a long talk

‘I Hadn’t Known Myself Before I Had Sex With a Woman’

Lauren Morelli came out writing Orange Is the New Black. Now she’s adapting a queer classic.

Photo: Ryan Pfluger/Netflix
Photo: Ryan Pfluger/Netflix
Photo: Ryan Pfluger/Netflix

“Obviously I have Google-stalked you,” Lauren Morelli tells me as we sit down for dinner at the breathlessly kitschy L.A. Mexican restaurant El Coyote. “Why would I show up to the table without doing that?” The 36-year-old showrunner of the new Netflix series Tales of the City is inquisitive and immediately winning, peppering me with a string of questions: What did I think of the show? What are other media gays like? Do interviews ever feel one-sided? “I would much rather it be a dialogue than me sitting and verbally masturbating on the journalist,” she continues.

At its best, Tales of the City captures this spirit of dialogue, during a time when the queer community feels increasingly fractured. It originated in the ’70s as a serialized story by Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Chronicle, which then became a series of nine novels, which were eventually adapted into three TV miniseries. The novelist Michael Cunningham wrote the pilot for the Netflix version, extending the San Francisco world with many of the same characters — Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney return as their characters Anna Madrigal and Mary Ann Singleton, respectively — while introducing new ones, including Shawna Hawkins, a young queer woman played by Ellen Page. Morelli first came on to write for Shawna before the whole thing “snowballed” and she became the showrunner.

Morelli infuses Tales of the City with her own optimism and wonder around the possibility of queer kinship. She felt welcomed by the queer community after she had her own very public coming-out. When she was a writer on Orange Is the New Black, she wrote a personal essay about how writing Alex and Piper’s relationship allowed her to consider her sexuality deeply for the first time. She realized she was gay, divorced her husband at the time, and fell in love with one of the actors on the show, Samira Wiley. They got married in 2017.

In a teary, joyful conversation, we talked about transformational love that clarifies and sanctifies your sense of self. It’s the kind of love that drives the show, which centers around Anna’s home in Barbary Lane, bringing multiple worlds and characters — queer, trans, and heterosexual — into its spinning, kaleidoscopic orbit. It has also radically changed her life, including her relationship with Wiley, as well as her father, whom she recently lost.

Do you normally Google people who are going to interview you?
I do.

Does it determine whether you say yes or no?
Sometimes, but it depends on the conversation. On a really practical level, if we’re going to spend two hours together, let’s make sure it makes sense. With Tales, I’ve been loving talking to queer journalists, and I find that the conversations are very different than talking to someone who I presume is straight.

Well, on that note, I want to begin with talking about what attracted you to doing what is very much a queer legacy story?
I was really amazed when I read the books. In ’78, Armistead Maupin is writing gay people living their lives; they were loving and fucking, and no one was suffering as a result of their sexuality. It was remarkable to me that they held up that way so many decades later. But it’s a really white world and male world. The work we had to do was to make sure it reflects the world I see.

This was your first time running a writers room, and I’m curious about your philosophy around how you built it. Do you think identity is an important part, or do you see it as more fluid, where anybody can write anyone?
I hired all queer writers, and I tried hard to make sure they represented a wide range of queer experiences. I think it’s very important to have a diverse room, and to push the envelope of what we accept as diversity. I don’t think that anyone who is a writer wants to be pigeonholed into only writing stories that represent whatever adjectives describe them. But it only serves me and all of those people who are involved to make sure I have people in the room who understand experiences in a way that I will never be able to experience them.

So much of the success of a room is based on people feeling safe. It can feel really fraught, and there’s a lot of ego involved. If you remove that and you say, You already got the job. You’re in this room for a reason. Everything you say is valid, that matters way more than how much experience you have. Because we’re all generally smart, thoughtful people.

My understanding is that by the time you got hired onto Orange Is the New Black, you had written two scripts — one was a spec script for Mad Men. What was the other one?
It was called Bordello. Tara Herrmann, who’s an EP and Jenji [Kohan]’s development partner, found Jenji’s notes from staffing for the first year of Orange, and next to my name and my script, she had written, “Oddly sexual. Let’s meet.” I was like, Oh that’s good; that’ll be my brand.

The sex scenes are very sexy on Tales. Was that important?
Oh my God. Yeah. I’m very tired of watching stories about queer people who are suffering. I think they have a place. But why don’t we get fun, soapy shows? I remember being frustrated when I was watching Carol that the sex scenes were very dramatic. Maybe that’s just the tone of that movie, but the sex that a lot of people have includes a lot of joy and laughter and silliness, and I wanted to portray some of that.

The show has an optimism, and it feels very much about queer family-building. Can you articulate what it’s guiding principles are?
Radical empathy. Forgiveness. Transcending judgment and anger. What if we just accepted each other?

