‘Casual’ creator Zander Lehmann talks to Adam Vitcavage about the show’s four-season run on Hulu.
By Stephanie Schaefer
Ever since my fiancé (Writer’s Bone co-founder, Daniel Ford) and I set a wedding date, I haven’t had as much time to read or contribute to the blog as I would like to. My free moments are filled with comparing color palettes on Pinterest, emailing wedding vendors, and traveling to trunk shows in hopes to find the perfect dress.
For these reasons, I was eager to get my hands on Desiree Hartsock’s wedding planning book and was even more thrilled when the former reality television star accepted my interview proposal. Below, Hartsock talks about her process for writing her first book, what attracted her to the wedding industry, and her advice for aspiring bloggers.
Stephanie Schaefer: First off, what inspired you to create a wedding planning book and what attracted you to the wedding industry as a career?
Desiree Hartsock: I first fell in love with the wedding industry while I was in design school and discovered my love for designing wedding dresses. I then went on to work at various bridal salons where that love grew and experience formed. I was inspired to write my book to help brides plan their wedding without any distractions or stress. I would constantly see brides so stressed out during the wedding planning and it should be a special time that doesn't create anxiety or worry. Also after planning my own wedding I was able to experience it for myself and wanted to share what I learned through it all.
SS: While working on your book, did you notice any similarities between writing and dress design?
DH: I suppose they are both creative pieces of work and have to go through a similar thought process. Just as a design comes to fruition by inspiration and thought out detail the book had to be planned out like a pattern to ensure it came together as a whole.
SS: How did writing for your blog and website prepare you for your book?
DH: The blog is an outlet to help brides with all aspects of wedding planning and wedding style so it definitely prepared me to write the book. The experience of writing for my blog allowed me to condense information in an easy to read and follow format that every bride needs to prepare for her wedding.
SS: What advice can you give others who want to launch their own blog?
DH: Running a blog is extremely time consuming and requires much attention to detail so I would say to make sure you want to and have the time to cater to the blog to make it successful.
SS: Much like launching a new project, planning a wedding can be overwhelming. Are there any stress-busting tips you can offer future brides (like myself)?
DH: The best stress busting tip I can offer is to take it day by day and moment by moment and to keep the end goal in mind: marriage. At the end of the day no one will know if the color of the flowers is slightly off or if a bridesmaid wore the wrong shoes.
SS: By the way, congratulations on your first child! Do you foresee writing a baby-related book in your future?
DH: Thanks! We will see. I have learned so much already as a new mother and hope to share some of that with other new moms.
SS: We ask all of our contributors to share a fun-fact about themselves. Care to share an anecdote?
DH: Fun fact…hmmmm. I can throw a football like no other (used to be a tomboy as a child). ;)
By Daniel Ford
Theresa Rebeck has written everything from award-winning Broadway plays to hit television shows (Admit it, you had “Smash” on your DVR).
Rebeck’s recently published novel, I’m Glad About You, features star-crossed lovers, Midwestern sensibilities, New York City Millennial drama, quippy dialogue, and plenty of dark, twisted angst.
The author/screenwriter/playwright (when does the woman sleep!) graciously took some time away from her production schedule to answer my questions about her writing career, what inspired I’m Glad About You, and what aspiring authors need to do to succeed.
DF: Did you grow up knowing you were going to be a writer, or is it a passion that grew over time?
Theresa Rebeck: I thought I was going to be a writer when I was about 3 years old. That’s not to say that I fully believed it. Even when I was young and a dreamer, it felt like a very bold choice. And certainly everyone I knew in Cincinnati thought I was somewhat insane to think that someday I might be a writer.
There were a lot of other dreams in there. I dreamed of being a chemist, or a mathematician, or a doctor. I’m good at math and chemistry, improbably, so my pragmatic Midwestern roots argued in that direction. Eventually reality caught up with me, at which point that first dream looked more like what it was—determination.
DF: You’ve written critically acclaimed Broadway plays and hit television shows. Were there any disciplines you learned that you were able to transfer to writing I’m Glad About You?
TR: The novel remains a mystery and a challenge to me. One of the things you learn in the theatre and in TV is that you just have to keep working until you finish it, and then you have to finish it again. There’s a lot of forward motion, always. And that turned out to be a very useful tool to have in my toolkit when facing the complexities that arise in the writing of a novel.
