Is violence justifiable in a violently oppressive culture? This is the main question being explored in the new dark, satirical comedy web series ‘Killer Workout’, available to watch on Revry.tv. Directed by award winning filmmaker Sara Werner, the series is created by NYC-based personal trainer/writer Erik Potempa and produced by his wife Yvonna Pearson wanting to shed light onto the inequality, classism and racism many Americans experience on a daily basis.
‘Killer Workout’ uses horror, comedy, and violence as a vehicle to explore the struggles faced by Joy, a 31 year old broke, bi-racial, queer, female personal trainer for the elite of NYC. Struggling to fit into a society that constantly disrespects and others her while compensating her high level service with far less than adequate payment, Joy finally snaps as a result of a particularly offensive client’s racially charged sexual advances. This little violent BDSM matinee surprisingly exhilarates a traumatized and broke Joy as she begins to feel like she may have just found her “true purpose”: brutally murdering toxic rich assholes.
The series also stands as a commentary on the current economic conditions, where 61% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with the top 1% controlling 32% of the wealth.
As series creator Erik explains: “Job security depends on how we as workers gracefully handle outrageous demonstrations of classism and condescension (stroking egos, deferring power, and eating reactions to abusive behavior in order to stay employed). The wealthy are rarely held accountable for their toxic behavior, often leading to physical and emotional damage in exchange for inadequate compensation. To understand the magnitude of the issue we just need to look at the hashtag #EatTheRich, which has become a very popular handle of late in response to this widespread abhorrent behavior of the toxic elite.”
‘Killer Workout’ is an exploration of repressed anger towards the violently oppressive system that we have been born into. Inspired by a true story, it addresses the abuse carried out by a self proclaimed feminist liberal. The series does not condone violence; rather it uses violence as a tool to externalize the trauma of what it means to be “broke as fuck”, i.e. living paycheck to paycheck in a capitalist society.
As a queer woman of color herself, producer Yvonna Pearson was especially drawn to the the main character for how she uniquely comes to own and express her anger.
“Black women have often taken on the burden of the world’s violence – becoming, as Katori Hall puts it in her play ‘The Mountaintop’, ‘the mule of the world’. Black historical heroes and sheroes like that of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Assatah Shakur throughout their lives were in constant struggle with this same violently oppressive system and did not always take the road of the pacifist. In ‘Killer Workout’ [Joy] gives me the catharsis of seeing my inner fury validated on screen,” she said in a press release.
Over the past twelve months Killer Workout has toured across the international film festival circuit, winning the Silver Award for Best Web Series at DC WebFest, Gold Remi for Writing at WorldFest Houston International Film Festival and Best Dark Comedy at Deep Focus Film Festival.
We had the chance to speak with Sara, Eric, Yvonna as well as lead actress Nina Kassa (Joy) about the web series and what they hope viewers will entertained by and simultaneously challenged by.
How did you initially get involved in this project, and what drew you to the story?
SARA: Back in 2018 I had the fortune of a web series (“Another Castle”) screen at ITV Fest in Vermont, where I met Erik’s writing mentor Jacob Krueger. He mentioned he had a student that was looking for a director for a pilot and that I’d be perfect for. He connected us via email and the next thing I knew I had an incredible pilot in my inbox from Erik.
I was immediately drawn to Killer Workout as an intersectional feminist story with a loveable anti-hero. In addition, being a queer woman, I was also very excited about directing an out queer protagonist just trying to exist in a world where homophobia isn’t the only real issue causing her struggle and eventual snap.
Although it is a horror/comedy, there are a number of real issues that are layered into the story, including racism, classism, violence, and capitalism. What was the process of balancing the serious with the humorous?
SARA: In life, when I’m confronted with these real issues and people perpetuating them, it’s so ridiculous that sometimes I can’t help but laugh. It’s 2022 and unfortunately some people truly are racist, homophobic, classist, xenophobic, sexist bigots still. Joy obviously cannot outright say the things she wants to with Cassandra, so she chooses self deprecation as armor.
Our process was like a dance, whether a look broke up the tension or a line of dialogue, audiences are more likely to keep watching and learning if they are laughing in the middle of also being shocked, so we carefully made sure to add those moments as we filmed. The process started with the script and talking to Erik, continued into rehearsing with talent to find those moments naturally on set, and in post where we accentuated those moments further.
What kinds of questions do you hope audiences will be asking after watching the series?
SARA: How can I be a better ally? How does my privilege affect me? How can I check myself? How can I stand up for equality? How do I watch more episodes? I also hope that in general it causes audiences to educate themselves on these real life issues further and to become vocal in ending them.
