The Madames chat with AC Bradley, the Emmy-winning executive producer and head writer for Marvel’s animated anthology series What If…?

Bradley served as head writer for the critically-acclaimed series Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and 3Below: Tales of Arcadia.  AC discusses her artistic inspirations, the pill-pocket formula for crafting a show, and the importance of representation in the writer’s room. 

Ac Bradley, head writer of What If

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Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

Kris: 
Welcome to another installment of Studio Sessions with the Madames. 

Amy: 
Our guest today isn’t one to shy away from deep themes and complex issues. 

Kris:  
She’s the Emmy-winning writer behind Trollhunters and 3Below who now serves as head writer and executive producer of Marvel’s animated series, What If…? 

Amy: 
And we sure hope she’s here to stay in the MCU. 

Kris: 
Welcome to the show a woman whose pen is definitely mightier than a sword, AC Bradley. 

AC Bradley: 
Hi guys. Thanks for having me on this. This is going to be fun. 

Kris: 
Thank you so much for being here. 

Amy: 
Absolutely. 

Kris:
So AC, you and Stan Lee have something in common in that you are both from the Bronx. 

AC Bradley
Yeah, and I actually was very lucky early on in my career. I got to meet Stan Lee very briefly. 

I had a general meeting with Stan Lee based on a pilot script I had written. And as a kid from the Bronx, to meet another kid from the Bronx – although, at the time, he was far from a kid – it was such a fun thrill. And I’ve learned a trick that when you’re meeting someone that makes you nervous is to very quickly own it and almost tell them that. And I said, “I’m very excited to meet you as a kid who grew up on Bainbridge Avenue. And he was both surprised and very nice. He’s like, “Well, we have to be friends then.” And it was a great little meeting. I got to talk about the script I had written and he talked about superheroes and finding the complexity in them and what drives them, and finding the heart and the humor. And he’s completely right. And that’s what’s basically been my mantra over the last few years when it comes to writing not just MCU characters, but any character. 

Amy: 
That’s fantastic. 

Kris: 
So you were raised by a single mom. What were some of the challenges that you both faced while you were growing up that have helped shape the woman and the writer that you’ve become? 

AC Bradley: 
I was raised by a single mom in the Bronx. My mom was born in Ireland but raised in Glasgow, Scotland and I grew up in a very strong Irish neighborhood. The Bronx gets a bad rap at times, but my childhood was completely happy. And looking back on it, I thought everything was completely normal. I thought having one mom was totally cool. I had a very happy childhood. She had me in her 20s, so she was a bit young and it was always fun. I remember going to the movies. We’d go to the movies on Saturdays. And sometimes we’d see one and then sneak into another. We used to get Chinese takeout every Sunday evening. And it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized a lot of kids in my neighborhood –  especially when they came from families of like three or four or or five kids – they didn’t have those experiences because their parents couldn’t afford to take five kids to the movies every week. They couldn’t afford to do Chinese takeout every week. I always joke that we were the working class Gilmore Girls. I have absolutely no complaints about my childhood. When I got older, I did meet my biological father. We have an odd, somewhat adult, but slightly estranged relationship. But me and my mom are super close. She’s been here the last few months in L.A. helping me with my tiny little bundle of joy. And she’s been a godsend. 

Amy: 
So you’ve mentioned films like Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, and Star Wars as major influences for you. The West Wing also, which is very different from those other movies. 

What is it about all of them that has inspired you in your career? 

AC Bradley:
Oh wow, you guys did your research. Yes, I love The West Wing and I think I do mention it on Twitter way too often. I love The West Wing. So the earlier movies like Star Wars, Lethal Weapon, Indiana Jones – I grew up with three older boy cousins who lived two blocks away from me. And being Mary’s only child (because I was raised by a single mom) I would hang out at my aunt’s house with my older boy cousins, I think, every Sunday afternoon. We were always over there and they were boys. They were putting fireworks in tin cans and blowing them up on the street. They were rambunctious guys and their favorite movies were Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon. And I was too little and I would be sitting there watching them all with them and thinking these were the best things in the world. And going into first grade and not understanding why no one else was watching these, at times, very violent movies and TV shows. I think I was the only kid who knew both Hill Street Blues reruns and Johnny Carson, because, I don’t know.  That’s what people were watching in the house. 

Kris: 
I feel you. 

AC Bradley:
So I grew up with this deep love of genre. We used to play, when I was super little, Top Gun. That was a game we would play, which was basically just yelling at each other and giving each other cool code names. That was it, and throwing each other in the brig which was the closet. But that was the kind of fun childhood I had. West Wing obviously came out when I was not five years old. I just love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. 

Kris: 
Yes!

AC Bradley:
I love the humor and the characters. As I got older another favorite movie of mine is His Girl Friday. It’s very fast dialogue. It’s very funny. It’s all based on character relationships in high school and college. I fell more into Shakespeare, which is another – I mean, if you want to learn about writing five-act structure, you study Shakespeare. And so West Wing just kind of took everything I love and did it all. And then I realized over, I think the last six years, I’ve watched it more and more. It went from this great, smart TV show to almost a bit of fantasy? 