DF: When you sit down at your computer to write, what’s your process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Was your writing process for I’m Glad About You any different than your screenwriting process?
TR: I think in screenwriting and in television writing, there’s generally too much outlining. So when I’m working in fiction, I try to keep things looser. I have a general idea of where I’m going, but I don’t want to have too much settled on before I’m actually writing. I feel like the writing reveals a lot of surprises and deeper secrets when you haven’t made too many decisions ahead of time. That’s not to say you should just go blindly into something, I don’t believe that. I try to hold some tension between what I know is going to happen and what I don’t know.
DF: What inspired I’m Glad About You?
TR: I’m from Cincinnati and I live in New York. I used to think that at some point, those two aspects of my personal story were going to make more sense to each other. But, they didn’t. And I became aware over time that this is a real problem in our country—I feel like no one knows how to talk to each other anymore, and I wondered what that would look like if I had a pair of lovers who ended up in that situation.
DF: Kyle and Alison could have easily been caricatures we’ve seen in past novels, movies, and television shows, but you ground them in reality and give them honest-to-god issues to wrestle with. How did you go about developing these two, and how much of yourself landed in each one?
TR: Developing characters is something that comes to me over time. I did know when I started working on the novel that I was going to have Kyle stay in one place, and that Alison, by contrast, was someone who would rise, in visibility, in the wider world. Kyle’s journey was always going to be more and more interior, more and more isolated, more and more centered on this lonely quest for a spirituality that would often elude him. His innate decency is not enough, finally, for Kyle: He truly wants to be a good man. But what does that mean, to the soul?
Alison’s journey is more like Sister Carrie’s, in a way: as she rises as an actress, she becomes more and more of an object. But Alison surprised me. She refused to accept that destiny. She never saw herself as an object, so she never fell prey internally to what was happening to her externally.
DF: As a playwright/screenwriter by trade, did you start with the dialogue and fill in the prose or did you have the story in mind and craft the dialogue organically?
TR: I don’t do anything like that—start with the dialogue and then fill in the prose. I start at the beginning, and when I get to the end, I stop. And when I rewrite, sometimes I add things in, sometimes I take things out. Only one time in my life did I write a story in pieces, different scenes that weren’t connected, that were connected only later. If there’s anyone out there who writes the dialogue first and then fills in the prose, I’d like to talk to them. That sounds kind of interesting to me.
DF: How long did it take you to write I’m Glad About You? Did you settle on the novel’s structure during the writing or editing process?
TR: It took me a really long time—it felt like a really long time. It took me about six years. I came up with the structure during the editing process. Because there are two sides in the story, I did have a lot of material I ended up cutting. It wasn’t clear to me from the onset how the two strands of the story would sit next to each other. So that was something that emerged with greater clarity as I worked on later drafts.
DF: I’m Glad About You has garnered rave reviews from critics and readers alike. What’s next for you?
TR: Right now I’m in pre-production for a movie I wrote starring Anjelica Huston, Bill Pullman, and David Morse. I’m directing it as well. And then I have some other ideas that are starting to emerge. I’m so compelled by fiction right now but it’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of space and silence and I haven’t had that lately.
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
TR: Learn how to finish drafts. So many people get caught up in the process and don’t ever see the point where it says, “The End.” So even if you have to push through sections that aren’t working—I’m not saying force it, though sometimes you do have to force it—finish a draft. Also, I think writing a lot is a good thing. Like practicing scales on a piano. The more you write, the better you get...hopefully. Don’t be precious: learn how to cut. Learn how to edit.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
TR: I have the best collection on Earth of tiny stone bears. I also collect Peruvian retablos. I guess that’s two facts but seriously the little bears are great and so are the retablos.
By Daniel Ford
Not only has Jennifer Steil’s novel The Ambassador's Wife garnered rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel, it’s also being developed into a television series starring Anne Hathaway!
Steil talked to me recently about her journalism career, how her brief experience as a hostage helped inspire The Ambassador's Wife, and how writers should write even when they aren’t inspired.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Jennifer Steil: I actually grew up wanting to be an actor. In second grade I wrote and directed a play about Bambi, in which I played Bambi’s mother. We even made cookies for intermission. After that illustrious start, I continued to perform in local and school theaters until I headed off to Oberlin College, where I majored in theater.
