Karen Lewis is one of those personalities that pops on camera: she's fiery, funny and opinionated, especially when ranting about her nemesis, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But the Chicago Teachers Union leader, self-aware as she is made-for-TV, repeatedly turned down requests for access from producers for the CNN docu-series "Chicagoland" out of hesitation that a Karen-versus-Rahm storyline would emerge front-and-center, she said during a sit down interview with Ward Room.
"They tried to stage scenes with me and I wouldn't play with them, because first of all I knew what they saw, too," Lewis said Thursday during an interview in her Merchandise Mart office. "They wanted the Karen versus Rahm story, and I was going to be the villain. I'm like, 'I'm not giving you that. I'm not gonna play with you on this one.'"
Last month the Chicago Tribune published a report detailing "Chicagoland" producers' desperate grab for screentime with Emanuel, whose team tightly guarded their famously brash boss while collaborating to stage scenes that bathed the embattled mayor in a positive light. The series was produced by the filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin with backing from Robert Redford.
Lewis said she agreed to a "talking head" style interview, noting: "I was very candid -- that's how I'm gonna be. I don't know whether they used it or not, I don't know what they did." (Both Lewis and Emanuel said they did not watch the much-hyped but low-rated program, which aired over eight episodes this spring.)
As it happened, Lewis did make a memorable "Chicagoland" cameo and was shown calling Emanuel a "liar" as well as making appearances at events in the Windy City. She was also featured as one of the cast of characters on the "Chicagoland" website,.
"I got pushed hard," said Lewis, referring to Levin and company. "I got called by their executive producer. I got called by a whole bunch of people asking me to do this. I'm not really interested in being a part of this, so. Of course it was staged."
She recalled: "First of all, they wanted access to our management meetings, which I said to them 'no.' ... They were following one of my field reps around, and they asked me, could they shoot me telling him what to do? And I said, 'But I don't do that. I don't deal with that part of the union. I don't deal with the contract enforcement side. I deal with the policy side.'"
According to Lewis, her response was: "OK, are you shooting a documentary? Because I have an MFA in film and video-- and documentary is my speciality -- and I don't set scenes. I don't stage scenes.' ... I think that's terrible. But I knew that's what they were going to do."
Ward Room reached out for comment from CNN Thursday evening, but the request has not yet been returned. In response to the Tribune's April article, the network previously stated that advance requests to film on "city property" are not out of the ordinary. (Hollywood sighed in agreement.)
Lewis said her skepticism was compounded by the fact that Levin and Benjamin had been represented by William Morris Endeavor, the powerful LA-headquartered agency helmed by Ari Emanuel, the mayor's brother.
"It's like, come on, the people behind the production are his brother's people. I mean, do you think for a minute that this wasn't designed to show him in this wonderful, fabulous, rosy light?"