Daughter of show business legend Diahann Caroll, Suzanne Kay grew up around the entertainment business. After graduating from Columbia University with a Masters degree in journalism, Suzanne worked as an intern for the McNeil-Lehr News Hour on PBS. She went on to become a news writer for CNN in Atlanta and later, Arts and Entertainment editor for Essence Magazine.
Comfortable both behind and in front of the camera, Suzanne soon found herself as an on-air-co-anchor of ETV!’s first entertainment news program with co-anchors Greg Kinnear and Julie Moran. Following that she worked as a TV scriptwriter for several Fox TV sitcoms before beginning work as a freelance screenwriter. In 1999 she co-wrote and produced the award winning short film Hero, directed by her husband and collaborator Mark Bamford. Suzanne is also founder of the production company, Wonder View Films.
What is it like to live a successful and happy life? Is it really possible to have it all? Read my interview with writer journalist and now screenwriter and producer, Suzanne Kay. This mother of two knows what she is talking about when it comes to living a fulfilled life.
Suzanne is the producer of the award winning film Cape Of Good Hope, which she also co-wrote with her husband Mark Bamford, the film's director. Cape of Good Hope is now playing at a theatre near you. Check your local listings or visit www.capemovie.com for more information.
DR: Tell me about your film, Cape of Good Hope.
SK: We made a short film a few years ago and the film went to film festivals and it took us traveling. We stopped in South Africa as we were traveling and loved it so much we …decided after that film – the film had brought us a certain level of success, and we knew we were going to move on to making our first feature – that we would try to leave Hollywood and settle somewhere, take a year off and write scripts for Mark to direct, and come back to the US and shoot them. That was the plan. And we had so fallen in love with South Africa that we decided that would be a great place. It’s a fascinating place and we connected with people there in our short time visiting and, at the time, it was also inexpensive. Then we came back to the US and packed up, and we had a little hitch in the plan which is that I was pregnant so it took us about a year to leave, but finally we left with my 3 month old son and our dog and moved off to South Africa. And that was really just to be a temporary break and a writing retreat, kind of combination.
We were doing a lot of projects. Like we worked on a project helping refugees adjust from Central Africa; refugees who were trying to adjust to South Africa. They needed to learn English, for example. We were doing an after school program with some children including some township kids. And these programs, we would do them in the afternoon and we would write in the mornings.
And then after one year in South Africa, we knew we didn’t want to leave. So, “how can we stay?” Well we will make our first feature here, we decided. So we wrote a script and it was all supposed to be kind of modest. Like a small script and “we’ll shoot it inexpensively” and if it doesn’t go well – No one will know! (laughs) We are over here in South Africa. No one will know.
And the response to the script was so strong, both in the United States and in South Africa. Our first fear was -- Were we capturing South Africa as outsiders? Had we accurately reflected the contemporary South African landscape that we were seeing? And so we gave it to South Africans immediately. They told us by their response that we were really on to something, and we were told over and over again “This is us. This is a side of us that has never been on the screen.” They were very excited about that. It was South Africa beyond the apartheid era – Africa today and people trying to live.
So then we started setting it up and within a short amount of time we were shooting that film in Cape Town and that’s how it all came to be. And the film has done very well for us and here we are now releasing it. But it was all kind of -- not the original plan, you know.
DR: It sounds like you are someone who follows your impulses and you move forward when there is something that you want to do…
SK: Yes. You know, I think that is a part of yourself that strengthens the more that you use it. It’s always frightening at first to take that step into the unknown and it was frightening for us. Picking up and moving to Africa was a pretty drastic step even though we felt like we were doing it for just one year. It perhaps set us on this path of taking chances that we might not have taken if we had stayed in our comfort zone. So, yes, we did try to do things by logic, but also by our gut; our sense of what was right for us to do. We’ll know Sunday (laughing) whether that was smart.
DR: Suzanne, tell me one thing that you discovered about yourself, unexpectedly, in going through this whole journey.
SK: I discovered a lot of things. I discovered that I can do many more things at once than I ever thought I could. I discovered that I can be a very good and attentive mother and produce a film, which just seems insane to do -- my second child was born right before we went into production. I discovered that there is enough of me to go around. And my husband has been incredibly helpful. Obviously having a strong team makes a difference. He carries it when I can’t, and vice versa.
But I think I discovered that there is a voice within, and you can call it many different things. Some people would call it God and some people would call it common sense. But if you listen and you are quiet, and you allow it to speak to you, it can move you in the right direction. You will know right from wrong….
We were first timers doing this and there were people that were more experienced telling us to move in a different direction than our instincts told us to go in. And across the board we stuck with our instincts. I think you start learning to have confidence in that after awhile; once you have done it for awhile. I feel that’s probably what I walked away from this project with, is a sense that I can trust that voice, perhaps even more than other people out there.
DR: Yes. Which is a big deal and a big part of succeeding in anything.
Suzanne can you describe to me what happiness is to you? You sound extremely happy and excited and like life is fulfilling. What is happiness -- to you?
