Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between.
Caroline Waxler: Today we’re speaking with Gary Lennon, co-showrunner of Power and executive producer of Euphoria and Hightown. Welcome, Gary. Thanks for joining us. There’s so much I want to dive into, but I think I’d love to take it from the beginning, and say how did you get started as a writer?
Gary Lennon: Well, thanks for having me. I do appreciate it. I grew up here in the city, in Manhattan in Hell’s Kitchen in the ’70s, and I had a rough and tumble beginning of my early life. My parents both died by the time I was 12. I was 11 turning to 12. My dad died when I was five and my mom died when I was 11 turning 12. I went to Sacred Heart of Jesus over here on 51st and 10th, and then I went to Power Memorial Academy and got a scholarship to high school.
Gary Lennon: The beginning of my life, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I actually dropped out of high school. My brother didn’t tell me to stay in school, and I soon was on my own by the time I was like 17. I was living with different friends, didn’t have any relatives who really gave me any guidance or told me I had to stay in school and get an education.
Gary Lennon: I didn’t know really exactly what I wanted to do, but as a young boy I worked in the Broadway houses. I was a concession kid and a usher, and I got fired for stealing.
Caroline Waxler: What did you steal?
Gary Lennon: I was asking for $1 for the juices and they were 75 cents and keeping the quarter. I was always ambitious.
Caroline Waxler: Smart. Good market.
Gary Lennon: Yeah, exactly. And I was drinking at the time. I’m sober many years, but even at that young age, I was a very young alcoholic actually. Long story short, I wanted to be an actor. I thought I wanted to be an actor, so I studied with Geraldine Page, who was one of the greatest actresses of all time. In that class, I studied with Wynn Handman, and in that class I started writing scenes and monologues. As a result of writing those monologues, a lot of people started saying, “Oh man, where’d you get that? I’d love you to write something for me. Would you write something for me?”
Gary Lennon: I thought it was clear that something good, that that door was opening very quickly for me, rather than the acting door. So my theme in life is go where the love is.
Caroline Waxler: Good theme.
Gary Lennon: Thank you. There was definitely love coming my way from the writing, so I literally wrote a series of monologues about blackouts from alcoholism that I had had. And that became a play that I was in as an actor that I produced. It was a really small, little theater, like 50 seats. It wasn’t fancy.
Caroline Waxler: Where was it?
Gary Lennon: It was at the Samuel Beckett on 42nd, theater row.
Caroline Waxler: Of course, I’ve been there. Yeah.
Gary Lennon: Yeah. And we got a bunch of my friends and stuff and we put the play on. That play literally changed my life, which is a bunch of really well-known people came to see the play.
Caroline Waxler: Like who?
Gary Lennon: Well, the biggest one was Sam Cohn, who was a legendary ICM agent, you know, represented Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep. And at the end of my play he said to me, “This play is very powerful. It should be a film. Do you have any interest in selling it as a movie?” I was like, not only interested, buy yeah. And ultimately, his son Peter Cohn, directed that and paid me to write the screenplay of it. It’s the movie called Drunks, and it has Faye Dunaway, Dianne Wiest, Parker Posey, Sam Rockwell, Calista Flockhart, Howard Rollins, LisaGay Hamilton, Spalding Gray. It’s an amazing cast.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Gary Lennon: That little tiny movie became and independent film, and we went to Sundance. And honestly, and I’ll say this out loud, is I got paid to write before I knew how to write, which means I really didn’t have any craft or technique. I had no schooling and no education. But, and I tell a lot of writers this, but I did have something to say, and I did have a voice. My story Blackout was about redemption, and about how you’re not defined by your biggest mistake. And I think it really resonated with a lot of people.
Gary Lennon: That little movie got me like three writing assignment right away. And I literally bought Syd Field’s How to Write a Screenplay book, and I was like, “Okay, how do I do this exactly?” And I figured it out. I’m very grateful to say I am a lifetime member of the WGA.
Caroline Waxler: Well done.
