Naia Cucukov, as interviewed by Julia Hartlep
Q: Would you mind just giving a brief overview of who you are, and some background?
A: I'm a New Jersey born daughter of a displaced immigrant on one side (father- Kalmyk Mongolian) and multigenerational settler (mother- Italian/English, can trace relatives in America back to the late 1700s). After graduating from Brown, I packed up my Mitsubishi Eclipse and drove out to LA, working up the ladder at various companies, including CAA, Legendary, Virgin Produced and now Walden Media, where I am the EVP of Development and Production and oversee our slate of projects.
Q: How did you become involved/interested with film? And when did this happen?
A: Growing up biracial and one of the only Asian kids in a small town, I found escape, and a sense of community, through books, film, and television. I'd often struggle to explain my cultural heritage and religion (my family is Tibetan Buddhist) to friends and family, and then in Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out, and suddenly, people were asking questions and making connections. Realizing that entertainment was a common language that we all could share was a lightning bolt moment for me.
Q: Out of all the projects you’ve been a part of, which is your favorite? Which are you most proud of?
A: I am proud of all my film babies, but The Baby-Sitters Club, Walden's first TV show, was a watershed event for me. To be able to EP a show based on a book series that I grew up loving, working with the amazingly talented Rachel Shukert, Lucia Aniello and my childhood idol, Ann M. Martin, and watching our cast grow into strong young women has been a dream come true. And to be able to be part of creating our Claudia Kishi, a character that our community has such an affinity for, along with the incredibly talented Momona Tamada, has been the icing on the cake!
Q: Have you ever personally noticed any difference in the way you were treated as opposed to those who aren’t Asian? If so, do you mind elaborating?
A: This is a topic that I think has been discussed a lot on various forums, but the thing I've run into the most is that feeling of where do we belong, and what are we entitled to in our portion of the people of color diaspora? I've had higher ups tell me they don't see me "as a minority" while at the same time committing micro aggressions that they would never say to a white employee; I've been exotified, tokenized; I've found myself having to be the voice for countless affinity groups, as the only female POC in a room. I would like to say that these things have been getting better as the AAPI community comes together and essentially, we give ourselves permission to fight back, but considering the violence and hatred currently aimed at Asian Americans, I'm worried it's getting much worse out there before it gets better.
Q: What has been your biggest struggle with the film industry?
A: The film and television industry is one of the most creative and innovative industries in the world, yet the gatekeepers and way the system is set up is exclusive and incredibly homogeneous. For a long time, I felt like I was trying to find my community within that old system- but once I threw that notion away and accepted that while gaining a seat at that table would be cool, I was also content to build my own, I found everything opened up for me. I think the exciting thing happening right now, is that so many people are reaching that same conclusion at once, and it's making for a much more vibrant landscape for creative voices.
Q: What has been the most rewarding thing you’ve experienced while in this industry?
A: When fellow Executive Producer on the Baby-Sitter's Club, Lucy Kitada and I drove out to upstate New York to first meet Ann M. Martin, she offhandedly remarked that she was around our age when she was writing the series, and now, here we are two girls who grew into women shaped by her series were asking her to make it into a TV show- to think that we might have the same kind of impact on the next generation- that is and will always be the most rewarding!