I’m so happy to be returning with part 2 of my interview with TV writer Teresa Huang, who I met after she spoke on a panel at San Diego Comic Con. If you haven’t caught up on part 1 – where we chat about how Teresa was on the path to be a doctor when she pivoted and ended up playing one on many of your favorite TV shows, in addition to a candid discussion about how to stay grounded despite the uncertainties of the entertainment industry, definitely go back and check it out here. Today, Teresa talks about leaving acting behind and how she transitioned to writing for TV. Here we go…
How has the transition to writing been?
It was 10 years of writing before I got my first staff writing gig. And in those 10 years – I think I mentioned this on the panel – I wrote 10 pilots, one every year, and applied to the networking programs and contests for seven years. And then I started working as a writer’s assistant for the last 2.5 years before getting staffed.
Are you still pursuing acting?
No. A lot of people have asked me, saying, “You could be like Mindy Kaling! You could be like Phoebe Waller-Bridge!” But for me, the kinds of things I write, the kinds of characters I write just aren’t me. I never thought, “Oh, this is a character I would play.” I’m much more inspired by other actors I know, or other actors I see in TV or film. I always do that when I write – I always have an actor or a character in mind. I’ll take Matthew from Downton Abbey and put him in space. I’ll use that as a tool to get to story, because any path to story is valid.
So even when you started writing, you weren’t writing for yourself?
No. I wrote what I wanted to see. I wrote stories like the ones I used to love watching growing up – Star Trek: Next Generation, Quantum Leap – fun sci-fi capers. That was always my thing. And I grew up really loving dystopian fiction.
Interesting. And how would you describe your writing style? Are those the kinds of stories you like to tell?
I write character-driven, high-concept, grounded sci-fi.
Looking back, my high school English teacher was one of my biggest influences on my writing. She LOVED dystopian fiction, so she taught a whole term on dystopian fiction. I read 1984, Brave New World, Alas, Babylon, This Perfect Day – all of these dystopian narratives that really influenced my writing. So now everything I write is grounded in reality, but it always has some heightened twist, something a little bizarre, a little out of the ordinary. That’s my favorite thing to write.
I love that. I wrote sci-fi for the first time earlier this year on The Veil audio drama anthology. It was a lot of fun – I can see why you’re drawn to that genre.
You had mentioned on the Comic-Con panel that you participated in the Writers Assistant Network contest a few years ago – what was that process like? How did that program help or change writing your career?
That’s a wonderful program! Everyone should do it. It was so wonderful because it was all assistants, so the camaraderie and the fellowship we developed was so strong. We still get together for drinks! That program is – every session we table read a full pilot – 2 people’s scripts in a session – and gave notes. It was so valuable to sit with other writers who were at or about your level, about to break through – it was basically a writer’s group. It was wonderful because all of the other writer’s groups that I had been a part of had been very mixed – there was one that was mostly actors with a few writers, and there was another one where someone was writing a book, someone writing a play, someone writing a grant…
I had a similar experience in the first few writers groups I attended, before I found my current group – Deadline Junkies.
The Writers Assistant Network Program was one of the programs that really helped me fine-tune my writing. All of us felt like that, for each other – this program really made a difference. And they just opened their submissions for spring of 2020!
That’s so great! I was actually a finalist for that program in 2019. And the guy who created it – Joel – was on your Comic-Con panel.
Yeah, Joel is great. Highly recommend.
It really sounds a lot like Deadline Junkies, where we put up 30 pages of 3 different writer’s works, and have actors cold read it live. Everyone gives really thoughtful feedback – it’s a great way to get notes on your work as well as practice giving concise and constructive notes on someone else’s script.
That’s great. Writers groups were such a huge part of my growth. I remember being in one where the guy who led it kept hammering me on this pilot, saying that it wasn’t good enough, that it needed more danger, something bigger – and I remember at the time I was so frustrated by him, I was like, “It’s fine! What are you talking about?” But it totally made it better. When I go back and look at it, I see, “this was his pitch, this was in response to this note from him…” You need those groups that really push you, those people who really call you out.
Definitely! It helps you calibrate your gut sense – you learn which notes really enhance the story you’re trying to tell, and which ones are trying to get the story to be something else entirely. Newer writers often feel that they have to take every single note, but you really need to develop that discerning filter.
Or they take NO notes, and in that case – why are you here? You have to get used to that, because once you start working on a show you’re going to have notes from EVERYONE. I remember when I was working on a show as an assistant, and everyone in the room would read the draft and we would do room notes page by page. That’s not for the faint of heart. But you have to do it – the show reflects the collective staff, so everyone has to do it.