Gary Lennon: Thank you. And I joined the WGA to write that movie Drunks, and I have sold a movie or two every year since then, or have sold a pilot or been staffed as a writer. So I’m very grateful to say I’ve never been unemployed, which is 27 years.
Caroline Waxler: Congratulations.
Gary Lennon: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: What is your secret for that?
Gary Lennon: Wow, that’s a great, great question. I think the secret to it honestly is curiosity. I’m a very curious person. I want to know about everything. And curiosity sort of leads you into very different worlds. As a result, I’ve explored different worlds and I’ve written about them. You know when people say they have writer’s block of something, I am very grateful to say that I haven’t had that in my life. And that I’m always writing an original piece, even if I’m working for somebody else and doing something, there’s always something else that I’m exploring. Even if I don’t know if it’s a play yet, or a movie or a pilot. And sometimes I’ll write all three. I’ll have a story that I need to tell so deeply that I’ll write it as a play first. And then I’m not sure if it works in that arena. And then I’ll write a film version of it. And usually I end up selling it.
Caroline Waxler: Which one do you sell more often?
Gary Lennon: That’s a good question. I think I sold more screenplays than anything. But I’ve sold I think four or five of my plays, the film rights. And I’ve sold a bunch of pilots, lot of pilots.
Caroline Waxler: And which is more lucrative these days?
Gary Lennon: Pilots.
Caroline Waxler: TV pilots?
Gary Lennon: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: And that’s a newer concept that they’re more lucrative?
Gary Lennon: Yup.
Caroline Waxler: So are you finding that you’re tending to write more of those when given the choice? Or you just write where the craft takes you?
Gary Lennon: Where the craft takes me. I mean, I’m writing a new play actually as we speak. By the way, my plays haven’t been enormously successful. Like I have written two or three plays that haven’t even had productions, but I did sell the film rights to my play 45, which never became a production of a play, but I wrote the movie and directed it and got paid very well.
Gary Lennon: I wrote a play called Change, which did not have a production at all, but I sold the film rights to Sidney Kimmel, and I got paid to write the adaptation, and now I’m currently out to directors with that. You said what’s the key of like working every year for all those years?
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Gary Lennon: Talent is one part of the equation of being a writer. The other one is you have to be ambitious, industrious, you have to be a self-starter, you have to be a natural producer. I think one of the things that I’d been successful in TV in particular is that, I didn’t know this, by the way, I found it out by doing, but I’m a really good producer. I like getting things done.
Caroline Waxler: That’s interesting. Many writers are not. They’re more introverted and just focused on the page instead of the production aspect.
Gary Lennon: Yeah, I think that’s a luxury. And I always wish that I was one of those people who had the luxury of writing in a wood cabin in Denver and then mailing something to my agent and then it just magically appear on screen. That hasn’t been my experience. I’ve had to knock on a lot of doors, make a lot of phone calls, and actually make it happen myself. And I get pleasure actually, and I will share this, is that almost every single piece of material that I have sold, I have been rejected and said this will never sell. And I have proven them wrong.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s fascinating.
Gary Lennon: So I actually get a lot of strength from rejection, believe it or not. I know that it knocks people down, it sets in depression or a sense of inertia. I have the direct opposite response to it. Not that I don’t feel depresses from the rejection, or I don’t want to do this, but I think it’s like the fight in me that goes I’m not going to let your opinion of me define me. I’m going to prove you wrong.
Caroline Waxler: I was reading a bit about you and I saw, with one of your first plays at the Circle Rep.
Gary Lennon: Yes.
Caroline Waxler: So you were initially rejected.
Gary Lennon: Yes, I was.
Caroline Waxler: So tell us about that.
Gary Lennon: Yeah, I actually had written a play and I put it in a manila envelope and sent it to Circle Rep to the literary manager, and I got a rejection letter.
Caroline Waxler: And this was something, I mean Circle Rep to you was the be all end all at that time.
Gary Lennon: Circle Rep was the best, like the Steppenwolf of Manhattan, of New York City. The greatest actors were working there at the time. I saw Balm in Gilead there, which was a Steppenwolf production, and I saw Ed Harris do Fool For Love before he was Ed Harris, and I saw, what’s that woman’s name from Roseanne? Laura?