Kris: 
I couldn’t agree with you more. I did the same thing. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah, it’s like, I want to be in a world where people are flawed, but they’re trying their best to do the right thing for the vast majority of others. And I miss that kind of… we’d use the term optimism now. We’d say it’s like a Ted Lasso show because there isn’t a grittiness to it. There isn’t a darkness. There’s actually this optimism that’s just ingrained in it, as this is the way we’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to want to serve others to do good. And I miss that. I miss that in our culture. I miss that in our world right now, and I’m hoping against hope that we get back there. And so I think West Wing was, especially for the past four years, my chicken soup. And I’m very sad that Netflix has taken it off. 

Kris:  
Yeah, I hear you. 

AC Bradley:
Netflix at one point was like, “We’re not even gonna recommend anything to you anymore. Look at you.” 

Kris: 
When I saw Bradley Whitford’s name in the credits for Captain Carter, I squeaked. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah! I was kind of shocked. So what happened was when we were breaking Captain Carter and you go back to The First Avenger and you look at Tommy Lee Jones’s character, for the necessities of that story, he’s actually a pretty liberal character. They needed to have Peggy Carter there, so his character isn’t in any way sexist. He’s actually quite liberal for the time. So when I was breaking the story I was like, “I need to kill off Tommy Lee Jones.” Because let’s be honest, that kind of general would not be present actually in the 1940s. And I had research and stuff and our executive is like, “of course.” I was like, “I need a character that is sexist and nasty.” And again, I’m writing this in the last four years, so it’s not that unusual to think that way. And I had watched the Marvel one-shot and I’ve been a big fan of Agent Carter, the TV series. And I was like, “Can we use the character of Flynn from the one-shot?” 

And the response was, “I think Bradley would do it.” 

I was like, “Oh, seriously? I was just asking to use the character, you guys.” 

And they were like, “No, Bradley Whitford is a great guy and we might have to remind him that he did the one-shot because he filmed that like 6 years ago over the course of two days.” 

But he came in, and he’s everything we want him to be, ladies. He is Josh Lyman without the intensity. 

Kris:
That is so wonderful to hear. I would have been part of LemonLyman.com back in the day. 

AC Bradley:
Yes, exactly! He was great. He came in and he was super nice. And he was telling us stories about shooting The Handmaid’s Tale up in Canada. He’s very, very praiseful of the Canadian crew. He says that they’re the nicest people and a majority of them are female. He’s working on this very supportive, lovely crew, and every once in a while you hear over your mic, “OK guys not to rush ya but we’re losing light and we gotta get those girls in their nooses.” 

He’s like, “the crew is the most amazing supportive people and, at times, we’re making some of the darkest television out there.” It was nice to hear an actor praise, not just their coworkers and directors, but every person on the production. He was great.

Kris:  
That’s awesome. So what books and animated films or shows had a major impact on you, since you’ve gone into animation?

AC Bradley: 
My entrance into animation was a little bit accidental. I am mostly a genre writer. I love comic books. I love long-form storytelling. I love taking bigger, harder pills to swallow and wrapping them in genre conventions like a pill pocket and telling stories that way. I think you can do a lot more. You can say a lot more about the human condition if you make it something fun to watch and something to enjoy. The way I actually got started in animation was I’m good friends with Marc Guggenheim, who is an amazing showrunner and comic book writer. I had done a stint on Arrow with him. We developed a pilot together. I wrote a feature (that is languishing at Disney) that he’s attached to produce. And basically, he called me up and he went, “I have an animation show going and I’d love someone in the room who doesn’t have an animation background who comes from longer-form storytelling, who breaks series down into 13-episode chunks, who can understand how you tell a story over the course of x-many episodes. Do you want to join?”

At the time I was completely unemployed and I was like, “Of course I do. What am I doing?” And I was very lucky it was Trollhunters. He sent me the pilot that day and I was actually in New York at the time. I read it on the 4 train and by the time I got above ground where my phone was working, I was like, “OK. Who do I have to meet? What do I have to do to get on this job?”

And so I joined Trollhunters, which he produced, and then I ran the room on 3Below, which was the spinoff. And it was a great experience. What I loved about animation is that you work very closely with artists with modelers and CGI. And then the animatic process is, if you’ve never experienced it, actually a lot of fun for writers because you end up spending time in the edit bay doing almost a rewrite or a polish on your script after it’s already been completely storyboarded. And I learned at DreamWorks that I love hanging out in the edit bay with the editors and brainstorming and troubleshooting and figuring out how to make the story better, more visually interesting, funnier, exciting, heartfelt. And the collaboration process is just great. And when I went over to Marvel for What if…? I made two phone calls and the first was to one of the writers on 3Below, who I loved working with. And I was like, “I’m doing this show. It’s only going to be 10 episodes. I do not want a writers room, but I want you.” And it was Matt Chauncey. 

And he was like, “Yeah, I’m happy to join. I love Marvel.” He’d been an assistant back in the day on Agent Carter

And then my second call was to Graham Fisher, the editor I’d worked with there for three years and I went, “Graham, do you want to come and play? I’ve got a new project going.”

I couldn’t tell him the name of the project and I got super nervous because we hadn’t been announced. We were super early days. But one of my best friends is a friend of his and so he apparently sent her a text going, “Ashley just called me about some mysterious job.”

And her reply was, “You’re going to return her phone call. You’re going to take the meeting and you’re taking the job.” Because she’s like, “I know what she can and cannot say. I can’t say it either, obviously, but you’re taking the job and congratulations.” 

