Liz Tuccillo’s first TV writing job was on Sex And The City. Her first book was the best-selling He’s Just Not That Into You: The No Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys, which she co-wrote with Greg Behrendt. But this stratospheric rise to pop culture relevancy didn’t come easy. As Tuccillo shares, she endured years of rejection and working odd jobs to make ends meet, and had to give up on one dream to pursue another.
I started out wanting to be an actress. My sister was in this theatre company in Brooklyn. I saw her in some plays and I was immediately obsessed. I started auditioning for plays when I was about 10.
When I was 13, I took the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn on my own — this was the ’70s in New York! — to audition for the High School for the Performing Arts. We had to do two monologues, and then there was a callback where we had to do theatre games. If I hadn’t got in, I would have had to go to the high school in my neighbourhood that had thousands of kids in it — so many that they had to split the schedule into two shifts. I don’t think I could have made it there.
I had a very thrilling four years studying acting at this very prestigious high school. But after it was over, I felt I wanted a break from all that. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an actress. It all just seemed a little too narcissistic. The amount of ego you had to have to do it became a bit of a turn-off.
I went to NYU to study liberal arts. And I hated it because I was so used to being surrounded by creative people doing creative things. At the High School for the Performing Arts, half your day is academics and the other half is running around in costumes and leotards and tights, and taking acting and movement. Suddenly going from that to this very big campus, shuffling from class to class, felt very unexciting and depressing.
In my second year I went to a performance of something in the experimental-theatre wing, which is one of NYU’s drama departments. I again fell in love with theatre and the department, and ended up switching to NYU’s experimental theatre wing, which is the most ridiculous thing to get a degree in at such an expensive school. I was paying off student loans for the next 20 years.
Once I graduated, I got together with friends to start my own theatre company. We got a volunteer lawyer to file our legal papers so we could get donations. We decided our first play would be [Norwegian playwright Henrik] Ibsen’s Ghosts, and we convinced a former teacher of ours to direct it. We rehearsed at NYU in the mornings when no-one was there. It was all very scrappy. The theatre company was called Dak. It’s too confusing to even ask what it means. We lasted about five years.
I kept auditioning and worked many different jobs to pay the bills. I worked the graveyard shift at a law firm doing word processing. I answered phones at Spy Magazine and various nightclubs. I temped and bartended the slow shifts at happy-hour bars. One of the longer jobs I had as a young person was making ice cream in the West Village.
My first job in acting was in a Scott Baio movie called I Love NY. My role was ‘Italian Girl’. I sent my 8×10 to a casting agent in the booklet ‘The Ross Report’, which is where all the agents were listed before that little thing called the Internet. I read for this tiny part. I couldn’t have been more excited to get it.
Then I got a job on an after-school special through a casting agent who was an acquaintance of mine. Again, so thrilling.
At this time people I knew were starting to get agents and really working. It was very difficult to see people my age achieving a lot of success right out of the gate while I was still struggling. I was never able to get a real acting agent. I would ask people if I could meet with their agents. One time, I got an agent to come to see me in a play and they ended up not calling me in but calling someone else in instead. I was starting to get the hint.
There was no one moment that made me realise I had to give up acting – but I started writing, thinking that if I could perform my own writing that would be my ticket in. I was about 29 or 30 and I started writing monologues for myself. I felt I got more immediate encouragement from that than I ever had in acting. I joined a theatre company called Naked Angels, which had a reading series called ‘Tuesdays@9’. Writers would sign up and have a scene of theirs read cold by actors who showed up in the hopes that they would be asked to read something. Actors started being much nicer to me after they read my writing, which to me was the best encouragement you could get.
In 1994 I wrote my first play, called Fair Fight, which was a dance-theatre play about the competitiveness and jealousy surrounding an awards ceremony. Naked Angels produced the play, and it was also staged by New York Stage and Film, which is a big festival in the summer, and then it was part of the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival in 1996.
