Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Jai Jamison was a huge fan of superhero comics.
Little did he know he would eventually shape the Superman canon as a Hollywood staff writer on TV’s “Superman & Lois,” which premieres Tuesday night on The CW network.
“This is not an origin story,” Jamison told WTOP. “This is a Superman who has lived in the world and has been working for a while. He’s married to Lois and they have two teenage boys. It’s about his struggles as a father and Lois’ struggles as a mother.”
“Superman & Lois” kicks off with a special two-hour premiere at 8 p.m. on WDCW-TV.
“It’s a family drama, but a lot of fun superhero action,” Jamison said. “The thing that makes Superman interesting is when he’s faced with a problem he can’t punch.”
After graduating from Hampton University in 2007, he interned on the hip-hop slasher flick “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You,” executive-produced by Spike Lee.
“I finished my exams and flew up to New York the next day,” Jamison said. “It was a really interesting experience. I learned a lot. [Spike Lee] came to set a couple of times. … He wasn’t hands-on on set every day, but a lot of the Spike crew worked on it.”
His life changed with a double boost, winning the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship and a full scholarship to the M.F.A. film program at American University.
“I was in Richmond coaching basketball at my old high school and freelance editing trying to figure out the next move,” Jamison said. “Getting into AU and getting the fellowship were the validation, the green light that you’re on the right path — ‘follow your dream, go after this.’ That really set me that film is a thing that I can pursue.”
After his masters, he was hired to direct his first feature film, “TRI.”
“[Producer Ted Adams] was looking for a director,” Jamison said. “Russell Williams from AU sent Ted my thesis film. Ted responded to it. I went in for a meeting. Ted hired me, and six weeks later we were filming, which is the craziest prep time for a feature film. … It was my Ph.D. There’s film school, then there’s making your first feature.”
He also worked on Hollywood productions in Virginia, including AMC’s “Turn” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” He almost became Daniel Day-Lewis’ personal assistant.
“We had a really great 45-minute conversation,” Jamison said. “He looks at me, takes a deep breath and says, ‘Jai, how tall are you?’ I’m like, ‘6’5″. … He says: ‘I’m sorry, but when I was studying Lincoln, I found out that he never met anyone taller than him. If I were around you every day, I wouldn’t feel tall.’ I got method-acted out of a job!”
They later crossed paths on set when Day-Lewis was in full costume and makeup.
“He had transformed into Lincoln and everyone was talking about how much he looked like Lincoln,” Jamison said. “I wanted to see for myself, so I positioned myself between the trailers. … He was walking by, looking just like the paintings of Lincoln, just ambling by. He looks over, sees me, cracks a smile and says, ‘What’s up, Jai?'”
While grateful for the work experience, he grew tired of historical slave dramas.
“My experiences working on ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Turn’ were great, but because of the nature of the storytelling, the only roles available to Black actors were slaves,” Jamison said.
That issue inspired his short film “Slave Cry,” a proof of concept for his TV pilot “RVA” about life in Richmond, earning an invitation to the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony.
“The premise is young, Black millennials growing up in the capital of the Confederacy,” Jamison said. “My lived experience is not ‘The Wire.’ … I grew up in the suburbs. One of my friends runs an ER in Milwaukee. Another developed the X-Box Kinect for video game tournaments that sold out the Staples Center. Another is a Supreme Court clerk.”
He soon showed “Slave Cry” to filmmaker Reggie Bythewood, who was visiting Richmond while scouting locations for his upcoming TV series “Swagger.”
“We met for lunch, I showed him one of my short films and he offered me a job to be his assistant on ‘Swagger,'” Jamison said. “That allowed me to start to put down roots and a foundation in L.A. while also maintaining my work in Richmond. I was in L.A. for the writers’ room, came back to Richmond for the pilot, went back to L.A. for post.”
He became a staff writer on “Superman & Lois” after winning the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Script Competition for his Black Superman pilot “The American Way.”
“I met this writer James Stoteraux, a writer and executive producer on ‘The Vampire Diaries’ who’s since worked on ‘Gotham,’ ‘Krypton,’ ‘Batwoman,'” Jamison said. “He started circulating ‘The American Way’ around his friends in the Warner Bros. camp and it made its way to Todd Helbing, the show runner of ‘Superman & Lois.'”
Ironically, his dream of a Hollywood writers’ room was changed by the pandemic.
“We started the room maybe three weeks before the pandemic,” Jamison said. “When we moved into a Zoom writers’ room, that is what allowed me to make it through. Being in the room with those wonderful people telling hopeful, positive stories living in this other world — that’s the thing I held onto and hopefully what people get out of this.”
Jamison wrote Episode 7 and is potentially co-writing another episode later in the season. It’s a full circle moment for Jamison, who grew up reading comic books.
“Five-year-old Jai dressed as Superman multiple Halloweens,” Jamison said. “There’s a VHS of me dressed as Superman singing ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’ That was part of my origin story. … People ask who is your Superman? Is it the old cartoons? Christopher Reeve? Brandon Routh? … Now, it’s the one we’re creating.”