17. Drew Greenberg
What He Does: Writer/Producer
How You Know Him: Warehouse 13, Dexter, Arrow, Caprica, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Drew Greenberg cut his teeth writing and story editing for a little number called Buffy, and has since become a genre powerhouse, writing and producing for cutting-edge shows like Caprica, Dexter, Arrow, Smallville, and Warehouse 13. Let’s hear what he has to say about his career thus far…
TheBacklot: Attitudes in this country toward gays and lesbians have shifted dramatically in recent years. Does the same hold true for Hollywood, or were they ahead of the curve?
Drew Greenberg: I can only speak anecdotally, of course, but my sense is that attitudes have shifted in Hollywood, too. Way back in the early days of my career (when I drove the brontosaurus to the local rock quarry), I’d written a sample script, an original one-hour drama pilot with a gay lead character. That script helped get me hired on Queer as Folk and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it almost always got overwhelming positive response. But when I started asking if we could try to get that story produced – I was told by one executive, “I can’t sell my bosses on a drama with a gay lead.” Now network and studio execs seem more open to working gay characters into the show. They sometimes even ask for it. As a result, I feel like our stories are more honest and inclusive and, by the way, more interesting: when Warehouse 13 added a gay, Buddhist, human-lie-detector ATF agent, no one could say, “Oh, THAT old chestnut again?” (Although, it should be noted, I think we’re still waiting for a broadcast-network drama with a gay lead character… but I believe we’re getting there.)
Was being out at work ever a concern for you?
Greenberg: Yes and no. I tend to bring up the fact that I’m gay early on, because to me it’s not a big deal, and it’s not a secret. But does the fact that I feel a need to bring it up mean maybe it is an issue? Possibly. Generally, I face more discrimination for being lactose-intolerant than I do for being gay. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that my orientation has almost never been an issue in my workplace, and not many people can make the same claim. I’ve only experienced outright homophobia on a couple of shows in my entire career. The most egregious was your garden-variety barrage of gay jokes and slurs, offered by a director who’d been put in charge of running this one genre show I was on. And I heard later he was also engaging in the hilarious and oh-so-cutting-edge comedy of doing imitations of me when I wasn’t in the room, accentuating my gay mannerisms. Now, I can take a few jokes and slurs. You learn to deal with that stuff, and as long as it doesn’t impact my ability to do my job, I can’t really stop you from being a asshat behind my back. But this guy would also repeatedly question my so-called genre credibility, even after I’d been on this show for some time, even after I’d written for Buffy and Firefly and Smallville. Those same questions were not asked of other writers, straight male writers, who had written less genre work than I had, and it’s hard not to connect the dots between the gay jokes and the ignorant assumptions about my background. (That same director also once told me that the show’s executive producer, a woman with vastly more success and experience producing television than both of us combined, didn’t understand the show because she was “just a soccer mom.” So he was an equal-opportunity reductionist.) But the negative experiences have been, thankfully, rare. Most of the time, I’m surrounded by people who don’t really give an F whom I F – they only care about my writing and producing abilities. I have found television to be, by and large, an immensely safe environment in which I can be myself. (Still, a lactose-intolerance telethon would not be unwelcome.)
Can it be awkward working with people either behind the camera or in front of it who are not open about their sexuality?
Greenberg: Well, sure. Mostly because I’m perpetually terrified that I’LL be the one to slip up and say something to the wrong person about my closeted co-worker and thus be like Tiffany to their Jonathan Knight. When it comes to actors, I get why they feel they have to stay closeted. I wish we lived in a society where audiences didn’t care about actors’ sexual orientation and just enjoyed the performance on screen. But we don’t live in that society yet, and coming out might actually hamper some actors’ ability to work. I hope things change someday. That said, the only way it will change, when gay starts being seen not as something to fear but rather something to meh, is when people take the leap and come out, despite those current risks. It’s why I have so much respect for actors like my friends Tom Lenk and Sean Maher, people who have been willing to bear the burden, even while they continue working, so that others who come later might feel safer to be who they are.
Has telling stories about gays and lesbians been a priority for you? If yes, has it been a challenge to get those stories on the air? If not, why?