Amy:
Yeah, this sounds like the mob. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah, it was! This is Marvel – you can’t talk about it. I just told him I was on an animation show at Disney and I wanted him to join. So he came in for the meeting and then was like,  “What do I have to do to get this job?”

And I was like, “I think you have to say yes.” And then he was there a month. We knew we would have to hire more editors and his twin brother – who I’d also worked with who I love, I think I just didn’t have his phone number in my phone – came and joined the team and it was absolutely… again, hanging out with your friends creating television? It’s the best gift in the world. 

Kris: 
Yeah, and then you just tell people, “Business is business and business is good.”

That kind of conversation.

AC Bradley:
Yeah, pretty much. 

Kris: 
So you mentioned the concept of putting these deep themes inside a pill pocket. 

So for those out there who don’t have dogs and cats who they have to give their medication, can you go into how you go about striking that balance in the writer’s room, and what additional challenges animation might bring to that? 

AC Bradley:
When it comes to cracking the story, we always start with the character. I always go with, “What can we say about this character? What do we want to say? Who are they?”

So that’s basically where you get the heart, starting there. With Captain Carter, it was this notion of what can we say about the human existence? What can we say about being a woman in the 1940s that would parallel today? And it wasn’t that hard to be like, it’s going to be hard even if you have the super soldier serum. There’s always going to be someone looking at you, not giving you the chance, trying to tear you down. Often the only option a woman has is to march forward and apologize later. It’s just to go after what we want. Don’t apologize for it, state clearly and forward what we want. And that was a piece of advice I was given when I was an assistant by a manager. He went, “No one is going to know what you want unless you say it.” He’s like, “Don’t expect anyone in this business or this world to hand you your dream projects, your dream jobs. You have to be the one to say this is what I want to do.”

And it’s not just a sense of being a woman. He’s like, “No one knows what’s going on in anyone else’s head. We can assume. We can try and guess. But we don’t know. So the best way to be is to be clear and firm about who you are and what you want to create.”

And I always remember that piece of advice, so thank you, [name unclear]. And so with the show, I was like, “OK, I want to make sure that we’re always saying something. I want to make sure everything stays in line with the characters that we love, because if we go completely different or crazy or weird that you no longer recognize Captain America, you no longer recognize Tony Stark, no one is going to care, and they’re not going to get it.” 

So when it came to, say, Episode Four for Doctor Strange, I went back to the original movie. I went back through all the scripts. I went back to the comic books and my gut was telling me, “We haven’t explored the Christine Palmer of it all.” And I want to know more about that relationship and how Strange feels about her. And the more I started looking at the character and the way he’s so career-focused and arrogant, I was like, “He doesn’t know what he had until it’s gone. He’s one of those people.”

That’s a lot of us. So let’s take away what he has and let him be faced with the loss, so the episode focuses on, I think the title is What if Doctor Strange Lost His Heart and Not His Hands? And in it Christine Palmer dies. 

Amy:
Oh my god. 

AC Bradley: 
I want to explore how a man like Doctor Strange, a man that wields the Eye of Agamotto, how would he deal with grief? Or, more importantly, how would he badly deal with grief? And so the episode became an exploration of that. How far do we go to save the ones we love and do we ever accept that they’re fully gone? And like I said, that all started with, “I want to know more about his relationship with Christine.” 

If we had started with, “Oh! I want to see a big wizard v. wizard fight,” you wouldn’t have gotten to the same emotional place. But the pill pocket idea is, “OK. I want to do this thing about grief. How do I then make it fun and interesting and not a slog?” Because sometimes sitting through a movie that’s about grief, but it’s just about grief? For two hours you’ll be like, “I am going to kill myself. Don’t depress me.”

And so we made it fun and it’s interesting. And again, because it’s these characters, these icons, these superheroes, I did have all these things at my disposal. We have time travel. We have magic. We have the entire MCU so I can take these little human nuggets and wrap them up in all the fun stuff. And to be able to do that was the best thing. 

Kris: 
Yeah and we saw how well Jack Schaeffer and Matt Shakman did that on WandaVision

AC Bradley:
Yeah! I was like, “Hh shoot, you guys did it too!” 

Kris: 
And I’m just so excited to hear this because I love Doctor Strange. I love the movie, but my one big problem with it was that I always felt Rachel McAdams was fairly wasted in the movie. So to get a deeper exploration of Christine Palmer sounds fantastic. 

AC Bradley:
I love Rachel McAdams. I wasn’t there for her record. My assistant was and he sent me a text message and he went, “You owe Rachel McAdams a muffin basket. She just brought it.” 

And then when I listened to the episode, when I listened to her recording, I was like, “Oh, Rachel McAdams. Will you marry me?” She’s great. 

Amy:  
Truth be told, I have the same question for Captain Carter. 

AC Bradley:
Hayley Atwell is another one who’s absolutely delightful. This is my second show with her and that woman could read the phone book and make it captivating. 

Kris: 
Yes. Amy has been picking out China patterns ever since. 

Amy: 
So you said previously that the biggest challenge with creating What If…? was setting up the animation pipeline. Can you tell us in layman’s terms what that entails? 

