Marja Lewis-Ryan met Ilene Chaiken, Producer and Director of Showtime’s hit series The L Word, in the writer’s room for an eventually-axed adaptation of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. A few months later, she saw The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and emailed Ilene to say congratulations, the show is amazing, I loved it. At most, she’d expected an offer to shadow on Handmaid’s Tale but what she got was a chance to makeThe L Word: Generation Q. The Amazon pilot, College, which she’d been developing in 2018, was her first TV job after starting her career in theater (One in the Chamber, A Golden Family) and film (Four-Faced Liar, 6 Balloons).
In May, her wife had a baby, and in July, Generation Q started shooting on a straight-to-series pick-up. Now, she’s at the helm of the most buzzed-about lesbian focused television series of the year. On the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, I met up with her at a coffee shop in Glendale (we’d met previously at Outfest when she was on a panel for a film I was in called Queering the Script) to talk about ALL OF IT, starting with Ilene Chaiken’s invitation for Marja to pitch on The L Word.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Riese Bernard: Did you feel like it was like —
Marja Lewis-Ryan: A joke?
Riese: No! Like, the Dream Question?
Marja: It just went through various stages of surreal, I think? Obviously I grew up watching it, I was 18 when it first came out. I was a theater major at NYU and I used to rent the DVDs from the Blockbuster on Third Avenue with my best friend and we’d just sit in the dorms and watch it. We couldn’t believe what we were watching. It was bananas.
Riese: And you were already gay?
Marja: I think that’s true for most of us that we already were —
Riese: But you were out?
Marja: I was out in the world … When I was coming out at NYU there was a whole group of lesbians who I wished I was friends with but I was like, scared of them? Which now feels bananas because I was the scariest of them! But I didn’t know that.
Riese: Why do you consider yourself the scariest of them?
Marja: Because I’m the gayest of them. But I didn’t see myself like that. I think it’s hard to see oneself. It’s hard to know… I don’t know what I’m up to, I’m just living in my body and in my voice. I don’t know what that looks like to you. I only know what it looks like to me, and to me… it looks like my Mom.
But I was desperate for a group like that and when I came out to LA and eventually found them, there’s really nothing better than a group of truly supportive queer people. I felt like I could breathe. And I hadn’t really realized that I wasn’t breathing. It’s just a deep sense of relief. That’s all the original L Word really was for me. I just wanted to sit in the booth with them. I wanted more people to want to sit in the booth with this group of people. It’s a very simple message. I think people thought that I set out to revolutionize lesbian television. I just wanted to see friends.
“I carried a lot of shame as a young queer person. I still do, but in more manageable forms. I was so burdened by shame as a teenager and into my twenties. I just didn’t experience a lot of things, I held back in ways that I am so sad for my young self.”
Riese: Were there storylines or characters in the original series that you connected to particularly?
Marja: I always knew that I wanted to run things, so I was drawn to Bette’s character. I was drawn to the ways that she says “fuck all” and plows forward.
Riese: And she yells at men a lot.
Marja: That felt superhero-ish to me in a way. Even though in reality if I were to behave that way I would never work again. So it’s this fine line of like, “That’s not really real and probably not a healthy way of living in the world” but for a young queer person? To be like, “I could just be like the boss of everybody?”
Riese: She was also very unapologetically gay.
Marja: Yes, totally. Also, it was Jennifer Beals! We all knew she was straight, and that sent a very clear message to us. That’s something the original did well at times, and poorly at other times. To me it’s like chipping away at shame. I carried a lot of shame as a young queer person. I still do, but in more manageable forms. I was so burdened by shame as a teenager and into my twenties. I just didn’t experience a lot of things, I held back in ways that I am so sad about for my young self.
Riese: I totally relate. I had so much internalized homophobia until I saw The L Word …. I hadn’t considered that possibility. Where did you grow up?
Marja: I grew up in Brooklyn. but I spent a lot of time in Kansas, outside of Kansas City, when I was 22 I went and lived on a farm —
Riese: That’s really gay.
Marja: I wrote my first movie out there, I taught at a Christian School. I had a great time.
Riese: Teaching at a Christian School?
Marja: I was the only substitute teacher in this little tiny Christian school. I got to teach religion and learn things. I went to Catholic School growing up but Christian school is very different than Catholic School.
