Interview: Actress/Writer Laura Zak Helps Bring Her Story to Life
We’ve been really excited about the upcoming digital series, Her Story, a love story created by and starring Jen Richards and Laura Zak that explores the romantic lives of LGBTQ+ women and centers around the budding relationship between a straight, trans woman named Violet (played by Richards) and a cis lesbian named Allie (played by Zak). Her Story will finally be released to the world-wide internet tomorrow! In addition, the show will soon be kicking off a college tour, bringing the film and some of its cast/crew to speak at schools nationwide.
Teresa Jusino (TMS): What made you decide to take a project like this on? What was the thing that made you say “I have to make this happen. I have to write this. I have to produce this”?
Laura Zak: It’s a deeply exciting prospect as a writer to tell a story that’s not yet been told in popular media. When Jen and I first started discussing the concept of the show, it was just before the first season of Transparent was released, so the representation of trans and queer love stories was especially poor. I most enjoy writing creatively about themes that are resonating in my own life. As Jen and I were building a friendship, and sharing more of ourselves and our perspectives with one another, we stumbled upon a wealth of incredibly compelling anecdotal information. The more we shared, and the more we brainstormed what a love story between a trans woman and a queer-identified cis woman would look like, the more excited we became. As you say, it really did feel like “we have to make this happen”. We couldn’t believe that a story like this didn’t already exist.
Jen and I both have backgrounds in activism and social justice work, and so we were both well-versed in using art as a tool for quickening social change. As Jen says, part of our motivation for writing it was that change wasn’t happening fast enough. The rates of violence against trans women, especially trans women of color, remain at appallingly high annual rates. From the beginning of our writing process, the character of Paige, a black, straight, trans woman, was always included as the third lead. We wanted, in part, to de-stigmatize the act of loving a trans person. These stigmas, which contain inside them the systemic issues of misogyny and homophobia, are in large part what contribute to the prevalence of this particular violence.
One other aspect of the story that I was personally very excited to explore was the tension between who a person thinks they “should” be attracted to, versus who they actually find themselves attracted to. In a broader sense, this is a theme not limited to sexual orientation or gender identity; anyone who has felt their authentic self at odds with societal or self-imposed expectations will relate to our characters’ struggles.
For many reasons, it just felt like the right time to try and thrust these stories into the mainstream.
TMS: Where did the idea for the story of Her Story come from? How did that evolve between you and Jen?
Zak: Jen and I met on the set of another web-series I helped to create, called #Hashtag by tellofilms, a production company that creates shows about queer women, based in Chicago. We cast Jen in a small cameo role as a waitress who has a moment of chemistry with my character, Liv. The series is a comedy that centers around a relationship between Liv and an older woman, which starts with an innocent Instagram flirtation. Jen and I didn’t get a lot of time to talk on-set that day, but that evening she started peppering mildly flirtatious comments throughout my Instagram history. I found her thematic tactic to be clever and charming, and soon we were meeting up for coffee and learning that we had a lot in common.
Originally, Jen pitched the idea of writing a spin-off of #Hashtag, to tell the story of a romantic relationship between Liv and the waitress character. Early in the writing process, we realized it would be easier to create an entirely new world and set of characters. But, the core relationship remained.
Our friend Katherine Fisher of Speed of Joy Productions loved the script and came on to produce. Soon, another amazing producer Sarah Baker-Grillo was attached, and she helped us find Sydney Freeland to direct, who helped us find Berenice Eveno as D.P. [Director of Photography]. After our first rough cut was complete, we shared it with long-time mentor Eve Ensler, who fell in love with the project and came on as E.P. [Executive Producer]. Every new person who was drawn to the series elevated the scope and production value and contributed their talents and influence to create the beautiful hour of film we now get to share with our community, and beyond. Jen and I feel lucky and frankly, baffled, at how quickly this transformed from a small project with a lot of heart, to a much bigger project with a ton of press, and a lot of heart.
TMS: As a cisgender queer woman, were there any new insights that you got about the trans experience as you worked on this project?
Zak: It is stunning to reflect on how much I’ve learned from the people I’ve met over the last two years, starting with but not limited to my friendship with Jen. A lot of the things that I specifically learned about the trans experience, you will see play out on-screen. But it’s important to note that this wasn’t a case of trans women teaching cis women about their lives, or queer people teaching straight people, etc. This was a true collaboration between many types of women, bringing forward their unique perspectives and finding what is shared between us. I don’t think of the trans people I’ve met through this experience as my “trans friends.” Now that I know them, their trans-ness doesn’t even factor into my thoughts.
TMS: What are your goals for Her Story once it premieres online? Do you think Her Story is specifically for the web? Or would you like to see it elsewhere? Are there yet thoughts about a “Season 2?”
Zak: We are hoping that the buzz around what we’ve shot already will indicate to networks and large distributors that there is a demand and an audience for this content. Jen and I have completed a highly-detailed treatment for a full first season of Her Story, imagined as ten 30-minute episodes. It’s an interesting feeling to anticipate everyone watching the very beginning of these stories when, in our minds, we have already crafted the plot and characters far beyond what you will see on Tuesday.
TMS: What do you hope people get out of Her Story? What’s the takeaway you hope they end the series with?
Zak: Even though we are most excited for members of the trans and queer communities to watch this content, this is at core a simple love story that has the potential to resonate with many people. By the final scene, we hope it is the emotional impact of the characters’ journeys, and not necessarily the gender identity or sexuality of these characters, that registers with our audience.
To check out Her Story, visit their website TOMORROW! And if you’re interested in bringing members of the Her Story team to your school for a screening and talk-back, you can email email@example.com with your college name & contact person.
(Images via Tamea A./Her Story)