AC Bradley:
Oh, so setting up an animation pipeline. Marvel exists as part of Disney, but it’s also a bit separate. Kevin Feige is a visionary and a brilliant man. And so he kind of controls Marvel, as he should, because damn, he’s good at it. So they didn’t have an animation pipeline. What I mean by pipeline is if someone gave you the keys to an office floor and told you to start a company, but there’s literally no desks in no chairs and there’s no copier or fax machine. That’s what it was like. It’s like, “Go make this animation show. We have never done this before, so here’s basically an empty floor to build it.” It’s not an easy thing to do. Magdiela, Andrew, and Harry Butler – they were the ones who really came in and did the nuts and bolts of hiring up the design team, hiring up the crew, getting the contracts made –  well first finding the animation houses. Meanwhile, we’re figuring out the design of the show, the look of the show. I’m breaking a season. We’re hiring the editors, getting the editors’ bays going. How you operate a pipeline  the scripts need to be done by this date, the animatics need to be done by this date. And we have to have all the designs done in this so we can deliver them to the animation house, and then the animation house will start their job. Then they, obviously, are sending their dailies back to us and we’re having meetings. So it’s all the nuts and bolts of actually creating an animated television show, because at the end of the day, I can write a great script and Brian Andrews can storyboard the hell out of it, but it’s just going to be us standing on a street corner doing like a theater play without the actual production pipeline, without the hundreds of people, the thousands of people who actually make the show. 

Amy: 
During the design process, did you ever consider going 3D or was it always decided that you would stay 2D? 

AC Bradley:
We were actually a 3D-2D hybrid. The original idea was to do 2D like old school Disney movies. However, that way of training has kind of fallen out of fashion, and there’s a lot less 2D animation houses in the world right now. They’re all booked up for a couple of years. And so then we were meeting animation companies. They were like, “the best way to do this sort of anthology show is to kind of do a blend of CGI models, 3D models and 2D.” 

Which basically means all the problems you have with CGI and all the problems we have with 2D, you now have all the problems. But it was the best way to bring these designs to life. Ryan Meinerding, Marvel design visionary, and his team really came in with, “Let’s let our ambitions lead this. Let’s do this very cool illustrative design. It’s a very complicated design, and move forward.” 

And I was always sitting there going, “Oh my gosh, are we going to be able to pull this off?” And they did. I’m so proud of his team because it looks visually beautiful. And Steven Frank, who is our animation supervisor,  he was the one that was in there (God knows how many) hours a day on Skypes, on Zooms with animation houses around the world just trying to make sure everything was perfect. It was a big undertaking and all the credit goes to the team. 

Kris: 
And the show looks absolutely gorgeous. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah, that’s all them. I mean I was there in meetings, but I can’t draw to save my life at all. 

Kris: 
You know, it actually reminds me of what Samuel L. Jackson’s character says in Jurassic Park: “We now have all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo.” 

AC Bradley:
I love Jurassic Park and it was kind of like that. How do I put it? Spider-Verse did an amazing job. Spider-Verse actually is a blending of CGI and 2D-animation and it’s absolutely drop-dead-gorgeous. Spider-Verse is 100 minutes. 

Kris: 
Yeah, it’s an incredible movie. 

AC Bradley: 
We’re 250 minutes. So on the same amount of time, we were making almost three times the amount of material which, again, hats off go to our teams and our animation houses for bringing this to life because that’s the hard part of television. We’re doing more material, usually on a smaller and tighter timeframe and budget than features. The fact that we did this, or the the team was able to pull this off, I’m so proud and it’s absolutely beautiful. We always knew we wanted to use light in an interesting way and kind of give it a cinematography feel, and you reach for that in the designs, animatics, or storyboards. We had brilliant storyboard artists and they would try and bring an element to that. But at the end of the day, it’s storyboards, and we’re trying to actually get the episode where we need to get the episode. When I saw the first pieces of animation coming back about over a year ago, it was this moment of, “OK, we’ve got something here.” It’s only like 4 seconds of animation we were seeing from Captain Carter, but it was absolutely beautiful and it just made us all feel like, “OK, we’re on the right path. If we can get the next 250 minutes to look as good as this first minute, we’ve done something special.” 

Amy: 
So was it because of the time and budget constraints that he decided to go with the more, almost painted sort of backdrop scenes? 

AC Bradley:
Well, that’s the opposite, that kind of backdrop. That level of painting, that was led by our production designer, Paul Lasaine, is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. 

Amy:  
OK. 

AC Bradley:
Oh yeah. Usually in animation, the backdrops are a lot simpler. InCGI, it’s a little like The Sims  where you’ve pre-built it and then you’re kind of just going in there. In traditional 2D-animation, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t change. It’s not new. 

Amy: 
Yeah, exactly. 

AC Bradley:
That’s actually how we got Paul to do his first television series. He’s been working in animation for a few decades. He’s brilliant, but he’s only ever been a features guy. And we convinced him to do TV with, “We want to bring your vision, what you bring to movies, but we want to bring it to TV, and it’s going to be 10 episodes. Everything is going to be different each episode, so kind of let your imagination run wild and build your dream team.”

And he did. I don’t know whose idea it was. I have a funny feeling it might have been Brad Winderbaum’s to use Paul and his team’s backgrounds for the credits, because they’re absolutely beautiful. And when you’re watching the show, hopefully you’re so engrossed in the story that you might not be paying attention as much to the beautiful backgrounds as you should be. So it’s a nice way to showcase them because the artwork on this – I mean I’m happy I can now finally use some of the artwork as my desktop background. I’ve been wanting to for the past two years.

