A few months ago, my friend Jan Hoag e-introduced me to Katherine Beattie. She said, “I can’t believe you two haven’t met! You have all the same life experience!” Now I’ve never met someone with my life experience in Hollywood, so I was looking forward to seeing what Jan meant. As soon as we connected, Katherine said she is vegan and suggested we meet at my favorite vegan Mexican restaurant. Needless to say, I liked her already. That night, I met an extraordinary, intelligent, fierce, ambitious, fun young woman, who literally did have almost all the same unusual life experiences. We connected in a way that I’ve never connected with someone before. We swapped stories, talked about our experiences, challenges, surgeries, obstacles, losses, hopes, dreams. I noticed we had the same drive, vitality, spunk, and even had many friends in common. Kindred spirits indeed, and both making our mark in Hollywood. I was so excited to know there is another warrior woman in entertainment, speaking up, showing up and making sure her voice is heard. Katherine worked her way up to the writers room of a major network franchise, and is already changing television. When Katherine and I get our way, disability will be an accepted and welcomed part of diversity in entertainment, and will be depicted in a way that is a lot closer to our reality.
Eileen Grubba: What drew you to the entertainment industry?
Katherine Beattie: Growing up in La Canada, I had a lot of friends whose parents were writers, actors or producers, so show business wasn’t this far off, mysterious thing for me. It was just another job people had. My dad used to work in the White House Office of Advance, and he would often run President Clinton or Vice President Gore’s trips to Los Angeles. Through his work he developed relationships with the people at The Tonight Show, and eventually I got to hang out back stage when my dad would have a candidate on the show. I started seeing my favorite musicians and actors and thought, “wow, this is really cool! If I work here I can interact with all these creative people on a regular basis.”
Grubba: What was your first job in Entertainment?
Beattie: My first job in entertainment was Human Interest Production Associate at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I interned at the show between my Junior and Senior years of college and had such a great time, I couldn’t wait to go back as soon as I graduated. Human Interest was a great experience because we did all our own booking, research, and producing, so it was like diving into the deep end when I was 22 years old.
Grubba: Tell us about your journey to the writing room. How did you get your first writing assignment & how did you become a staff writer? Who gave you your first big break?
Beattie: My journey to the room was a long one. Though I’ve always enjoyed writing, it wasn’t until after I started working at Ellen that I realized my heart was in scripted TV. I was a tremendously lazy student in high school, so I never thought that something you did in school, like writing, could be a career. Once I realized it was an actual possibility, I quit Ellen – which was so scary since it was and still is one of the biggest talk/variety shows ever – to go back to UCLA Extension to study TV Writing.
I’d actually consider my first “big break” to be getting a job as an office PA on Californication. Anyone out there who’s trying to become a writer knows those jobs are not easy to get! From there, I got promoted to Script Coordinator on the show, and did many different assistant jobs when that was on hiatus. I did several other shows as Script Coordinator until I landed at NCIS: New Orleans. I got another big break when our first Showrunner, Jeffrey Lieber, gave me a co-story credit with him on an episode in season 2. I continued on as the Script Coordinator when our current Showrunner, Brad Kern, took over, and got another co-story credit on the season 3 finale with Chris Silber.
Grubba: Tell everyone about your exciting current job.
Beattie: I’m currently a Staff Writer on season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans. For those readers who may not know, Staff Writer is the bottom of the ladder when it comes to TV writers, so there’s nowhere to go but up!
Grubba: What’s it like to be a staff writer on such a huge network show? Is it fun? Stressful? Fulfilling?
Beattie: I’m probably the luckiest Staff Writer on television. The Upper-Levels on our show are very supportive of young writers so I had a lot of experience “in the room” before I got staffed. The biggest difference for me once I got staffed was that I got a regular chair at the table and didn’t need to worry about running out to my assistant work every time the phone rang. Having said that, I think I find it a lot less stressful than a typical Staff Writer would. Being such a hit, the network has high expectations of us, so there always is that pressure to deliver… but lucky for me I thrive under pressure. And speaking of being a network hit, it’s been so great to go from working on all these cable shows that I loved but no one watched, to a show I love that 14 million people also happen to watch!
Grubba: What qualities are most important when trying to land a staff writing job?
Beattie: The thing about TV rooms is the staff spends all day together sitting around a table. With that in mind, I think one of the most important qualities any writer can possess is being cool and easy to get along with. As a staff writer, I think you need to be a good listener, someone who is going to support the upper-level writers in their pitches, and not someone who is going to pitch problems without solutions or someone who is going to pitch an idea that’s clearly not thought out just to have your voice heard. All that does is slow down a room. And of course, the biggest one is hustle. Hustle, hustle, hustle. No one should be outworking the staff writer (except maybe the showrunner, but staff writers better be trying to make their showrunners’ jobs easier in any way they can)!
Grubba: You have exceptional life experience, how does it inform your work? Do you use your personal experiences in your writing?
Beattie: I use a lot of personal experiences in my work, but not the ones people would think. A mentor of mine once told me, when we were talking about “writing what you know” that I had to write something about using a wheelchair. My first thought was, “Why? Why is that interesting? It’s really just a means to get around.” So I went and wrote a father-daughter political comedy, because that’s what I know. With more distance from that conversation I see what she meant. Being a disabled writer gives me a unique vantage point, and in a world where the representation of disabled people is usually just one trope after another, I’ve gotta be the one to shake things up.
Grubba: You mentioned you most love comedy, yet you are working on a network drama. Do you sneak comedy in wherever you can? Are you able to write other projects outside of your job?
Beattie: One of the best things about working on NCIS: New Orleans is we have great comedic actors! I think we all love writing jokes, especially for Chill Mitchell and Rob Kerkovich, but our show being a little more character based than most procedurals gives us opportunities for comedy or lighter moments with all our cast members. I write as much as I can outside of work… everything from family drama to half-hour cable comedy. I don’t feel the need to fit squarely into one box.