But after four years of working as an actor in Seattle, I became frustrated with the roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astronauts but instead got stuck playing ingénues and prostitutes. Why were there so few interesting roles for women? Why were so few plays by women getting produced? My writing practice was born out of this frustration. I started writing the things I wished my characters could say. After I spent a couple of years working on short stories, I completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. For some reason I had the delusion that I could support my acting career with creative writing. I really don’t know why someone didn’t stop me. Not until I was about to finish my MFA did I realize I was going to be waitressing the rest of my life if I didn’t develop some more marketable skills. I was dating a journalist at the time, and his life seemed pretty interesting, so I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which—despite my utter lack of experience—accepted me. It was a very wise decision. And now, somewhat unbelievably, I do support myself and my family by writing fiction.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
JS: An obsession with magic and fairytales made me a dreamy child, more often present in worlds far from here. I would always rather read than play with my friends, ride my bicycle, or play games with my family. If I could have, I would have climbed inside my books. My first “novel” was about four children who went on magical adventures every time they ate berries from a certain bush. The color of the berry they ate determined the color of the magical world they entered.
I spent a lot of time as a child reading through a leather-bound set of Books of Knowledge, which included not only fiction but also the history of King Richard III and an explanation of how sugar is made. I thought these books—a combination of all I loved—were magical. They included everything interesting, no matter what genre.
As an adult, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has inspired me. When I first read that book I thought, “I can’t do this. I cannot write something that beautiful.” But it made me want to try. And to keep trying. Recently I have loved Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh, and I adore Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JS: I never outline. I rarely know where a story or novel is going until I write it. An outline would almost keep me from wanting to write the story at all. It would have already been thought out and I might lose interest. I write out of curiosity to see what happens next. I write scenes which I then shuffle like cards in a deck to get them in the right order. Because I write like this, I rewrite a lot. I write dozens of drafts of every book, refining plot points, character, momentum, and place.
I never listen to music. Words distract me. Even if I listen to wordless classical music, I find the mood of it distracting. I am allergic to noise in a world that appears to have very few silent corners left. In La Paz, we can see six different construction sites from the windows of our house. My work is often accompanied by the clatter of jackhammers and the whine of electric saws. The ubiquitous children’s birthday party clowns broadcast their inane acts over loudspeakers from lawns around us on weekends. Adult parties with deafening soundtracks go on until dawn. These sounds take a serious toll on my mental state. When we eventually settle down, I think I need to create an office with padded, soundproof walls.
DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?
JS: The current state of journalism is dire. I am particularly obsessed with the plight of international journalism. Because of dwindling resources, newspapers have closed most of their foreign bureaus. The result is a poorer understanding of the world. I firmly believe that reporters need to live in the country they cover in order to best come to grips with its complexities. After four years I felt I was only beginning to understand Yemen—so how was a reporter who parachuted in for a few days supposed to figure out anything at all?
Now, when I see stories about Syria or Yemen, the dateline is Beirut or Cairo rather than Damascus or Sana’a. No newspaper actually has full-time staff reporters living in these countries. Of course, these are countries in disastrous circumstances, but understanding what is going on there is important to our understanding of the Middle East. I don’t believe anything I see reported about Yemen, because no one has reporters living there. I get most of my news about Yemen from my Yemeni friends, via Facebook, Twitter, or emails.
Working as a reporter taught me how the world works. While covering five small towns in New Jersey I learned how towns operated, how school boards worked, how hospitals were funded, and how to make friends with police detectives. I also learned a great deal about heroin addiction, suicide, Olympic luging, criminal reports, running for political office, and heart transplant surgery. It’s a fascinating job and a never-ending education.
One of the most entertaining features I wrote for a magazine was a piece on swing clubs for Playgirl magazine. You would not believe how many swing clubs there are in the world. Or who goes to them.
DF: What inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?
JS: I suppose it was my own brief experience as a hostage that gave me the first germ of the story. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, four other women and I were taken hostage by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked nearly three hours from the closest road. The men with AK-47s who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon.
Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, parenthood was also an inspiration. What would happen if I woman left a child behind when she was taken hostage? What would happen if she were forced to nurse a stranger’s child? What would her bond with that child do to her marriage? These questions interested me. (Other inspirations are included below in other answers)
DF: You first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was a memoir based on your adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. Why the jump to fiction?
JS: Writing the memoir felt very much like an extension of my journalism career. I was meticulous in my reporting and writing, making absolutely sure that every word was true. I consulted experts on terrorism and Arabic and interviewed my reporters and copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was done writing that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed for the freedom to make stuff up.
