'Betty' Season Two: Rachelle Vinberg & Ajani Russell Talk Skating In Masks & Collaboration [Interview]

After its 2018 premiere the film “Skate Kitchen,” which documented the lives of a group of young women skaters in New York City, took on new life. The Crystal Moselle-directed film transformed into the HBO series, “Betty,” which took the same characters and actors but altered their experiences and relationship dynamics. One of the best shows of 2020, “Betty” aimed to tell an honest story about a group of diverse young women as they navigate the male-dominated world of skateboarding. Our critic wrote of season one “With only six episodes in its inaugural season, “Betty” might have trouble keeping viewers’ attention until it’s much better latter half. But for those who want to give this little production a chance, the rewards are great, especially if you’re a zillennial feminist and/or lesbian.” We spoke to two of the leads of the series, Rachelle Vinberg and Ajani Russell who play Camille and Indigo about what it was like to film during the pandemic in New York, the troubles of skating with a mask on and what they were most excited to explore in season two. 

When you were shooting “Skate Kitchen” did you ever have the thought that this story would go on longer than you’d expected with now two seasons of television along with the film?

Ajani Russell: I’m just going with the flow. It’s like oh, “we’re doing a movie today.” I was just really happy that we had gotten to do “Skate Kitchen” and that it was going to be about our lives. But then things were snowballing and now we’re on season two, it’s surreal. 

How has it been getting to build on these characters with first the film version and then the show which is slight variations on those characters?

Rachelle Vinberg: I think a lot of the content that’s in the season and the episodes are things that happened in our real lives. It is like growing up with your characters because we’re getting older and so are they, so things are getting more serious with all the growing pains that happen now more so in your early twenties. 

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How much are the characters built on your own personalities? Or is it more they’re based on shared life experiences rather than actual personality traits?

Russell: The second season for me I think my style is closer to mine. It’s not completely accurate but I had a lot of input so that was really great for me. 

Vinberg: Honestly, it’s built on our personalities but I think it’s gotten further and further away as time goes on from who we are because we’re growing into different people while there’s still an element to the characters that need to stay the same. I don’t fully feel similar to my character in a lot of ways. Maybe in “Skate Kitchen,” yeah. 

Obviously there are going to be challengers to shooting a television show during a pandemic, but were there ones that you hadn’t been anticipating that you had to face while filming?

Vinberg: Well one thing that everyone in quarantine has gone through is just wearing the mask, and then there’s sweating and skating in the mask. It’s gross! Because usually, when you’re skating you can take your mask off because you’re outside and it’s not a hazard, but when you’re skating, you’re sweating, you have make up on and then you have the mask on and keep it on. It’s disgusting. That’s like the one thing that was like, “yeah this really sucks.” 

Aside from the restrictions put in place from COVID, were there any major differences in filming season two compared to the first?

Vinberg: It was so structured and everything like you couldn’t leave your room, for good reason. Then obviously the Covid test in the morning, every morning – that’s all very different. But I feel like at that point society had gotten kind of used to it. We’d already been living in a Covid world for five or six months.

At that point were just excited to have more structure in the sense of going out and doing something that wasn’t in your normal routine?

Russell: I was excited to be working again. 

Vinberg: The structure was a big thing. Especially in the winter when it was getting colder out. 

Your characters obviously went through bigger moments in season two, was there a certain storyline that you were most excited for your character to explore?

Russell: I was excited to explore Indigo’s relationship with her friends and how she’d react to aggression and animosity, and we really get to play with how she is under pressure and how she’d respond. Also seeing her growth and vulnerability, especially in those moments when she’s alone and releases the stress she’s been going through. 

Vinberg: I was excited I guess to reveal what happens behind the scenes when you’re working with brands as a skateboarder and expose that. 

How choreographed can you really be in your skating on the show? Do you ever lose an organic moment that you wish was captured on camera or is it pretty telegraphed of what you’re going to do before you do it?

Vinberg: You can’t really plan or control skateboarding, but the guy who films all the skating, Joey, who is a separate DP, he’s an actual skateboarder and he’s really good. We’ll choreograph what we plan to do and after we do that planning it’s all about whatever happens. It’s very organic I’d say though of course there are little moments that are lost where you fall a funny way and don’t have it on camera. 

READ MORE: ‘Betty’: Crystal Moselle Discusses Reuniting With ‘Skate Kitchen’ Actors For HBO’s New Series [Interview]

Has there ever been a moment where you’ve tried to recreate a moment that was missed like someone falling?

Russell: We’ve tried recreating and having stunt doubles, but it’s really hard to make it look realistic. Nothing compares to how you crumple when you really fall off your board.

You’re pretty involved in the collaboration process of this show. How important is it to keep that level of authenticity in this world and is it hard to do so sometimes since it’s television and there’s an impulse there to sensationalize subjects?

Vinberg: That’s a discussion that we have all the time where we have to be like “that’s not really how that would happen.” We usually tend to go for the most authentic route. Of course there are things though where you’re never really going to get the real thing but we’re doing as much as we can by using all real people, real places, real friends – all the kids on the show, all the extras, are our friends who live here. 

Were there any moments in particular where you really felt the need to stand your ground on what you felt was the more authentic answer?

Russell: There are definitely scenes that we did towards the end of the season where the way Indigo is portrayed handling the situation she’s put in where it was really important for me to show her sitting with her pain, sitting with her humiliation and being vulnerable. I feel like a lot of Black women in the media are shown going through something traumatic and the next day they’re helping the main character again and it’s all good all of a sudden and they don’t get to sit with their pain and that’s an element in real life that I don’t always think is accurately depicted. It was important to me to show that side of her. 

Something I love about this show is that the characters feel like real young women and that their friendships feel like those between real women. How important is it to you two to be in a series that is so geared towards young women and telling their stories. 

Vinberg: It’s so important for people to be able to see themselves in characters who are real in every sense of the word, I think, since we didn’t expect this to happen. What we do is real and the part of the world is real and I think it’s cool too that we were given the opportunity to be this real in front of the camera. When does a network ever allow this to happen?