Screenwriter Simone Nathan talks with Joanna Mathers about writing for Taika Waititi, working with Amy Schumer and making her acting debut in her own series, Kid Sister.
Simone Nathan was "patient zero". The New Zealand-born writer and actor, then based in New York, was the first of her friends to get Covid in early 2020, as the dead piled up in morgues.
"It was weird and scary," she says. "But I did a blog about it [for a friend's magazine], and people started messaging me from all around the world. So I ended up feeling connected to people in a way I hadn't felt for ages. I got a lot of attention."
She moved back to New Zealand soon after. "I'd finished a job, my boyfriend lives there, and I was like, 'What am I doing here?'"
We are chatting via Zoom on the eve of her shiny new television show, Kid Sister. She recently moved from Aotearoa to a poky sublet in Sydney, with her boyfriend comedian Paul Williams (taskmaster assistant on Taskmaster NZ). She's busy preparing for a major pitch.
"I'm pitching two shows to HBO, so that's taking up so much of my time. I've also got funding to work on a sequel to Kid Sister, so I'm working on that."
Apart from the Covid-19 blip, Nathan's past eight years have been typified by astonishing success.
Alongside Kid Sister and Our Flag Means Death, Nathan worked as an assistant on Inside Amy Schumer, penned a pilot that garnered industry hype in the US, was chosen for a prized writer's fellowship, graduated with her masters degree in screenwriting from prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts, and created a TikTok channel that's had over 13 million views. She's only 30.
Nathan is modest about her achievements. "It was a bunch of very fortunate pieces that fell in the right way.
"People talk a lot of stuff about the multiverse, and I totally think that there were so many 'sliding door' moments that have 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's hoping Kid Sister will be the same. Early reactions are promising.
"There is this amazing group of young Jewish women I know, who are mainly based in Wellington. They read the script as a favour to me. One of them told me that they had never felt so represented," she explains.
Kid Sister is situated in a world hidden from many of us. It's a space of beauty, ritual and tradition, the esoterica of Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Nathan's Jewish heritage provides the foundation on which the show rests. The first episode starts with a funeral, laying of stones on a grave. But there's also the fraught intersection between tradition and identity as a woman in the 21st century. The scene is overlaid with female desire, couched in humour, and it's jarring.
"My comedy style is a bit outrageous because I am used to writing for an American audience. And this is a comedy.
"I hope the older members of the community understand that this is for a young target audience. And I hope we can be interested in the hard and the beautiful parts of each other's culture."
Kid Sister was penned when Nathan was working as a creative writing teacher in New York, after graduating from Tisch. She was seeking representation, and created embryonic show, the story of a young Jewish woman in Boston, as one of her samples for agents.
"I had a feature written 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 get picked up, because it was so niche."
It would take a few years for Kid Sister to come to the right person's attention, but these were fertile years. Through industry contacts, and due to hype generated by a pitch she'd written, she found an agent. And one of the jobs she was offered was a stint with HBO on a show called Our Flag Means Death.
Nathan says no one was aware Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby would be starring in the show. But there were early clues to a possible Kiwi connection.
"[American creator] David Jenkins would talk in a Kiwi accent in the writing room [when he was working on the dialogue] of the lead characters. He asked me if he was being offensive, I said no, but it was quite weird! When we found out Taika and Rhys were the leads, it kind of made sense."
Nathan was in New Zealand when the show was being filmed, so wasn't able to visit the set but she's loved seeing the reaction on social media.
"The super fans on Twitter are amazing; they have real power in getting a show renewed. I hope there is a sequel, but it was so expensive to make, building that ship on a lot, and the whole thing was CGI."
Meanwhile, Kid Sister was waiting in the wings. But a meeting with Harriet Crampton, producer for Greenstone TV, when she was back in New Zealand, would see the show take flight.
"She liked it but wanted it to be written in a New Zealand setting. She wanted it to be Jewish Kiwi, and more about myself, which was like, ahhhh!
"It's a bit scary because you are exposing yourself as a writer. A lot of the reason we chose this path, is because we can hide behind stuff and create stories."
The rewrite was accepted for production, and Nathan's role wouldn't end with writer credits. She was set for a screen debut.
The team behind Kid Sister took the casting process "as seriously as if it was making Game of Thrones," she laughs. The dearth of Jewish actors in New Zealand, and Nathan's intimate knowledge of the script, gave her an advantage. But she wasn't handed the part on a platter.
"I had done after school drama classes and I was in a drama troupe at school. But it was really challenging for me. As a Kiwi and as a young woman, I haven't been trained to be assertive. Plus, I had to audition for a long time to get the part!"
"I remember some really amazing people coming out of the auditions and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, this is going to be tough.' I had to take acting lessons, and work really hard. So, when I got the call to say that I had the role, I took it very seriously."
With her brother (actor Joseph Nathan) cast as her on-screen brother, and her real-life boyfriend Williams playing her on-screen beau, Kid Sister could be easily read as autobiography.
Modern Orthodox Judaism provides the backdrop to the show, and reflects her experience, for this is her belief system. And she says this has given her family some moments of disquiet, they worry people may believe the entire story is based on fact.
But Nathan says Lulu's story is vastly different from her own.
"Some of the stories about childhood, told in Lulu's voice and interspersed throughout the show, are real. But I am very different to Lulu. I trust the audience will realise that this is fiction. I'm not that person."
Marrying into the faith is intrinsic to the story. Nathan says her family always expected her to marry a Jewish man. "This was not about exclusivity," she says. "It is about keeping an ever-diminishing culture alive."
Interestingly, Nathan's partner Williams is converting to Orthodox Judaism in real life.
Nathan's faith and culture are also evidence in another aspect of her life, the cleaning of her forebears' gravestones.
She confesses she loves cleaning generally. "The places where you live become extensions of yourself. And if you scrub hard, clean hard enough, you can clean your stress away," she laughs.
She explains grave cleaning has been part of her experience since she was a kid. "In the Jewish community there is a section called the Chevra Kadisha and they are responsible for burials and everything after someone dies. My dad was involved in this. So, I learned about the correct way to clean graves through him."
The family cemetery, where the graves are located is hugely significant to her. The baby daughter of great-great-great-great-grandparents is here, in the first Jewish grave in Auckland. As are the graves of many other of her forebears.
"The graves that I clean there are ones I know I am related to, and my family gives me permission to do it.
"I can't say it's a deep, spiritual experience, but I love to clean, 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 cleaning has been captured on TikTok, with a channel that'd racked up 13 million-plus views.
A graveyard also marks the entry into Kid Sister, and Nathan says she is fascinated to see how this opening scene, and the show itself, is received.
"I'm so curious to see what people think about my Jewish world, which is often hidden. I guess I'll soon find out."
Kid Sister premieres on May 26 on TVNZ OnDemand