Laura Waleryszak crafts authentic LGBTQ characters for an online TV drama
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to earn a long-shot Emmy nomination, you don’t have to look much further than Laura Waleryszak’s Twitter feed. There you’ll find a video, posted July 14, of Waleryszak scrolling through the just-announced Emmy nominations, looking for “Her Story,” the Web series she co-produces, co-writes, and co-stars in. When she and fellow cast member Fawzia Mirza spot the name on the laptop screen, the two women scream and leap to their feet, jumping up and down. It’s at that moment we see they are still in their pajamas.
“Her Story” surprised the Hollywood media with its Emmy nod in the category of Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series, not only because of its indie cred — the show was produced on a miniscule budget and without studio backing — but also for its subject matter. The show focuses on the love lives of two transgender women living in Los Angeles, and deals with the difficulties transgender women have navigating straight America and finding acceptance in the LGBTQ community. These attributes led the online publication the Daily Dot to proclaim that “Her Story” is “just about the most indie show ever nominated for an Emmy.”
When I spoke to Waleryszak, who professionally goes by the name Laura Zak, it was days after the announcement, and she was still absorbing the shock.
“It’s been a pretty surreal week,” she said.
Waleryszak and show co-creator and co-star Jen Richards knew the Emmys were adding a new category to account for excellence in digital content, but the two never believed they would get a nomination. Usually, shows and networks spend thousands of dollars on a nomination campaign. Despite their lack of resources, the “Her Story” team decided to launch a grassroots campaign, seeking volunteer help from photographers, online content professionals, and others who believed strongly in the quality of the show and its content.
“When we got the news last week, it was during Out Fest, which happens every summer in LA,” said Waleryszak. “So many people we bumped into were so thrilled, as if it was their win as well, and it kind of feels like that. This nomination is a win for people making their own content in general, but also LGBTQ content and indie content as well.”
A story that needed to be told
“Her Story” evolved out of the Web series #Hashtag, in which Waleryszak plays a woman who has a flirtatious moment with a trans woman, played by Richards.
“We struck up a friendship and Jen had this idea about a spinoff based on the scene,” said Waleryszak.
Richards took the role of Violet, a trans woman struggling to feel comfortable with her identity. Waleryszak took the role of Allie, a reporter for an LGBTQ publication who approaches Violet about being the focus of her article on trans women in LA. Richards then recruited her roommate, Angelica Ross, to play the show’s other trans woman, Paige, a successful LGBTQ rights attorney and friend of Violet.
What was supposed to be a quick spinoff evolved into six short episodes that together total an hour. Waleryszak and Richards wanted to tell a story they knew wasn’t being told by mainstream studios and production companies. Maybe their friends would see it and that would be it, they thought. But then Waleryszak’s roommate, who runs a small production company, got involved.
“Everyone who became attached to the project from that moment forward made us realize it was going to be a much greater production than we had imagined,” she said.
The show has been lauded within the LGBTQ community for its real portrayal of transgender people. It shows they can be more than one-off characters and can drive a show with multiple trans people with distinct personalities.
“It was a natural outcome of genuinely writing about a community,” said Waleryszak. “I think that’s something we tackled in the show across the board, with Paige and Violet being different and the difference between Allie’s queer and lesbian friends and what happens when you bump up against disagreements within their own community.”
The show has also earned praised for ethnic diversity for featuring a successful African-American trans woman, and for the great writing. Watching an episode, you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a date or an intimate conversation between two female friends.
Waleryszak said that during a recent tour, bringing “Her Story” to college campuses, the audience picked up on this, but that it wasn’t always intentional.
“Jen’s response was, in her opinion, you cannot write diversely. You can live diversely and write authentically about what you know,” Waleryszak said.
Bringing art to a new audience
Waleryszak grew up in Exeter and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where she was an editor of the school newspaper and aspired to be a writer. She studied journalism at Boston College, but then transferred to a “tiny liberal arts college in Santa Fe,” where her studies were heavily focused on literature and philosophy. She worked for Eve Ensler’s organization VDay for eight years and pursued her own writing during that time. Only recently has Waleryszak gotten into TV and film.
“The moment I discovered screenwriting, I realized it was kind of perfect,” she said. “It’s still creative but also collaborative. It can be lucrative while being gratifying creatively.”
Acting is an even further extension of her desire to excel at writing, Waleryszak said. She realized that once she had to deliver lines, it deeply informed the lines she wrote for others.
When the Emmys are awarded on Sept. 18, “Her Story” will be up against shows like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim comedy “Children’s Hospital” and AMC’s online “Walking Dead” spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462.” It’s tough competition, yet just being nominated has already opened many doors for Waleryszak and those associated with the show. They are now in talks with networks and other companies about wider distribution and more full-length episodes. What started out as something Richards and Waleryszak wanted to post online for their friends could potentially bring a unique and authentic perspective on transgender people to a network or major streaming service.
“Web series have been such a great way to just tell whatever stories you want to tell and not have to wait for a network exec to deem your idea worthy or lucrative,” said Waleryszak. “It allows for a lot more immediacy connection with an audience.”