the set, but she loved seeing the reaction on social media.
“The super fans on Twitter are amazing; they have real power to renew a show. I hope there will be a sequel, but it was so expensive to make, building that ship on a lot, and it was all CGI.
Meanwhile, Kid Sister was waiting backstage. But a meeting with Harriet Crampton, producer for Greenstone TV, when she was back in New Zealand, would see the show take off.
“She liked it but wanted it to be written in a New Zealand setting. She wanted it to be a Jewish kiwi, and more about myself, it was like, ahhhh!
“It’s kind of scary because you’re exposing yourself as a writer. A big part of why we went this route is because we can hide behind things and create stories.”
The rewrite was accepted for production, and Nathan’s role would not end with writer’s credits. She was ready for a first screen.
The team behind Kid Sister took the casting process “as seriously as if it were Game of Thrones,” she laughs. The dearth of Jewish actors in New Zealand and Nathan’s intimate knowledge of the script gave him an advantage. But he was not given the role on a set.
“I had taken acting lessons after school and was in a theater group at school. But it was really difficult for me. As a Kiwi and as a young woman, I didn’t I wasn’t trained to be assertive. Besides, I had to audition for a long time to get the part!”
“I remember really amazing people coming out of auditions and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, this is going to be tough.’ I had to take acting classes and work very hard, so when I got the call to say I had the part, I took it very seriously.
With her sibling (actor Joseph Nathan) cast as her on-screen sibling and her boyfriend Williams playing her on-screen beau, Kid Sister could easily be read as an autobiography.
Modern Orthodox Judaism provides the backdrop for the show and reflects its experience, as it is its belief system. And she says it has given her family moments of worry, they fear people will believe the whole story is based on fact.
But Nathan says Lulu’s story is very different from his.
“Some of the childhood stories, told with Lulu’s voice and interspersed throughout the show, are real. But I’m very different from Lulu. I hope the audience will realize that this is fiction. I’m not that person.”
Marrying in faith is intrinsic to the story. Nathan says her family always expected her to marry a Jewish man. “It wasn’t about exclusivity,” she says. “It’s about keeping alive an ever-diminishing culture.”
Interestingly, Nathan’s partner Williams converts to Orthodox Judaism in real life.
Nathan’s faith and culture is also evident in another aspect of his life, cleaning the gravestones of his ancestors.
She admits that she likes to do housework in general. “The places you live in become extensions of yourself. And if you scrub hard, clean hard enough, you can eliminate your stress,” she laughs.
She explains that cleaning graves has been part of her experience since she was a child. “In the Jewish community there is a section called Chevra Kadisha and they are responsible for burials and everything after someone dies. My dad was involved in that. So I learned the right way to clean the fall through him.”
The family cemetery, where the graves are located, is extremely important to her. The granddaughter of great-great-great-great-grandparents is here, in Auckland’s first Jewish grave. As are the graves of many more of his ancestors.
“The graves I clean there are the ones I know I’m connected to, and my family gives me permission to do so.
“I can’t say it’s a deep, spiritual experience, but I love cleaning, I love the results and it’s deeply satisfying because it makes the graves so much healthier. And it’s so much fun!”
Her graveyard cleanup was captured on TikTok, with a channel that has racked up more than 13 million views.
A graveyard also marks the entrance to Kid Sister, and Nathan says she’s been fascinated by how that opening scene, and the show itself, is being received.
“I’m so curious to see what people think of my Jewish world, which is often hidden away. I guess I’ll find out soon.”
Kid Sister airs May 26 on TVNZ OnDemand
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