Caroline Waxler: Oh, the one who’s so good. Laurie Metcalf?
Gary Lennon: There you go. She was in Balm in Gilead, and so many great actors. So I wanted to work there because I thought these people will get me, like they’re scrappy. They would get me. I was rejected, and I thought, “Well, I’m not going to let one person’s rejection, the literary manager, sort of basically just locked the door of that establishment.” So being who I am, as I put the play in a manila envelope and I left it backstage right over here. Not too far from here, the Lucille Lortel Theater…
Caroline Waxler: Great place.
Gary Lennon: Where they were doing a production of Lanford Wilson’s play, and Marshall Mason was directing, and I left my play backstage for Marshall Mason, the director. Lo and behold, he called me and left a message when answering machines were still around, and left a message and said, “I read your play. I think it’s really good. Who are you?” We set up a coffee, and he invited me to join the Circle Rep Lab. That was a huge vote of confidence. I want to say to all young writers out there, all people out there, we’re all vulnerable creatures and one person saying a sentence of validation can carry you for two years, especially if you respect them.
Gary Lennon: He was an enormous talent, and for this person to look at me or something that I’ve written and say, “You have value. You’re worthy”, gave me at least two more years of breath before I made a dime.
Caroline Waxler: Wow, that helps sustain.
Gary Lennon: Absolutely.
Caroline Waxler: So now, you’re very busy these days, and you’re just telling me about your hectic shooting schedule. What are you focused on? What did you do earlier today?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, I’m really lucky. I’m doing two shows. Both of them we shoot here in New York. I’m executive producer and writer and director on Power, and actually last night we had our wrap party for season six, which is the final season of Power, which was incredible. We did 15 episodes this season, it’s a lot. And then we are shooting Hightown at Broadway Stages. So last night was the wrap party, today I am here, tomorrow I will visit the Hightown stages, and then I head back to Los Angeles, where we’re doing post on both Power and Hightown. Rebecca Cutter created Hightown and is co-showrunning that show as well.
Caroline Waxler: Great. Let’s talk about Hightown first. How did you get involved in Hightown?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, this is another where, if you’re out there, the message that I have today is if someone says no to you, do not take that as a definitive answer. And Hightown is another great example of a script that Rebecca Cutter wrote that had Jerry Bruckheimer TV attached to it as a producer, and it had went out to all the buyers, premium cable and network, and everyone passed. They weren’t interested in it. Carmi Zlotnik, who is an executive at Starz, where I have an overall deal, had read the script and thought it was really interesting, and he called one of my agents and said, “Have Gary read this, and if it interests him, we might be interested at Starz.”
Gary Lennon: So I read it. I immediately liked the script, and called and said, “Yes, I’m very interested.” They had sent me a couple other scripts that I passed on. They set up a meeting between Rebecca and I and JBTV, KristieAnne Reed, and we had a lunch, and we just talked about what the show would be, what the series would look like. And me and Rebecca got along famously, and we said let’s do this.
Gary Lennon: So then we partnered together, and Starz bought the project. Then Rebecca and I got into a room and talked about what the second episode would look like and feel like. We sort of brought that episode together. She went off and wrote it, and when we delivered that second script, Starz decided to give us a writers’ room. Rebecca did a phenomenal job with a staff creating an incredible first season of stories, and we were lucky enough to have all the scripts almost done by the time we started production. They put it straight to series. We shoot, I believe the first week of August is our last week of shooting. And it’s gone incredibly well. Hopefully, early 2020, we’ll be on the air on Starz.
Caroline Waxler: And what’s the writers’ room like for that show?
Gary Lennon: The writers’ room for that show is a great group of people. Rebecca and I both read a number of writers, we made a short list of who we liked, we did those interviews together, and we staffed it, and everyone in the room definitely had different strengths as writers, different reasons for being there. It was a diverse writers’ room. The good news is that everyone worked out really. Everyone brought something very original to the table. By the time they were given their script to write when they came back everyone handed in a very good draft.
