HBO’s ‘Looking’ Writer Tanya Saracho on Creating Latina Roles and Taking on Twitter Haters

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More than ten years ago Tanya Saracho, a Mexican-born, Texas-bred playwright co-founded Teatro Luna, an all-Latina theater company in Chicago. She wrote, directed, and starred in several plays during her time there. Although no longer with the company Tanya continues to write plays centered on Latinas, she’s on her seventh.

Last year she made the transition from plays to television, landing a gig as a writer on Lifetime’s Devious Maids. The jump into TV writing was a tough one for Saracho but she quickly acclimated and is on the road to becoming a seasoned vet. Following her Devious Maids stint she found herself in the writer’s room for HBO’s new San Francisco-set series Looking.

Focused on the lives of three gay men, Looking follows Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer with adorable blue eyes, Dom (Murray Bartlett) a mustachioed waiter in his late-thirties and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a Cuban-American artist who’s moving across the bridge to Oakland to shack up with his boyfriend because the rent is cheaper.

Whether they are grabbing drinks at El Rio, walking past the historic Castro Theater, riding muni, talking to a cute bouncer at Esta Noche or lamenting that, “This whole city is overrun with overrated cupcakes and kimchi tacos” the city of San Francisco gets its time to shine too. Shots of the Bay Bridge lit up at night and panoramic views of fog rolling into the city are a testament to why people still live in S.F. despite its dot-com-fueled gentrification and skyrocketing rents. The incredibly beautiful (and foggy) backdrop together with likable characters and writing that is grounded in realism make Looking a breath of fresh air.

Straight off her move back to Los Angeles to join the writing team for Girls, we caught up with Tanya Saracho to chat about her experience working on Looking, why she feels compelled to write stories about Latinas, and taking on haters via twitter.

Where are you from?

I was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico but we moved around because my father was in Mexican customs (aduanas) so I got to live in Culiacan, Obregon, Chetumal, Guadalajara, Santa Rosalia, (Baja California) and Reynosa. It was there that we eventually hopped over the “charco” to McAllen, Texas where I went to middle school and high school.

What city do you call home?

I have lived in Chicago (my adoptive hometown) for over 15 years. Right now I say that I am “based” in Chicago while I work in LA. I leave my heart in Chicago every time I have to go West.

When did you first begin to consider writing as a career?

When I got to Boston University. The bug bit me early and I wrote my first play, the awfully titled, “Miss Norma and the Alligator,” my sophomore year and I was hooked. I wrote plays the rest of my time at BU and ever since then. In fact, Raul Castillo (who plays Richie on Looking) was in a couple of them. My senior year, he was in one called “La Dueña” (no, not the telenovela).

Did you find it difficult to transition from writing plays to writing for TV?

Yes, I did. And I was not graceful about it. I was homesick and not mentally prepared for the big shift. The whole thing happened really fast and I had no training in it. I didn’t even know how to use Final Draft script writing software! My start in TV was… you know when your dad throws you in the pool as a baby and lets you fend for yourself? It was like that. Absolutely terrifying.

How did the opportunity to write for Looking come to you?

It was very “by the book.” My agent sent over my play Mala Hierba as a sample, they liked it and they called me in for an interview. The rest is gay history.

Can you talk about the process of writing the episodes.

We all (the writers and our superstar writer’s assistant Seth Hauer) sit around in a room all day on couches and write ideas on dry erase boards on the walls. We talk all day. There’s food on the coffee table (mostly fruit in the morning and cheese in the afternoon) and we eat and pitch. Eat and pitch. Eat and pitch. Until we’ve got some sort of story on the board. (These TV people call that “breaking story.” Like I said, I knew none of these terms when I started on Devious Maids.) Then that story gets turned into an outline. And that gets turned into a script. And then that gets turned into an episode of television. It’s like science and magic all at the same time. I’m a little bit in awe of the process. I still don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but I’ve learned to just smile and nod through it.

Were you present during the shoot?

I was in San Francisco for a month. I got to be there for the episode I co-wrote with JC Lee, the sixth of the season, and for the shooting of the seventh as well as the prep for the finale, which I co-wrote with one of my bosses, the lovely Michael Lannan. (I’m in absolute love with every single writer in the Looking writers room. It’s kind of a problem.)

Any funny or memorable stories from your experience working on Looking?

Everyday is memorable and funny. But also, most — no, all of the stories I find truly memorable from the writer’s room are a little-tiny-bit-un-poquitito x-rated. (Zorri. I want to keep my job. Cuz I love it!)

When the trailer was first released by HBO, there was some pushback from people who thought the show lacked diversity. What was your reaction to that specific criticism?

I was so shocked when we started to hear those rumblings — that we lacked diversity. I went through this with Devious Maids, where people had already made up their minds before having watched a single episode of the series. A minute long trailer was all that had been released yet Looking had already been tried and sentenced as whitewashing the gay experience. It was confusing because Frankie and Raul (both Latinos) were both very prominent in that first trailer, especially Frankie. I read some of the comments on Twitter and I had to respond. Now, I probably shouldn’t have, but it felt like such an unfair misrepresentation of what we were doing, that I couldn’t help myself. We don’t shy away from race on Looking. In fact, we face it straight on. Look it straight in the eyes. I hope you can see that more and more each week as Patrick and Richie’s story develops.

As a Latina writer do you feel any special responsibility to include people of color in your stories? Do you feel differently when it is your own project versus being a writer-for-hire?

If you know any of my theatre work, you know that I mostly (only) write about Latinas. I’m on my seventh all-Latina play and I am completely dedicated to telling our stories. To representing us. To reflecting our very complicated realities. Yes, in a way, I feel a big responsibility. Both artistically and politically. It is a political act to put brown bodies, gendered bodies, on stage and on the screen. Each omission or inclusion makes a political statement. But that’s just me. I don’t think every Latino/a writer should write about identity. I get into this discussion with my writer friend Marco Ramirez. Now, Marco is possibly the most talented writer I know. (I said possibly, because I know a ton of talented writers.) I call him my “great brown hope.” He’s the real deal. And we get into this polemic of responsibility all the time. I love discussing this with him. He makes a lot of sense. He’s a proud Cuban-American but he doesn’t write about the Cuban-American experience, he writes about Jack Johnson the boxer and metal bands and giants. I think we need Marco to keep writing those things. His work is not defined by identity politics and that’s more than okay. It’s still — in my eyes — a Latino take on Jack Johnson or giants, even if the notion is not articulated in his writing. He has the right to tell those stories. I mean, others have been telling “our” stories for so long. Why would the reverse not be okay? I think that what he’s doing and what Luis Alfaro is doing, writing about “us” and what I do — concentrating on Latina women specifically — and what Matthew Lopez is doing writing about Jews and blacks after the civil war and what all of us who accept the title of “Latino/a Writer” are doing, makes the movement go forward. It’s all progress, you know? As long as we keep getting produced, it’s all progress.