Riese: I thought Catholic School made people gay? I’m Jewish, I don’t know what’s going on.
Marja: There were 64 girls in my class. And there were eight couples. So like numerically that just does not make any sense. That’s a high percentage.
Riese: Thats like a nunnery-level percentage.
Marja: That’s maybe a supply and demand situation. We were in Brooklyn! We weren’t out in the fucking boonies, you can go out and find a boyfriend in Brooklyn.
Riese: So that was when you wrote Four-Faced Liar?
Marja: Yeah. It was fun though. I love doing stuff like that.
Riese: How did you build the writers room for Gen Q, what were you looking for?
Marja: Well because I thought we were making a pilot and and I got the job two years ago — I think someone wrote an article like there were “864 days they’ve been waiting” —
Riese: That was Carmen, yeah!
Marja: That was really funny! I wanted to write her back and be like BITCH I KNOW! During that time I had the pleasure to take generals with writers and meet people. I was always looking for queer women, people of color and trans people. Anyone who represented the community. The other thing I got to have in the room was queer spawn, like they have two moms, ’cause you want that perspective too …
Riese: How did you decide to put the original characters on the specific journeys that they’re on?
Marja: Before I even pitched the network, I met with the OGs and got to hear what they wanted to do, what they didn’t want to do and where they wanted to be. For the characters I created, it was more about my own friends and my own experiences and trying to represent — they’re basically all me at different life stages. Like I’ve been Finley, for sure, just meandering a little.
Riese: Yeah this low key grifter. I love Finley. She’s so funny.
Marja: She’s adorable. That was also how I thought about who needs to be in the world that I think about — who the three OGs are and who do they need in their world and who stands in their way? The idea is that they intersect at work. That’s where I met most of the lesbians I know who are 20 years older than me. I didn’t meet them at Here Bar. Like when I was 24 and ended up at a party at Cherry Jones’ house. I really tried to harness that memory and that experience when I was writing Finley at Shane’s. Like, oh yeah people do live like this. This is somebody’s reality — not mine, but. You can like step into it in LA, there’s something wish fulfillment-ish.
Riese: In LA, and New York to some degree, it’s pretty common to have someone who’s like wildly rich and wildly poor in the same social group.
Marja: Yeah and also just the connection to celebrity? One of my best friends has a story about cleaning up a dead crow from Angela Bassett’s driveway and like only in LA could that ever happen. Like, “a party at Cherry Jones’ house” didn’t seem like an inevitability to me but it seems like one now.
Riese: Was she with Sarah Paulson then?
Marja: She was. It was her 34th birthday party.
“I loved [Carmen] on the show and I’ve met [Sarah Shahi] in real life and she’s the nicest person. She’s so nice I would love to work with her. But when I came into my writers room and was like “what do you think of this,” my Latinx writers went “nope” and I was like, “copy.”
Riese: How did you determine the fate of the original characters who aren’t in Generation Q?
Marja: Some things are out of my hands. like some people are not available. Like Pam Grier. She’s on other shows, she’s not available. Like Laurel Holloman paints now, she’s not available.
Riese: She’s really busy painting.
Marja: So people have their own lives and their own commitments. But I didn’t want it to feel like they didn’t exist anymore.
Riese: Which is funny ’cause the original series always did that. people just vanished!
Marja: Like whatever happened to Marina? Who knows.
Riese: Karina Lombard does shape-shifting now.
Marja: That’s awesome. Good for her.
Riese: We love this for her.
Marja: I’m glad that she found that, that’s important. There were some people who made it very clear they didn’t want to be a part of this series which I totally respect. Then there were others who wanted to be part of it but for 2019 reasons I just could not justify it.
Riese: You mean Carmen?
Marja: Yeah. I loved her character on the show and I’ve met her in real life and she’s the nicest person. She’s so nice I would love to work with her. But when I came into my writers room and was like what do you think of this, my Latinx writers went “nope” and I was like, copy. It’s a bummer for sure. But I think it’s a bigger bummer to make the wrong move right now.
Riese: Yeah, I agree. She was very good looking though.
Marja: For sure, and they had great chemistry and it was really fun. My pitch was to do a 23andme storyline where she’d turn out to be Persian.