Kris:
Nice. 

Amy: 
Oh, I would pay good money for that. 

AC Bradley:
Oh yeah, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The paintings he did, beyond gorgeous. 

Amy:  
It is, yeah. 

AC Bradley: 
Our offices were just nothing. We’re just decorated in all this great artwork while we had offices. 

Kris: 
So What If….? has given you an opportunity to write for all of our favorite Marvel characters, not just the women. What did that mean to you as a writer? 

AC Bradley:
We had made a lot of great strides in the industry when it comes to women writers and writers of color and writers of different gender and sexual identities and backgrounds. However, at times it feels like the female writers are allowed to write the female heroes and the writers of color are allowed to write the characters of color. But the white men can still write whoever the heck they want. And I was coming in there. When I first heard about the project was like, “OK, which character are we doing?”

“We want you doing all of them.”

And that made me super excited because I can’t imagine a time in my life when I’d be allowed to write not only the Captain Carters and the Captain Marvels, but they were letting me tackle Doctor Strange. They were letting me write Iron Man, the OG son of Marvel. I got to write, even as a white woman, Killmonger and T’Challa. And we did work closely with Ryan Coogler and the Black Panther team to make sure we were doing justice to that world. But being kind of given the opportunity to basically be a white guy and go write everything was really nice and I’m forever grateful, because again, I don’t know another point in my career where, hell, they let me write Howard the Duck, and I am only 1% duck (laughs all around).

It was great. It was really, really nice to be able to tackle all these different stories. Then the other part which drew me to the project was, although I’m a genre writer – and I think a lot of genre writers this happens to – you get known for one genre. You get known for horror. You get known for like a rom-com, get known for X. With this we need 10 episodes different.  And if you count the second season it’s 18 episodes completely different. So I got to flex all the different muscles and pay homage to a bunch of different tropes and genres and films. Captain Carter. We did watch a bunch of like 1940s serials and movies from that era, especially the monster movies of the 40s and 50s. With our second episode, I wanted to do a heist movie, man. Let’s do Ocean’s 11

Kris: 
That’s a favorite of mine. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah! How do we do that? How do we do those fun heist movies? And have some fun with it. And that’s where Nebula came from too.  We need the girl. Who’s going to be the girl? And when it came to zombies, we had a lot of conversations of, “How dark do we want to go? How gory do we want to go?”

Disney+ gave us some guidelines because, basically, they don’t want to give an entire generation of kids PTSD. So we put some elements of Shaun of the Dead, a little like the comedy in there to balance out the actual terror and grossness of zombies. Now with our Nick Fury episode, I wanted to write a murder mystery. Again, you start with the character and then you kind of figure out what genre you’re wrapping it in. It’s like “OK, we’re doing a murder mystery. Let’s kick it Agatha Christie style and play with it.”

And so having again the opportunity to write all these different kinds of short stories was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. 

Kris: 
As somebody who was traumatized by Batman Returns as a child in the theater, I appreciate you not going gory on the zombies. 

AC Bradley:
The main concession with the zombies was that we weren’t going to give them human skin colors. Same with The Walking Dead. The zombies are all pale and they’re pasty. We didn’t want anyone to look like they just stepped out of the shower and were now trying to eat you. So that was the one concession. I think once we said that and once Ryan started coming back with these awesome designs of Captain America, everyone felt like, “Oh this is great. OK cool, it’s not Chris Evans trying to eat you. It’s zombie Captain America.”

And I think that made everyone so much more comfortable. With that episode, again, it was, “Just have fun.” I’m a firm believer that if you’re enjoying the process, the product, the entertainment level, is 10 times better. 

Kris: 
That is so true. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah, I don’t ascribe to the theory that you must suffer for your art. I actually think happy crews and happy writers and directors create some of the best media out there. 

Kris:  
So in other interviews, you’ve touched on an idea that’s becoming more and more prevalent in the MCU, and I think this touches on what you said about The West Wing

You said that not every adult is right and part of your job as you grow up is to look around 

and second guess, and we’re doing that now as Marvel fans moving forward. Looking back on previous movies in a different way. Was there a sense of responsibility for you in writing What If…? in that way? 

AC Bradley:
When I said as you grow up, part of your job is to start second-guessing, looking around you and making your own decisions, that was coming from my time on Trollhunters and 3Below, which were shows that were much more geared to younger kids. We were much more aware that younger kids, even though the show was for 10-12 and older, that six-year-olds might be watching this. And for me it’s very important for the younger generation to know that they don’t have to just listen to whatever adults say, that they should go out and research for themselves. Ask questions. Don’t blindly follow what others have done. Explore the world as much as humanly possible. So that’s where that thinking comes from.

When it comes to Marvel and What If…?, at the end of the day, we’re based on comic books. We’re entertainment. I know Marvel plans things out in detail, and Kevin can tell you what’s probably going to happen in 10 years. Did he know during Iron Man that the Eternals were running around the world? I don’t know. So you’ve always got to give a bit of, “We’re not real life.” You’ve got to give them a little bit of slack. But the way Marvel is able to take their characters, at times, and examine them and find new stories for them has always been, I think, incredibly admirable. I’m happy that I was able to be part of it. 