At that time I had also just begun moved in with the man who is now my husband, then the British Ambassador to Yemen. After living alone in the old city of Sana’a and wandering the country relatively freely, I found myself suddenly living in a very different world. I could no longer leave the house without a bodyguard. We traveled by armored car. We had hostage negotiators, British ministers, and military officers in our guest bedrooms. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the weirdness that is diplomatic life in a high-security environment. I found myself thinking, wow, I have got to use this in a book.
But I didn’t want to ruin my husband’s career that early in our marriage (my tone here is joking, just in case that wasn’t clear. I hope I never ruin my husband’s career!). So it seemed best to take the details of this odd world and set a completely fictional narrative in it.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
JS: As I wrote, I began thinking about the hazards of westerners coming to the Middle East to “free” the women. When I first arrived in Yemen, a Maltese woman at a dinner party railed against western feminists who came to Yemen and tried to transplant western ideas of feminism. Many of these ideas would simply get women killed. Foreigners had to learn to work within a new cultural context, considering how their “help” will actually affect the lives of women.
I am an unabashed feminist, but when we parachute into totally foreign cultures, we need to consider which things will actually make women’s lives easier, and which things will simply plunge them into danger. This is something my character Miranda fails to consider seriously enough.
The more I wrote, the more issues came up. What would happen if an ambassador’s wife were kidnapped? Could he stay in post? Would he have to leave the country? Would he stay with his child or leave her to track down his wife? How could a group of relatively powerless women facilitate the rescue of a prisoner? In which ways are they better equipped for this than men are? What are the real effects of drone strikes in the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy?
There is a perception in the west that women in the Middle East are powerless. I wanted to explore the ways in which these women do have power. They have vast family connections. Their dress gives them anonymity in public. In The Ambassador’s Wife, it is Muslim women—not Miranda and not her husband the ambassador—who propel the plot.
When I met my husband, I was 38 years old with a career and identity of my own. It came as a shock to me to suddenly find myself introduced to people simply as “the ambassador’s wife.” I was defined by my husband rather than by my own achievements. Miranda has a similar experience when she marries Finn. She resents playing second fiddle. This struggle to retain identity gave me the title of the book.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
JS: My two main characters, Miranda and Finn, inhabit a world quite like the one I live in with my husband. But unlike Miranda, I am not an artist. I cannot even draw. And both Miranda and Finn have backstories that are utterly unlike ours. While the novel begins with a scene inspired by my kidnapping, the plot that unfolds is entirely fictional. None of the other characters—the diplomats, their wives, the Mazrooqi women—are based on specific people. A few have traits I observed in diplomats or their wives and I have lifted a few actual bits of conversation, but no one is based on a real person. Likewise with my Muslim women.
DF: The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and now being developed into a television series! What has that experience been like and what can we look forward from you in the future?
JS: Surreal. The whole experience has been surreal. I don’t think I will believe the television deal until I see it on a screen. I’ve never had a television, but I might buy one to watch The Ambassador’s Wife!
I am launching into research for my next book, which will take place in Bolivia and probably Eastern Europe. I cannot tell you more than that right now.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
JS: Write every day. Write when you are not inspired. Write when you only have five minutes. Write while your daughter is building a farm for bunnies around your ankles. Just write.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JS: When I was in high school in Vermont, I once let myself be dragged across a field by a Norwegian workhorse I was training to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a boy I loved by letting him escape.
By Sean Tuohy and Daniel Ford
Showrunners Kevin Biegel (also known for “Cougar Town” and “Scrubs”) and Mike Royce (also known for “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Men of a Certain Age”—a personal favorite of mine) eagerly agreed to answer some of our questions even as they continued to fight hard to keep their show on the air.
The world needs as many well-written comedies as it can get, so do them a favor and tune in to “Enlisted” on Sundays at 7 p.m. on FOX. Biegel is also offering a steak dinner to any Nielsen family that tunes in. So there's that.
Daniel Ford: When did you two decide to become television writers?
Kevin Biegel: I'd always wanted to be a writer. I grew up making and loving movies, but never thought of it as a real profession. Early on after I moved to Los Angeles I got a chance to do roundtable punch up on some movies, and off of that experience I realized that I really enjoyed writing with a group of people like that. Television is pretty much that nonstop, so I decided to pursue it from there.