I had written a role for myself in Fair Fight. That meant I was still sort of an actress. The next play I wrote was called Joe Fearless, which I started writing in 1997 and produced off-Broadway in 2000. I didn’t write a part for myself in this one. That’s when I knew I had officially become just a writer, not a writer-actress. It felt great. If you’re just sort of failing all the time at something that you love, it’s incredibly painful. To find something that you like to do just as much that you’re more successful at is really a great gift. As an actor you’re always having to wait for someone to allow you to act. As a writer you just wake up in the morning and start to write. That was such a great realisation.
Even though I was getting more encouragement as a writer, I was still making no money and still doing these other jobs to support myself. I had my first grown-up job with benefits at 36 writing copy for an ad agency that made banner ads. I kinda loved it but I would still come in to work two hours early and write my own stuff. My family and friends were still wondering what was going to happen to me.
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In 2001, I started to watch Sex And The City. I was late to the game but I thought the writing was so great. I asked my friend to introduce me to Michael Patrick King, the genius behind the show, who she was friends with. I wanted to meet him, never dreaming that I would get a job on the show. Just, if he liked me, perhaps some day far off in the future, he might think of me for another show.
It was a very big favour to ask of my friend but she did it, bless her heart. He agreed to meet me at a restaurant in the West Village. It was right after 9/11, and we both were feeling very raw. I was feeling particularly raw. Someone had just broken up with me in a sense because of 9/11, because he realised he needed to go back to his ex-wife. I was also helping throw these policemen/firemen parties at a friend’s house where we would have them over for beers after their long days working at the World Trade Center. So I had a lot to talk about in terms of loss and love and just being a New Yorker. Michael was impressed with how entrenched I was with the world of New York. Besides that, we just got along on some basic level.
At the end of our meeting, he said, ‘You’re formidable, Liz. I want you to meet my partners.’ I thought, formidable? That’s the best word I’ve ever heard in my life. I was this woman with no money or decent place to live, with all these jobs I didn’t want to have, and all my friends were 100 times more successful than me … and Michael Patrick King just called me formidable. Put that on my tombstone.
The next day I met with two of his executive producers, John Melfi and Cindy Chupack. At that point it dawned on me that it was a job interview. They were just talking about what they did the night before and where they ate, and I realised they were expecting me to sort of dive right in and join in the fun. I was completely intimidated but I did it.
When I got the call from the producers saying I had the job, I was like, ‘What job? Is it going to be like filing and Xeroxing?’ They said, ‘No, you’re hired as a writer.’
I had to move to LA right away because, strangely, they spent part of the season in LA breaking story and then came back to New York for shooting. I had to find housing in LA, keep my apartment in New York, get a car and do it all with a smile on my face. I think I just put everything on credit cards. I know I spent my first year in that job paying off a lot of debt.
I came to work the day after the show won an Emmy in 2001. There were Emmy Awards out on desks, and there were baskets of muffins and cookies coming for the staff. They were all so nice and welcoming but I was intimidated, afraid, baffled. I did not know how a writers’ room worked. I knew all the female characters that season were going to be single. There would be a need for dating and singleness in New York again, so I would talk about that.
My job title was story editor but titles meant nothing. We were all treated exactly the same. The reason why this was the greatest job known to mankind is that basically we spent the first weeks — and in general the whole job — just talking about our dating lives. We were all dating so we would go out at night and come in the next morning and have some crazy story — or a story about someone else. We would spend a few weeks shaking those stories down, looking for recurring themes, finding the moments that made everyone scream, ‘Yes!’ Then somebody would be assigned to write that episode.
I was on staff for the last two seasons of the show, and I wrote the episode called ‘The Post-it Always Sticks Twice’. It’s the one after Carrie gets broken up with by Post-it and she goes out partying after the break-up.
