'The Returned' Showrunner Raelle Tucker: How I Made It in Hollywood

Raelle Tucker - P 2015
Courtesy of UTA

Raelle Tucker - P 2015

After a lack of entertainment options as a child drove her to write and direct her own plays, Raelle Tucker took to Los Angeles at age 17 where she turned the cliché Hollywood dream into a successful reality. On March 9, the former True Blood alum's latest project, A&E's The Returned, will explore what happens to a quiet mountain town when the dead start to return. With her newest series about to premiere, the co-showrunner reflects on how she made it to where she is today.

I always knew from the time I was 6 years old what I wanted to do with my life. I always knew I wanted to write television, which wasn't a very logical place to be when I was growing up with crazy hippie parents. My father was an underground gay playwright and my mother was a costume designer. We lived in a series of communes and various cults in the U.S. when I was little. We settled in Ibiza, Spain, when I was 6 in the early '80s.

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Back then, Ibiza was a sleepy little island. Most of the houses didn't have electricity and all the roads were dirt roads. No one had a telephone, let alone a television, but I would walk 30 minutes down this road, rain or sunshine, to this little smoky bar with all these old Spanish men smoking black tobacco. They had this small black and white TV and I would watch reruns of Dynasty, Fantasy Island and V dubbed in Spanish.

All I wanted to do was live in that world, but it was a completely different universe than the one I was living in.

I had a really rich fantasy life and from a very early age I started writing my own stories. In Spain, there weren't any English bookstores. There was no access to anything other than romance novels and Stephen King books you could buy at the airport. So I just started making up my own stories and weaving out these sort of soap operas.

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Eventually that led to me at about 11 years old starting a theater company with all the kids of the hippy parents — friends of my parents. I was writing and directing my own plays. It was really just boredom … that's the greatest answer I have to why I started doing all of this. It was a lack of entertainment. Lack of exposure to anything. I wanted to have something to watch, something to read. I didn't really have a huge amount of choice except to create that myself.

I remember being told by the school that they would let me write a Christmas play. I was this rebellious little hippy child who didn't really believe in all of that stuff. I wrote this play about Jesus and his twin sister Lucifa. We put it on in this church, but it was a Spanish-only speaking church, so luckily the priest and the nuns didn't understand what any of us were saying. It was horribly sacrilegious and the school was appalled. It was the last time they actually let me use school property to put on my plays. I had to do them independently after that.

A lot of the plays I wrote took place in the U.S. or usually Hollywood. They made no sense. They were about three hours long and had a lot of dance numbers. I can't say my origin story was glamorous at that point.

Mostly we tried to shock people, which was the big thing. We tried to shock our parents. I remember at that time, it was the late '80s and my father, who used to be this underground gay playwright, had recently been diagnosed with AIDS. I was 16 years old and the only way I knew how to process any of this … of course this was the '80s and no one really understood what AIDS was … I wrote a whole play about AIDS in high school and put it on with music and dance numbers. It was my way of processing what was happening in my life at the time.

In Ibiza, there was no other entertainment so we were this huge hit. It was kind of a no brainer for me at 17 that I should drop out of high school and move to Hollywood because I had it in the bag. I was just going to go take on the town. So I moved to L.A.

It was a huge culture shock. I really had no idea until I got there how sheltered and odd my upbringing had been. I hadn't just been this big fish in a small pond. I was the only fish in the pond and now I was a high school dropout with a weird accent and no connection in the industry.

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I had one suitcase and $1,000 to my name. It was a crazy intense time. Looking back on it, I don't know how I wasn't terrified the whole time, but what I remember was that I felt incredibly focused because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had no idea how to get there other than to keep writing and so that's what I did for the next 11 years.

I opened a theater company. I wrote my own share of bad screenplays and spec scripts. I did whatever I had to do to support my dream of a writing career. Eventually I graduated from waiting tables to topless dancing. Weirdly it was the topless dancing that ended up being the thing that opened the door to my writing career.

It worked because for one, I went to work two days a week for four hours at a time and I made enough to support my entire life. The rest of the time I spent eight to 10 hours a day writing or putting on plays. I funded my own productions because I could afford to do that in a way that when I waited tables I couldn't do. I didn't go to college and this was basically like my college. I put myself through a version of writing school.

The real break happened when I started working in these clubs and I realized that the women I was meeting there and the stories they were telling me were so fascinating and varied. They were not at all what I expected and what I'd seen portrayed of people in that industry. That was the beginning for me because, it's a cliché but that whole write what you know thing, when I really dug in and started to write about the world I was in and the people that I knew, the work changed.

I hooked up with this other writer, Sera Gamble [Supernatural, Aquarius], who is now a very successful showrunner in her own right. Back then we were in the same boat and we decided to co-write a screenplay called Cheeks, which was a slapstick comedy inspired by Dog Day Afternoon set in a strip club. We submitted the screenplay to Project Greenlight when it was a HBO series. We made the top three with the screenplay and we were on the first episode of season two. We didn't win, which ended up being an amazing blessing because we got all the positive exposure without the entire industry watching us fall on our faces while we tried to make a movie we didn't know how to do.