Caroline Waxler: By saying that everyone brought something original to the table, what were the different strengths of the writers in the room?
Gary Lennon: I would say Jordan Harper, who Rebecca had worked with previously, is a crime writer. He’s very much in the Elmore Leonard world. Actually he wrote the pilot, I guess two years ago, the L.A. Confidential pilot. Jordan is a tremendous talent and he brings that sort of crime feel. He’s like the crime guy, I would say.
Gary Lennon: Then we had another writer named [00:14:19 John See], who was very quiet in the room, and you didn’t expect it. He came out with an incredible pitch, and you’d be like wow, I didn’t see that coming. The show has a lead that is a lesbian, so we had two lesbian writers in the room who brought authenticity into creating that character and make it a full fledge real human being.
Gary Lennon: The show also deals with addiction and the opioid crisis. A number of us in the room are sober and addicts, so we could write truthfully to those imaginary circumstances.
Caroline Waxler: Right. I was reading about how you bring a lot of your life experience to all of your various works. Did you do that with this?
Gary Lennon: Yes. One of my things of going into the room is always pitching stuff that has happened to me. And I’ll say, “This happened to me. Does it work? Can we use it in this scenario?” I’m trying to think of a real specific. I know that there are two scenes that I pitched that we used that, I don’t want to give away plot [inaudible 00:15:18], but that we used in that world, that were used for the scripts, yes.
Caroline Waxler: So tell me about Power, and your experience coning in as the showrunner, the co-showrunner, during one of the final seasons, coming in mid-stream to a show that was already going. And then what stamp of yours did you put on?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, I came into Power season two. They already had shot their first season and had wrapped. I came in and met Courtney Kemp, who created the show. We immediately, there was an easy vibe between us. I think that she would even say that the two of us together in a room was we could break an episode very quickly. We’re sort of like a ping pong match. We riff against each other really well, with each other very well.
Gary Lennon: I think going into that situation where there was a staff that was already assembled, I was brought in as the new guy. All of us, I’m sure if you speak to other writers, feel very much like it’s like first day of school. You go and you’re like, “Oh God, are these people going to like me? Am I not going to be liked?” It’s a natural feeling. If someone doesn’t tell you that, they’re lying.
Gary Lennon: The really great experience for me was that I came into that room and that group of writers, I don’t know what it was, it’s alchemy, you know it’s that thing that’s magic dust, was they welcomed me with open arms. I loved everybody immediately, joined the crew, I felt like I had found my tribe right away. In the second season, I do think that I brought a lot to the show. There’s a character named Tommy on the show who’s sort of a very charismatic, violent street guy, and my brother was that. I would tell them lots of stories about my childhood and we definitely infused Tommy with a lot of those characteristics.
Gary Lennon: I think one of the things that I love doing in the writers’ room is I do think there are different writers who are story engines, and there are other writers who are going to give you great drafts but who don’t speak in the room. And for me, and that show in particular, in Power, I’m a story engine and I have lots of ideas. I’m not afraid to sit in the room and pitch you like 40 ideas and like one of them be good. I don’t have the fear that you’re going to think I’m dumb or you don’t like my pitch. Who cares? What about this one. I’m that kind of guy. It’s like a numbers game.
Gary Lennon: And so, for me, that was a great experience because it was a very freeing experience where you could pitch anything. At the end of the first year, Courtney saw my value and promoted me to executive producer, and then the next year promoted me to direct and then to co-showrun with her.
Gary Lennon: I think all writers’ room will tell you, it’s all about alchemy. It’s like where you fit into that family, and you’re always in a different position. You don’t always play the same role in every writers’ room. You’re definitely a different role in every writers’ room.
Caroline Waxler: And how would you describe the roles of the writers in this writers’ room?
Gary Lennon: Power?
Caroline Waxler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gary Lennon: There are a bunch of writers. There was a writer named Damione Macedon and Raphael Jackson who are a writing team, and I would say that they are story engines. They are phenomenal to play with. They’re just alive, and they’re open to riff. If you’ve ever acted, it’s like being in improv with them. You start something, they make it better, they change it up. They test you.
