HBO’s Sheila Nevins on power, feminism and rooting for the underdog

Sheila Nevins is frank when asked why she thinks now is the right time to put her life story on paper, as she’s done in her recently released autobiography, You Don’t ...
May 30, 2017

Sheila Nevins is frank when asked why she thinks now is the right time to put her life story on paper, as she’s done in her recently released autobiography, You Don’t Look Your Age…and Other Fairy Tales.

“When a pot boils, why does it boil? Because it’s ready,” she says.

As president of HBO Documentary Films, Nevins is the force behind some of the most striking documentaries of our time, including 2017′s Cries From Syria and Mommy Dead and Dearest. Her passion for exposing and exploring social issues, such as 2009′s The Alzheimer’s Project and 2012′s The Weight of the Nation , has stirred up conversations across the nation and pushed long-simmering topics to the forefront.

Much like the docs she has nurtured over the course of a decades-long career, Nevins has a story to tell. From her early career at the U.S. Information Agency to her ascendancy at HBO, Nevins’ work has gone on to win dozens of Peabody and Academy Awards. She’s also won 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards.

Now, she’s decided to let it “all hang out” (her words) in a new book featuring poignant stories about work, relationships, ageism and our culture’s impossible standards of beauty and youth.

Realscreen caught up with Nevins to talk about the new book, what it means to her and what professional women can learn from her climb to the top. The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You open your book with a story about having a facelift. Why?
I thought it was something women don’t talk about and I thought it would set the ground rules for what was to follow, which is literally that there are no strings attached.

The retrospective of your life, starting from the second-wave of feminism and moving forward, I think is particularly interesting.
Judging from your voice, it would, because it covers a period [of time] you wouldn’t know much about, and you would certainly understand the latter period. That’s why on the audiotape, (millennial actor and writer) Lena Dunham reads it. I felt that a young person should read it so they could go through the experience they no longer have to go through.

Issues of ageism and beauty emerge throughout the book. Did you set out to explore those themes?
I wrote from a time, a place and an age. I think that the issues that I would encounter as an older woman still working in media would just come up.

Do you see this as a feminist book?
I never thought about it, but I think Gloria [Steinem] agreeing to read one of the stories made me possibly think I was on the right side of good. But I didn’t consciously think about that. I didn’t think I had embraced anything but my own code.

I understood feminism and I certainly believe in it and I had fought for it — but I didn’t think the book was an endorsement. I thought the book was a woman’s experience, both factual and fictional, that would come together in some way that would express growing up in America from the 1960s to 2017.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, if it means parity for women and equal pay and equal rights to their own body and playing ball in a man’s court — absolutely.

In 2017, there is still the issue of the ‘glass ceiling’. What do you think it’ll take to get women in the highest positions of authority?
I can’t answer the question. It’s a deep-seated difficulty between men and women in terms of power. It may be genetic in some way, I don’t really know.
Look around the world at how women are treated. There is something deep inside that pushes women out of the conversation and they have to nudge and push very hard to get back in it. It’s tough — I mean, it’s not like living in Syria — you still have three meals a day — but it’s not an easy row. Tough waters.

In the chapter about your mother (“The Wrong Kind of Hot”), you write about an incident that made you become a champion of the less fortunate. Of the docs you’ve worked on, are there any that stand out to you that embody that sentiment?
Probably most of the ones I’ve put my heart and soul into — Syria, Tourettes, Alzheimer’s, obesity. I like the underdog and the person who doesn’t have an equal playing field either through a disability or through societal prejudices. I’m all for them. I never had a team. I always rooted for the underdog team.
If I was forced to watch the football game, I would ask who is the underdog team and I would root for them. It’s how I’m made.

You Don’t Look Your Age…and Other Fairy Tales is published by Flatiron Books and was released May 2. Read an excerpt from the book in the May/June issue of realscreen


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