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.
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