I spent a couple of days – they had a small little writer’s summit for Black Widow. And basically I was hanging out in a small conference room with Eric Pearson, who wrote the script, who’s a delightful human being, and just talking about, “Who is Natasha Romanoff in the MCU? And how can we still, in the timeline of the MCU prime, tell a story about her past? About her family that made her the woman she is today?”

I was really honored to be part of the conversation and delighted and had a blast. It was nice to see that what I’m doing four doors down or around the corner with What If…?, where it’s, “OK, how do we tell a different story about this character?” It’s not such an unusual conversation. It’s a conversation that was happening in all the rooms at Marvel and all the offices. They always start with, “What can we say? What story are we telling?” And then they build it out from there because they’re very aware that you can have the coolest action sequences on the planet, but if you don’t care about the character in the middle of it, it’s all for nothing. 

Kris: 
And it’s so important because even though you were making those other shows for kids and trying to get those points across, a lot of adults today need the reminder to question where their information comes, to analyze things on a deeper level, to ask more questions from the right sources. 

AC Bradley:
It’s so sad, but it’s very true. And like I said, that notion, I always love that. I always love writing about teenagers when they’re going through that period when they realize that their parents are flawed human beings. I had a pitch for an episode of What If…? to do something about that between Tony and Howard, because I’ve always been fascinated about that age. When you kind of look around and you look at your parents and the first thing you realize is that they’re flawed, that they have made mistakes and you can get angry with them. You can rebel against them. You can go off and you differentiate yourself from them and you should. But then as you grow older you start to realize that your parents, for the good and the bad, were hopefully doing the best they could. And they were trying to do the best they can with you. If they made mistakes, it never came from a malicious place. I’ve always been fascinated with that part of growing up. And the sad thing is, I feel like, at times, ee need to remember that as adults. Our heroes, both on-screen and in real life, they’re going to be flawed people and we have to have, sometimes, an understanding, but then we also have to hold them accountable, and also hold ourselves accountable for our own actions and beliefs. I think probably after COVID, we all need massive amounts of therapy, but we’ll see what happens. 

Amy: 
I agree. So as a woman, besides being pigeonholed as a writer for women, what other challenges have you faced in the film industry? 

AC Bradley:
So far, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been overly pigeonholed as a writer for women. I did, early on, drop “Ashley” and switched to my initials, “AC” Bradley, because I had a few experiences where I was the female writer put on the list to make it look like they were talking to women, even though I had no chance of getting the job. Or someone was sitting down and reading my script with this, “Oh, it’s a girl writer. This is what I should expect.” And so once I dropped the “Ashley” and put “AC,” I did find a difference in the way my work was read and interpreted, and I found a few more doors opening. I will say, since then the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement have helped women a lot. We’re able to get our voices heard. That’s been the biggest issue, just kind of letting my work stand for itself at times. Now things are shifting. I have more of a resume behind me. I’m very open and honest about, “Yep, I used ‘AC’ because I basically needed to get my foot in the door, but I am a woman.”

And the industry is changing a bit where there are more opportunities to write genre and different characters in the work. But it’s not easy and it is a little bit one foot forward, two steps back. I say this as a woman, but for writers of color, especially female writers of color, it’s not an easy mountain to climb. At times, my friends who are not white in writers’ rooms become the voice for their entire race, which is not fair. And when you have a writers’ room where there’s only one Black writer or one Asian writer, or one fill in the blank here, they end up having to shoulder the responsibility for how that show perceives and interprets an entire. Ethnicity, an entire race, which is very hard. On Trollhunters I was in a very small room. There’s only five writers. It was two writing teams, so there’s really only three writers and I was the only woman. And, at times, it was me having to argue, “Hey, that’s sexist. I know you don’t mean it, but period jokes are actually… let’s not do them anymore. I know they were funny in the 80s, but let’s not do them anymore.” 

I had to be the voice for my gender when all I want to do is tell a story. And so that is something moving forward I have to be more aware of when I’m staffing, hopefully, bigger writers’ rooms, not forcing a writer to not just be a writer, but making them also the freaking vanguard for an entire minority. It’s not fair. 

Again, on Marvel, we were very lucky for the episodes, especially featuring T’Challa and Killmonger. Nate Moore and Ryan Coogler and, god bless him, Chadwick Boseman, were so helpful and they read scripts early. They knew the concepts going in and if we were, as two white people, stepping in something wrong, they were very quick to say, “Hey, Wakanda doesn’t work like that,” or, “This is what you should do.”

They were great and they were partners. Also, I cannot wait for a Black Panther 2, because even the small bread crumbs that I’ve heard? It’s going to be absolutely amazing. 

Kris: 
Yeah, we’re looking forward to it too. So how has becoming a mom impacted the stories that you write? 

AC Bradley:
Well, I’ve only been a mom for five months. 

Kris:
Still, it’s a big curve. A lot happens.

AC Bradley:
Becoming a mom, I’m sure it will play into my writing. As a writer you use all of your previous experiences. I had, during my pregnancy, hyperemesis, which is what Amy Schumer had and did a great documentary on it. Kate Middleton had it. Basically it means you get pregnant and then you’re nauseous and sick for months. And there’s medications you can take which are life-saving, because I would not have been able to keep working if it wasn’t for the medications. But it basically taught me, “Oh, I can be on set during a pandemic, at the height of the pandemic, in Atlanta, Georgia, while also four months pregnant and be OK.”