Gary Lennon: There’s a woman named Sophia [00:18:41 Deery]. She was another story engine person, really, really, talented. Heather Zuhlke, she is a wife of a police officer, and so she brought a really interesting P.O.V. into that room into the world of crime, and she also leads her life with her heart, and as a result I always felt like she was looking for the emotional turn in a scene. And I would always run scenes by her to get that. And then she’d say, “What if you come at it from this angle?”
Gary Lennon: It was a great group of writers. I believe that everyone in that room will have their own show. I think a couple of them are already [inaudible 00:19:19]. Almost everybody in the room has sold a pilot, for sure.
Caroline Waxler: Wow, that’s unusual.
Gary Lennon: Yeah. Great group of writers.
Caroline Waxler: During all this, how did you have time to co-write Jerry?
Gary Lennon: You know, I always feel like while I’m working on someone else’s show and I’m helping facilitate their vision of the show, I never lose sight that both shows we’re talking about today, Power is not my show. It’s Courtney’s show. And that Hightown is not my show. It’s Rebecca’s show. And my role is to help these people get their vision to the screen. And I’m a supportive human being as it is, but I’m very good in that role of helping someone get their vision across. I want to protect them.
Caroline Waxler: That’s a great philosophy.
Gary Lennon: Thank you. Yeah, I feel like I’ve benefited similarly from other people doing that with me. But I also feel if I’m working for you, that I’m here all day with you, and I’m giving you 100% and I’m here to do all this. But when I go home, I have me. And since I am a prolific writer and I do have a lot of stories that I want to tell, you can’t tell if you’re being truthful to yourself. You can’t tell all of your stories in another person’s show. And so I’m always creating an original piece of writing of my own, be it either a pilot, a play, or a movie.
Gary Lennon: So with this particular piece Jerry, I knew that I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a writer. There’s a friend of mine named Christopher Rossi, who is a member of the WGA, and he wrote the movie Meadowland, which Reed Moreno directed, Olivia Wilde starred in. And Chris and I, he’s a very good friend of mine, him and his wife, and would come over to my house on weekends. I always wanted to tell this story, and I just started tape recording my sessions with him, you know, talking. And then I invited him to write it with me. And that’s how the process started. And as soon as I started seeing it in the black and white on the page, I knew exactly what was wrong and what needed to be fixed. It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle and that you see how you have to connect the dots and everything. I wrote it very quickly.
Caroline Waxler: How quickly?
Gary Lennon: Oof! A couple months.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Gary Lennon: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: And how would you describe to our audience what it’s about?
Gary Lennon: It’s definitely is, if you’ve read Patty Smith’s book Just Kids about her and Robert Mapplethorpe, it is my version of that in my life when I was young, where I was lost. I was sort of a vagabond, a little broken for sure. And I was lucky enough to encounter a very special human being in spirit who was an artist, and who saw some value and worth in me. And helped me see that in myself, and then as a result, help me become a writer and an artist. Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: When do you expect that we can see that?
Gary Lennon: I am literally trying to figure that out. You know, we are sending it to actors. I’ll be coming back to New York in July to meet an actor who read it and we’ll see if he’ll want to star. But it’s a great coming of age story. It’s in the trend of Ladybird, Ladybird and Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. It’s in that vein.
Caroline Waxler: And that would be your directorial debut for a feature film?
Gary Lennon: Actually, I directed one other film about maybe eight years ago. That play I spoke of, .45, I sold and directed as a feature with Milla Jovovich and Stephen Dorff and Aisha Tyler. We shot in Toronto.
Caroline Waxler: And what was .45 about?
Gary Lennon: .45 was about a low-level criminal on Tenth Avenue here in Hell’s Kitchen and his wife, and they sort of had a low, low-level criminal enterprise.
Caroline Waxler: Very low.
