Back in 2005, Savannah Dooley was studying literature at Bennington College and freelancing for The Advocate. Five years later she’s a writer and producer of Huge, an ABC Family series based on Sasha Paley’s book of the same name about a group of teens at a weight-loss camp. The 24-year-old lesbian developed the show, which debuted June 28, with writing partner Winnie Holzman (who is also her mom), the Emmy-nominated creator of My So-Called Life and Tony-nominated librettist of the musical Wicked. Dooley reconnects with her favorite gay publication to flesh out Huge’s big gay future and to preview her new short film Snapshot, which screens July 16 and 18 as part of Outfest’s Girls’ Shorts collection.
A former contributing writer for The Advocate now has a hit TV show. We’re so proud!
Savannah Dooley: Thank you! Yeah, that was one of my first publishing experiences, and it was such a thrill to be published in The Advocate. I must’ve been 19 at the time.
I read a first-person piece you wrote for The Advocate, “In my so-called life,” in which you discussed your relationship with your mother, your connection with her gay characters, and your relatively smooth coming-out process. You wrote that even though you were only 9 at the time, Rickie, the gay character on My So-Called Life, helped shape your views on sexuality.
Yeah. I understood what being gay meant, but my gaydar wasn’t very attuned. I understood that Wilson Cruz was playing a gay character, but I still had a crush on him, because I didn’t realize he was gay in real life. I was like, “I’m going to marry Wilson!” [Laughs] But the fact that I even knew what male homosexuality was at that point is an extension of the fact that my parents are really gay-friendly and have a lot of gay friends I interacted with growing up. Homosexuality was never a big deal in our house.
I was surprised to read that Jessie, the 14-year-old character on your mother’s next series, Once and Again, fell in love with another girl while you were secretly experiencing the same issues at 16.
That was the weirdest coincidence that has ever happened. Like any teenager, I was distancing myself from my parents, so I didn’t want to tell them about my crushes or love life on any level. When my mom did that story, she had almost no idea that it was reflecting my life to the extent that it was. By the time I came out to my mother officially, the show was over.
Referring to Once and Again’s Jessie, you wrote in the Advocate piece, “It’s rare to see a gay character on TV who isn’t established as gay from the very beginning. That was how I experienced my own sexuality: It took a catalyst for me to realize who I really was.” What was your catalyst?
I think most people start to socialize assuming heterosexuality. I knew lesbians existed, I saw some lesbians on TV, and my mom was friends with lesbians, but they were older women, so I couldn’t reconcile the image of myself with the image of a lesbian as I knew it. I started getting crushes on girls, but I would tell myself, “No, you’re not a lesbian. This is different because you just have this crush on this one girl. And these three other girls.” [Laughs] With each new crush, it got harder to say, “But I’m still basically straight.”
You were out by the time your mother wrote Wicked, which is about a green witch who has been seen as a metaphor for gay people and outsiders in general. Did any of you and your personal struggle find its way into the character of Elphaba?
Yeah, maybe a little. Elphaba certainly has aspects of both Winnie and me, feeling like an outsider, but she’s braver than we would’ve been at that age. She’s so defiant to say, “Yeah, I’m green — so what?” That outsider perspective is a huge part of Winnie’s work.
It’s weird to hear you call your mother by her first name.
[Laughs] I know. When I actually speak to her, I call her “mom,” “mommy,” or some adorably annoying nickname, but when I’m talking about her within a professional context, I tend to refer to her as “Winnie.” Most people know her as Winnie Holzman, the writer — not as my mom.
I’m suspicious of why your mother has always gravitated so positively to gay characters and story lines. Is it possible that deep down she always had a mother’s intuition about your sexuality?
It’s funny, but I don’t think that’s it. Growing up as an adorable, chubby Jewish girl who didn’t get the guy as much as she wanted to, Winnie was also into musical theater, so she just had a lot of gay friends. From the beginning she tried to represent another kind of outsider that she knew in real life and that she could identify with. I actually think my coming out was a bit of a surprise for her. At the time of My So-Called Life, I had a crush on every boy, and I was all about frilly dresses.
In a recent episode of Huge, the sexuality of Nikki Blonsky’s character, Will, was called into question based on her penchant for men’s clothing. It seemed to make her question herself as well, and it briefly made me wonder if she was actually a lesbian character. What inspired that story?
I didn’t really see it as Will questioning her sexuality, and it wasn’t meant to be a red herring. For me, it was just an interesting scenario that the boy she likes has this assumption about her. I did design the character, particular in clothing but other things too, to be a little butch, because I’m tired of seeing every female character in a compulsory feminine role. I saw a lot of tomboys in my youth, and loved seeing a different model of what a woman can be. Will never wears makeup and would never wear a skirt, but she’s really comfortable with herself. Being mistaken for gay wouldn’t normally bother her except for the fact that it’s by a guy she likes. But that’s not been my personal experience because I’ve always presented as very femmy. Even now that I’m really out, people never make the assumption that I’m gay just looking at me.