It kind of just taught me, at the end of the day, the reason I’m in this business is that I love writing and I love telling a good story. The reason I became a screenwriter as opposed to a novelist is that I am an extrovert and I like hanging around other people and creating with them. And even rapidly gaining weight, not being able to see my ankles, and starting off every morning puking my guts up, this is worth it and I can do it. If anything, being pregnant during that time taught me how resilient we can be. And I’m pretty sure if I ever have to write something about body horror, I can be like, “Oh, let me tell you about the time I ate a hamburger when my body did not want me to eat a hamburger.”

I have found very creative ways to describe vomit. My sister was staying with me at one point and she went, “Please never repeat that,” because I’d had a Gatorade and I went, “Oh my god. They taste the same way coming back up.”

And she was like, “I hate you. I can’t drink Gatorade anymore.”

And I was like, “I’m so sorry.”

It’s only Gatorade White. All the other Gatorades are great. I don’t want to get sued by Gatorade. That’s the way it’s affected me so far. Otherwise, it’s been really great. I’ve been very lucky to have a very chill, very cool baby. She showed up on an interview a few weeks ago because they had to do it before daycare opened and she showed up in her Hulk onesie. So thank you, Adelia, for staying on brand. I will say, a few weeks ago, my mom, who’s been here, dressed her. I’m a big comic book nerd so I get a lot of comic book-themed baby gifts. And she’s like, “We put this one on for Mommy.” I looked and it was a very cute Supergirl onesie.

AC Bradley:
I was like, “That’s adorable, but I don’t write Supergirl.” 

My mom was like, “But you write all of them, you always say.”

I was like, “I write all the Marvel characters.”

And my mom was like,  “OK fine. She looks cute in this.”

I’m like, “She looks amazing.” 

Kris:
She’s a Marvel baby, not a DC baby, Mom! 

AC Bradley: 
I know. But she looked adorable and I do love Superman. And I’m a huge Batman fan. My sister got my baby a Batman onesie. But it’s boyish and my mom is just like, “Don’t they do girl Batman clothing?”

And I’m like, “Batman’s whole thing is kind of life, ‘I am the night.’ So there’s nothing with pink in it, Mom.”

Amy: 
So what do you want to see in terms of stories and representation for women on screen moving forward? 

AC Bradley:
When it comes to stories about women and representation, I feel we are moving forward. We’re moving forward in any way it was in my childhood. We’re starting to see Black Panther. We’re getting Captain Marvel. I loved Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins, not only as a woman director, making one of the biggest superhero movies of the day, you can’t really knock that. Chloe Zhao, who’s doing the Eternals – we’re making strides. And that makes me happy and we have to keep moving forward. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and be like, “Well we have one female hero.” We need more. We need more heroes of color, stories about heroes of color, but also written and directed by writers and directors from those backgrounds. I was very, very lucky to help out on set a little bit on Ms. Marvel, which is going to be Marvel’s first Pakistani-American Muslim superhero. And Kamala is also only a 16-year-old girl. To be able to work on that project, which had amazing directors, all of which had a Muslim, Indian or Pakistani background to work with: Sana Amanat, who was the editor of the original comic run same, with G. Wilson who was the original writer. I was basically brought in to help make it more production-friendly and so we could actually shoot it. But it was so lovely to see all these people coming together from this one background to tell a story that meant the world to them, that they knew the importance of bringing a character like this to screen because not only are young girls going to see themselves reflected on-screen, not only are Muslims going to see themselves saving the world, Pakistani children, children of color, but also everyone else. And it’s going to become, hopefully over time, “Of course. Of course, there’s going to be a Muslim superhero. Why wouldn’t there be? Let me rattle off four right now.”

Because we can all name a dozen white male superheroes or white male iconic characters. We have to keep increasing that pantheon, keep showing more and more leads of color and diversity. And I’m saying a lot about women and different ethnicities, but I also want to include sexual and gender identities and orientations. The more we can make our media reflect the world we want to live in, the more we can create that world. 

Kris:
Well said. 

Amy:  
So are there any philanthropic or social causes you’d like to shine a light on? 

AC Bradley:
Oh, that’s a lovely question. I’m one of those people, I give to the crisis of the moment. 

There’s an organization called Women for Afghan Women who, right now, is obviously trying to get as many women out of Afghanistan as possible. And that’s a great cause. On a more personal level – I hope this doesn’t sound too small – give to your local animal shelters and the people who do TNR and rescue organizations for dogs and cats. I adopted two cats one year before the pandemic and one right at the start of the pandemic. Animals really help you get through a lot of dark times. And sometimes just giving 50 bucks to a cat organization makes me just feel better about the world in general. Someone out there is rescuing these pets, these animals. The two organizations I usually give to are whatever is the crisis at the moment, which sadly there’s always a crisis at the moment and then usually to my local animal shelter because that’s where I got my two little assholes who just sat on the bathmat and watched me puke my guts up for nine months and now either sleep in my bed or sleep on the rug below my daughter’s crib and protect her. I don’t know what they think is coming to get my baby. I don’t know if they think the local coyote population knows how to work locks. My cats are always on baby watch when I’m asleep. One’s usually in my bed and one is sleeping outside the crib just being like, “Well, we’re keeping her safe.”

