For Radha Blank, turning 40 is just the beginning. The native New Yorker has already won plaudits writing for the stage, earned good money scribbling for TV and made a name for herself as a comedian and rapper. As careers go, many would be envious of the variety, let alone success she’s enjoyed. Yet despite racking up awards and working alongside Spike Lee, Blank felt she wasn’t living her best life.
Cue The Forty-Year-Old Version, a story largely based on her own experiences as a middle-aged NYC playwright struggling to get her latest work commissioned. She’s teaching angry kids how to write at a rundown school while wondering is she’s made the right life choices. Before long, she throws caution to the wind and sets about becoming a rap artist, much to the concern of her best friend – and agent – who is desperately trying to get Radha’s career back on track.
Initially, the project was going to be a web series – and when the viewer got through all 10 episodes, they’d be rewarded with a mixtape of Blank’s best music. But the more she thought about it, the more she realised the idea would be better served in film form.
Three years later and her gut feeling has paid off – Blank has written, directed and starred in a movie that has been met with numerous awards – most notably the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year – and will this month find its way onto Netflix.
Partly serious, partly thoughtful and overwhelmingly funny, Radha was on top form when we jumped on a Zoom call to talk about the process of becoming a 40-year-old first-time director.
Hi Radha, what were you doing before you embarked on this movie?
“I was doing what the character was doing. I was mourning my mother. I was trying to figure out where my voice was. I needed to take my life and career into my own hands so that I couldn’t get fired from another job.”
Did you feel liberated or exposed playing a character so similar to yourself?
“Both. I feel very exposed, especially in that love scene, woo-hoo! It is my life on display – that’s my apartment, my mother’s artwork, my dad’s jazz playing in the background and my failures. They’re tweaked and amplified to suit the narrative but I am telling on myself. It’s a little scary but also liberating because I got this film out of me, and I hope it sets the tone for a really cool career as an auteur.”
What’s different for you now you’ve made a mainstream film?
“There’s something I have heard a lot in my play-writing career, people would read my plays and think they’re wonderful and then say, ‘What else you got?’ and that question feels different now, it’s less about the person at the gate, and more about my voice and connecting to my audience.”
What advice do you have for someone looking to make a play or a film?
“Go where the love is. I was so busy trying to get the attention of gatekeepers and getting people in power to love my work. I wasted so much energy doing that, and like my character, I had an epiphany. I looked in a different direction, to see all these people who had always loved me and loved my work.
How hard is it to get a movie about a 40-year old Black woman made?
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure. I think even when people read and loved the script, the image of someone like me… they don’t know me and I think Hollywood is trying to bank on what’s familiar, a face or a name, that’s what is gonna pull people in. I think it used to be the opposite.”
How do you mean?
“A leading man and woman had a different look 30 years ago, they looked like real people and they all possessed their own beauty but they weren’t immediately sexy or attractive. That’s what I wanted to harken back to, a real person having a real journey. I’m trying to get back to casting ugly people in leads, messed-up teeth, eyes crooked. I wanna bring that back!”