Joy experiences abuse from a self-proclaimed feminist liberal, which seems to mirror the numerous conversations examining the flaws of white feminism today. What was the reason for including this particular conflict in the story, rather than the more obvious oppressors (white cis men, conservative religious folks etc)?
SARA: Cassandra is an unexpected oppressor, an educated Karen at her classist core, which makes the conflict even more frustrating that an educated, seemingly self made business woman could use her power to keep others disadvantaged. Including the oppressor as Cassandra in the pilot sets the audience up to expect the unexpected and that you are definitely going to see some things that you never have before. And again, it’s a reminder to check yourself and your allyship.
The stats on wealth inequality show how wildly out of control capitalism is in this country. How can projects like this shine a light on it, or at least encourage viewers to think more deeply about what is around us?
SARA: Killer Workout brings you on a journey with Joy, from her basement apartment, to her uncomfortable commute, to her place of work with the 1%, the juxtaposition is clear. You see these two intelligent women working together, the one using money as an excuse to be a bigot and an asshole, the other having to take the barrage because without the other’s money she cannot survive. I hope that this project just puts you in Joy’s shoes, the gross inequity she faces due to systemic issues and that empathy makes you want to become an active participant in ending these issues.
What have been the most interesting or eye-opening reactions from audiences at the numerous festivals over the past 12 months of screening? Were there any comments that reaffirmed the need to make this?
SARA: The laughs coming at the moments we had hoped for and sense of empowerment that audiences had upon leaving the screenings definitely reaffirmed and reinvigorated us all to keep making more. I think the most eye-opening is the fact that all our audiences, regardless of gender, class, race, and sexuality could relate to Joy. Her humanity surpasses the matrix of domination in the theater and has everyone empathizing, which again, was the goal that we are so grateful to have achieved.
Joy’s struggle is universal and it is through this universality that real change can occur.
What was your process of working with Yvonna and Erik to ensure Yvonna’s story was presented or adapted in a meaningful way?
SARA: Well, ‘Killer Workout’ is a fictitious story that was written by Erik. Much of it was based on his experiences living with Nina and working as a free-lance personal trainer working for the wealthy of NYC. So, I was always checking in with him to make sure that we were being true to the story he wrote. He, in turn, was continuously checking in with Yvonna, Nina, and I, to make sure that each moment felt authentic on the page. Throughout the filming process, we all checked in a lot to make sure that Joy’s story was safely and authentically being told, especially in those quiet moments where a look says more than words ever could.
Can you tell us a little about your own experience with racism or discrimination that you were able to bring to the character of Joy in ‘Killer Workout’?
NINA: Like Joy, I’ve encountered racism and classism all my life and tried my best to grin and bear it. The more I gave it a pass, letting subtle and overt behavior slide, the angrier I got about it. I’m different from Joy though, in the sense that I didn’t really try to put on a happy face about it and walked away a bit faster, burning the bridge behind me. Can’t say that that’s the best way to do it, just a different approach.
Having experienced and this type of discrimination and racism, what prompted you to make a series out of it?
ERIK: As a freelance personal trainer working with wealthy clients in NYC, I have often been put into demeaning situations where I have had to absorb and smile through disrespectful behavior in order to keep my job. And as a partner, watching Nina go through multiple situations where she was treated even worse, I felt compelled to write about it both as a way to better understand what my partner at the time was going through… and also as a means to express my own pain & outrage surrounding these all too common situations.
NINA: Like he said, Erik and I had a long relationship– we lived together and got front-row seats to each other’s dramas. He dealt with entitled, classist bosses and I managed those same entitled, classist bosses along with racism, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. He had a calm approach to his battles with these types, with an uncanny ability to manage sticky situations. For my part, I was more direct. I’d defend myself and call it out. On one particular occasion, I had my say and quit.
ERIK: It was that occasion where she was working as a Nanny for one of my self-described “feminist, liberal” personal training clients, and was treated in a shockingly bigoted manner that made me really think deeply about “What would I do if I had to deal with this same level of disrespect on a regular basis?” And, that’s when Killer Workout was born…
There’s such a great commentary about the racism that often lurks within white feminism, which we are seeing more exposure of the past few years. What do you hope audiences will think about after watching ‘Killer Workout’?
