Jennifer Goodman Karum is shifting perceptions of people with disabilities in entertainment. Goodman, an autistic actress, writer, producer and creator, collaborated with Ryan Atkins, himself a producer and creator, to found Lakefront Pictures. This Chicago-based production studio aims to amplify unheard voices. In their work, diversity and disability are evident in the talent, both on the screen and behind the scenes.
ABILITY Magazine met with Goodman and Atkins to dive into Lake Front Pictures and their latest project, Conrad. Currently a pilot TV series, Conrad is a compelling crime drama that features Goodman as an autistic female detective battling corruption and human trafficking. Goodman’s character is based on her own experiences as a strong, driven autistic woman. Goodman and Atkins described how it all came together.
ABILITY: Could you tell us about your experience growing up with autism and how your family shaped that experience?
Jennifer Goodman: I was diagnosed with autism as a child. Doctors told my parents they weren’t sure I would make it in society and my parents fought to prove through therapy and early intervention to give me the best resources they could to help me live as much of a normal life as possible. I’ve come a really long way from where I started. I’ve had a lot of trials and tribulations and I’ve overcome a lot of it through just getting up again and really believing that I will make something happen. I think I’ve really kind of had a knack for believing that good things will come to those who build it. But just with my mother’s chutzpah and my grandfather’s chutzpah–as far as I like to say–I think I’ve really kind of had a knack for believing that good things will come to those who build it. It comes from my father, who is an entrepreneur, and he is absolutely determined for success. But it hasn’t been easy for me.
ABILITY: What does your father do?
Goodman: My father is a real estate developer. He started his business forty years ago.
ABILITY: And your grandfather?
Goodman: In terms of my chutzpah from my grandfather, he was a radio host for many, many years after he came back from World War II. He was also a professor at the University of Wisconsin and so was my uncle. They love to talk and they love to help people. And I think that that’s where I get that energy that I seem to always have.
ABILITY: How has your background led you to be where you are today?
Goodman: I’ve been performing my whole life, but one of the things that I really kept to myself was the fact that I am on the spectrum, especially because it was so taboo. I have anxiety because of my inability to understand people and that there are certain ways they do things. Sometimes, I push boundaries in ways that can be a bit surprising to people I’ll ask something, and they think, “Wow, she’s really bold to ask that.” But I always feel like it’s better to ask than to not ask and never know if it’s a yes or no. Something that I’ve worked really hard on is trying to improve my skills through therapy and by building relationships and struggling in them. Having a lot of people give me feedback is really what’s helped me become who I am. I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life that I’ve had to find ways to overcome.
I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to get involved in a project with Ryan. Ryan is also very determined and believes in helping the underdog. I was able to audition for something he was producing and after I was cast, I offered to write and expand the script that I loved about a female interrogating a male suspect. I liked the women empowerment aspect because it really kind of resonated with me, as someone who has never really had a voice and has been made fun of for her voice. And so, I was determined to bring something to life.
I come from a background of sales so I have a lot of connections in the sales world, and I have a lot of actor friends, while Ryan has a big crew background. Then, we were able to build what Conrad is today: a full blown forty-four minute pilot with the three seasons, a show bible, and a three season episode arc breakdown (story line). What we have has impressed networks and studios. We also have a full production with Harry Lennix and Eric Roberts, who joined our project and said they would do it again in a heartbeat because of how they felt about the project and the way that they were treated. The family dynamics of our team were so strong, that I would do this over and over again.
I feel very blessed that I was able to work with such incredible, talented, gifted people who had the patience and understanding to help me learn what most people learn in film school or most people learn in kindergarten of how things work. I’ve grown exponentially and I really am trying to get myself out there as an actress. Ryan and I, we started a production company called Lakefront Pictures, which our mission is we amplify unheard voices and tell untold stories that change narrow perspectives. And it’s just really important that we elevate people who don’t have a voice. We’re continually growing and creating content.
ABILITY: How did you decide to work together?
Ryan Atkins: I have a long history. I mean, usually someone in my field will work as a one man band doing it all until you grow bigger. But I was looking to do a demo scene–because I did it for several other actors–and wanted to do it myself. I wanted to make the demo scene feel like it belonged to a larger project. So, I got inspired, really, to write a short script that is about two pages. And I was inspired by a couple of movies that have pretty strong female leads. I just wrote what was coming to me, what felt right, and what was interesting to me.
Then, Jen pretty much stole the stage on the character. I wasn’t expecting her to perform as well as she did in her audition. Essentially, what happened was my writing had some–it just kind of lands you in a scene. So Jen asked if there’s any more to the character. Once she did that, I felt there was somewhat of a transition of power she was unaware of. So, I was kind of sweating underneath my boots a little bit because I’m thinking, “Oh, crap, she actually wants to see more.” I decided to be honest and just said I had some vague ideas, but nothing too concrete right now. In response, she asked if she could provide some ideas for the character. Eventually, with her input, it ended up a really long feature. We decided that it would be better as a television series.
