How ‘American Fiction’ Composer Laura Karpman’s Fight for Diversity Led to Her First Oscar Nomination

TheWrap magazine: “I have benefited from my own advocacy, but that was never the intent,” she says

Laura Karpman
"American Fiction" composer Laura Karpman (Credit: Amanda Witt

When Laura Karpman was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Music Branch in 2015, on the heels of cofounding the Alliance for Women Film Composers, she was the first female composer to join the branch in 20 years. When she ran for the Board of Governors the following year, she was the first female governor in the history of the branch.

But when she received her first Oscar nomination this year for her score to “American Fiction,” she became the fourth woman to be nominated for Best Original Score during the time she’d been in the Academy — not a lot, but enough to make her feel that progress had been made, especially considering that when she joined it had been 15 years of nothing but male nominees.

“Before the Alliance, we had two or three, right?” Karpman said. (Rachel Portman was nominated for Best Original Score in 1999 and 2000, and Ann Ronell once in 1945; a handful of other female composers were nominated in the now-defunct song score and musical or comedy score categories.) “And since the Alliance, we’ve had Germaine [Franco], me, Mica Levi, who now identifies as gender nonbinary but at that point identified as female, and Hildur [Guðnadóttir] winning. So I think we’ve made tremendous progress. But we need to do more, because there are many of us who are very, very good at this.”

Karpman, a Juilliard-trained composer who has also written operas and concert pieces, said this sitting in the home she shares with her partner, composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, on the beach in the Playa del Rey area of Los Angeles. The bottom floor is an office and recording studio, filled with musical instruments of all shapes, sizes and purposes; on a shelf, her five Emmy Awards are dressed in Barbie clothes.

And as she talked about the music that brought her first Oscar nomination, she couldn’t help but illustrate it by sitting at a 1928 Steinway piano that had been given to her father by legendary Hollywood hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff. She asked for the piano after her father died — and the day it was delivered to her house, she recorded some of the “American Fiction” score on it.

“I started playing to test the piano, and Nora ran in from the other room and said, ‘Oh my God, press record!’” she said. “That became the family theme for the movie, but it was also my family theme.”

American Fiction
Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in “American Fiction” (Orion)

With Jeffrey Wright playing a character who is named Thelonious and nicknamed Monk, she knew the “American Fiction” score would have to nod to protean jazz pianist Thelonious Monk by being jazzy and piano-based, which suited her because she’d spent much of her life in music studying jazz along with classical music.

“The question was, do we take a piece of Monk and arrange it and massage it into a score?” she said. “And they chose to go with original music, which was the best choice. When you’re working with Monk’s music, you have to have a reverence, in a way. And when you’re working with an original score, we can pull it apart, dissect it, extend it, change it.”

For Karpman, the trickiest part of the score was the film’s opening stretch. “We leaned on comedic tropes so that audiences would know that it was funny,” she said. “They were hearing some serious things, but the whole point of the movie is that it’s OK if we laugh. So we did bongos, funky piano … But it was hard to find the right tone, for sure.”

Although Karpman has been very active in recent years, scoring “Lovecraft Country” and moving into the Marvel universe with the TV series “What If…?” and “Ms. Marvel” and film “The Marvels,” she feels the Oscar nomination is “one of those pivotal moments in my life.” Partly, that’s because she’s spent the last few years inside the Academy, using her time as a governor to push to diversify a branch once well-known for being old, male and set in its ways. But when she arrived on the board, out of necessity that was beginning to change as the Academy set its sights on expansion in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite.

“They wanted to see people come into the Academy from underrepresented groups, including women,” she said. “I thought, maybe I can do some good here.”

Not that she thought she was paving the way for her own nomination. “I think it was right at the beginning of the Alliance, and a woman director who had been involved in advocacy came up to me,” Karpman said. “She said, ‘I think what you’re doing is amazing, but you have to come to terms with the fact that it will never benefit you.’ And I sat there for a minute and said, ‘I’m OK with that.’ I just thought, if I leave it better than I found it, I’m fine. I’m making a living, it’s good.”

She grinned. “I never, ever, ever thought that this would happen to me, but it did. I have benefited from my own advocacy, but that was never the intent.”

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more of the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap

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