I met Teresa Huang after I saw her speak on the ‘Flipping the Script’ panel at San Diego Comic Con this past summer. She really impressed me with her poise and nuts-and-bolts advice for the room full of writers working to break into the TV industry. And the more she spoke, the more I related to her – she has a degree in science, started in L.A. as an actor, and is now writing television. She has worked on a ton of your favorite shows, and is now making a career writing on them.
I’m so grateful she sat down with me for Ms in the Biz – we had an exciting conversation about getting started, the current state of the industry, staying grounded, and more. Teresa had so many gems to share! Let’s dive in…
Hello, Teresa! Your bio says you were “raised to be a doctor but born to be an artist” – could you talk about that? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a very small town where not a lot of people left because they loved our community – it was an idyllic place —
Like Stars Hollow! [The fictional town in Gilmore Girls]
Yeah, it was Stars Hollow – so many people stayed and became teachers or worked for their family business there. I always knew I probably wasn’t going to stay in that town. I got involved in clubs and I went to a lot of state conventions and national conventions – I just loved seeing other parts of the country. So I knew I was going to go out of state for college, and I went to MIT.
What did you study at MIT?
I got a joint degree in chemistry and sociology of science. I was on a path of becoming a doctor for as long as I can remember. My father was a doctor, my older sister became a doctor – it really wasn’t a choice. I was on this path to go to a good school, pursue higher education, get a masters degree or a medical degree. And it really wasn’t until I got to MIT that I started to think a little wider.
While I was in undergrad, I got involved in the theatre department as a stage manager. I loved the detail-oriented nature of being a stage manager. After I graduated, I was still working in that capacity and I got to know all of these theatre students. There was this young playwright student, and he and I became good friends. He had written a one-act play that was chosen for MIT’s annual festival of student-written, student-directed one-act plays – they only choose three plays, and his was one of them.
Oh, wow! That’s very exciting.
Yes, but in very typical writer fashion, he freaked out. He got really nervous and was like, “Oh my god, no! People are going to see my play – oh no!” So he asked me to come to the audition so he could see a familiar face. I was like, “Ah, I’m not an actor, I don’t know if I can do that,” and he said, “Please! Please, come. Bring your resume!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I brought my resume with all of my courses and internships listed on it. The woman in front of me was an actress in the community, and she had a headshot with her. I remember thinking, “That’s really weird. This woman brought a giant picture of her face!” I didn’t know that was a thing. But I auditioned, and this very earnest student director took me through the audition, doing the monologue – and then he cast me as the lead of my friend’s play! And that was the first real acting thing I had done.
Incredible. So you had already graduated, and you ended up back at MIT doing a one-act play. How did that go?
It was such an interesting experience – I had so much fun. Then I did eight more plays as an alum of MIT, including a few student-written, faculty-directed shows. When I started working with the faculty at MIT, they were like, “Who are you?! Why didn’t you do this as an undergrad?” And I said, “I didn’t know I could!”
The older I got, the more I started doing more creative stuff. As I was coming into my own as a person, I realized that this [creative]stuff really makes me happy, and this science and tech stuff wasn’t as interesting to me – I just wasn’t into it at all.
So it really naturally transitioned in that way. I was working for a start-up tech company that got bought by Microsoft. The deal closed on Monday, and by Thursday they had laid everyone off – all of us. But they gave us a really good severance package – I didn’t even know what that word meant at the time, but they said they were going to pay my salary for eight months. “EIGHT MONTHS?! Okay, I’m going to try this acting thing!” So that’s what I did, and I just never looked back.
Wow! How serendipitous. Is that what brought you out to Los Angeles?
Acting brought me out here to L.A. I made a career pretty exclusively playing medical professionals on episodes of TV – EMTs, Nurses, Doctors. I used to joke with my dad that I didn’t become a doctor, but I play one on TV!
So I started acting out here. I’m very grateful, because not a lot of people can come out here and work right away, figure out how to actually make it happen. I am so grateful for the people who gave me support, gave me shots —
How was it transitioning to L.A. and actually figuring out how to get started? What was your focus once you got here?
One of the smartest things I think I did that I always recommend other actors do is that I was already taking steps toward getting my SAG card before I moved out here. In Boston, it was a very small market that occasionally got a feature film that needed extras, and I knew all about background vouchers. I took on-camera classes while I was there, I auditioned for student films, I was in a bunch of indie films and low budget things – I did everything I could. So by the time I landed in LA, I had a resume with a good number of credits and I had two background vouchers. So I just needed one more to join the union, and as luck would have it, I got taft-hartleyed once I got here and didn’t need the 3rd voucher. I got cast in ER – that was my first gig! – and they just taft-hartleyed me.
That’s so great! And I completely relate, coming from Seattle – we had the occasional feature film, and I would drive to Portland to audition for Grimm – and then when I did a reconnaissance trip to Los Angeles to figure out whether it was my next step, I was taft-hartleyed on a webseries. It felt like a good sign.
