The showrunner opens up to Roxy Bourdillon about her new Netflix series, coming out in her 30s and falling in love with Samira Wiley
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
Lauren Morelli tells stories we don’t usually hear. She got her big break writing scripts that centred marginalised female characters on Orange Is The New Black. Every time she shares a selfie featuring her wife Samira Wiley, she is telling a powerful, visual story about an interracial lesbian couple who adore each other. And now, as showrunner for Netflix’s Tales Of The City, based on Armistead Maupin’s legendary novels and starring lez royalty Ellen Page, she is creating space once again for underrepresented LGBTQI stories.
These stories include, but are by no means limited to: a found family of queer folk living together at San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane, a lesbian coming to terms with her transgender boyfriend’s evolving sexuality, and a trans woman torn between her need to protect her community and her desire to be loved. These are stories we need to hear, stories that aren’t told enough, stories I’ve never seen before on the small screen. But in this sea of urgent, groundbreaking, nuanced narratives, it’s Lauren’s own story that reads like the most fated fairytale of all. Hers is a voyage of self-discovery, a quest to find her purpose and a sweeping same-sex romance chronicling the rocky path to life-altering love. But more on that later.
Serendipitously, I’m interviewing Lauren on Lesbian Day Of Visibility. From one enthusiastic lezza to another, I start by wishing her many homosexual happy returns. “And to you! What an exciting day for us to be talking,” she replies warmly, the ear-to-ear grin I’ve seen all over Instagram radiating down the phone line from LA to London. Lauren is excellent company – genuine, joyful and utterly charming. She’s both an engaging conversationalist and an attentive listener. A born geek, she admits, “I went through a weird phase at 10 years old collecting vintage top hats. It’s like, that’s why kids were making fun of you, because you were a weirdo!” Naturally, this revelation makes me like her even more.
But then, everyone loves Lauren. The Netflix press rep raves about her. Another journalist who’s met her was similarly blown away. Heck, Samira Wiley loves Lauren so much she put a ring on it. Don’t let the overwhelming loveliness fool you, though. Yes, Lauren is a sweetheart you can’t help but want to be best friends with, but she’s also a major badass. The kind of badass who scores a writing gig for one of the queerest, coolest, Orangest shows on the planet, who the day after her wedding grabs her Mrs and a pair of Mickey Mouse ears and makes a beeline for Disneyland, and who, like a young Ilene Chaiken with impeccable queer credentials, is the creative driving force behind this year’s must-see gay show.
Although she seems to be very much nailing life now, for most of her 20s she felt “behind”. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she was an academic overachiever – “I would be upset with myself if I got less than an A” – and a voracious reader – “My happy place is still in bed with a stack of books”. But a career as a writer was never on her radar. Instead she trained as a dancer, before an injury prevented her taking it up professionally. “My degree in modern dance ended up being as useful as my father told me it was going to be! I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I felt like I was surrounded by people who knew what they wanted to do from a very early age and I was meandering around and feeling a failure. Then I started writing as a hobby.” I tell her I find her trajectory reassuring; it proves you don’t have to have everything figured out from the get-go to achieve spectacular things. “That’s important to talk about,” she agrees emphatically. “We’re told this idea that you’re supposed to know what you want to do and then spend the rest of your life pursuing it. It took me a really long time to find myself.”
A late bloomer in more ways than one, Lauren didn’t figure out she was gay until she reached her 30s. It was being on the set of Orange, which she refers to as “the gayest place I’ve ever been to”, that opened her eyes. “I’d be in the writer’s room where we were talking about sexuality in a really open, positive way. But even then, it took me so long to understand.” She describes her eventual epiphany as “very surprising”. “We get a specific narrative of what it looks like to realise you’re gay and come out. There’s this assumption if you come out later in life, you were either hiding it or lying about it, but I truly had no idea.”
Then she met Samira. “I remember being in awe. As you know, as everybody knows, there is something so magnetic about Samira. She is so many things. She is tremendously talented, like annoyingly talented, and smart and thoughtful and she really listens and has a unique perspective on the world. All of that was kind of swirling together. I didn’t understand at the time that I was falling in love with her.”
As with all great romances, there were obstacles to overcome, not least the fact that Lauren had recently married a man. At first, Samira was her go-to gay confidante to process all these unfamiliar feelings with, but over time their friendship became passionate. Last year Samira told BUST magazine: “There was something deeply intimate about that, whether there was sexual tension there or not. The deep intimacy of being two people talking about the core of who we are. Talking about our journeys… That’s how we fell in love.”