Gary Lennon: Yeah, it was like Sid and Nancy, you know, but Hell’s Kitchen Sid and Nancy. It’s also though about female empowerment because it’s about a man who abuses this woman severely, and ultimately she stands up to him and turns the table on him and takes him down.
Caroline Waxler: Can we see that anywhere, like on Netflix?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, it’s on Amazon and iTunes. If you Google .45 Milla Jovovich it’ll pop up.
Caroline Waxler: Great.
Gary Lennon: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: And what’s your philosophy on using stories from your childhood and then reusing them in different ways?
Gary Lennon: It’s interesting. I feel like, I tell writers this all the time, but I feel like we’re all always in no matter what we write, I think all fiction is memoir.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s fascinating, yeah.
Gary Lennon: Yeah. And I think that we’re all sort of, I mean I know that I am always working out my chaos through my work. I always use that quote that I love by Thornton Wilder which is, “Real art is the desire to tell your secret and hide it at the same time.” And if you read an original piece of mine, you’re definitely seeing something that’s a secret of mine and I’m showing it to you under the guise of like, “Oh, isn’t this great fiction? Look at that story.” But it’s definitely part of me. And I think that we, even if you’re working on ER, or whatever show you’re working on, Homicide, when you’re creating a character, it’s like a neighbor of yours pops up. This is what that neighbor used to behave like. Oh they used to use scratch-offs all the time. I’m going to put that in as a character. And then as soon as you put off the scratch-off, my body changes and you start hearing the way she speaks. And you go, “Oh, her name is Gertie.” And how many people are named Gertie?
Gary Lennon: I think we all use all of our DNA in our writing, and sometimes someone else has to read something to actually show you that and say, “Oh, isn’t that so and so?” Or, “Doesn’t that feel like your brother?” Or something like that.
Caroline Waxler: Have you heard from any of the people who you allude to in your writing?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, definitely. Friends of mine have said, “Oh, that’s me.” I’m like, yeah. Yes.
Caroline Waxler: Do they get mad about it?
Gary Lennon: No, I think they feel celebrated. They’re like, “Oh wow, you found something in me worthy of putting down on paper and filming?” You know, or, “Something I said really stayed with you like that?” I think when you’re having dinner or lunch or breakfast with a writer, it’s all up for grabs.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting.
Gary Lennon: Whatever was said is usable. And I always say at a lot of my lunches or whatever, “Oh, I’m going to use that line.” And then between writer friends of mine, we always say like whoever gets to use it first, you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: That’s such a good point. And so, a lot of your experience has to do with crime, punishment, justice. Why is that?
Gary Lennon: That’s a great question. I think that when I grew up, I grew up in a neighborhood that was violent and had a lot of crime in it. And as a young boy, I think I observed a lot of that, and I knew that I personally wasn’t going to matriculate into that world. So I was an observer, and I think as writers, we’re all observers, and then we record those observations. I think that, I don’t know why we get jobs and why we don’t get jobs. For example, when Sean Ryan hired me for The Shield, he saw that little film that I wrote and directed, .45, and liked it, and that’s how I got the job on The Shield. And I think when you see that little tiny movie and you meet me, I think that it’s hard to match them together. You’re like I seem very gregarious and affable, yet that’s very dark, edgy, rough, raw world. And you go like, “How do you know that world?” And I’m like, “I lived in that world when I was a kid.”
Gary Lennon: I think that’s how I wound up in the world of writing like dark. When I got in the business I was definitely known as writing as a raw, edgy writer. I guess I still am. I think I have a big heart though that’s in the middle of it, and a sense of humor that brings you in. One of my favorite writers is Martin McDonagh, and I think he writes about a lot of dark criminal worlds, but there’s so much humor in them, you know?
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, and speaking of sense of humor, you worked on Orange Is the New Black.
Gary Lennon: Yes.
Caroline Waxler: So what was that experience like? Did you get to infuse humor in the episodes that you wrote?