Riese: How’d you decide why Tina and Bette broke up or what happened to Jenny?
Marja: Well, the Jenny thing. Ilene had given me permission to have season six be a dream.
Riese: Oh really?
Marja: She’s on record as having said that too.
Riese: I remember because I wrote a piece about it. [The L Word” Reboot May Ignore Season Six Altogether, Just Like I Already Do.]
Marja: I more or less did ignore it except for that one thing because one thing I look forward to most is group watches where people scream at the screen. So I had to give people things on the screen to scream at. That’s the fun of the show! Those moments.
Riese: And Tina?
Marja: I was more trying to figure out why she wouldn’t be [in the world of their show]. I was like she must physically be somewhere else. When I went to analyze their relationship and why it ended and why…. I think that Bette takes up a lot of space. I think that the idea that Tina needed her own space to figure out who she really was made a lot of sense to me as like, their therapist. Which is sort of who I get to be when I write these things.
Riese: Do you feel like you’re a better therapist than Dan Foxworthy?
Marja: No. I almost had Dan Foxworthy on. I was trying to figure out ways to get those kinds of characters on, ’cause that would be really fun.
Riese: So with the new characters you said that each of them feels like a piece of you?
Marja: They do. Finley to me feels like a really interesting character to explore shame — which is a prominent theme in my experience of the world and part of how I write everything, not just this show — and the intersection of faith and queer identity. I struggled with that in my twenties. So to put that struggle inside the body of like the goofiest character felt like the right move because all of her humor is one giant defense mechanism against the world because she’s just been like so hurt.
Dani I think is a part of me that’s like, blinders on, move forward in the world. The actress who plays Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) and I are from the same neighborhood. She just sounds like me and feels like mine. She feels so familiar to me. And she operates heart first. She’s like bordering on corny at times at work, I’m like that too, I make myself cry at work sometimes thinking about how great everyone’s doing you know? I just think people are doing such a good job and it’s overwhelming to me.
Riese: Yeah, that’s a really great feeling.
Marja: Yeah, you know!
Riese: Yeah, I do. I’m so used to working with just queer women and non-binary people. I don’t know how to talk to cis men anymore.
Marja: We have a fair amount of them on the set but it’s so nice to like outnumber them and just to see how the dynamics on set morph into like, our world. Like that I set the tone. It’s my show, and you can totally come and play on this show but you’re coming to play on my show … it’s a really fun time to be alive and to experience that and be able to say things without tip-toeing around them. Like people didn’t know what sexual harassment looks like and now everyone does.
“It’s been really interesting to watch some articles come out that say there’s “as much sex as ever.” I don’t think there is actually?”
Riese: Speaking of, there’s now like intimacy coordinators for sex scenes, did you do that?
Marja: We did yeah. We had a woman named Amanda Blumenthal who’s like the intimacy coordinator. Our intimate scenes go through three stages. One is the writing part where everyone reads the script and sort of signs off on what’s written. Then the director, the intimacy coach and the actors get together and they do a talk-through blocking rehearsal and they can actually in that rehearsal do the physical blocking. Then, on set, there’s like the third round of consent and “yes ands” and you know actors can change their minds at any time. It’s been really interesting to watch some articles come out that there’s as much sex as ever. I don’t think there is actually?
Riese: You think it’s the same amount?
Marja: I think it’s a lot less.
Marja: I think that we’re …. doing something a little different.
Riese: On that note — what was the decision like to open with boobs? And what were your goals with how you want to portray sex on this show?
Marja: I’ve been dying to answer this question, this is my favorite question to answer. I’ve said in other interviews that this whole series is like a love letter to my 16-year-old self —one of the biggest things that I’ve found that I suffered from and a lot of my community members suffered from is body shame and shame around pleasure in particular. So to have a woman in a committed relationship with another woman experiencing pleasure and being like — it’s okay, it’s like totally okay! — and to have an actress who’s that stoked to do it and totally gets it? I don’t wanna speak for her but she’s not here so I will — she knows the power of her brown skin on that screen. None of that is an accident.
Riese: I don’t think we actually see a POC person’s boobs until Season Four on the original series. [Ed. note: furthermore, the only time we saw two women of color together in a sex scene were Bette/Candace and Papi/Kit.]
