Director Robert Townsend is on a roll. His Pic.tv webseries, Diary of a Single Mom is proving to be a runaway internet hit. The drama, now in it’s third season and which stars Monica Calhoun, Leon, Diahann Carroll and Billy Dee Williams has sparked such a buzz that it will soon be headed to cable TV as a possible new series. We checked in with Townsend to find out what attracted him to the award-winning webseries and how the internet is changing television. And, The Five Heartbeats director weighed in the ongoing, very controversial singer/rapper turned actor debate. —Ronke Idowu Reeves
VIBE: As a male director Tyler Perry faced some heat for directing a woman’s story, For Colored Girls this year. Did you feel similar pressures being at the helm of this woman’s story?
Cheryl L. West is the writer of Diary and she has such as strong point of view, I just listen. Cheryl and I had worked together on a movie I directed for Showtime called Holiday Heart [Alfrie Woodard got nominated for a Golden Globe for the starring role.] My job as a director is kind of easy because if you got really great actors, a well-written script I can just stay out of the way, have fun and let the actors act. But coming from a single parent household there’s a lot of my mother in the lead character in Diary, Ocean [played by Monica Calhoun] and there are a lot of things that as a kid I grew up around.
Diary of Single Mom won the Best Indie Soap 2009 Award. So would you describe it as a straight drama series or a soap opera?
I look at Diary as a drama. But I guess when you have stuff with real life drama people say, 'Oh it’s a soap.' But I never looked at it like that. When we won the soap award for best soap series all I knew was that people were responding.
The immediacy of web feedback must be different for you as a film director.
When I create movies or television shows I would never get feedback unless I would walk down the street and someone would come up to me and say, ‘The Five Heartbeats really touched my heart man!’ Now with the internet you read comments that say, 'I’m sitting here crying or will Ocean win?' And the comments come from such a genuine beautiful place it’s like, 'Wow we’re getting feedback.' The only complaint so far is that it’s too short. We’re telling a story in 14 or 16 minutes—the length of each episode [laughs.] I was reading the feedback and folks were saying, ‘It’s too short Mr. Townsend it’s really got to be 30 minutes’ [laughs.]
Was it difficult landing an all-star cast for a web-series? Because the format is still so experimental?
I just reached out to different people. We have a mentor character whose played by Richard Roundtree, we had an uncle character with diabetes and that’s Billy Dee Williams. Even though the web is experimental on a lot of levels everybody that I asked said, ‘Because it’s you Robert, yes.’ And it made me feel really good. This season we have Diahann Carroll who plays a no-nonsense therapist who helps to counsel Ocean's son. But who really ends up challenging Ocean (Calhoun).
It’s unfortunate that our veteran actors don’t work as much as older white actors like Betty White.
Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee Williams were talking to me about this the other day. They were telling me how they don’t get meaty roles [as older actors in the industry]— they get throwaway roles. From my childhood Billy Dee Williams, Richard Roundtree, Diahann Carroll they all gave so much— they are my heroes. I’m like, 'Let’s give them something to really do, if we’re going to bring them out the house.' Overall our icons, our legends don’t get honored the way others treat theirs— which is a shame. And they are not treated the way they should be. So this [show] is probably some the best work they’ve been able to do in years.
What about the talks that DSM will be headed to basic cable soon?
We’re in contract negotiations with TV One right now to do a one-hour special in January. And I feel really good because I really want the world to see this baby. The world is seeing the baby now online, but I think it could be a good fit for TV One because it’s the right demo, it’s got stars, it’s well written— I think we’ve done a great job. I’m proud of this show. The one-hour special to just see how the audience responds to and if there’s interest [enough to be a series.] But they want to move forward.