Graham Gordy is an accomplished screenwriter and actor whose list of credits include Mud, AMC’s Rectify, The Love Guru and upcoming Cinemax pilot Quarry. Graham sat down in our Little Rock office and discussed topics ranging from the scent of Reese Witherspoon, to the gravitas of Don Cheadle, as well as why he eschews the L.A. lifestyle and proudly makes his home in Arkansas. And of course, what’s his strong suit.
1) When did you decide you wanted to be a film writer?
I wanted to be an actor, and then a song-and-dance man, basically. I’ve realized since then that I was simply born into the wrong era for the kind of actor I wanted to be. Also, acting is like golf. You have to be extraordinarily smart or extraordinarily stupid to be truly great at it. I’m neither. I used to be genuinely good because I was all bluster and need for approbation and had no consciousness about it. And then I became conscious of it and started getting in my own way. I really started writing when I was at The Groundlings in LA. I was writing sketches in order to perform, to impress, to dazzle people. And then that I started to care a lot more about what was on the page than ever performing it. It felt like writing would provide a lifetime of challenges, and my god, it has so far.
2) What was your first break?
“Overnight success takes fifteen years.” I have no idea who said that, but I find that you can attribute all good quotes to either Mark Twain or the Bible and immediately sound credible. (So that’s from Leviticus.) I think anyone who hasn’t given up on a difficult industry after a long period of time has had any number of breaks. Beyond the break of being born into a family that supported these kinds of pursuits, the breaks I had were mostly based on meeting talented people who inspired me and/or supported me. From early on, people I admired took me aside and said, “Hey, you’re not bad at this. Keep it up.” That started with being in plays as a kid, then moving to LA when I was 19 and not getting killed (emotionally or otherwise). With writing, getting into NYU for grad school was a big “You can do this” boost. Then getting some stage plays produced was another. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention that one of the biggest breaks of my career has been having no other marketable skills. And I don’t say that to be coy. I have degrees in English and Philosophy and an MFA in Playwriting. There were many times that if I could’ve quit and gotten another job, I would’ve. The difficult times that created, and the fact that the only way out was through, were what made me what I am, for better and worse, as a writer and person now.
3) Your writing has a very broad width in terms of style. From The Love Guru to Rectify and Quarry; does it make it difficult to pitch ideas in a system that likes to pigeon hole people into categories?
I used to think it was problematic, but I think the industry is actually more (not less) superficial than that. What I mean is, I’m not sure how many development people even do the research to see beyond the thing they just read of yours which led them to want to take the meeting. I assumed “The Love Guru’s” lack of success would be an albatross around my neck for my whole life in this industry. And it certainly was for a while, but if I go into meetings now, most people have no idea what I’ve done before. I mean, it might be more problematic if I were a more well-known writer. I guess what I’m saying is actually hopeful because it means you can write your way out of any problem and into or out of pretty much any of the pigeon-holing you mention.
4) You are a very literate guy (for a tv writer). Who are your influences?
Thanks. You’re a dick. Pretty much anything from the DVD rack at Cracker Barrel.
5) What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you in real life that ended up on a page you wrote?
I mostly listen closely and steal from all of your lives. However, one time, I had a conversation with Shaquille O’Neal where we debated how many blow-jobs we thought Charles Darwin ever got. I put that conversation into a script. And I also ate brisket at a strip club once. So that went into a script too. Both unproduced.
6) What was the experience like going from being a staff writer to a show runner?
I was actually talking to Ray (Ray Mckinnon, show runner for Rectify on Sundance) about this not long ago. In retrospect, on “Rectify,” the writer’s room was a light experience for me because I was just trying to help him realize his vision. So I came in everyday with ideas and pitched them. It was trash or treasure, though, because he was the one making the decisions. However, when you’re making the decisions yourself, your head swims and your palms sweat at all of the possibility. Every single one feels like a precipice and there’s a fatalism, inevitability, and a constant questioning of, “Is this what our show is?” “Is this the ‘right’ move?” It’s very daunting because there may actually be a few right choices, but there are hundreds of wrong ones. So, the process of creation is exactly the same; the implications are just different.
7) You have lived a lot of places. What brought you back to Arkansas?
I was in a coffee shop in LA a couple of days ago and I started listening to the conversations going on around me. Every single one – and I mean about nine total – were about the industry. I swear to God, two of them, at two completely different tables, were about getting Don Cheadle attached to their movie. I wanted to stand up and address the room and say, “People. Stop. Don Cheadle can’t get your movie made anymore.” Other than the weapons industry, LA is a one-industry town and it’s utterly pervasive. I’m too sensitive to live in that. I’m too easily influenced to read the trades every day (or ever) as it may dictate what I think they want me to write rather than what I truly want to write. Also, frankly, I just don’t like talking about TV and movies that much. Most importantly, though, Arkansas is where my wife is, where my kids are, and the only place I’m comfortable. I love it, and I love the people, and it’s Arkansans that I’m writing about (whether they know it or not). I loved New York for eight years, but the whole time, I knew that Arkansas was still where I was going to be buried.
8) You got to make out with Reese Witherspoon in Mud. No question just pointing that out.
Glad to hear this. If kissing on a girl’s neck for 30 seconds before she pushes you off is “making out,” I’ve been more of a Casanova than I ever thought.
9) How is your acting process different than writing ? Is one easier than the other?
Again, I don’t really consider myself to be an actor anymore. I miss it, badly at times. I would love to do a play again soon, just to feel the terror again, to see if I’m too far gone or if I could reawaken to that. My experience with acting still informs my writing, though. You want to make scenes easy for your actors to play. You want them to be motivated. You want to answer all the questions for the actors before they can ask them. You want them to have enough to do and you want them to be playing contradictions within the scenes. So, if a scene isn’t working – whether as a writer or an actor – I know what to look for and that’s a great asset.