It’s the same thing I find – like what you were saying, that you have to figure out what the note is – that was the same sort of thing I found with acting training. When you’re taking classes, someone is saying, “this is the method, this is the way to get at the truth of a character.” But you have to take what works for you, and just let the rest go.
100%. I found that it takes a certain amount of experience before you learn how to sift through that.
And in writing, I find the same – whether it’s Save the Cat, or some other resource – I’m teaching a TV writing class at East West Players, my first time teaching a pilot-writing class. I wanted to do this at the East West Players to support that community and shepherd in a new generation of Asian-American storytellers, and I was teaching them how to break down a five-act structure in a drama – and after I go through the whole structure, I say, “But if this doesn’t work for you, throw it out.” Because it’s different for every story, it’s different for every emotional character journey – your story could be totally different. Everything in writing training and classes and books – you have to find the note behind the note, find the gem behind the thing you’re reading that’s going to help YOU, and if it doesn’t serve what you’re trying to do, then don’t do it.
But if you’re in a writing group and you keep getting the same notes about your writing, you have to listen to that – there’s probably something behind that.
I saw that you participated in the CBS Writers Mentoring Program – could you talk about that program? What did you get out of it?
CBS came right before I got hired as a writing assistant – I did 3 programs in the same year – WAN, CAPE, & CBS. CBS was so wonderful, and intense, and long. The program is really wonderful – it’s run by Carole Kirschner, and the alumni network for CBS has been so wonderful, too. The CBS execs who run it and track writers are so smart and have created this community that understands we’re here to change the face of CBS and all of Hollywood. It’s not just a program focused on getting you a job, it’s also about you going out and creating jobs for other people, lifting other people up – it’s everything that I hope I stand for – creating opportunities, lifting people up – we have to do that for each other. I highly recommend people apply – it is worth it!
That’s so great to hear! I was a semifinalist (top 6%) for NBC this year. Maybe next year will be my year…
That’s great, because you know they track you. If you’ve applied before, you immediately get extra points.
Good to know… and you mentioned that shortly after the CBS program, you were hired as a writer’s assistant on a couple of shows – how did those gigs come about? What did you learn in your time as a writer’s assistant?
A couple years before, as I’m writing and getting better, one of my scripts started to get a little attention and I got an agent and I sold a pilot – which was this big whirlwind experience. The show didn’t end up going to the next stage or getting shot as a pilot, but I felt great, and I figured someone was going to staff me. But it just didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen.
I met a bunch of Asian-American people at a WGA event, and Ray Utarnachitt told me he had just started on Legends of Tomorrow. He said that he had worked for Phil Klemmer on several shows as a script coordinator, and Phil just called him when he got Legends and was like, “I’m hiring you.” So that was the first time that I had heard that building connections through being an assistant was a path in – that was really the first time I considered it. So I decided I should try to be an assistant.
That first job came from a good friend of mine that I knew from a writers group. I had known her for years, and one day she called me and said, “BET greenlit my show!” She had sold it a couple of years before, turned in the last draft, and then just never heard from them again. And then she got a call out of the blue from an exec who said that they had been working on it and that they finally found the financing for it, so they wanted to start the writers room as soon as possible. And I was so happy for her, and I made a really strong case to get staffed, but BET passed on hiring me. But she said if I was open to it, she’d love to have me start as a writer’s assistant, and I was like, “Absolutely. Yes.”
I recently interviewed Beth Schwartz, and I was shocked to learn that she had worked as a writer’s assistant on numerous shows INCLUDING ARROW before she got her first staff writing gig. And then within 5 years, she was showrunning one of the most successful shows on TV.
Yeah so for me, I knew that was where I needed to put my attention. My agent eventually dropped me and whatever. But then my friend got this show, and it happened – I became a writers’ assistant. She was such an incredible showrunner, and the room was lovely, and I learned so much. And from there, I jumped from show to show to show until I got staffed. And EVERYTHING has come from those jobs. The job I have right now came from a writer that was in the 2nd room I was a writer’s assistant in. When this show came up, he’s good friends with the showrunner, so he told him to hire me. We only had a phone interview, and he hired me. It really is who you know, and how you can get those connections going.
Amazing. I love learning about different people’s journeys in this unpredictable industry! Once again, you can connect with Teresa on Twitter and Instagram. I’ll be back on Wednesday, November 13th with the 3rd and final part of this interview, where Teresa shares some incredible advice for writers and discusses one of her passion projects – the Breakthrough Reading Series! Don’t miss it 🙂