YVONNA: I think the fact that there is more visibility of intersectionality and racial and class hierarchies within the feminist movement is very important – but the next logical step is thinking about how we combat those forces while working to build something far more representative of the experiences women inhabit. ‘Killer Workout’ not only makes audiences grapple with some of the hypocrisies of liberal-white feminists, but it reorients the conversation around the consequences of those hypocrisies on many BIPOC women.
We say it so often: “…it’s enough to make you go mad.” The point is, it is far beyond that point – the situation is dire. I hope the intensity of KW really pushes audiences to look inward on how we contribute to the suffering of those around us and how we might be able to assuage that suffering if not eliminate it altogether.
Putting your own experiences on film can be quite a vulnerable process. Although the story has been adapted into a horror/comedy, were there any aspects of your story that felt especially difficult or vulnerable to create on screen?
NINA: In the first scene with Cassandra, Joy makes a joke about being late. She says, “My white side apologizes for being late. The black side is pleasantly surprised we got here so promptly.” It was really hard for me to joke about my race for Cassandra’s benefit like this. This was Joy’s way of getting on Cassandra’s good side. It’s such a sad self-diminishing tactic. Joy is not doing a stand-up routine. She has to use this as a way to breathe in this suffocating moment. Self-deprecating humor has a place, but it felt like such a betrayal of self and others at that moment.
ERIK: Joy’s clients and their scenes are inspired by my client(s) and situations that I’ve actually been through. So, I’ve definitely felt the need to be very selective about which clients I show the project to.
How can genres like horror and comedy be a great vehicle to delve into real life issues on screen?
YVONNA: I think both of those genres have traditionally pushed the mold on addressing subversive, real life topics since their inception. One prime example that lives rent-free in my mind is Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin’s ‘Juke and Opal’ sketch. If you haven’t seen it, you just have to check it out because the themes it traverses are many. And of course there’s ‘Get Out’. The reason why I think those genres are such particularly capable vehicles for addressing the, especially harsh, nuances of the human experience is because we never really expect them to do that when we turn them on! Our guard is down and we become open to suggestions. We come for entertainment, not knowing we might leave with a seed of wisdom. A spoonful of sugar!
The series has won a handful of awards on the festival circuit over the past 12 months. What was it like seeing the reaction of audiences at the festivals?
YVONNA: It was such a moment of joy (haha, pun maybe intended) for me! Ever since I read Erik’s earlier drafts of the script I felt like it was made for me – for a black woman to recognize a part of herself without feeling the need to let mainstream white audiences in on the joke. The nuance, complexity, humor, anger – all of it was very apparent from the start and I appreciated being understood within that framework. Then, to have so many people in a theater respond to it with guffaws and “hell yea’s” just like I had was simply thrilling.
NINA: The first time I saw it with an audience was at Outfest, and we were all surprised with how some things landed on the audience. With an audience, it’s possible to see a new side of the story emerge. Certain nuances get lost in months of editing. For some reason, I was worried they would feel offended by Dr. Busara’s reaction to Joy not closing the door behind her after her 1st therapy session, but that got a huge laugh. I worried a lot about offending people, but that hasn’t come up at all.
Can you tell us about the decision to make Joy a queer woman also, and what you hoped to shine a light on with the character?
ERIK: Honestly, it was mostly out of instinct. As I was writing Joy, it just felt right that she was a queer woman. So, I went with it. In retrospect, that instinct was probably directly related to me living with a queer Black woman for 8 years who was continuously absorbing outlandish abuse in just about every job that she had. And the fact that I’ve never seen an openly queer Black woman get to be a badass like this on screen.
I definitely wanted to shine a light on the normalcy of workplace discrimination and disrespect that common folks are forced to deal with every day; how that abuse directly affects our personal lives and ability to live a functional, happy life and how it’s exponentially worse for those from marginalized communities. I was also very much interested in exploring the root causes of cycles of violence in our society.
With so much attention on capitalism, especially with the #EatTheRich hashtag and commentary, how do you hope ‘Killer Workout’ will make a difference in the ongoing conversation?
NINA: I hope that it helps people see themselves more clearly. Whether it’s the rich, the shrinking middle class, or the many poor, we all have aspects of ourselves that might be unnecessarily servile or entitled. While the system steps on us, it can only do so so long as we allow it to.
YVONNA: There’s an emotional and spiritual toll that the capitalist structure we currently employ has on us as humans, which is only amplified for vulnerable, marginalized communities. That toll has to be included in the conversation and ‘Killer Workout’ does that. It makes us question how our humanity gets warped for the financial boon of the few, and if that is something we are willing to squander.
You can watch episodes of ‘Killer Workout’ by clicking HERE.