Marja: Yeah, and we’re doing something else now. The period part of it is the double down on “no shame.” Their reaction to it is meant to inform my 16-year-old self’s reaction to it. Like if I’d known that that’s how I should or could react? To my own body? I didn’t know that. Until I was like, way too old. That’s really exciting to me — the idea of building the next generation of queer women and queer dudes, trans dudes who have their periods and it’s all kind of okay. Everyone’s okay. If your partner is not reacting [like Dani], then check that.
Riese: We did an article that went viral a few years back about “9 Normal and Not Gross Things That Happen During Sex That Are Totally Normal.” Everyone went mad for it. I was glad to be in a position where I could put this into the world ’cause these are all things that especially — when I was straight, there was so much shame around it.
Marja: That’s the other thing too, is that straight women watch this show too and it’s not just about lesbian sex it’s about all people with bodies who have periods. They do. It happens! It happens! it happens to me all the time…. it happens every month. And every single month I don’t know what’s happening. And I’m 34 years old. I’ve had my period for like 18 years and I just can’t figure it out!
Riese: There’s this certain type of queer person that every time their period comes it’s like it’s never happened before.
Marja: That’s how I feel.
Riese: They like forget. I’ve had friends and girlfriends who are surprised at every period like it’s their first one ever, they consistently forget to have tampons on them while they have it. Like they’re not in dialogue with that function of their body.
Marja: Right, there’s some strong disconnect between my head and the rest of my body. that felt really important to me and my cast members totally got it and I fought for it. There were some people who didn’t totally get it, but I fought really hard for it. I wrote letters about third-wave feminism and people were scared about it but I feel so confident about it. I feel really really sure.
Riese: Was it always your intention to open like that?
Marja: I’ve tried lots of things. I knew that I wanted it to be a new character, I knew that I wanted them to not be white, I knew that there were a couple of things that i wanted to start off with and be like, this is different, these things are different. I was so delighted by this scene and there’s just something so joyful. When she says get your naked ass off me, I’m like aw that’s nice.
Riese: It is! It’s really — I hate the word “tender” — but it is!
Marja: It’s super tender
Riese: But still hot.
Marja: And all of those things can exist which again, my 16-year-old self did not know.like you know porn or you know nothing, and I kind of knew porn and nothing.
Riese: I knew nothing.
Marja: I knew both.
Riese: I knew a lot of about gay boy sex. So I knew a lot about anal.
Marja: That’s awesome.
Riese: Are you doing anal on the show?
Marja: (thinks) Yeah, there’s anal sex in the show. I had to think about it. but yes, yes there is.
Riese: Excellent. perfect. How are you approaching sex on the show in general?
Marja: We talk a lot about it pushing story and stuff, for me it’s also about tone. Tonally, the sex on the original‚ like even the anonymous sex that Shane has at the beginning — it was really important to me to start at the other woman’s face like staring her down. Because there’s all these nods to consent to me. Even in the episode where Finley and Shane go to the bar together and Finley’s like “I’m gonna go show you how it’s done” and she’s like “Can I buy you a drink?’ “No? Copy that.” “Can I buy you a drink?” “No, copy that.” Their approaches are the opposite, Shane like stays back and waits for people and Finley is like “I’m gonna go get ’em,” but like the way that she handles “No”s is really important.
Riese: Yeah the original series had a lot of issues with consent. As we’ve gone back and re-watched it for the podcast there’s so many things I didn’t clock at the time, like the Dana and Tonya scene, going back like… what? This is sexual assault!
Marja: Yeah, like What is happening in this scene?
Riese: At the time I thought it was hilarious.
“We don’t need anyone to walk us through and introduce us to queer people, we can just be queer on television.”
Riese: What were your goals with trans representation?
Marja: I had a couple of goals. One thing about the original show was Jenny started out as a straight character entering a queer space. and I don’t think we need that anymore. We don’t need anyone to walk us through and introduce us to queer people, we can just be queer on television … the thing is that telling stories about transitioning is very of the past, so I wasn’t interested in that.
In that room for Lean In I met Tracy Oliver who wrote Girls’ Trip. She and I are friends and she’s writing something that had queer people in it and I was writing something that had black people in it and I was like how do we write stories about people who aren’t us but I want to include them in our ensemble narrative? And one thing we came up with was “have two.” Like always have two in the room. And I’ve really taken that piece of advice to heart. So I have two of everything [in the writer’s room] so nobody has to be the token anything, nobody is responsible for the narrative of all trans people, all trans men or all trans women. That’s sort of the main goal.