Gary Lennon: Oh yeah, definitely, definitely. I think that writers’ room again was stellar. Lots of playwrights including myself. She has a great eye for talent, and I think every writer in that room has also gone on to either showrun, write, or direct. Yeah, we laughed in that room, and I think the best thing about Jenji that was amazing was she was open to let you try anything. I remember Nick Jones came in one day and talked about, “What if we threw a chicken over the wall and there was drugs stuffed up the chicken’s butt?” And she was like, “Sounds good. Let’s do that.” She wasn’t afraid of anything, and I love that trait about her.
Caroline Waxler: And what was the role you played in that writers’ room?
Gary Lennon: I think you’d have to say again I was a story engine. I was the guy who sort of like really would pitch out and drive the story forward and I pitched out a lot of story in that room that we used.
Caroline Waxler: What were some of the stories that you used?
Gary Lennon: In Orange?
Caroline Waxler: In Orange.
Gary Lennon: Let’s see. Well, Miss Claudette, which was the woman who was my episode, the cleaning lady. My mom was a cleaning lady. And we had interviewed a bunch of people and this one woman who I’d interviewed, she had told a story very similar to Miss Claudette, and so we put that into my episode. I had done some research about prisons and about people getting out. And that true story was pulled from that. I’d written a play called The Interlopers, which is about, it’s sort of a Romeo and Juliet set in the trans world, and it was a female to male and male to female falling in love. And the opening of the play, the line is, “Who are you?” And I thought what a great way to explore identity than someone who’s feeling trapped in their body, in the wrong body.
Gary Lennon: We started to just talk about that character from the book, the Laverne Cox character. I brought in trans people to talk to. I think we used a lot from that experience.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. And so is that emblematic of how you typically do your research?
Gary Lennon: I certainly like to know who I’m writing about. Again, because I write usually of worlds that I know or I’m curious about, I will go and I will research that world. When I was writing The Interlopers, I interviewed a lot of trans people and my desire, particularly writing that piece of material in my own personal life, I think I was going through an identity crisis. I’m not trans, I never wanted to be trans, but I was going through who am I, why am I here, and what am I doing with my time here? I want my life to be purposeful. And asking myself that question, which I think all of us ask ourselves that question at one time or another, that led me to wanting to write about trans experience. And I started interviewing a lot of trans people, and felt like I got a character in, if those two trans characters that are in the play, I think are of the characters I’ve interviewed. But there’s certainly huge parts of me too.
Gary Lennon: The character Lou is a female to male character in The Interlopers, and if you were to go through the play, and I’m married, I’ve been with my partner Jorge for 24 years, you would see a lot of me in Lou. You know when he read the play, he went, “Oh that’s you.” Her heart, her desire, his I should say, desire for life, his appetite for life, his appetite to entertain, his curiosity is me.
Caroline Waxler: And how would you feel if someone had the criticism that you’re not trans so how can you write about a trans character?
Gary Lennon: No, that’s a wonderful observation actually. I was asked that one day at a talk back at the play, and it was interesting. They had said “How do you feel about that you’re writing this?” And I said, “Well, my ambition and my desire when I wrote this play, was not, I didn’t set out to write the definitive trans play. I set out to write a play that dealt with imaginary characters who behaved truthfully in imaginary circumstances. And I would say I did that very well.”
Caroline Waxler: You have such a full plate at the moment and things you’re working on. A couple years in the future, what would you like to be working on and what are some of your goals?
Gary Lennon: I would think that in the next five years I would love to have my own show on the air, and have someone help me facilitate my vision on the air. I hope that that vision includes seeing parts of my story in that, and I definitely hope that I get to direct Jerry, and see that fully realized, my vision of that movie. And I would say thirdly that I’m working on a new play that I would love to have here in New York and I don’t know if it’s a Broadway play, it might be an off-Broadway play.
Gary Lennon: The plays that are on Broadway currently don’t really get me going so much. It’s really, they seem just [crosstalk] and I don’t feel like they’re writing about the human condition so much. I’m much more interested in plays that deal with the human condition. There are a lot of great playwrights here in New York like Annie Baker. I’d like to write a play that’s done here in New York, probably off-Broadway.
Caroline Waxler: Great. And where do you do your best writing?
