Catching Up With AFI Alum and WATCHMEN Writer Christal Henry
When WATCHMEN premiered in 2019, the HBO series broke boundaries as the first superhero drama on TV to star a Black woman. Adapted from the trailblazing graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, the show has plumbed the depths of racism, white supremacy, police brutality and political corruption all too visible in America today – though rarely depicted onscreen.
To build the authentic world of WATCHMEN, creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof (LOST, THE LEFTOVERS) staffed storytellers with diverse experiences in his most inclusive writers’ room ever. He enlisted writer Christal Henry (AFI Class of 2005) whose credits include police procedurals THE CHICAGO CODE, UNFORGETTABLE and APB. Henry, alongside Lindelof, co-wrote the captivating fourth episode of WATCHMEN called, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.” The show has continued to earn accolades throughout the year, named as one of AFI’s top 10 television programs of the year. Henry, alongside her fellow WATCHMEN writers, earned the Writers Guild of America’s Best Written New Series award and only last week WATCHMEN earned a record 26 Emmy® nominations – the most of any show this year.
AFI spoke with Christal about her time studying screenwriting at AFI, how her background as a former police officer informs how she tackled stories surrounding racism and police brutality on WATCHMEN and how the series resonates during this tumultuous moment in time.
AFI: How did you first become involved with WATCHMEN? What was it like collaborating with Damon Lindelof and the other writers he assembled?
Christal: My agent called and asked if I wanted to meet for the show. My answer was, “Of course I would! Why are you still talking to me, hang up and send in my sample.” A short time later, I met with Damon and he pitched his vision for the show, which I loved. He thought I would contribute to the room, so he hired me.
I love the way Damon’s mind works. In some ways, he’s like a big kid. His excitement for WATCHMEN, and life in general, is infectious. He’s also an amazing storyteller. It was great to be working with so many talented people. We encouraged each other to tell our truths and to think outside of the box.
This was one of the most diverse rooms I’ve ever been a part of. In our first meeting, Damon stressed that he wanted a room with mostly Black writers and women. He did just that. We all came from different backgrounds and had our own unique perspectives which added to the richness of the show. Prior to that, I worked on THE FIRST, which also had a very diverse writing staff.
AFI: What was it like adapting a graphic novel that has also been made into a major Hollywood movie? Did you feel beholden to either interpretation or liberated with the new direction of the series?
Christal: Damon made it clear from the beginning this wouldn’t be a direct adaptation of the graphic novel. There was one major rule: We had to treat the novel as canon. Outside of that, we had the freedom to create our own story as long as it existed within the world of WATCHMEN.
AFI: You started working on WATCHMEN prior to the latest protests about police profiling and brutality. How do you think the series speaks to this moment?
Christal: Black people have always been the victims of institutional racism and police brutality. Us dying at the hands of police is nothing new. White supremacists have always been a part of law enforcement and are largely responsible for its toxic culture.
I don’t believe all police are bad. For me, it’s also a societal issue. White America, in particular, bears some responsibility for weaponizing the police – and, to a larger extent, the criminal justice system – by giving them the power and authority to terrorize communities of color.
It just so happens that WATCHMEN exists at a time of social upheaval. Americans of all races are demanding real change and starting to hold the establishment accountable for the murderous actions of its members.
AFI: As a former police officer out of Chicago, how does your previous experience inform your writing?
Christal: It’s certainly easier to write for a cop show because I’m familiar with the way things work. I don’t have to make up as many details because I know the reality.
But it’s been helpful for all of my writing. As a police officer, I encountered people from all walks of life. There’s the physical part of the job but there was also a lot of observation. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was gaining valuable insight into human behavior.
But to be clear, I was a Black woman first and a police officer second. Having a badge didn’t shield me from discrimination on and off the force. So there was a certain duality to my life that provided some insight into Angela Abar’s character.
AFI: You’ve worked on several police dramas, including THE CHICAGO CODE and APB. In this current climate where there’s been a reckoning with excessive force by police, how do you approach writing nuanced depictions of these characters?
Christal: I think those shows were very cool and of their time. My approach varies based on the project. I usually draw on my personal experiences. It also helps to know as much as you can about the characters and their world.
AFI: How did you transition from being a police officer to enrolling at AFI?
Christal: Ultimately, I left the force because I didn’t enjoy the job. At the time, I didn’t know a career in television was even possible. I started journaling and a friend suggested I take a television course. I went on to earn a B.A. in Television from Columbia College Chicago. I wanted to continue my education, so I moved to Los Angeles and applied to AFI.
AFI: What did you learn at AFI that you carry with you in your career?
Christal: I learned the importance of tapping into the emotions of your characters. Overall, AFI broadened my knowledge and appreciation of film.
WATCHMEN is now available to stream on HBO.