I’m like, “She’s fine. But I appreciate that you’re trying.” 

Amy: 
So you can never be too sure. 

Kris: 
I mean they’re better than my golden retriever who runs and hides in the bathroom when he sees a fly. 

AC Bradley:
No, my cats are notorious for just being little hunters. I swear they’re lovely, not that bad. I’ve been able to train them to stop trying to kill everything in sight. But we do have these little garden lizards. I live in the outskirts of Los Angeles, up in Altadena, and I swear I found way too many garden lizards just murdered on my front porch. I’m like, “You guys have to stop. It’s gotta stop.” 

Kris: 
We have these tiny little creepy lizards in San Antonio here as well. And I’ve had a few incidents with my dogs. 

AC Bradley:
I’m just like, “Guys, what are they doing to you?” But then again, there’s been times where I’ve gone and seen my cats hang out on the front porch a lot, and there’s just a lizard sitting next to them. I’m like, “Oh, is this the relationship? Sometimes you hunt them and other times you’re like, ‘Well, that’s Fred. He’s my friend.’” 

Amy: 
OK, so talk about bad breakups. 

AC Bradley:
I knows seriously. Cousin, friend – it ends up under the doormat. 

Kris: 
So last but not least, I have to ask. You’ve worked with so many incredible actors in your career, but as a 90s kid and someone who shares your love of Die Hard, tell me. What was it like getting Reginald Vel Johnson for voice work on 3Below

AC Bradley:
I only got to meet him for like five minutes! So 3Below – oh my gosh, that poor show.  3Below’s development time ended up being ambushed by revising the last season of Trollhunters. And since I was the only writer from Trollhunters who was still on the show –  Actually I’ve got to give a shout out to Lila Scott. She was our writers’ assistant and then she was my staff writer and she’s amazing. Me, her, and Marc Guggenheim had to revise 11 episodes in less than a month. And if anyone knows animation, two animatics, which is really hard. It’s trying to rewrite without trying to destroy an episode. So then 3Below, we hit the ground running. We wrote 26 episodes in less than 14 months. It was insane. So a bunch of the records ended up being left to either I would outsource some to whoever wrote the episode, or to the directors who were always there. And we had a great voice coordinator named Brook Chalmers who handled it. So I was only at Reginald’s record for like five minutes just to be like, “Oh my God, it’s you!” I did make sure I was at Mark Hamill’s records. 

Kris:  
Oh my goodness. 

AC Bradley:
That man was everything. Again, you kind of want him to be. He is so lovely. I hope I don’t get in trouble with Mr. Hamill, but to me he was like your best friend’s hippie dad. He’s like the cool dad, and not the cool dad because he gives you wine coolers, but the cool dad who will listen to you and agree with you that sometimes parents just don’t understand. He was so nice and so much fun. And animation and voice work is a skill unto itself. It’s very difficult, and especially at the level he can do. So watching him work was just the best, and he’s such a nice guy and he cares about every project he was doing. 

I’m telling the story. Spoiler alert: his character was supposed to die in Trollhunters. And he didn’t know. No one told him that the revised pages included his death until he was in the recording booth and he went, “I die? I die?” And then he did it.

But we all felt like, “Did we just insult Mark Hamill?” And so the character lived because of that. We’re bringing him back because also, who doesn’t want to spend more time with Mark Hamill? He’s great. 

Amy:
So AC where can our listeners find you online?

AC Bradley:
My Twitter is the most public thing. I think my Twitter handle is  @theashbradley

I’m not the best at Twitter. I try. I’m trying really hard. I do not know how to get a blue check, so don’t ask. One of my very close friends who works for Vanity Fair was like, “How do you not have a blue check?” I don’t know how to get one and I’m afraid to ask, so it is me. I think it’s a picture of me standing outside the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg from a couple of years ago. 

Kris: 
Oh wow. 

AC Bradley:
My undergraduate degree is actually in Eastern European history and international politics with a focus on Eastern Europe. So right before the 2016 election I went backpacking through Russia and Eastern Europe, which was right before 3Below got started. And I hired this writer, Matt Chauncey, who’s become a very good friend. And he joked last year, “I honestly thought you were a spy for like the first two years of our friendship.”

He’s like, “I interviewed for this job and you’re like ‘Great! We’re going to be opening the room in about a month. I’m going backpacking for five weeks to Russia and Romania.’”

And he was like, “That was my first impression of you. Then you come back from Eastern Europe and then the world changed very rapidly and I was like, ‘She did something.”

I was like, “I like the fact that you think I have that much power.”

And he’s like, “No. Now that we’re friends. I know you don’t. I know you’re just Liz Lemon with an international politics degree.

Kris: 
You know what? There are worse things to be in this life than Liz Lemon. 

AC Bradley:
Yeah, definitely. And he’s one of my closest friends. We worked on What If…? together. We worked on Ms. Marvel together and we always joke we’re looking for our fourth show together. 

Kris: 
That is awesome. So AC. Thank you so much for joining us today. This was absolutely wonderful. We are so excited for the rest of the show and the subsequent seasons. 

AC Bradley:
Thank you so much. I hope I didn’t ramble too much. I’m still new to all this interviewing and podcasting. Writers are mole people. We’re used to hanging out in edit bays and in writers’ rooms, not seeing the world and living off of Snickers and Gatorade. So this has been a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. 

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