Since you came out five years ago, has the idea of queer family-building been part of your life?
I was really amazed when I came out by how welcoming the queer community was to me. I assumed on some level I wasn’t going to be gay enough. This is my favorite thing about queer people: We’re very good at holding space for duality and nuance. It was just like, Great, come on in. I even resisted that for a while because I was so desperate to believe that nothing else has to change.

Is there a lesbian mafia?
Not that I’m a part of. But there is a lesbian mafia in their 50s because every so often I meet one of them and they know every lesbian who exists in Hollywood. They all hang out and they all had like an L Word character that was based on them. In many ways I’m glad to be outside of it.

What made you decide to come out the way that you did?
Part of what made my coming-out so difficult was that I didn’t know anybody who had my story. I couldn’t find anybody who was talking about having this narrative. On the internet. Like, think about the shit you can find on the internet. You can find 20 million cats playing the piano and I couldn’t find a single woman talking openly about coming out later in life after having been married to a man. And because I couldn’t find it, I thought I was crazy. It felt like I must be wrong because the narrative we heard for a long time — and I think this is because it’s defined from a male perspective, and male sexuality is so different from female sexuality — that if you don’t know really early, you’re hiding it and lying about it. And that’s so damaging and narrow. It’s become very important for me to be like, No, no, no, this is valid. My queerness is valid. Who I was for the 30 years until I knew I was queer is valid. Because that’s also a real temptation — to be like, Oh, everything before was fake or a lie. We have to start expanding our understanding of coming-out narratives and sexualities and genders, and what [could] happen if we didn’t live in a binary culture.

Could you elaborate on this idea of the difference you perceive between male and female sexuality?
There have been all these studies done that men tend to know earlier than women if they’re gay, and that often women come to it later. My own experience wasn’t like I wasn’t contending with my gay sexuality — it’s that I wasn’t contending with my anything sexuality. As women, no one sits you down to be like, Let’s talk about pleasure. Let’s talk about what sex should feel like for you and what you can expect. Because I’ve never had those conversations — even with friends, really — I just had this feeling of like, Yeah, I mean, sex is fine, and I’m probably experiencing this the way that every woman experiences it. There just happen to be activities I enjoy more than having sex. Boys tend to be socialized in a very different way and encouraged to explore their sexuality. Everything is through a male gaze and it’s so centered on male pleasure; women become objects and props. It took me until I was on Orange to realize I could center myself in a lot of different conversations, including one that might be about sexuality.

In Tales of the City, there’s something very beautiful about Jake exploring his attraction to other men, and this idea of how someone else’s desire for you makes you feel seen or recognized. I was wondering if you felt that way when you had sex with a woman for the first time?
I hadn’t known myself before I had sex with a woman. Samira [Wiley] is the person I had sex with, and she made me see myself in a way that I just haven’t before. And it’s weird because, aren’t we taught that someone else should never define you? You’re supposed to be complete by yourself. But there are ways that we allow another human to feel seen, even in a platonic way, that are deeply healing. And in many ways, Samira does that for me all the time. Samira makes me think I’m a superhero when I wake up.

What was amazing about that to me is — this is gonna sound so cliché — it’s so much more than sex. I carry that through the world with me. I feel more powerful because of it. I understand myself in a way that I didn’t before because of it — to see myself reflected in her image and her desire of me and her love of me. I just didn’t know I was desirable in that way. I had spent a lifetime finding ways to undercut myself. It’s like, if you’re not the one who gets to be desired, then what are the other archetypes that are available to you? You’re the quirky best friend. You’re the bookish intellectual who likes to stay home. We cast ourselves without even realizing it. And I had worked really hard to fit myself into those other things because I was never gonna be the one that gets picked.

How did it feel to get picked?
It still feels really magical. It just shifted my perception of where I belong, and once I belonged to her, it suddenly felt like I was able to take up more space. I was able to believe I belong in groups that I might have thought I didn’t belong in.

How did you cast yourself before?
Aren’t we always running from our fifth-grade selves? My elementary-school self is such a nerd, always doing the wrong thing, trying hard when she’s not supposed to, reading too many books. She got to school and got made fun of the whole day. That’s still the thing I fight every day. What I hope is that I’m not fighting her, I’m like, Yeah, this fucking badass is along for the ride.

I am a real perfectionist and I’m also a rule-follower, so I like to check boxes. I did this before I proposed to Samira; I had this narrative in my brain that we should be together for three years before I proposed. I just picked it out of the air. It’s a defensive place that would allow me some modicum of safety. If we’re together for three years, then you can commit your life to someone. Once I have healed the one of ten traumas I have, then I’m able to love another human being, or then I’m capable of accepting someone else as they are. But I’ll be lucky if I heal my traumas by the time I die.

How did your sense of style change after you came out?
I got much more comfortable in an androgynous space, which I really love. I wear more suits for sure. It’s so fun to me to even be invited into questioning how you present yourself because I don’t know how much that dialogue exists outside of queer spaces. And it feels more playful to me. I was real into a polka dot before I came out. I was like Anthropologie, but with a pair of thick glasses I could hide behind.