Gary Lennon: I have a picnic table in my dining room, and I definitely do my best writing there. Yeah, I have food, I have water, and I like wood. And I write by hand so I have my notebooks. And since the guy who I was telling about who helped me become a writer, that notebook he gave me that said written by Gary Lennon, it was a 99 cents notebook from [inaudible 00:32:45], I still love my little spiral notebooks and I always write my first draft in a spiral notebook. And I always write on the front page written by Gary Lennon. And it’s like a ritual, and it allows me to go in.
Caroline Waxler: That’s a great ritual. And in what part of town do you live?
Gary Lennon: In Los Angeles, we now live in Los Feliz.
Caroline Waxler: Are you surprised when you go back to Hell’s Kitchen?
Gary Lennon: Oh yeah. It’s great, but my best friend who is a single mom lives in Manhattan Plaza, and my godson is actually graduating tomorrow eighth grade, and I’m going to his graduation. So I’m in Hell’s Kitchen all the time because she lives there. But yeah, it’s changed. All these fancy restaurants and the rent is like three thousand dollars for a one bedroom. And we lived in a tenement building with a bathroom in the hallway, so we actually didn’t have a bathroom in our apartment. To go to the bathroom you had to go out to the hallway to use the bathroom. And we had a tub in our kitchen.
Caroline Waxler: I lived in an apartment once in Hell’s Kitchen, and in the ’90s, and I was floored there was a tub in the kitchen.
Gary Lennon: There you go! I loved, and we used to have like a thing over it, a little tabletop over it, and I loved my upbringing. And it’s so funny, I think people would be like, and I feel very lucky. And you wouldn’t think that I would say that having come from where I come from and having lost both of my parents at such a young age. But I feel really lucky because I’ve been able to use all of that in my work and make sense out of it, so I feel fortunate.
Caroline Waxler: It’s not an expensive therapy, it’s very lucrative therapy.
Gary Lennon: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: One thing I wanted to ask you is about the show Euphoria. Tell us about that.
Gary Lennon: Yeah, Euphoria is amazing, which just premiered on HBO. It’s a great show, and my involvement in that goes back a number of years when Hadas Mozes, who had the format, the Israeli format and the rights to it. She came to America to sell it, and they gave them to me to go around town. And we partnered together for over a year we went and we pitched it everywhere and nobody bought it. It just came up empty. And I still wasn’t done though. That same again going back to don’t let anyone say no to you.
Gary Lennon: And I called Hadas and I said, “I still want to go pitch it a couple of places.” And I called Francesco Orsi at HBO and I said, “I want you to take a look at this format. Take a look.” And then we went in, she liked it a lot. She loved it actually. And then we went in and we pitched and that was the end of my involvement with it. I then went and got my deal at Starz. So the rights were sold to HBO. I’m executive producer on the show, but I don’t have anything to do with the day to day or putting it together. Sam Levinson really is the guy who made that show happen. He deserves all the credit and he’s did an excellent job.
Gary Lennon: I really am proud to think though that show would not be on HBO if I didn’t wind up bringing it in, walking it in. So I’m really thrilled that all those people are doing it, and they’re doing it so well.
Caroline Waxler: A pivotal role you played.
Gary Lennon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caroline Waxler: Well, on that note, I just want to thank you so much for coming in.
Gary Lennon: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: This is fascinating, and tell me, when can we see the final season of Power?
Gary Lennon: Yeah, Power. If you’re in New York City on August 20th, we’re doing the premiere of Power at Madison Square Garden. The first episode is going to be shown, 50 Cent is going to perform. And then we air on Starz August 25th for the new season. And we have Hightown, which will be airing early 2020.
Caroline Waxler: Great. And Hightown is on Starz as well?
Gary Lennon: That’s correct.
Caroline Waxler: Great. Well, thank you so much. Wishing you the best of luck with everything, and I look forward also to seeing the movie Jerry very soon. And, this is terrific.
Gary Lennon: Thank you very much for having me.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org and follow the Guild on social media at @wgaeast. And if you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate you’re tuning in. Write on.