From the Gridiron to the Guild
When the 2023 NFL season opens this week, WGAW member Jake Lawler will be watching, and not just as a casual fan. A linebacker when he was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lawler has friends who play in the NFL. A heavily recruited athlete, he might have turned pro.
Instead, the Charlotte, NC native chased a different dream.
“Football saved me in many ways, but there was also a realization that I was not good enough to make it to the next level,” Lawler said during a recent interview on the picket lines at Fox Studios. “I think that realization came with some relief, since it was something I didn’t really have any interest in doing. Film and TV were always something that spoke to me and that mattered to me so deeply. It came to a point in my college career where I knew I wasn’t going to go to the NFL and I wanted to do something different with my life.”
Lawler graduated a year early, earning a degree in broadcast journalism in 2020. Possessing no formal training or experience in episodic TV or screenwriting, he turned to Google and YouTube and taught himself how to write scripts. Moving to L.A., he wrote and sold a pilot, and ultimately ended up as a staff writer on the Disney+ show The Crossover.
Along the way, he also published a blog post “A New Life” detailing his struggle with depression. The positive response he received from the post helped reinforce Lawler’s conviction that, yes, he could become a writer.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “I graduated in 2020 and got into the Guild in 2022, which may seem like a fast rise, but I’m very thankful for the opportunities that were provided to me, and I’m grateful that I took power into my own hands. I saw something wrong and I wanted to change it.”
Lawler is working against the stigma that athletes can not also be intellectual or creative.
“At least in my ten plus years’ experience playing football, I found that was fundamentally not true,” he said. “To be able to see such a palpable outpouring of support [for my writing], not only from other players but also from fans of the university meant a great deal, and I’m so grateful it started me on the journey that I’m on."
As a young Black writer who is passionate about diversity in storytelling, Lawler expects the road ahead to be challenging. The struggle is part of what brings him to the picket lines, as many BIPOC writers may face similar struggles.
“When you talk with other Black writers and other writers of color, you begin to realize the dreams that we have are still vibrant and still pulsating through our veins, but they are not given the same respect by the powers that be in order to put them on screen,” Lawler said.
As the strike enters its fifth month, Lawler continues to join the picket line every day with feelings of satisfaction and solidarity.
“When the talks broke down on May 2 and we did what we had to do, I think we coalesced as a union, and the type of fellowship and solidarity is something I had never seen before,” Lawler said. “It’s kind of like the old football cliché of why you wake up in the morning. It’s a beautiful thing to see people sacrificing their time, their sweat, their hours, in some cases their bodies, and their time away from their families. Hearing all the stories and seeing all the faces I think is the lifeblood of this campaign, and I think it’s why we’ll win.”
Acting Her Agency
On her half-hour comedy series Act Your Age, creator-executive producer-showrunner Alyson Fouse had an arrangement with her writers: everybody from the series goes to set.
“I brought the younger writers. I brought everyone to the set because that’s part of the process,” said Fouse, a WGAW member for more than 20 years. “I tried to keep them all on for as long as possible, and when I couldn’t, I told them they were always welcome on my set regardless.”
“I don’t know if that’s breaking any rules, but they need that experience,” she continued, adding with a laugh, “and when I’m old, they can hire me on their shows.”
The series premiered on Bounce TV in March. Fouse and the writers, actors, and crew of Act Your Age reconnected in August during a picket at Radford.
Fouse joined the Guild while writing for The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show in 1997 and spent the ensuing years writing and producing on multiple late-night and network series, including The Wanda Sykes Show, Everybody Hates Chris, and Born Again Virgin.
The landscape has greatly changed since her entry into the Guild, Fouse said, and not to the advantage of younger writers.
“When I came in, there was only network TV, and you got to climb the ladder, and you got to learn,” said Fouse. “Now these kids are on short-order shows. They don’t get to go to set, and who is going to do this after we’re gone? Somebody needs to be the storyteller, and they need to know what that involves.”
When writers get to be part of the production process, it benefits not just their development, but also the entire series, according to Fouse.
“This whole process is a collaborative effort. You need different viewpoints. You need different mindsets and different voices,” said Fouse. “As a showrunner, you’re wearing a bunch of different hats and your mind is all over the place. As good as you may be in the writing process, you might miss something, but you’ve got a staff who has your back and hears it, or who pitches the best joke that you didn’t even think of because you’re thinking about some set thing or some wardrobe malfunction.”
Another key element to the strike that continues to bring Fouse to the picket lines is an issue of fairness. Writers should be paid for what they create and should have a decent cut of the profits.
“Especially when you’re talking about billions of dollars. Less than 2% is nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “So I think not only does the AMPTP need to shift, but a lot of America does, too. Like other unions, I think we stand for the right thing.”