Were you like the Zooey Deschanel quirky-girl sketch on SNL?
So embarrassing. That’s so rude. [Laughs.] Because yes. Like the amount of sweaters with animals on them. I’m never prouder of myself than when I walk into an Anthropologie now. I’m like, There’s nothing for me here. Good-bye. Good-bye, woodland box.

Have you always had short hair?
It’s always been back and forth. Although I still go in and out of “discernibly queer haircuts.” And it’s very interesting to occupy the world when you have a socially appropriate bob versus having half your head shaved. You become invisible to men. No one catcalls you; no one looks at you. It feels like being incognito, except to queer women.

I feel like you have a good level of fame. It seems manageable in the sense where you can go to the grocery store, and you won’t be overwhelmed by people. Do you feel that way?
If we are talking about me as an individual and not me as “wife of,” for sure. Samira certainly has a very different kind of fame, and it’s extremely visible because she has a very specific type. I have seen people recognize her from behind, like a block behind her in New York. She’s little, so people think they can touch her and people think she’s cute. It can get a little scary at times and requires some compromises in our life.

What do those compromises look like?
Sometimes those compromises look like something very small, like not being able to go to dinner with your wife without knowing there are eyes on you, and that whatever’s happening between you isn’t being witnessed. That’s sometimes a hard thing to talk about because fame does not engender sympathy in people. For good reason. I understand all of those reasons, and I understand the privileges that come with it. But it’s certainly a thing we negotiate. It’s rough.

And then you have annoying people like me who are prying into your life.
I don’t think that’s annoying. Because I had agency in this. And this is a really thoughtful, inspiring conversation for me that gets at something deeper than just, “So what do you guys do when you’re at home in your sweats?” Like, “Are you real people?” My favorite thing is, “You’re so lucky.”

People tell you that?
Oh, all the time. Because my wife is so hot. “Yes, thank you. No, thank you so much.” Imagine if I went up to someone and I was like, “Oh my God, your husband is so hot; you are so lucky.” That’s a weird thing to say to somebody, isn’t it?

Did you ever want to explore dating other women before you settled down with Samira?
No. People ask that question a lot: “Didn’t you want to explore this?” It took me a while to understand this about myself, but even when I was dating men, I’ve always been monogamous. I want a stable home life; I want intimacy. So I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. What I grieve for is a queer youth. I grieve for an idealized version of it, but I remember feeling like a lot of things I was discovering about myself felt like being a teenager again. Like I was falling in love with Samira and it felt really juvenile. It felt like these giant, big, untamable feelings that I remember feeling when I was 13. And I really wish I’d been able to experience these things with a girl as a teenager, even though maybe I would have been totally tortured and miserable.

Do you feel like you were living that youth vicariously through your writing?
I think so. I’m very aware that Tales is intentionally crafted to be an escape. As you so perfectly pointed out, through Jake, through an exploration of self that doesn’t come with a whole lot of heartache or judgment. I probably always will be interested in doing that.

What was the most tumultuous time in your life?
Well … my dad died a couple years ago. He had been bipolar, and he killed himself. I had lost grandparents, but the loss of a parent has redefined so much of my life. The loss of him in such a deeply traumatic way certainly was the most painful thing I had ever gone through. I came out to him, and I thought I might lose him. He was a conservative, Catholic golfer. He would say he was a reformed Catholic. And when I came out to him, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t even take a second to process what was happening. “You don’t have to cry. As long as you’re happy, I love you.” It began these two or three years of my life where I had a relationship with him I had never had before. Me coming out deepened our relationship in this way that was really remarkable to me. And he adored Samira, and they adored each other.

His mental illness had been a really big part of our life, and had meant that he wasn’t always able to be a present father to me, depending on where he was in his cycle. So to experience him as a father in that way who was deeply accepting and loving and celebratory of who I was, and then to lose him, just as I felt like I was discovering what that was, continues to be deeply painful.

I’m sorry.
[Cries.] Thank you. We all survive so much and I’m constantly amazed at how resilient we are. We survive these traumas and then you figure out how to try and make meaning of them, so you can move forward. And I don’t think you ever really move forward from a trauma like that, but you integrate it.

The show very much feels like a celebration of life. Do you feel like your sense of radical empathy came from that experience of coming out to him and your relationship deepening?
I think so. A thing I really learned from coming out was you have to let people surprise you. I was surprised by who was supportive. I was surprised by who wasn’t supportive. If I had made a list I couldn’t have predicted who was gonna show up for me and who wasn’t. And my father was such a good example of that. That was a real lesson for me, around how we undercut what people are capable of when we don’t even give them a chance to show up. It’s so much easier to just decide that that person isn’t gonna show up for you. It’s so much safer and less vulnerable than to be like, I’m gonna trust that you’ll be better than I expect you to be.

‘I Hadn’t Known Myself Before I Had Sex With a Woman’