While director Hisham Abed joined the Queer Eye family just last year, he has quickly become an integral part of it. Winning his first Emmy in 2019 for his work on Season 3, Abed is back in the running this year, with an episode showcasing his ability to create intimate, complicated and authentic work within the reality space.
Created by David Collins, the Emmy-winning pop culture phenomenon centers on The Fab Five, a group of “make better” experts that travels from city to city, to shed a light on heroes within various communities, and help them improve upon their already extraordinary lives, by offering insights on grooming, design, culture and lifestyle, fashion, food and wine.
This year, Abed’s Emmy submission was Episode 2, “Disabled but Not Really.” Centered on Wesley Hamilton, a young man who was shot, became paralyzed and turned his life around, the episode brings Wesley face to face with his assailant for the first time since the incident, offering both men the opportunity for forgiveness and inner peace.
Speaking with Deadline, the director breaks down his approach to directing reality television, Queer Eye’s continuing resonance and why Wesley’s story was particularly meaningful to him.
DEADLINE: Returning for its fifth season in June, Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot clearly has continued to resonate both with viewers and TV Academy voters. Why do you think that is?
HISHAM ABED: I think that its honesty and nonjudgmental approach to finding out how to help people is one of the main strengths of the show. I also think that in a time of political turmoil and difference, that when people are able to find common ground, it offers hope, and just to see people grow and be helped by the Fab Five speaks to some larger universal truths that we all find within ourselves. Everybody needs to be heard and seen, and when we see that in other people, there’s this sort of universal connection, not just between what you’re watching, but also within yourself. I think it can open the door to wider acceptance and appreciation of everybody’s struggles in life.
DEADLINE: What excited you, heading into the fourth season of the show?
ABED: Seasons 3 and 4, we did back-to-back in Kansas City, and I think that for me, the excitement was just to continue to meet more and more people that we were going to help, or be part of their lives and their journey. I think that was the excitement, and just never knowing what’s going to happen. I mean, we kind of have an idea, and we have our hopes and desires, but to embrace the unexpected in a really positive way is just really pretty thrilling.
DEADLINE: How would you describe your approach to directing reality TV?
ABED: Some of it is really mechanical, and some of it is very emotionally driven. You have to tune in with your emotional intelligence, I suppose you could say, and when you’re filming a scene, to be attuned to any of these emotional beats that anybody might be engaging in. Whether it’s all five of the Fab Five meeting the hero for the first time, or their individual one-on-ones, there’s always going to be moments that you want to be listening for and aware of, as much as possible. And also, to keep the crew alert and in tune and excited about that journey, just as much as we hope the viewers are engaged in it, when they finally get to see it. We want that process to be transparent for the hero, so we, as a crew, really need to keep a low profile, as much as we also need to be as close as possible, and connected as possible to the heroes.
DEADLINE: I imagine you’re routinely shooting on multiple cameras. Having to oversee them, while remaining in the moment must be challenging.
ABED: Yes, exactly. Obviously everything happens only once, and that’s the scary part. You really hope you don’t miss anything at any moment, and you hope you’re getting all the right pieces so that in post-production, it gets edited as powerfully as possible, with as much emotional impact, as well as being able to follow the arc of the heroes’ stories from the beginning to the end, so that we have a very clear transformation.
DEADLINE: This year, you submitted Wesley Hamilton’s episode for Emmys consideration. What about that piece spoke to you? And how did you approach it?
ABED: His story is very complex, not only just because of ability and disability, but also race is involved. Being a single father, all these things. It’s very, very layered, very complex, and I think we really just had to honor his story and follow it, and be witness to what he was going through. He was very open and very vulnerable, and he’s brought himself along such an incredible journey, as well. So, the part that I was excited about, and I think equally the Fab Five were excited about, was to engage with him, to take him over these final hurdles, and let go of some of the elements of his past that he was still holding onto.
Wesley’s [episode] was definitely one of the highlights [of the season]. Seeing him be able to face the person that shot him and caused this enormous change in his life, and to see him forgive him, that was amazing.
It was a really tenuous situation. We almost didn’t know if it was going to happen. Our production staff worked incredibly hard to make that happen, and it was a very, very fragile scene to put together, and we all had to really just disappear into the woodwork, and just sort of watch it happen as it did. And obviously, it’s a very strong and important scene, but also a very strong and important moment in Wesley’s life and his growth.
DEADLINE: How would you characterize the working relationship you’ve developed with the Fab Five over the past two seasons?
ABED: I think we always have to have an enormous amount of trust. What they do, I think, is they’re amazing listeners. I think they’re so emotionally intelligent, so attuned to emotions, and just to people in general, that they know how to help them through growth and change, and they create a safe environment for that to happen, whether it’s all of them together or on a one-on-one basis.
So the relationship that we have is very trusting. We have to give them the space for them to do their work, and equally, they know it’s part of the whole process for us to be witness to it. So my job is to balance that safe space and to listen as much as they do, and be equally invested so we all are on the same page, so that we don’t lose anything—so that neither side breaks that balance, and we get the best out of the story that we’re trying to tell, and the best out of the people that we’re working with.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Will you be back for Queer Eye’s sixth season?
ABED: I don’t know how much I can talk about it, but we did try to start Season 6. We really did, just that little thing called the pandemic got in the way. So we are looking forward to continuing to show, and schedule and everything else permitting, we will all be back creating more episodes of the show. We just don’t know when.
DEADLINE: Have you been able to stay engaged with any artistic pursuits while in quarantine?
ABED: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a great time, obviously, for personal reflection, and I think a lot of people are hopefully taking advantage of that. It’s not an easy situation for anybody to be in. [But] being a creative person, I enjoy some of that time, and maybe just try and find that balance like everybody is. It can be a challenge, so we try to find different outlets. I’m certainly cooking a lot more than I normally do, and I also draw and paint. So, I like to do things like that.