Greenberg: I’ve never written an original pilot script that didn’t have at least one gay character in it, even if I was the only one who knew that character was going to be gay. Sure, telling stories about gays and lesbians has been a priority for me – but so is telling stories about other groups who don’t get enough play on TV. I want to see a wider range of skin colors and physical abilities and, yes, sexual orientations in the stories I tell. Not because I want some rainbow-and-lollipop-scented diversity utopia (though, make no mistake – I DO want that) – but because telling stories about characters you don’t see every day is more interesting. Someone’s already covering the overweight, white, befuddled dad with the hot, blonde, overly-practical wife ten years younger than he is. I don’t have to worry about that one – cool. So I need to find other stories, and a great way to find interesting stories is to find characters we just don’t see yet all the time and tell their stories. So in the end, yes, I guess I do have an agenda: my agenda is story. (Oh! That could be an awesomely-pretentious t-shirt! Someone get on that.)
What would your advice be to someone just entering the industry who wants to do what you do?
Greenberg: You’ve probably all heard the standard (and most important) answer to this question: “Write, write, write.” That’s the right advice, and I won’t bore your readers with elaboration, especially when other people you talk to will be more insightful and eloquent on the point. Instead, I’d suggest this advice for aspiring writers entering the industry: be nice to each other. I don’t mean to sound all Maria-singing-in-the-Alps about it, but it comes from truth: you can’t do this alone. You just can’t. It’s too hard. You don’t have to love everyone – believe me, that won’t work, either – but just have a few people around you who matter, and be genuinely nice to them. Root for their success, support them when they’re down, celebrate their victories. And mean it. Too many people mistakenly believe that if your friends succeed, you must be failing, like there’s some limit on happiness out there. And it’s not true – in fact, the opposite is true: successful friends are more likely to help you be successful, too. Cheer their success as your own, and someday it might be.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Greenberg: Every once in a while I get to write a moment that reflects a small bit of genuine, human experience: Pete and Artie commiserating about their lack of a life outside their job, or Tara and Dawn having a talk over giant milkshakes. The small, emotional truth among the epic stories about monsters and artifacts and villains – I love that.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Greenberg: For me, getting ready to write a script is a little bit like getting ready for finals back in high school – that scary, sweaty feeling where you spend a week being kind of nauseous and worried and not having a life and sometimes also living on Pringles and Reese’s Pieces, but that part’s optional. Point is, my job means I have to keep reliving Finals Week over and over and over.
Do you have a dream project?
Greenberg: I have a few. Some scripts I’ve got in my desk drawer that I’m waiting to bring out. Plus that musical version of The Facts of Life, which, believe me, is going to be HUGE.
What do you consider to be the true measure of success in Hollywood?
Greenberg: Obviously, getting one of your lines into the round-up of notable quotes in Entertainment Weekly. (And hey, as coincidence would have it, one of my lines from my first episode of Buffy showed up in the round-up of notable quotes in Entertainment Weekly that week, which must mean I found success early. Also, it might mean that’s when I peaked.)
What are your favorite shows to watch (other than your own)?
Greenberg: Right now I love Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Boardwalk Empire, Nashville, Raising Hope (my brother works on that one, but I was watching it before he started there, so it’s totally objective, I swear), Shameless, Modern Family, Veep, Orange Is the New Black, Broadchurch, Top Chef and The Amazing Race. I’m a big fan of my friend Jane Espenson’s webseries Husbands (which she created with Brad Bell), and I also liked The Outs a lot. I’ve also been working my way through The Wire, because (don’t tell anyone) I never saw it. And I still go back to rewatch The West Wing and Sports Night when I need a little comfort food, which is frequently.
What project have you been most proud of?
Greenberg: I’ve got a couple scripts hidden away somewhere that I’m proud of – I hope the day comes when I get to share them, but, if I don’t, I take great pride in simply having written them. As for things anyone might have heard of… I’m particularly proud to have been a part of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a cultural phenomenon that meant something to so many people (me being one of them), and a show that explored the concept of what it means to be an “other” – one of those people considered outside the norm – even when you know you have something valuable to contribute to society – it’s an idea that is close to my gay heart. I’m also proud to have been a part of Warehouse 13, a show that claimed to be about stopping dangerous artifacts but which was, in truth, about a group of eccentric misfits coming together and finding the most important thing: the joy of family. (And I never minded that it was a show where women could be badass, men could be emotional, The Bionic Woman fell in love with a portly, nerdy curmudgeon with crazy eyebrows, and a gay man carried a badge and a gun and chased bad guys.) I also baked some chocolate cupcakes the other day that were pretty good. I’m proud of that project, too.