In the writers’ room we heard some of the more shocking things that people could say about sex that we could imagine. But the most shocking thing that ever happened was when Greg Behrendt, the only straight male consultant we had on the show, said to one of our female writers, ‘Yeah, I think he’s just not that into you.’ She had been complaining about a guy who didn’t call her after this great date and she didn’t understand why. We were all saying, ‘Oh, well, he’s maybe scared’ or ‘Oh, he’s probably out of town, or maybe something happened’. Then Greg was just like, ‘Yeah, I think he’s just not that into you.’ We stopped everything we were doing and turned to him and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Our minds were blown.
After a week of us literally not being able to talk about anything else, I said to Greg, ‘I think it’s a book.’ We had to get permission from HBO, we got an agent at ICM and then we sold the book. I don’t remember how long it took to write it but it was very quick, a few months. We worked in Greg’s garage for most of it. The book was already in the works by the time the episode (that debuted the phrase ‘he’s just not that into you’) came out.
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Pretty soon after the book came out (and became a best-seller), people in Hollywood began asking for it so we started taking meetings at studios, pitching them our ideas for a film. It was a natural kind of next step. Greg and I wrote a draft of the screenplay, then Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen of Flower Films came on the scene and they had a whole other take on it, so [the studio] let them run with it. Drew and Nancy were so nice to us and gave us the opportunity to work on it but we were burned out by that point. They are such great ladies and the end result was so good. We’re lucky it worked out the way it did.
After Sex And The City ended (in 2004), I developed a show called Related for the WB network that lasted for one season. Then I wrote a novel.
I was mulling over the idea of wanting to write something about being single all over the world but I didn’t want it to be nonfiction, which would be too dry. I wanted to interview single women around the world and spin it into a romcom novel. So I wrote a few chapters and pitched the book to various publishers. How To Be Single came out in 2009, and it was a great journey. I got to travel the world, which was fun. But I can’t imagine I would write another novel again because it was very hard.
I then went into this unfortunate wheel of developing projects that didn’t get made. That’s the downside of a career in television and film. During those times when you’re involved in a script that you really love and people are telling you it’s going to be made into a pilot and everyone is really excited about it – which happened two years in a row for me – you have to sit there for this period of time when they are making the decisions and no-one is telling you what’s happening.
I longed for my work to be made, to have actors say my lines and people laugh at them. My agent kept saying, ‘Just try to think of a story that you can do on a micro-budget that’s small and easily directable.’ I was like, ‘It’s not that easy to come up with an idea like that.’ Then all of a sudden my friend had rotator cuff surgery and she was stuck in her home, and we were all coming to take care of her and then the idea came to me: what would it be like if you forced someone that you used to date to take care of you?
And so the process began to make my first feature film as a writer and director, Take Care, which came out in 2014. I raised some money and self-financed it, and got my friends John Melfi and Grace Naughton from Sex And The City to produce, and we got the lovely Leslie Bibb on board to star.
When you’re a writer on a set, you’re often in the position where you are running up to the director telling him or her what to do differently, what they didn’t notice that’s important in the script. You’re very much an irritant. The dream is to say when I’m writing and directing I’m in control. But it doesn’t feel that way as a first-time film director. It feels like every day you’re trying to beat the clock. You can’t control daylight or if someone is going to be blaring music on the street just when you’re trying to do a quiet scene. It feels more like you’re trying to orchestrate a three-ring circus.
I have the same dream that many writers have right now: to create and run a TV show on a great cable network. I have a pilot in development right now at FX. It’s an adaptation of Annabelle Gurwitch’s book I See You Made An Effort, about a woman on the verge of turning 50. I co-wrote the pilot with Annabelle and I’m very excited about it. I won’t know anything about its fate for a few months. It will be one of my heartbreaks if something doesn’t happen with it.
If you want to be a writer, you should be writing all the time because you have so much to say that you can’t help yourself. If you’re not doing that, then you really shouldn’t be a writer. If you are doing that, you should find your community of people that can support you. That’s what I did. Naked Angels, the theatre company in New York, was like the best school I ever went to. That was where I found out that I could actually write. You just have to find your support group.
This article was originally published on Cosmopolitan.com