I had each actor come in and talk to my writers. It’s helpful to them to hear voices. Like Rosanny’s voice was so specific and it was not quite what we had written just like ’cause she really is from Brooklyn and we had to go back like how does she speak. Same thing with Leo when he came in. Like one thing he said when we asked what it was like to be trans in the midwest, he was like, Honestly I think it was much harder to be Chinese in the Midwest.
Riese: He’s adopted, right?
Marja: By lesbians!
Riese: I’m also from the Ann Arbor area and I also have a lesbian mom so ten people have been like hey did you know that Leo Sheng also has lesbian moms and also is from Ann Arbor? And I went to University of Michigan, where he and Jacqueline both went.
Marja: I have a lot of people from there for some reason.
Riese: They have a good theater program, but I don’t think Leo was in it.
Marja: He did social work.
Riese: My mom went to Michigan for social work right after becoming a lesbian!
Marja: I think probably his mom did too.
Riese: So maybe they’re dating?
Marja: Maybe you have the same mom?
Riese: Maybe Leo’s my brother?
Marja: He’s the best. just remembering that. Like “the trans experience” is just one part of it. Like our queer experience is just one part of us. So that was something we wanted to keep in mind, like with Pierce he’s not a super sexualized character. Micah’s on this super relationshippy storyline so we have a spectrum. We have two trans actresses who are trans but their characters are not.
Riese: Wait, really?
Marja: That was something that like when I met with Jamie and was like, what’s next, how can we push forward? And she was like, what if my character’s not trans? I was like, awesome. ’cause that feels like something I didn’t know and I wouldn’t have known to do that. But most of my job is to hire well and listen. So we’ll see how that goes.
Riese: I mean, do you wanna have a trans woman character who’s a trans woman? [Ed. note: Drew talks about this situation in this week’s episode of “To L and Back: Generation Q” and it’s very worth a listen!]
Marja: Sure, I’m down. I mean another thing we wanted to do was all roles were open to all genders. So that we could just meet people even, because we want like non-binary folks on too and how do you nurture young talent, you know? Just to have them in parts throughout the series has been really fun.
Riese: How much of the pilot ended up being re-shot?
Marja: Two scenes.
Riese: That’s it?
Marja: Pretty good, right?
Marja: Pretty good. I mean I worked on that pilot for a really fucking long time but that’s pretty good.
Riese: So when they’re upstairs in the house—
Marja: That’s one.
Riese: And then the proposal.
Marja: That’s right. That’s it. And the parking garage scene. That wasn’t re-shot. That was a pick-up, in my defense. Where Dani goes into her glove compartment and gets the ring.
Riese: Didn’t you worry that someone was going to break into her car and steal the ring? Because I was like, I can’t believe you’re keeping that in your car.
Marja: I definitely keep a lot of things in my car, and I keep my keys in my car at all times. I never take them out.
Riese: Someone’s gonna steal your car, Marja.
Marja: I know. It’s okay. I just can’t. I’ll lose the keys is the thing. I know that about myself.
Riese: Why did you reshoot those scenes?
Marja: I always imagined that they’d all be at the window, and that’s in a lot of the trailers, and that was how I’d always dreamed it, but it ended up looking way too corny.
Riese: They obviously liked it enough to put it in all the trailers!
Marja: Because they all share the frame.
Riese: That’s actually a big gift to media that there’s a still of all four new main characters. That’s been really great for us.
Marja: You’re welcome. That’s why I imagined it that way — I wanted to see them share a frame and see all four of their faces. But when I actually saw it I was like, is this a sitcom? We re-shot the proposal scene because we cut the scene that came before it, when she went for a run, and Dani’s clothes didn’t match. Beyond that, I didn’t have Finley and Micah there. That felt like a missed opportunity to have the four of them together again.
Riese: Were you trying to cast queer actors or was that not a priority?