10) What does Reese witherspoons hair smell like.
11) What was your worst day as a writer.
Most days as a writer are either bad or exceptional. Very few in between. The especially bad ones always involve thinking that I’ve finally found a way to be artful in the midst of a world of total commerce, only to learn, “No. No, this thing you love is going to be manipulated into pure commerce too.” Is that too abstract? Okay, then I’ll say the day, a few years ago, after AMC told us ours was the only show they were going forward with that year, came back and said they weren’t going forward with any shows. That show had been two years of my life and should’ve been my next five. I think that disappointment was so significant that it changed me and how I view the industry.
12) What is your strong suit?
Mercy. How does one answer this? Is there a sweet spot between vanity and false modesty? The only way I can possibly deduce this is that I feel self-conscious about absolutely everything I do – everything – except when it comes to my sense of humor. Give me three minutes, an electrical source, and a pair of vice grips, and I can make you laugh.
One national championship/player scandal at a time in football. Plus I went to school at USC, i didn’t just jump on the bandwagon. For basketball we all just agree to root for the Memphis Tigers. Nearly everyone in my family went to the University of Memphis, so we’re all tiger-striped. Where we lived in Northeast Arkansas all of our TV broadcasts came out of Memphis, so those were the games that we were able to see.
Gee, I don’t get to do too many of those… definitely Cobra Commander. I mean he’s the evil genius leader of a terrorist organization bent on world domination. No job for a dummy.
Why is this guy so fucking drunk and what is he talking about? I mean, he called me the devil. When I first read the scene, I was like, this is going to take some work on my part to decipher, but we got it. I think Don was scared of the new coming technology making him obsolete. But who isn’t, hmm?
George Clooney. And yes, he is really good. I’d heard that he was good, but he was much better than I thought he would be. His pick-up games are kind of the stuff of actor lore. He just hustles on the court like no other and if you were on his team and didn’t hustle he would yell at you. It was pretty funny. He and I would just run the pick and roll, and he loved it. Real fundamentals guy, right down to his plain white nikes.
Trying to get my own film “Mantivities” that I wrote with some friends off the ground. We’ve been battling to get it made for the last couple of years. And through much stupidity and stereotypical Hollywood BS it remains solely in script form. We have a director and a production company attached to it, but i don’t have the best feeling about that right now…
Oh great, make me remember stuff I didn’t get… Uh, well… The role of Dwight on THE OFFICE came down to Rainn Wilson and myself. And everyone knows who got that one. I was already at that time a big fan of the British office, and I was really good at doing that kind of micro-comedy and was just slaying every step of the audition process. I tested for two straight days for that role. John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and I were together every step of the way, and then they got good news and I didn’t. I was so pissed I vowed to never watch the show. And I haven’t, not even once. Bitter, party of one. When I worked with John a few years later on Leatherheads we commiserated over it. He’s a good guy.
(editors note- the British version is better)
The Malik film. Come on, the guy is amazing. I’ve worked with a few people who have worked with him, and they all had the most amazing things to say about him and his process of working. And really, who wants to be known as the guy who can’t get it up?
I loved it. It was a mini-series that will hopefully be a regular series called TEXAS RISING. It’s about the formation of the texas rangers. It’s a historical drama that begins at the fall of the Alamo, and chronicles the war between Sam Houston and Santa Ana. I play a real guy named Big Foot Wallace. He was a hall of fame Texas Ranger, kind of an icon of the rangers. I found his autobiography in the Texas history department of the University of North Texas. This dude lived one hell of a life. It was really cool to get to portray him. We shot there from May to October of this year in Durango, Mexico. It was pretty wild. Durango is still basically the wild west. Up until the last maybe 10 years it’s been way too dangerous for anyone to go there. It was once a huge movie mecca, John Wayne still owns a ranch there. Or his estate at least. Big time cartel issues in the past, but now it is actually a pretty nice place. Pretty fun too, and with Bill Paxton, Ray Liotta, Chris McDonald, all these great actors- mostly dudes- all in full western mode in the wild west it got pretty… well… wild to say the least. The people of Durango were also really nice, but it was a whole other world. My Spanish has never been better.
Hahaha. No, I was on the doctor show with the guy from LOVERBOY and Chuck from ROSEANNE. They were both awesome. Especially Chuck.
Editors note: Clooney and Goose were on a show called E.R.
Oh, god… i’ve died like 7 or 8 times. Up until Texas Rising, the general rule was if I fired a gun on screen, I would be eventually shot. I guess my character on AGENTS OF SHIELD technically died twice, and I played a video game character in VIRTUALLY HEROES who dies like 30 times in the movie. I’ve died way too many times. Plus there’s a rule of thumb that you want to die in a movie if it’s really memorable, but not on TV because then they can’t bring you back anymore. I seem to die indiscriminately.
Beware of your niche.
Eh… for now. I don’t want to stay here forever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an LA hater. It has some amazing things that you can’t find any where else, and the weather is amazing if a bit tedious. Rain is underrated. Sun can become a drag. I’ll take LA over say New York any day, but I grew up in the country and I definitely miss having that open space around me. If/when I get out of here, it’ll be somewhere where I can have more space. And if TEXAS RISING goes to series, I’ll most likely be living in Durango 6 months out of the year, so I’ll have plenty of space there.
Resilience. I’ve been doing this- living I mean- for a long time. And I have no doubt or problem keeping up with it.