In the most recent episode of Huge, Alistair, who is played by Harvey Guillen, is rather quietly revealed to be a gay character. How important was it for you to include gay representation in the show?
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily be so quick to assume that Alistair is gay. Yes, it’s now out there that others perceive him to be gay, which may or may not be the case.
Really? In her interview with Out.com, Nikki Blonsky said that she sees Alistair as the show’s gay character. Did she incorrectly out him?
No, that’s valid, but it’s going to be interesting for people to hear about his identity and his self-identification from Alistair’s own mouth, which is going to happen in a future episode. I’m really interested in the intersections of who people are and how others perceive them. It’s incredibly important to me to include queer characters, but I also find it less interesting to do one character that’s just “the gay character.”
I found it interesting that while other campers refer to him as “the gay kid,” they make fun of him for his body odor and not because of his sexuality. Did you avoid a more typical route of antigay bias because you feel that kids at this particular age generally don’t care as much about homosexuality?
There are a lot of kids for whom it’s a nonissue, and that’s going to be even more reflected in the show as we continue. The popular boy group that looks down on Alistair for smelling bad is also in a position to see him as “other” because he’s perceived as gay, but these aren’t the kinds of kids who would say something to his face or be openly cruel about it. These guys are teenage jocks who probably don’t know any gay people, and there might be something about it that’s threatening to their masculinity, but I wanted to play that without necessarily doing the thing where they’re like, “Hey, homo, you’re queer!” I wanted to explore different levels of that discomfort among the camp community.
Alistair smells because he doesn’t like to shower with the other boys. His anxieties are left somewhat ambiguous, but I assumed that they stemmed from his fear of getting an erection in front of the other boys.
That’s a valid interpretation. I’ve been reading some responses to that, and I thought it was interesting that people have interpreted it in different ways. Some people interpreted it that he’s uncomfortable around other guys, and some people interpreted it that it’s a body issue.
Can we look forward to more queer characters or story lines?
There’s a lot of other interesting queer stuff that’s going to happen. Even though I can’t reveal too many specifics because we’re so early in the season, I encourage audiences to stay tuned, because I’m trying to do something really new and interesting in terms of breaking from traditional queer narratives. My own sexuality never followed a narrative that I saw in the media. We see some black-and-white looks at sexuality, but I’m interested in exploring the gray areas — especially the ones that happen when you’re a teenager and still figuring things out.
As a gay writer and as the daughter of someone who writes great gay characters, are you especially sensitive to gay stereotypes and especially careful to avoid those clichés in your own work?
I’m just trying to write something that I would personally find interesting, but I don’t think there’s enough diversity in terms of different kinds of queer expression. With gay characters on TV, you see a lot of femmy guys and femmy girls. You never see a butch girl, particularly if she’s a lesbian, because that’s the most threatening thing to people. It also annoys me when shows take a lesbian relationship but only play it for a few minutes.
With which character on Huge do you most relate?
I feel like I can inhabit any one of these characters when I’m writing, because I try to find a part of myself that feels like they are in that moment, but people who know me will say that Will is a strong example of my own voice coming through. Her humor is very similar to mine, and her line “on a scale of 1 to Ellen” is something that I say. Growing up I was much more of a Becca because I was the shy, socially awkward one. When I met someone I felt was brave like Will, I thought they were everything I could never be. I grew up very self-conscious but have grown a lot more comfortable in my skin, so I’m probably a combination of Will and Becca.
Tell me about your new short film, Snapshot, at Outfest.
It’s such a thrill for me because I’ve fantasized about being at Outfest since I was 16. I wrote, produced, and directed this movie with a good friend, Miranda Sajdak. It’s about a suburban mom who answers the door, and her daughter’s date for the big dance is this punk girl. Not much is made of the fact that she’s a girl; it’s more about this awkward mother-date meeting and their little moment of connection.
Your first short film The Misanthropes in 2006 was also lesbian-themed.
I’ve always worked through my own personal shit in my writing. The Misanthropes came out of my own conflict of identifying as gay, feeling like I couldn’t relate with lesbian clichés but feeling embarrassed that I still wanted to consume all gay media. It’s on YouTube if you want to watch it.
It was recently reported that Wicked’s creators had begun meeting with potential directors for a Wicked film. Now that you’ve become a writing team, will you join your mother on that adaptation?
I wouldn’t be someone who was officially working on it, but I’ll offer my input and she’ll ask my advice, as occasionally happened when she was writing the original Wicked. When it does happen, I know as sure as I’m standing here that she’s going to show me drafts, because we’re the kind of family that shares what we’re working on. But this is a long way away. They’re not planning on making it anytime soon.