Marja: No, I wasn’t trying to find queer actors but …. I know Jacqueline, she and I did a movie together and a play together a year before. I loved her and I think she’s so special and when I pitched the network in 2017, I pitched all these characters. She’s the only person who I was like, this is who I want. But I actually didn’t tell anybody, I just let her come in and I just sweated it out for 24 hours like… does anybody else like her? Everybody loved her. She’s so IT. I remember like calling her afterward and she was like, I think I blew it! And I was like, I think you did it!
Riese: Did you consider acting in any of it?
Marja: No but I threatened it. You know what I do do? This is embarrassing that I’m admitting this but I followed in Shonda Rhimes’ lead and I’m the voice of “previously on the L Word Generation Q” and I was so excited to do it. I was stoked. I love it.
Riese: Wow, I think you’re really gonna kill it.
Marja: I did kill it, it was awesome.
Riese: Everyone’s gonna be like “yeah that was a real lesbian, that was really enthusiastic, now I really remember really vividly what happened in the last episode.” Which is really important.
Marja: So that was my one performance on the show.
Riese: So for casting the other actors, how was that?
Marja: So Leo had auditioned for my pilot at Amazon, and I’d dog-eared him … So [Jacqueline and Leo] were two I kinda came in hoping and thinking that that’s who it would be. The other two were very hard to find.
Riese: Oh yeah?
Marja: Yes. I always scripted both Latinx characters, Sophie was always an Afro-Latina, but finding an Afro-Latina actress of a certain age who’s willing to do what I wanted her to do… it was hard. So much so that we had a black actress come in who was not Latinx and I was like, I think it’s her. And I went back to my writers room and I was like we need to rewrite and rethink some things. I think we found her but she’s not Afro-Latina, she’s Black. And everyone was like Okay, boss! and then over the weekend, I got a very long email from one of my writers. She’s very quiet. It was a very respectful email — like Dear Boss, don’t settle. She’s out there, please keep looking. And I swear to God on Monday morning, Rosanny showed up.
Riese: She’s pretty new, yeah?
Marja: She’s brand fucking new. We had to call Julliard to be like do you have anybody [for this role] who has graduated within the last 18 months? And they were like, We do, we have one. I was like, can you send her please now? She was living in her Mom’s house in Brooklyn. These kids were very young. Ari, same thing, finding a young person who is undiscovered but still could hold her space next to Jennifer Beals? Tough ask. She’s so young, too. She’s 25. They’re kids.
Riese: Yeah wow.
Marja: But it was a blast. It was really fun to watch them. They all came in good, but young and inexperienced. And by the end, when I directed the last episode? I’m just so fucking proud of them. They’re so good. They really come into themselves and they’re great spokespeople for the queer community, they all sort of represent different swaths of queerness. It’s awesome.
Riese: What about Angelica?
Marja: Oh my gosh, bananas, can you believe how cute that kid is? Same thing: I needed a very specific background. Originally we’d done “18+ to play 16” but they were too close to like, Leo. I needed a true 16 year old and this kid walked in. She was 15. We knew it was her the second we shot the scene. We were like, this is obviously who we are casting.
Riese: How did you decide you wanted Angie to be queer?
Marja: I just wanted to tell stories about the different generations of queerness and what it looks like. The conversations that they’re having versus the conversations that I’m having versus the convos that Bette’s having. One thing I love about this upcoming generation it’s that they’re not talking about certain things — things are just like, a given? Like that they might be queer? It’s like, fine.
Riese: It’s really weird.
Marja: Right. It’s like… not my experience.
Riese: No, it definitely wasn’t my experience either. What are the other differences you’ve noticed between the older and the newer generations?
Marja: So we have like three generations basically. The middle generation, the people who are closest to me, even the actors who are coming in — like you asked me if I was looking for queer people. I really wasn’t. But they came in so queer, and so fine with like their… label-less pansexual sort of identity? Where it’s like, this is my girlfriend, but that’s my ex-husband. You know? This is just the world that they live in. That feels really different than 2004. Just being able to put them on television and let them sort of drive that part of their identity is just so exciting. It’s such a relief.
Marja: It goes back to that feeling of just like being able to breathe and knowing that that show really did shift the world, it shifted it to this world and what will this show do to this world, to the next generation?
Riese: Well hopefully it will make them all gay!
Marja: I feel like we’re close!
Riese: Were you always gonna shoot in LA?