SK: Well I think it’s very much connected to what we just talked about. I think taking a chance and feeling that you are trying not to compromise in any major way, makes you happy. We all have to compromise a little bit here and there. But I mean trying not to compromise the things you really value.
When we were writing in Hollywood, we would have to write for hire and you write what people want. You don’t have much control over the content. Then to try and venture out on your own, specifically because you want to say things that matter to you -- if you achieve that, that’s a very happy feeling.
I think the other thing…I know the other thing that brings me happiness is my kids. I am very, very blessed. I am very blessed to have these wonderful two children and be able to come back from whatever up or down there is going on in my career that day – I think anyone with children knows this -- and come to the children, who are the purest and most wonderful form of love. Then, I am balanced again and I can go to sleep at night and wake up and feel that I can tackle anything. My kids are just the best thing for me.
DR: Is there a difference for you between happiness and success?
SK: Well, I guess you would have to say “What are you trying to be successful at?” I am basically happy in my life and if I didn’t have the kind of success I want in my work, I believe I would still be happy because the other areas are in order. I would have to find some work that I care about…if this didn’t work out I would have to go do something else. I don’t feel as if my happiness is totally dependent on how my career goes. So, I guess there is a difference there between success; between career success and life happiness, which I think has more to do with friendships and family…
DR: …relationships and that kind of thing?
DR: So you consider yourself to be successful, clearly.
SK: Yes. I’m successful. It’s all relative. I grew up around very successful people who excelled in their careers and sometimes you end up sacrificing your personal life. So, success is really relative. It depends on what you value highly.
DR: Share with me an adverse situation that you ended up turning into a triumph somehow.
SK: It’s hard for me to answer that because I feel as if, pretty much, that is what everyday is…how you handle any piece of news that is difficult…every single day on this movie, you know…we would have some great ones and then other days where something we thought we wanted, didn’t come through but, “Did you plug ahead?” Well, you had to plug ahead. So in a way that means that you turned it into a success. You didn’t let it stop you. I don’t know if I can be more specific than that.
DR: Well that’s great actually. One of the things that we really hope to accomplish with our Inspiring People feature is to open up possibilities for people by connecting them with the humanity of people who are successful. So it’s really great when people can kind of hear that there is no big mystery or secret. It’s just, going back to what you said earlier, trusting yourself and your instinct; dealing with the day to day, sometimes minute to minute challenges that come up.
SK: I think that one of the ways to find out what you are made of is to take yourself out of your existing situation and challenge yourself; putting yourself somewhere else. And that doesn’t mean that you have to pick yourself up and move. I mean, obviously you can do that in so many ways, but you don’t find out what strengths are within you, untapped, until you stretch yourself. That is just inevitable, right? So, it is only when you are doing something that you maybe thought you couldn’t do, that you grow and that you find out what you are capable of. I think for people who are feeling like they want to move beyond where they are, that that’s a good way to look at it – “I am going to tackle just this small thing that I’ve never done before. That’s going to be my goal for this period of time.”
Take on a project.
When I moved to Africa -- because in a way there is less bureaucracy, I guess to get things done, or maybe it’s just that you are outside of your own norm -- I just said
“I’m going to try to do this. I am going to set up a program. Nothing like I’ve ever done before, but I don’t see anybody else doing it around here and I’m going to do it.”
It kind of frees you to initiate things. And, so things like that after school program, when I was teaching English to refugees, now in some ways it wasn’t that challenging. But it was because I had to speak French and I hadn’t used my French in such a long time, and I had never taken a class for teaching English…But you see people who need something that you have and it would be a crime not to share it. Whether or not you feel qualified, you do it anyway. That kind of gets you over your concern about being qualified and just puts you out there. You start doing things you didn’t know that you could do.
DR: What would you say your biggest contribution to the world has been so far?
SK: I don’t know what my contribution has been to the world. I’m not very good at looking at myself in that way and I am so new in my career. I imagine that when you are sitting on sixty or seventy and you look back you can say “Ah! This is where I made my mark!” It’s so early for me that I haven’t really pulled up and looked back down at myself from that vantage point to say “Oh, this is where I have contributed”. I am sure friends or family would give you an answer about “Oh she is this and this…”, but I don’t know quite what that is yet; what it is that I…in the end will say “This is what I did for the world”. I haven’t figured that out yet. I am just kind of moving forward everyday, you know.
DR: Well, how about if I were to ask you to fast forward to a hundred years from now – what do you want to be remembered for?
SK: I think I want to be remembered for uniting people of all backgrounds. I think that if there were an underlying theme in my life and in my work it’s that I hope to help people see how much more we have in common than we have differences. I think that if we could all work in that direction, pretty much every evil and ill that is out there would be improved because it’s all of the “isms”; the “schisms”. It’s nationalism, it’s sexism, it’s racism. It’s prejudice against each other’s religion…all of these things are what keep us from seeing our common humanity and really keep us in trouble. I guess that’s the motivation of my work now, and I think the ideas that I have for future work as well….
...It’s to have us bridge those divisions.