After Lauren proposed to Samira to a soundtrack of Sara Bareilles’ I Choose You, the lovebirds threw a “fun-fetti” themed wedding in Palm Springs and it was the definition of dreamy. They walked down the aisle arm-in-arm, Samira’s Baptist minister parents officiated and her vows began, “Hey girl. How you doing? Your feet hurt? Me, too.” The soles of their exquisite, excruciating stilettos were inscribed with three simple words: “Wifey for Lifey”.
When I ask Lauren how she felt on that day, she sounds emotional. “Oh my gosh. Getting to the point where we could stand in front of our closest friends and family and celebrate everything we had fought for, it was incredible, like we had finally arrived. The rest of the struggle had dissipated behind us and what was left was our love and future together. It was really magical.” When I tentatively bring up the possibility of children she reveals, “We talk about having a family,” before chuckling, “And that’s all I can say on that at the moment!”
I confess to Lauren that she and Samira are my very favourite celesbian couple. That seeing them kissing on the cover of Out magazine, strutting down the red carpet hand-in-hand or being adorable, blissed-out brides in their wedding snaps makes my gay heart soar. “Oh, you’re going to make me cry. Thank you. That means a lot.” They debated long and hard about whether or not to release pictures of their nuptials, but “when it came down to it, it felt important to put those visuals into the world, of specifically an interracial lesbian couple.”
Lauren’s commitment to providing positive queer representation, both in her personal life and in the stories she tells onscreen, cannot be overstated. She explains, “We all know we just don’t get enough things made for us and we especially don’t get enough things made by us. So forgive my language, but you really don’t want to fuck it up.” She’s laughing, but it’s clear she takes the issue extremely seriously. She knows all too well the impact of not seeing yourself in the culture you consume.
“In many ways, I think it took me longer to come out, because any journey I saw didn’t match up with mine and so I couldn’t have been gay. It was so easy to dismiss. Often even when we get to see a queer experience on the screen, it is representative of one thing, right? Like along the line, someone decided what ‘the lesbian experience’ was and then we just get fed that over and over again.” Not on Lauren’s watch. To ensure her adaptation of Tales was as inclusive as possible, she hired a totally queer writer’s room. “I have one way of feeling my queerness, but that looks entirely different in someone else of a different gender identity, a different age, a different class, a different race. We tried to make sure a range of experiences were represented in the room, because that only makes the stories better.”
Indeed, this interpretation of Tales succeeds in portraying the most diverse cast of queer characters I’ve seen in one show, sharing an abundance of nuanced narratives and never shying away from difficult terrain. She observes, “We’ve been lumped together as ‘the gay community’ for so long, there’s not a lot of space for conversations about resentment within the community. Those conversations are important. They’re how we’re gonna heal.”
We can’t talk about this programme without discussing the controversial topic of cisgender actors playing trans characters. In Lauren’s Tales, the pivotal role of Barbary Lane matriarch Anna Madrigal is shared between two performers – cis actor Olympia Dukakis, who played the part in the original series, and trans actor Jen Richards, who embodies a young Anna in flashback scenes. Lauren acknowledges, “Tales presents a complicated challenge. How do we honour the original and the people who brought these characters to life, while also pushing this world forward into where we rightfully have grown into as a community in 2019?” Her answer was two-fold. “Number one, clearly any other trans character was going to be cast authentically. And number two, what if not only one person gets to play Anna? What if we put this really clear comment in about who would play that role if we were to cast her today?” She speaks earnestly and insightfully, selecting each word with precision. It’s obvious how much she cares.
Before I say my farewells, I ask what Lauren makes of the current rifts between the trans inclusive community and trans-exclusionary gay women. Does she really reckon we can talk our way through a conflict this painful? “I am, naively or not, a real believer in our ability to heal through empathy and humanising each other. As a storyteller, that’s at the root of what I do.” She pauses for a moment, before continuing. “You know, if we could just find more space to listen. If we can get underneath the fear and listen with the intention of understanding rather than disproving, I really think healing comes from that.” I hope so, I tell her. “I hope so,” she echoes back.
Ever the optimist, Lauren has an enduring and endearing faith in humanity. She’s sincere when she exclaims, “I love being gay and I love being a part of this community!” This infectious positivity is reflected in Tales which, for all its tricky subject matter, ultimately feels like a celebration of our vibrant, messed up, queer family. By the end of our phone call, I feel invigorated and inspired. But that’s the thing about Lauren, about the stories she tells and the journey she’s been on. She makes you believe in hope and happy ever after.
This interview originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!