Mike Royce: I was a television-watching fool growing up and used to make Super 8 films with my friends during my tween/teen years. Then went to film school and started writing there but took a detour to be a standup comic during my twenties and much of my thirties. That led me back to TV writing when "Everybody Loves Raymond" offered me a job.
Sean Tuohy: Where did the idea for “Enlisted” come form? Was it from somewhere personal?
KB: It was very personal. I'm pulling stories and relationships from my life, my relationships with my two younger brothers, and also our feelings/my feelings toward the military because I grew up with it as a reality in my life. My father, grandfather, and uncle all served. I had written on “Scrubs,” and liked being able to write about specific character relationships that I was familiar with in a very specific workplace world.
ST: How did you pitch “Enlisted” to the network?
KB: It was basically as a workplace comedy, albeit a workplace you hadn't seen in a comedy for years. I was really specific about the characters, and also about the tone and feel of the show. I just wanted to ensure that they knew it was something big and inviting and joyous while also being serious at times—that it would shift from comedy to some more dramatic elements at times and then back to comedy. I really tried to show that they could co-exist like they had on shows I had always loved and that I hoped this show could be like in success.
ST: Sergeant Hill has PSTD, which is not a very funny topic, but “Enlisted” approaches in a real way. What research did you do in regards to PTSD? Do you think the show will help shed some more light on this issue? Have you had any feedback from members of the armed services regarding the show?
KB: We did a lot of research, talked to a lot of veterans and men and women currently serving. It was of utmost importance that we didn't fall into the harmful stereotype of "person back from war who is a ticking time bomb." That's not a fair view to take of men and women coming back from deployment, but it's one that a lot of shows unfortunately do because...well, maybe because it's easy, or maybe because they don't want to take the time to show a better, more honest portrayal for the majority of veterans. It's not funny, you're right, but we never intend it to be funny. We want it to be honest to the character, we want to be respectful of it, and we want to be able to address it in the middle of a comedy both because of the challenge and because it's the kind of show we want to make.
I like comedy that challenges me with more emotional stuff, that doesn't always just go "joke joke joke" and then you're done. We want to be funny first and foremost, but if we're going to do a show set in this world we have to address the tougher aspects of it. If we don't, I don't think we're doing a very good job. We've heard from a number of people in the military community, and we are absolutely humbled when they say that the show has helped them go get help, has helped them have a dialogue with their kids about their experience. That's amazing to us. Someone wrote the other day that “Enlisted” has started coming up in their group therapy, just as shorthand to talk about experiences that sometimes aren't so easy to talk about. That blows me away, and it makes me proud to be a part of the show.
ST: Did you receive any support from the Army?
KB: Initially we didn't, because they feared we were just going to mock them; that we were just another piece of pop culture that was going to make fun of them and their way of life. I think now that they see the comedy is coming from a group of people who have very personal connections with the military, they are more open to us in an "official" capacity. We had to prove ourselves, which is totally expected and cool. We should have to prove ourselves!
ST: “Enlisted” is part workplace comedy, part family comedy. Is it difficult to balance these two types of humor?
MR: You know it's funny because workplace comedies are about family in some sense...that group of people becomes a family. That's especially true in the Army—see the phrase "Band of Brothers." In this case we have the added dynamic of the Hill brothers working out their family issues but it just adds to the depth in my opinion. It gives us more places to draw from. I think given the chance to do future episodes we would delve into more family members of both the Hills and the other characters.
ST: Unlike other comedies that take time to establish their humor, “Enlisted” establishes it very well in the pilot. How long did it take the writing staff to discover the show's voice?
MR: Kevin established very specific voices for the characters right from the start. He is drawing from his own trio of brothers for Pete/Derrick/Randy so the back and forth and punching came right out of him. Command Sergeant Major Cody's voice also flowed right out of him, I don't know how but there was a specificity there that was hilarious and really clicked. Sergeant Perez’s badass quality too. Then our amazing cast took those words and their immense talent and took everything to another level. The other platoon members only had one or two lines in the pilot but they immediately showed off their many comedic talents (including some choice ad-libs) and we wrote to all that as quickly as we could.
DF: Workplace comedies used to be staples of the television landscape, but seem to be harder to develop audiences today. Do you think that trend will ever come back, or will these shows find a home on cable or online channels?
