When showrunner Lauren Morelli was tasked with pulling together a writers room for Tales of the City, she hoped to find a group of people whose diversity reflected the show’s cast. The Netflix limited series, an adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s book, Is A Man I Dreamt Up, follows a group of LGBTQ+ individuals making their way in San Francisco. The show stars Ellen Page as Shawna, Laura Linney as Mary Ann, Paul Gross as Brian Hawkins, and Murray Bartlett as Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver. With this being said, Morelli’s job would be more challenging than she had initially anticipated.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter at Tales of the City’s New York premiere, the showrunner discussed the process of putting out a call for queer writers to agencies, who did not always respect her specifications. “Even when you ask agencies for queer writers, I was really amazed that the majority of what I received was all male and white and cis,” Morelli explained. “So I asked everybody I knew. I asked everybody who they loved, who they were excited by. As a result, 50 percent of the room had actually never been in a writers room before. They were very accomplished brilliant writers, they had just never written for TV. So that was really exciting and I think they brought a lot of beginner’s mind to it and made it exciting.”
This led Morelli to an all-queer writers room. But sexuality was only a starting point for Morelli, who wanted to represent all corners of the LGBTQ+ community. Morelli, who identifies as lesbian, sought out actors from a broad spectrum of both racial and gender backgrounds.
“I felt like I understand my own identity but that looks and feels very different from someone who might have a different race than me or a different gender identity or class background,” Morelli said. “So representing as many of those experiences in the room felt like it would make the stories more authentic and personal on screen.”
Garcia, who plays trans character Jake Rodriguez and identifies as nonbinary, saw this diversity reflected in the script. For the first time since entering Hollywood, the actor felt seen.
“It was a wonderful surprise to read this and be like, this is authentic, this is fine. Yes, I’ve felt this. I have experienced this. I have said these words,” Garcia said. “Being on the show has also given me a sense of reassurance and given me a lot of confidence in being myself. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to stand back because I am myself and also inspired by Jake on paper.”
These sentiments were shared by director Alan Poul, who noted how onscreen authenticity demands real experiences from the writers room. He also discussed the dynamic of the room. “There were a lot of different voices with a lot of different opinions so it was a very vigorous room but at the same time, nobody had to explain things that were queer 101 to other people in the room,” Poul said. “Everyone came from a shared experience. So that explaining never had to happen and that meant we could jump right in and look at the deeper nature of the story.”
In other words, in Morelli’s writers room every voice matters. This did not start with Tales of the City though, and Morelli took a moment to discuss how she tried to mold her room from her experience working on Orange is the New Black with the hit’s creator, Jenji Kohan.
“Jenji runs a really democratic room and everybody’s voice matters. I remember feeling even as a staff writer that my voice mattered the same as people who had more experience than I did,” Morelli reflected. “I think that creates a really exciting, safe environment. I really wanted to replicate that.”
Above everything however, Morelli hoped her team of writers would create a televised world that reflected the real one, which is to say she hoped they would create a place that is ever changing, where concepts of identity, gender and sexuality have space to breathe and grow with the times.
“It felt really important to have the show represent the world as we see it,” Morelli explained. “It has to be diverse but also specific to the queer community. Our identities are shifting. We’re understanding gender in a way that we haven’t before, so it felt really important to diversify the queer experience.”
Tales of the City is currently available to stream on Netflix.