Katherine Beattie — Write What You Know

Katherine Beattie jumping ramps with wheelchair

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?

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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 show-runner, 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 show-runner, 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 show-runners’ 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.

katherine beattie jumping ramps with her wheelchair
Katherine Beattie is the first woman to perform a backflip in a wheelchair

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.

Grubba: Do you plan to become a showrunner? And if so, what kinds of shows?

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Beattie: That’s my ultimate goal. My favorite shows are the ones that blend genres like Californication or Catastrophe, or recently, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But would I be mad if I ended up running a network procedural? Absolutely not. I love it all.

Grubba: How do you feel about performers with disabilities (PWD’s) playing disabled roles in film & TV?

Beattie: My feelings on this issue have definitely evolved. I used to think “well, the part should go to the best actor for the role…” but that’s such a cop out. If there is a disabled role on film or TV, it must go to a performer with a disability. End of story. Not only do PWD’s bring so much more authenticity to the role, but Hollywood wouldn’t (with a few glaring exceptions) cast someone outside of any other minority group to play a minority role anymore. And yet, when it happens with disabled roles, no one bats an eye. If you’re going to exploit a character’s disability for a story point, at least give a disabled performer a chance to work.

Grubba: How do you feel about PWD’s playing other roles, not scripted for disability?

Beattie: This!!! Sometimes I get dinged for not writing more disabled roles into my scripts, but that’s because PWD’s can and should be able to play a myriad of roles that have nothing to do with their disability. If I write a show about a lawyer and an actor who is Deaf or has short stature or limited mobility or whatever comes in and gives a killer audition, you’d better believe I’ll fight for that person to get the role. But because I’ve seen that these performers so seldom get the chance to even audition, I’d like to start including more disability specific roles and story lines in my work from now on.

Grubba: Is the industry open to writer’s with disabilities? Do you feel their voices are needed, and why?

Beattie: This is a tough question. I don’t think the industry is openly against writers with disabilities, but unconscious bias even from well meaning people is difficult to get around. Many of the diversity programs out there look at a person’s race, gender or sexual orientation without giving any consideration to disability status. This is crazy considering that disabled people are not only the largest minority group, but they have the most literal and figurative barriers to entry of any group out there.

A few years ago I did a pilot with a writer who has been writing TV since before I was born. This person also uses crutches. I found out that I—at the time simply the writers’ assistant—was the first other disabled person they had ever seen in a writers room. Now that I’m in the WGA, I’ve heard from more and more people that they’ve never worked with a writer with a disability of any kind. And yet, there are so many out there. Certainly makes you think.

And yes, their voices are needed. The same way women’s voices and LGBTQ voices and POC voices are needed. We need people with different life experiences and viewpoints to bring authenticity to writing.

Grubba: How has being a woman with a visible disability affected the way people treat you?

Beattie: I think women and people with disabilities tend to get written off in general. That’s why I think confidence is key. Confidence is hard to ignore.

Grubba: Have you ever tackled society’s misconceptions of disabled people, even if in subtle ways, in a network show?

Beattie: I think the NCIS: New Orleans writers have done a fantastic job with this. We’ve had disabled veteran characters on our show dealing with the trauma of war and just living their lives, which is shocking to most people. My favorite thing to be a part of though—and this was while I was still an assistant—was our character Patton’s backstory. Patton seems like your typical computer genius in a wheelchair at first glance. But in talking to the writers about my own story, I really wanted to make him anything other than that. So they made him a badass. He was a badass before he got injured, he got injured because he was a badass, and he is still a badass post injury. And he’s great with computers. When writing “injury episode” they worked in a story where he was paragliding. Not in an “inspirational” (a word I despise) look at that guy go kind of way. He was paragliding because he liked to live fast, and because he was good at it.

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Grubba: Do you notice people treat you differently depending on your current mode of mobility? Do you notice different behavior toward you when you are walking, on crutches or using a wheelchair?

Beattie: Oh yes. People treat you about 1,000 times better when you’re in a wheelchair as opposed to stumbling all over the place. One of my favorite things about using a wheelchair or crutches, and the list is very long, is that it serves as a visual cue to others that I am disabled. People are much more understanding of something they can see. One year at the LA Auto Show my able bodied twin sister took my chair for a spin, came back after 10 minutes or so and couldn’t believe how nice people were to her. Now, this is definitely not the norm, as I’ve certainly encountered my share of jerks, but there’s a real lack of understanding and compassion when it comes to invisible disabilities.

Grubba:  Tell us about WCMX. What is it? And how did you get involved?

Beattie: WCMX is like freestyle BMX on a wheelchair, hence the name. Basically, it involves taking your wheelchair into skateparks and trying to adapt whatever the bikers or skaters are doing to what you’ve got. I’ve always loved extreme sports and was a little ‘90s skater kid growing up, so I knew as soon as I got a wheelchair of my own I’d be riding skateparks. I’ve been riding since 2012, and in 2015 I gained some notoriety for being the first woman to land a wheelchair backflip. I don’t get to devote as much time to WCMX as I’d like, so while we have a few competitions a year, these days I mostly ride for fun.

Grubba: Have you always been a risk-taker?

Beattie: Yes. To use a clichéd saying, I truly believe life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Grubba: Do you consider yourself mostly fearless? Or are there things you are afraid of? What scares you?

Beattie: In WCMX, in writing and in life in general, I think fear is what makes it worth it. Or rather, pushing past fear and doing it anyway. If something isn’t at least a little bit scary, what’s the fun in doing it? I’m not fearless. I’m just very practiced at being afraid of something and doing it anyway. As for the things I’m afraid of… I’m a writer, ask my therapist!

Grubba: Who has most influenced your career?

Beattie: I’ve worked with so many great writers and mentors over the years. It would be impossible to pick just one person!

Grubba: What do you love the most about your life?

Beattie: That’s easy. My wheelchair! Seriously, sometimes when I’m not riding it I look at my wheelchair and my heart swells the way I assume a parent’s does when they look at their kids or something. My only regret is not trying harder to get one when I was younger.

Are there any life goals you have yet to achieve? Anything special you are working towards now?

I want to go to the Paralympics… I think the first step in towards that goal should probably be picking up a sport soon, because I’m not getting any younger. I intended to try out for the Para-skeleton team when the sport was trying to get accepted into the winter games, but it didn’t work out with my schedule on NCIS: Nola. It’s just as well because I remembered that I hate cold weather. I’ll probably be 40 or 50 before I have time to devote to that dream though, so look for me in LA 2028?


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