MR: There is a great flattening going on where most comedies draw similar numbers. Networks are trying to adjust their expectations. Comedies need nurturing and I think there's a slow recognition that it's okay to keep something that's doing "so-so" because today's "so-so" is tomorrow's hit in this day and age. That works better than constantly chasing “Big Bang Theory” numbers and ending up with even worse ratings than you had. And if you look at history pretty much every single mega-billion dollar comedy hit started out struggling.
DF: You've both been involved in great television shows with long runs, and television shows that were critically acclaimed, but struggled to find an audience. Has there been any point in your careers when you thought, "I need to do something else, I can't keep going through this."
MR: Everyday! But then I remember I have no other skills. I barely have these skills.
KB: Sure, then I see all the free food in the kitchen at work and I'm like, okay, this is pretty sweet. I should keep trying to do this. Work is all about free food, basically.
DF: What's the best part of working in a writer's room on a television show? What's one of the most memorable moments you had while writing "Enlisted" or any of your other shows?
MR: In a good group, you get to bitch and moan and celebrate and laugh your ass off. There's all these funny people around you making you laugh and then they pay you. It's honestly absurd (don't tell the studio).
KB: It's what Mike said. You get to hang out with funny people all day long, and thankfully they're all really kind and cool as well. We didn't hire one dick! I think as far as a memorable moment, I am kind of partial to that time we sat a table going, "Are we really gonna have a gun that makes people poo their pants? Really?" and then going all in.
ST: Is there any chance that “Enlisted” can live on while on another network?
MR: Yes! And that's all I can say right now. Well that and please watch our last four episodes, Sundays at 7 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CST.
KB: Tell every one of your friends to watch if they can, tell them to tell their friends, and if you can find a Nielsen family we'll buy them a steak dinner if they tune in.
DF: If this is truly the end for "Enlisted," at what point do you start developing a new idea for your next show?
MR: Pretty much now. I'm writing a pilot, but still focused on doing whatever we can for “Enlisted” first.
KB: Kinda always for me, actually. I love “Enlisted” with all my heart, but I'm a writer and I'm always working on something. I beat myself up a lot. I have to do it or I hate myself for not doing it.
DF: Name one random fact about yourselves.
MR: I have a full head of hair that I have hidden since age 25 under a bald cap.
KB: I know the name of every shark that swims in every ocean.
By Daniel Ford
At 10 years old, I was awkwardly trying to make friends in elementary school.
10-year-old Erica Rhodes was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney.
Rhodes, an actress best known for her work on “A Prairie Home Companion,” has barely taken a breath since her big break (which I guess you aren’t allowed to do when Garrison Keillor is your mentor), and has been featured in everything from a cult horror flick to a viral Web series.
I caught up with Rhodes recently and asked her about her early career, how she gets into character, and why it’s important to be creative every day.
Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?
ER: I can't remember not wanting to be an actress. My Mom used to rent lots of old movies for me when I was a kid. I remember watching the Shirley Temple movies over and over thinking I could do that! But I think the moment I remember best is when I was 5 years old and I modeled a water bed. And I thought, "This is the life."
DF: You essentially grew up while working on NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion.” How did you land on the show and what lessons have you learned from Garrison Keillor and the rest of the cast?
ER: My mom is from the same hometown as Garrison Keillor (Anoka, Minn.). She is a violinist in Boston and asked Garrison to come and do a fundraiser for her Orchestra (the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston). He kindly agreed. They got along very well and she invited him to see me in the Nutcracker (I played a party girl that year). Then we had dinner afterwards and the next day my Mom said he wanted me to be on his show. I had no idea what it was, but the next day I was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney and performing in front of thousands of people. I have learned so much from Garrison and the rest of the cast Garrison has always pushed me as a performer and a writer. He has always believed in me. And he has taught me almost everything I know about comedy and performing for huge audiences. The rest of the cast also helped me every time I performed with them. Sue Scott especially took me under her wing a lot. Allison Janney taught me my first "vocal warm-up." I've also acted with Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen, so I learned how to hold my own with these great performers. I feel very lucky to have had the experiences I had on the show in so many different venues all over the country. It's really where I've felt the happiest over the years. Also whenever I have felt particularly low or frustrated with my career, Garrison has invited me back on the show. He has really been a lifelong hero of mine.
DF: Your career has spanned from cult horror films to award-winning indie films to television shows. Was your goal setting out to have a varied career, or did it just kind of work out that way?
ER: I think in the beginning, a performer wants to perform. So I wasn't very particular about what genre or format. But now I am choosing to go back to my comedic roots and just focus on that. Horror is fun, but can only take you so far. I would like to do more television in the coming years. That is what I am focusing on. Television and comedy.