Marja: Yes. That was one of my absolutes, like no room for negotiations. I wanted this show to feel as big as it is and I can’t make a big show unless I can shoot on a long lens down a giant street and not have to pretend like you don’t see the things that are there. I need to be able to see the world in order for it to feel as big as it is. That’s the other thing about this show — it’s like, so iconic. It’s a huge show. We are really well funded television show and that was also something about The L Word that was really special. A queer show on premium cable like… like a premium show? With like a shit ton of money? That’s also sending a message to undo shame. Your stories mater, you matter.
Riese: So, switching gears — you did that movie “Six Balloons” with Abbi Jacoboson —
Marja: She’s a queer lady, she’s the best. She has a queer show coming up that I can’t wait for.
Riese: That film was about addiction. It seems like you might be dealing with those issues in Generation Q as well. Is that topic important to you?
Marja: Very important. Addiction runs in my family, It runs in our community, I think it’s like all that Big Shame Envelope we’re talking about! My favorite topic. It’s also really relevant in Los Angeles, it’s doing a lot. I think it’s putting us in a time and in a place and in a culture that I’m interested in talking about.
Marja: The story in Six Balloons is a true story about my producing partner, Sam Houseman, who produced that movie with me. Stories about being the enabler, the Al-Anon in the relationship is so interesting to me too. For every addict there’s however-many people who are affected by that person’s addiction. I really liked telling stories from their lens, from their perspective. Any time I do, I think that people sort of come out of the woodwork. Just shame.
Riese: Can I ask you if Kit’s still alive?
Marja: You can’t ask me that. Well, you can ask me. But I can’t tell you.
Riese: Okay. But there’s like, already a lot of grief in this group, right?
Riese: What was your journey to doing the lesbian bar storyline?
Marja: A couple things. One, I think that Shane, for as individualistic as she is, she does have a way of bringing people together. That’s something about her that’s soft in that way.
Riese: She’s always been the kindest one.
Marja: She brings people together and then like… doesn’t wanna hang out with them, you know? I totally relate to that. It’s like come to my Thanksgiving dinner, I’m gonna be in the kitchen the whole time, I just wanna HEAR you having a good time.
Riese: That’s like my whole job. I don’t actually know how to talk to people myself but I’m good at making spaces where other people can talk to each other.
Marja: That’s nice, you know? That’s an important person to have. So it felt real to me that Shane would be that person, especially if she had the money and she saw an empty space. There’s also like a silent plea for someone to actually fucking do it. Like, I’ll make a TV show about it but somebody else should actually do a lesbian bar. Semi-Tropic was a great place to shoot because it’s off the beaten path and it’s open from 9 until 2AM. its everything. It’s Cutie’s but with a bar. Like we need both things. That’s my pitch.
Riese: Calling it Dana’s was cute too.
Marja: Of course, you have to!
“There’s a conversation they have in Episode Five about how Dani needs space but Sophie keeps asking her questions. That’s me and my wife every Saturday.”
Riese: Are there any storylines on the show that are specifically influenced by your own life?
Marja: They all were! There are pregnancy storylines that are very much directly from my life. It was real-time writing. Stories about being a new parent, like from Alice’s perspective. All those things are right from where I was coming from. The idea of hooking up with your neighbor is definitely something I’ve done. I’ve lived in like a quadraplex and I hooked up with the woman who lived upstairs. It was such a bad idea.
Riese: Yeah it is. ‘Cause you always know when the other person is home!
Marja: I could hear her having sex when we weren’t anymore, and that wasn’t great. That felt like an LA twentysomething story that needed to be told. All the things Dani and Sophie go through. There’s a conversation they have in Episode Five about how Dani needs space but Sophie keeps asking her questions. That’s me and my wife every Saturday. I’m like, how are you, and she’s like I don’t know and I’m like why don’t we talk about it and she’s like I just said I don’t know, I need some time and space. And then I’m like how about now? And she’s like… nope.
Riese: You’re like, Come on, it’s been six whole minutes!
Marja: And I’m like, That hurts really bad. And she’s like Why does it hurt? She’s a therapist.
Riese: Is that why Nat’s a therapist?
Marja: Yeah, exactly. So I’m not that creative really. Ultimately it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find me on screen. I’ve never run for mayor but I do plan on running for office when I’m done.
Riese: Yeah that’s a really good storyline for Bette.
