I’m so excited to be back with the 3rd and final installment of my interview with writer Teresa Huang. If you missed part 1 where we discussed Teresa moving from the sciences to acting or part 2 where we talked about transitioning from acting to writing – definitely go back and give those a read. Today, Teresa talks about the realities of being a writer and gives some fantastic advice to those who are working on breaking in! Here we go…
You were staffed on SEAL Team – did that come from the CBS program? Some other way?
The opportunity came through CBS, years after I had done the program – Jeanne (Mau) thought I’d be right for it. But really, it was a lot of people recommending me to the showrunner – EPs or Co-EPs that I had worked for as an assistant – they sent so many letters of recommendation to the showrunner that – as he put it – it just became undeniable. And there was a writer that I knew that had worked for him on something else, so I called her and asked her to put a word in for me. Like I said, it’s the connections and the people who you’ve impressed – that all pays off down the line.
That’s so great! And how did you prep for that interview?
I binged season 1 before my interview, and I really loved it. When I clicked into it, I saw that it was no different from a sci-fi show. It was a world I didn’t know, a world with very defined rules and structures, and then I was like, “Oh! All of my favorite sci-fi shows have military settings. Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica…Oh, I’ve got this.” There were a lot of very similar themes.
That’s something I always recommend to writers when they’re watching a show – find the things that you connect with. You don’t have to connect with the subject matter or the characters specifically, but if you can find a theme that you can connect to – that’s what you’re going to be able to talk about and be able to draw from your own experience to explain to the showrunner why you’re perfect for that show.
That’s fantastic advice. So – you got the job! What was that experience like?
The SEALTeam room was wonderful – I worked with some of the kindest, smartest, most generous writers in Hollywood. They were so wonderful. I learned so much from them.
When I look back at my 10 year journey in writing – from starting to think that I’d want to write scripts to getting that first staff job – the most important thing I did was not ‘getting an agent,’ not writing a particular script, not taking a certain class – it was not giving up on myself. That’s the biggest thing I did – that was the key to my survival and my success – I didn’t give up on myself.
10 years can feel like a long time. How did you keep going?
The way I did that was taking care of myself – self care. Working with Break the Cycle, getting out of town – I very much hit a wall with L.A. in the middle of that time. When I moved to L.A. I loved it – it was sunny, it wasn’t cold, it was so nice, everyone was so nice. But I hit a wall about five years ago where the city started to lose it’s shine for me – it’s a cloud of desperation and ambition and scrambling for fame and success – it just weighs on you, you feel it in your cells, you feel it everywhere. So one of the things I started doing five years ago was weekend getaways. I do weekend getaways a LOT.
I found a way to survive. Find whatever you need to do to survive – you need to take the time to find your self-care survival techniques. That’s the only way to get through the disappointment and the grind, watching the people around you rise up around you, or seeing them quit and find fulfillment in other things. I never found that for me – there was nothing else I’d rather do than work in this business, so I had to find a way to survive.
I can relate to that!
The industry is in the beginnings of some major – necessary – changes in regards to opportunity and representation, but we have a long way to go as evidenced by the Adele Lim, Crazy Rich Asians situation — have you felt a shift in the types of opportunities that are available for underrepresented communities?
I’m glad she took a stand. We’re living in a really exciting time right now where people get to tell their stories. After my Comic-Con panel, one of the first people I talked to was this young Asian writer who said, “I’m writing a pilot about my crazy Filipino family, but I know if I want it to be read in Hollywood, I have to white-wash it – do you have any advice for how to do that?” And my advice was, “Don’t [white-wash] it!” Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat, Sandra Oh, John Cho – there are so many things that have happened just in the last year and a half to two years that have changed the industry such that you MUST write it as a Filipino story. You must express your authentic, cultural point of view. And I find that so exciting. That’s part of the reason I wanted to teach this TV writing class at the East West Players – to spread that message and encourage people to write their stories.
Write your stories! Write them from your specific point of view. Hollywood is learning that the specific is universal, and there’s never been a better time to tell your truth. It is not only wanted, it’s needed. Write, write, write.
Now, can you talk a little bit about the Breakthrough Reading Series for our readers who might not be familiar with it? What is it and how did that get started?
A couple friends and I started the Breakthrough Reading Series – Karen Herr and Melissa Bickerton – we wanted to create a platform to support women and diversity in TV and film. We really wanted to have a series that was just focused on lifting those stories up. We have writers submit ten pages of their writing – people often submit the first ten pages of their pilot or the big turning point in their feature – we read all of the submissions each month, and we pick our six favorites. Those writers show up on the night with their sides in hand and cast them from the actors who are in attendance, and we all just get up and read them. It’s wonderful.
It’s a really inspiring evening, and we’ve had such a wonderful variety of scripts – we’ve had a dystopian, futuristic drama set in a US that has outlawed homosexuality; a wacky comedy about the diverse staff of a ski lodge; a family drama about these two Latinx parents who are about to set sail on a trip celebrating their retirement and both of their kids move home on the same day. We had one that was about a trans werewolf hunter, a murder mystery drama that was set in a town that’s primarily deaf — We have been able to showcase such amazing stories. There are such incredible stories out there that Hollywood is not making, but if we can lift these stories up and give these writers confidence that people love their story, that their story matters, their story is worth telling – then that’s how we all move forward and out of the same tired shows and narratives.
Submit! We always need more submissions, especially from writers of color.
Sounds awesome! We met after your Flipping the Script panel at Comic-Con this year, where you had some great advice for new writers looking to break in (check out the slideshow Teresa put together for Comic-Con HERE!). I’m wondering – what is the best piece of advice you have for someone who wants to do what you’re doing?
The number one thing I would say is WRITE. You have to write. Do all of the other stuff – take classes, learn, survive – but it always comes back to the writing, that should always be the first thing. Networking, knowing people, impressing somebody – that is all going to happen from the writing. And anytime a writer tells me that they have one script, I tell them that they need more than one. Maybe you’re the unicorn that the first script out of the gate is going to impress Aaron Sorkin, but statistically you probably don’t. The only way to get better is to write more. Like I said on that panel, I wrote 10 pilots and 7 specs – and I still struggle now, asking myself, “Do I have anything to say? Am I any good?” That’s never going away, but at the same time I can look at my first four scripts and say – oh, they’re terrible. I can see now that I was sort of playing at being a TV writer, like I was imitating what I thought a pilot looked like, what moments were interesting, what the big twists were – but they were not shows, they don’t hold up at all. And the only way you can get to that knowledge is by writing more.
There’s this great quote from Ira Glass (here’s the video). This is one of my favorite things in the world. He talks about how creative people get into this business because we have taste. We have an eye for art. People want to write because they love TV, they love movies – though when we’re starting out, we’re not that good. But because we have taste, we can see how not good we are. We can see how how wide the gap is between where we are and where we want to be. And the only thing you can do to close that gap is complete a lot of projects. It’s as simple as that – you just have to write a lot, and eventually you’ll close that gap. You can draw a similar parallel to the 10,000 hours argument – it’s the same thing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it and there’s really no shortcut to writing.
There’s that phrase, “the only way out is through” – well, the only way to be a better writer is to write.
I love everything about this conversation! Such great insights. Thank you!
There are SO many wonderful pieces of advice in this interview! I hope you’re feeling as inspired as I am. You can connect with Teresa on Twitter and Instagram, and keep an eye out for news about the new show she’s currently staffed on – Pump, loosely based on the Venice Beach exploits of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s. And who knows – if you’re in L.A., maybe you’ll meet Teresa at a future Breakthrough Reading Series?