DF: What’s your acting process like? How do you ease yourself into a character? What things do you think about or do while reading a script?
ER: Man. I used to do so much preparation and thinking. Now I try to think less and act on my instincts more. Because my instincts are usually closer to "right" especially for comedy. Now I just try to be myself and say the words or say my words. Just simply "be" I guess. And listen if it's a scene. And even in stand-up there is a lot of listening that goes on. For funny scenes, I try to find the funny moments between the obvious moments. I try to be surprising and unpredictable.
DF: You’ve been a part of three popular Web series—“Apt. 45,” “Upstairsgirls,” and “Sandy's Channel.” What attracted you to the roles and how was the experience different than working on a television show or movie?
ER: You've done your research! There's actually one more called “FourPlayinLA,” which my sister wrote. Apt. 45, I created with my friend Ileana Chan when I first moved to Los Angeles. I didn't know anyone and she was my neighbor. And we were friends from acting school in New York City. We came up with the idea of a newbie actress trying to get her non-actress neighbor into "the biz." Ileana did most of the work on that. But we co-created it and I starred in it. It actually helped me book “Upstairsgirls” which ended up being a much bigger Web series in the long run. I auditioned for “Upstairsgirls” and my role really wasn't invented yet. They were just looking for a "blonde" girl in her 20s who was good at improv. Sandy sort of evolved into the character after many episodes of experimenting and working off of the other actors. Sandy had a following so the producer, Scott Zakarin decided to have a spin-off channel just for Sandy. I liked working on web series, because I had a close and direct communication with the fans. But now I really prefer television and film, because there is usually a higher production value. Though I did learn a lot from all the hours I spent improvising and experimenting on the Web.
DF: What made you want to become a stand-up comedian and how has it shaped you as a writer and an actress?
ER: Stand up is very new for me. I've only been doing it for about a year and a half. But I am really enjoying it. I've always wanted to try it, but last year I felt frustrated with the audition process. And I wanted to take my career into my own hands. So it propelled me into stand-up. Because I have been performing since I was a kid, I really feel lost and aimless if I can't do it. It's truly what I feel most fulfilled doing. So I had to find a way to do it without someone granting me permission. I am also very lucky that my manager, Bruce Smith, is very helpful with the writing process. He reviews and edits all of my material before I bring it to the stage. I think I've grown so much as a performer and writer since last year. And I find it very rewarding to make something out of nothing. I learn something new every time I get on stage. So I am always growing as a writer and performer.
DF: You’re very active on social media. Do you find yourself using social media to interact with fans, test out material, or just have fun?
ER: I think I use Facebook for letting people know about my shows and maybe a little for fun. Twitter I use more for attracting fans and testing out short jokes. I read an article where Joan Rivers said if she were a new comic today, she would stay online all day every day, because it is such a good way to gain exposure quickly. So I do try to use them in a proactive way. Though occasionally I probably waste an hour or two here and there posting something stupid. Social media is a tricky thing to navigate. I'm still trying to figure it out. I wrote some jokes about it. Like, "My friends think I spend too much time on Facebook to get anything done in my real life, but my Twitter followers know how productive I am."
DF: If you could co-star in a movie with any actor/actress (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
ER: Peter Sellers! He was a comedic genius. I bet I would have learned a lot from him. I love him in every movie he was in, especially, “Being There,” one of my favorite films.
DF: What’s your best advice for up-and-coming actors and actresses?
ER: I always tell up and coming actresses to travel, travel, travel. That way I can have their auditions!
I'd say just make your own stuff as much as you can. Make stuff for yourself, make stuff for other people. Don't be a bump on a log. Do the Artist's Way and write every day. You're a creative being and you need to water yourself daily. So find ways for creative expression. Auditioning is just one way to get seen. Find the other ways, if that's not working for you. Also, it's really hard. Everything is hard. It's hard to get an agent, it's hard to book a job, it's hard to stay afloat. It's really, really hard. Give yourself credit for every little achievement. Don't look to others for approval. Give it to yourself. And mostly, take care of yourself as a person. As a human. Love yourself. Is that corny? Probably. But really. Figure it out. You'll be fine.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
ER: When I was a kid I took a gymnastics class once and I could stand on my head longer than all the other girls. I guess I have a flat head. I won a pack of gum.