Marja: Some people just have that kind of personality.
Riese: She does.
Marja: She totally does. and she has the wardrobe. I don’t have the wardrobe but i have the personality.
Riese: So you don’t have the perfect wardrobe but you do have the perfect message? Is that what you’re saying?
Marja: Exactly. Should we open with that?… I think I do have the perfect wardrobe actually. I was thinking about that as I was coming here I was like, I think I look like who I would want to be running The L Word. Like these shoes and this dumb hat and these glasses.
Riese: I believe that you’re gay and smart.
Marja: Totally. and I put some effort in but —
Riese: Not too much effort.
Riese: Not like patriarchy level effort. Did Ilene work on set at all or was she in the back?
Marja: She was there any time i needed her. I would call her and be like I’m having a problem or I‘m having a problem breaking this story and she’d aways be there. She gave notes on scripts and cuts and came in when we had very special guest stars. One of the reasons I took the job was because she had an overall deal at 21st Century Fox and they were looking for someone to actually run the show. This was not a puppet situation. She’s not responsible for the content that’s on the screen. It’s solely my responsibility what happens. But she was excited. To me, that’s the dream. In a few years some 30-year-old comes up to me and says, “I can do it better, let me try.” I like the idea that I could actually get do do the literal thing that she did for me for someone else.
Riese: What are you most excited about for the next few weeks and most nervous about?
Marja: Oh god, I’m mostly excited for people to see it. I really think it’s like a very fun palatable version of the show. I don’t think I broke anything. I think people will like it. I know that theres’s some real fear out there about “what did she do?”
Riese: I feel like it’s more grounded than the original series, more grounded in realism.
Marja: That was part of my pitch, that’s who I am. That’s how I write and how I direct. Some people want to yell at the screen and I think that I have some things you can yell about which I’m super excited about. The thing I’m most excited about is group watches. I would love to show up unannounced, uninvited, and just stand there and watch people yell. What am I most scared of? I dunno I don’t really live like that?
Marja: I think at this point there’s nothing to be afraid of. I feel excited about the young people who are on the show. I feel confident about the product. I think episode eight is gonna get me some shit for sure, but that’s fine. I’m excited about it. I’m excited to get yelled at on the streets of Brooklyn.
Riese: Do you think people are gonna yell at you about Bette and Tina not being together?
Marja: They already are. But by the end I think they’re gonna yell at me about a whole new set of things. Which is good.
Riese: I think that’s all my questions!
Marja: This was fun. I feel like we’re gonna be in each other’s lives for a while.
Riese: Yeah we are gonna be in each others lives for maybe like… six years?
Marja: That’d be good. I mean then my kid could go to college. Not that he needs to go to college. College is totally overrated. I do have great connections. That’s what you pay for I guess.
Riese: Is it?
Marja: Yeah I mean, I didn’t know that at the time but I guess so.
Riese: I don’t think I made any connections in college.
Marja: I went to acting school for David Mamet’s theater company, so.
Riese: So you maybe have a few.
Marja: He taught me how to direct.
Riese: That’s a good person to learn how to direct from… Is The L Word ever gonna have a Christmas episode?
Marja: I hope so! Wouldn’t that be fun?
Riese: Yeah, I’ve written one!
Marja: Is it available?
Riese: Yes, I would just have to find it and update it for the new characters!* I feel like they could wear winter things. I know it doesn’t get cold here —
Marja: Like winter blazers?
Riese: I feel like in LA when it gets kinda cold people wear those puffy vests.
Marja: People wear full-on parkas!
Riese: Or like a flannel with a puffy vest. There could be Christmas music?
Marja: Didn’t you say you were Jewish?
Marja: I was just checking. I’m not that surprised. I know lots of Jews who love Christmas.
Riese: There were no holidays on the original series! Besides Angelica’s six month birthday.
Marja: We do Shane’s birthday. Shane’s fortieth. that’s it. In the first eight. It’s because the air dates don’t—
Riese: Are you sticking with Shane being a Gemini?
Marja: Is Shane a Gemini? Not on this show! Election day is March 15th. (Ed: This means Shane is a Pisces.) You can write a whole piece about that. I’m sure someone will.
*This definitely means Marja is gonna hire me to write the Generation Q Christmas Special right?