When a Slap in the Face is a Kick in the Ass

by Liz Vassey

Last year, there was a big shakeup going on at the CSI Factory (where the fake crime is made). People were quitting, people were getting fired, and there were rumors flying all over. I dodged, I weaved, I thrust, I parried, and I ended up unscathed.

Or so I thought.

It was the middle of the show’s yearly hiatus, and I came back from a vacation with the husband person. I was home for exactly one day when my manager called with the news: I’d been let go. After five years of being on the show, I was being told that I wasn’t invited back. Now. There are many theories as to why this happened: financial, political, creative. But that’s not the point of my story, so I’ll just leave it at that. I was no longer a fake crime fighter.

I’m not going to name names as I write this, unless I’m saying something kind. Here’s name number one: Naren Shankar. He was the producer for most of the time I was on CSI (though not when I was let go) and during season 10, after reading a couple of pilots I sold a million years ago, he asked if I wanted to write an episode. I did, so I did. And something happened. I loved it. I loved the early stages of pre-production to the latest stages of post. I loved the casting sessions (to be honest, after spending the a very fortunate swath of my life as an actress, it was fun to get to see it from the other side). And I loved hearing talented people say my words. Laurence Fishburne?! Yes, please.

But I digress. I do that a lot.

Look! A pony!

You were warned.

After I was sent home from Universal, my slice of “Goodbye, We’ll Miss You” cake in one hand and my CSI vest in another (I’m not even kidding), I was suddenly back in the trenches. Luckily, pilot season was going to begin.

Pilot season. In a nutshell, you (and everyone else in town) read for producers, if they like you they call with a “test offer". Basically, this means that you have to work out your entire contract for what will ostensibly be five to seven years of your life, and then try like hell to forget about all that when you’re asked to read for twenty (often stone faced, but not always) studio executives. If they like you, you have to do the same song and dance for them again plus some network executives for extra fun. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. But by the time you get that close, I can promise that you are somewhat in love with the material, regardless of how you felt about it in the beginning. I liken it to finally agreeing to go out on a date with someone you’re not really even attracted to, and then potentially being dumped by him. Fun! And, incidentally, really good for the ego.

My first year off of CSI, I decided to be very picky. I read for one show, and ended up screen testing, then retesting for the studio, then testing for the network, then having said network call three people I’d worked with to find out if I am okay to work with, then being put on hold for two weeks, and then not getting it. Then I had six more tests for other shows: two I legitimately didn’t get, one I backed out due to massive potential commitment anxiety, and three cancelled because they had offers out that were accepted at the last minute.

I called my manager and told him that I was officially breaking up with pilot season. It wasn’t the way I wanted to conduct my career at this point in my life and I intended to follow my gut. For as long as I could pay my mortgage I wanted to stay out of the pilot casting hallways.

I landed on Two and A Half Men for a little bit, I played a baddie on Castle, I shot a movie in which I cried for a solid month (very cathartic), and I played another baddie on Necessary Roughness. I had a great time on all of them. Most of all, though: I wrote.

I wrote an hour pilot, I wrote two half hour pilots, my old producer on CSI (that Naren fella I mentioned before) asked if I’d write a movie with him, and I ended up on the writing staff of an eight episode comedy being developed for a comedian I can’t mention yet. Two weeks ago, Universal Studios bought one of my half hour pilots (the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart), and I’m going to start doing rewrites for them soon. I’m thrilled.

I feel more creative and fulfilled by the last year of my professional life than I have in a while. I patched together a nice living through three different unions in one year (SAG, AFTRA, and WGA), and I’ve had a remarkable time. I feel different. I feel like I am on the way to becoming what I now know I’d like to be: a writing producer. I met a woman who runs a very large show, I sat in her office and we chatted for a long time, and I realized that I was feeling a level of ambition that I hadn’t really felt before. I still want to act, and I probably always will, but I also want to help create things from the ground up. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to go on location scouts and run those casting sessions, and hire a writing staff. I want to be consulted about wardrobe, and asked about dialogue changes, and deal with network notes. I want to go to bed happily exhausted.

Mostly, I learned that sometimes, when you least expect it, a giant boot can come out of the sky and kick you out of a situation that seemed ideal at the time, but was actually fostering a level of creative complacency. I am, and forever will be, immensely grateful for my years in the “Vegas” Forensics Lab. But I am also grateful for the road I’m on now, and the great big boot that put me here.

I’ll keep you posted…