How to Seize Opportunities, According to an Emmy Award-Winning Producer
Stephanie Laing isn't bothered by the reports of there being fewer women in Hollywood, or the email scandals detailing the drama behind the camera. She's far too busy breaking the glass ceiling and creating some of the funniest material on television.
The Emmy-winning producer, director, and now short filmmaker has a resume most of us would kill for (producer and director for VEEP and Eastbound & Down). Laing's list of closest colleagues would make you pretty jealous, too: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell to name a few. But long before she directed A-list comedians, Laing was on the grind.
A young Laing knew she always wanted to be in TV and film, but growing up in Cincinnati, the road to Hollywood wasn't mapped out. So she just took a job to get her going. As a bank teller, Laing's people skills got the attention of a manager at a production company who quickly hired her to be production assistant on a Toyota commercial.
"The key for me, and what I always tell people, is that people are watching you. I was a bank teller and I did it with the same enthusiasm I do my job now. I showed up on time, I cared about my clients and I was willing to do anything when I was an assistant," says Laing, recalling making endless lunch runs for crew and working up to 14 hours a day. No job was too menial. "It can be very tricky working for creative types. You're in their world and you may not like their process, but this is their show. They're in charge. You're just there to learn and I did," she says.
The game changer came when comedy icon Tracy Ullman hired her as a producer on her HBO series, "Tracy Takes On," where she stayed for five years and earned an Emmy in 1997. "I was the only one with experience in post-production so I filled in that role. The key is to figure out what your strengths are." Hard work and smart decisions eventually led to Laing producing "Little Britain USA," "Banshee," "Eastbound & Down" and "VEEP."
Sure, she had proved herself, but Laing wanted more. So when an opportunity came up on the "VEEP" pilot to direct the background action in a scene, she pounced. Looking back on that ballsy move, Laing says, “you have to not be afraid to challenge yourself.” Abandoning fear was also what led to Laing’s most recent project shooting the short film, "Trouble & the Shadowy Deathblow" starring Tony Hale of "Arrested Development." “[While I was doing it] I thought I’ll just suck less every day and you surprise yourself. You are stronger than you think are. The magic happens when you are scared of something.”
The magic behind her success is also her best advice. “You have to show your ambition. If you want people to see you in a different light, you have to show them that,” says Laing, who went on to direct episodes of the Emmy-winning show,VEEP. Though, to be honest, directing Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn’t hard. “She’s Julia! Undeniably the queen of comedy. There is no bullshit and she is such a joy.” In fact, directing and producing a female-dominated comedy proves, says Laing, how far women in entertainment have come. “It is an exciting time. Women as a coalition have so much power to change things.”
On top of having major bargaining power, women in Hollywood also have more allies than ever. Laing says her most influential mentors have been male, including her boss at HBO. “When I was having my third baby I told him but I stressed that ‘This doesn’t mean I don’t want to do a show.’ And he [said], ‘I don’t know why you’re even saying that to me. I love that you’re a mother. Don’t worry about it.’ See, I put that on myself and he [said] ‘You bring more to the table because you are a mother,'” she recalls.
From bank teller in Cincinnati to mother of three and Emmy-winning producer and filmmaker (who just signed on as Executive Producer on Danny McBride’s new HBO series "Vice Principals"), one could say Laing does have it all — but don't let her hear you say it. "The definition of that is different for every single person. What person came up with that saying?!"