Jen’s ideas really surpassed my abilities to keep up with it. This was all during a time when even I had no clue that she was even on the autism spectrum. I thought this was just who she was. But there’s a whole lot more greatness that comes from her than what meets the eye. And so, we collaborated until I realized that she just really needs to take this thing over. We were expanding into lots of different things, and I needed to focus on some of my areas of expertise. The rest is kind of history.
We made a pilot, which is not easy, but we did it. Jen did a fantastic job. She really did, all things considered. I do feel that her being on the spectrum helped out in many situations. If we wouldn’t have had her chutzpah, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
ABILITY: How are your own experiences reflected in Conrad?
Atkins: I happen to have reading comprehension issues, also issues with learning comprehension in general. I have my own method for retaining knowledge. So, we both have our ways of combating challenges.
Goodman: We’ve overcome a lot. We were able to make something pretty unique that has globally become a huge marketable project, that people really see potential with this character on the spectrum who’s been doubted when she uncovers this corporate operation. It’s really parallel to my life and Ryan’s in terms of how he’s also had to overcome certain obstacles. We’re just trying to get this project in the eyes of the right people who will really see the value of what we can bring, and hopefully inspire other people while also being able to get opportunities for ourselves.
ABILITY: And prior to this, you both have been working independently, doing things to move your careers forward. Before this you were learning your craft?
Goodman: Before, I was working in sales making a pretty good salary and commissions for 15 years, but I was unhappy and anxious because I was constantly trying to meet a quota. As an actress, I got paid gigs here and there, but it wasn’t a full-time thing. I was never in a position to be able to do that.
ABILITY: Right. And what were you doing Ryan?
Atkins: I had a range of jobs, either contract or full-time, kind of half and half of video production or information technology. My skills definitely helped with the project, but I also had to keep those lights on, too. I have done a handful of freelance gigs, but I also was not able to find a sustainable living with that. I had to keep a job in addition to working on the project.
Goodman: We were very lucky that we were able to raise capital, and that I already had experience due to my background in sales. And furthermore, we are especially thankful that Harry and Eric truly believe in us, our work, and drive, and that they saw the passion that we brought, along with the professionalism our team has. Not only did they believe in the script I wrote and the passion in it, but our team behind it, and us. They joined our team to make this project come to life – Additionally, Hisham Tawfiq and Mia Talerico, who are also fine actors, and very talented joined the project. We’re very blessed to have people who stand with us, and support what we’re trying to achieve.
ABILITY: And this is pre-COVID, yes?
Atkins: Yes, yes.
ABILITY: And what are you thinking about now, with COVID, any new production that you’re thinking about?
Goodman: Well, we are doing a feature about a young woman who is bullied essentially to her death, and it’s a horror thriller/spiritual thriller that is slated for filming in August. Hopefully, most people have been vaccinated at that point, but we will be following COVID protocols. Hopefully, we will have the budget to do this project and hopefully COVID precautions will be less needed as people get vaccinated.
ABILITY: Right, right. So, how are you sending your reel to other networks?
Goodman: I spent the entire summer with Ryan looking up contacts, going through CRM – we are making our own CRM database, which is a customer retention database that we worked on LinkedIn and Facebook. We did everything we could to do the research and we sent out emails. We hired an assistant. We put our pitch together. We’ve been very lucky. People are very intrigued by the autism spectrum, and companies like Netflix are very interested in talking to us about our production company, Lakefront Pictures. They’re looking if there’s a studio that can help us elevate a little bit to fit more of the mold of what they’re trying to do. but everything else is kind of in the air. And we’re still out there trying to get it pitched.
ABILITY: You said your studio and your show is dedicated to diversity. What does diversity mean to you and how are you trying to make it prominent in your show?
Goodman: For me, I think having a quality of including people from many different ranges of different societal and ethnic backgrounds, different genders, sexual orientations. What makes something diverse is having not just Caucasian, and just the same type of people, but really–cross vertically–bringing in many different people. We made sure to do this on both sides of the camera. Including those in the LGBTQ+ family, we make sure that people with voices unheard have an opportunity to be lifted. We had production assistants that wanted to be in coordinating positions and so we trained them to fulfill those types of roles and be promoted within. So, there were many ways that we brought in diversity and inclusion by treating everybody fairly. It’s really, really, really important for our work to have.
ABILITY: What inspired you to have immigration, human trafficking, and female empowerment as the main focal points of the show?
Goodman: I think the biggest thing about ‘female empowerment’ is–you know, we hear that word all the time. What seems to be something that a lot of people throw back and forth, but what does that really mean? And it really means amplifying unheard voices. You find that women in a lot of industries are undermined. Female directors, female writers, women in everyday work and even in marriages need to be lifted. I mean, the world was thrilled to see a vice president as a woman. That is a huge, big change. That will give women more of a voice, which is what I think society needs.
Regarding the other issues, Ryan and I, together, came up with the realities that are the real dark places that people don’t talk about: trafficking, immigration. These are worldly experiences that are happening every day in our lives that people don’t want to look at. But by not looking at it, you’re being a part of the problem by ignoring it. And here’s one person (Kate Conrad) who’s trying to bring it to the surface.
by Melissa Ancheta
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