I did that, too! I came out for two weeks when I was still living in Boston just to test it out. I had an actor friend from Boston who had moved out here first, and she took me to a casting director workshop, she showed me where Samuel French was, the news stand where she bought Backstage every week – I am very grateful to her, because she introduced me to the business here in L.A.
But now if actors are like, “How do I get started?” My advice is: get started somewhere else. Because you can, now! There’s so much production not in L.A. – there’s Atlanta, NYC, North Carolina, New Orleans, Chicago, Portland, even San Francisco has some stuff going on. You can get started in other cities and take classes, build your experience, build your resume —
And also just make sure that it’s what you want to do, because once you get to L.A. everything is so much harder.
Yes! So much harder, and so much more expensive! I remember in my acting class, hearing, “I quit my job, and I took all of my savings and I moved to L.A.!” But you’re going to run through that in a year. Get a job! People who think they’re just going to concentrate on getting acting work, my advice is – get a day job. Even when I started writing I had a day job – you need a day job.
You have quite an impressive acting resume, from ER and The West Wing, to Lost, to Grey’s Anatomy, and beyond – when did you first have an inkling that you might also like to write?
It was when I was working one of my day jobs for almost 3 years. I was having a hard time – I had come to LA to be an actor, and I was starting to feel like my creative spirit was dying. When I first got here, I didn’t find that pursuing acting in Los Angeles gave me the same kind of creative satisfaction as I had experienced in Boston doing stage, doing workshops of plays, things like that.
I loved sci-fi, I always had sci-fi ideas, and I thought, “Maybe someday I’ll write a movie.” It was when I was in that day job that I felt like I NEEDED to do something else because it was just killing me slowly from the inside, so I NEEDED to write in order to survive. And I found that as soon as I started writing, it took the stink of desperation off of my acting and I started booking more. That first year – I think I wrote two scripts, and I booked eleven [acting]jobs! It was insane – I booked so many. They all just started coming.
I just found that writing gave me this creative outlet such that when I walked out of an audition, I could just let it go. It was really freeing – taking on an additional career actually helped both of them, which I’m sure you’ve experienced, too.
Definitely! And additionally, I find that it’s so much easier to shift my mindset and regard casting and execs as colleagues instead of gatekeepers. And it seems that writing — creating stories from nothing — has caused them to think of me differently, too.
They recognize that writers are the lifeblood of this industry! Everything starts with the page. So I found that really helped me.
How do you keep yourself grounded — mentally and physically healthy — with the long hours, the uncertainty, and the sometimes months between jobs (as an actor, at least).
It definitely happens as a writer, too! A job ends and you think, “Was that the last job I’ll ever have?” My big thing is – get involved in charitable causes. I’m a board member of a non-profit called Break the Cycle – it educates and empowers young people ages 12-24 to recognize the signs of dating abuse and create healthy relationships. So it also deals with consent, sexual assault, cyber bullying. My work with Break the Cycle always grounds me because it reminds me that – regardless of whether I had an awful notes call, there are people who are trapped in relationships and don’t feel safe. It’s something outside of me, and I always recommend this to writers, actors – do something completely outside of the business. For a lot of people, it’s their kids, or they have a dog, or they’re involved in church – something like that. For me, I do a lot of work with Break the Cycle as a board member and a volunteer.
I completely relate – my volunteer work with Hollywood Heart helps keep me grounded.
It puts you in an attitude of gratitude, and that is what you need to survive. Being focused on the good – because it’s too easy to focus on the bad. This is a tough, debilitating, demoralizing industry – you have to focus on the good.
And I feel that’s tricky because it’s counter to most attitudes in Hollywood – people are constantly asking, “What’s your NEXT thing?” Regardless of whether or not you’re already working.
You’re always in a state of lack! You’re always in a state of not good enough, not there yet, not quite as good as you could be… so you have to have gratitude to realize how lucky we are. There are so many people who would kill to be where I am now.
You need that reminder, perspective, in order to survive. This industry – what wears you down is being surrounded by this feeling of failure, being surrounded by this feeling of struggle. You need to get perspective so you can have longevity.
If you’d like to help support Break the Cycle, they are having a fundraising event on Sunday, October 20th – Drag Queen Bingo at Hamburger Mary’s! For more details, check out the facebook event. AND, Teresa has agreed that if you fill a table (buy a ticket plus 3 for your friends) – she will give you a free ½ hour career consultation over the phone! Teresa is generally too busy to offer career consultations, so if you’re interested in acting in or writing for TV, definitely buy a table for a great cause!
You can connect with Teresa on Twitter and Instagram. We’ll be back on October 30th with part 2 of this conversation, where we talk about the various rungs on Teresa’s ladder to becoming a fulltime TV writer! Stay tuned…