So in a weird way [Project Greenlight producers] Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore changed our lives. I have no idea if they know that, but in the aftermath of losing Project Greenlight we were signed by UTA. They sent us out on a lot of meetings. Maybe people had really low expectations because we came from a reality show or because of the background I was coming from … so it was really easy to impress them in a way. We were really, really prepared. We knew this was our opportunity. We had a lot of backup scripts and were really ready to rise to the occasion. The meetings ended up leading us to our first staff writing job.

Coming to the writer's room for the first time was a total culture shock. The night before I started I was working at a strip club in downtown L.A. I couldn't afford to quit until the day I started work. I packed up my bag and told everyone at that job, "I'm going to be a television writer," and they probably thought I was insane and lying. I went the next morning and walked into a room full of Harvard graduates and people who were extremely connected and experienced in this business. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was so passionate about the opportunity and about telling stories. I had no experience, but I had a really loud voice. Thankfully it was the right room for me to have the voice in.

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We got staffed on a show called Eyes on ABC created by John McNamara and starring Tim Daly. It was a private detective drama. It was a really quirky, fun show that was our favorite pilot of the year. It was our dream job that year. John was an incredible mentor to us and I think he was delighted by the fact that we came off of Project Greenlight. He was very excited to mentor us and have our voices, which were really outside the box, in the writing room. He made a lot of room for us to be vocal on that show which was a huge gift. The show ended up getting canceled after four episodes, but it was an incredible experience.

For me, when I sat in the writer's room for the first time after all these years of writing plays and directing, running theater companies, and weirdly working in strip clubs — it strangely felt like all of that experience had built up to this moment for me ... like this was exactly what I should be doing with my life. It was kind of a profound thing. When Eyes got canceled, we really didn't skip a beat. We got another job right away.

We got hired onto the show Supernatural, which was on The CW. It was for the first season. We got brought on after the pilot. It was a really odd fit for me personally because I never really watched any genre or sci-fi. I didn't read comic books. I really had no references to go into genre. I felt like me and the creator, Eric Kripke, totally different languages. But it was a totally incredible learning opportunity because I learned to write action. I learned to write genre. I came to so appreciate what an art form that is. It was so outside of my wheelhouse at the time.

It set me up for what came next in a way that, of course, I didn't see at the time. It put me in an incredible position to be one of very few women who were writing genre, which opened a door for what came next ... which was True Blood with Alan Ball.

Here's the thing with True Blood. I was hired before the pilot had been filmed. All I knew in terms of what I was walking into was that I adored Alan. The first episode of television that I ever wrote was a spec script of a Six Feet Under. So getting to sit down with Alan was like my entire life had come full circle. I thought True Blood would be like Six Feet Under with vampires and it very much wasn't. It became its own thing. It was much wilder and crazier and wackier, but I came to it from the perspective of loving this man's work so much and he was truly one of my heroes.

I felt that I spent the first few shows that I worked on learning the rules of television writing — what not to do, what to do, where the act breaks are. And then working with Alan on True Blood, he taught me not to be afraid to break all of them. He's one of the most brave, creative people I've ever worked with.

So I came onto True Blood with weirdly the only genre background. Everyone else he was hiring were straight-up character writers or comedy writers, but I was his supernatural person which is pretty funny given that was never what I wanted to do. But I was incredibly grateful that I had that to bring to the table and it ended up being a show where Alan just empowered and trusted the people he collaborates with. He was so willing to share creative ownership with others, that I felt this was the type of show I could pour myself into more than anything else that I had ever worked on.

The specificity in my own life stories that I put into that show, they actually made it to the screen. It's hugely gratifying and that may sound really weird, but we're talking about a vampire show, and with my bizarre hippy upbringing there are a lot of parallels that worked really well.

Maryann the Maenad, who was played incredibly by Michelle Forbes, was a mythological creature who was largely inspired by my hippy mother. That's not really a secret, but my mother used to have a coven at one point and all these women would gather in the backyard and have these bonfires and chants. One of the things she did was an offering. They made a statue made of fruit of some guy. All these sort of hippy women danced around him. Of course I was 15 when this was happening and I was mortified. It was the most embarrassing thing my mother could ever do. But later on when I worked on True Blood that became the inspiration for what we called the Meat Tree in season two.

I left True Blood thinking, "What am I going to do now?" I felt in many ways that my dreams had come true. I had gotten to work with one of my heroes. I've been on HBO, which was the dream, and I got to be on a hit that people cared deeply about. It was everything to me. But leaving there, the next step for me I thought was to getting to get closer to telling my own story and having my own show.

The great news was I didn't just have one hero. There are multiple heroes. There are incredible people out there that are doing amazing work. Another one of those heroes was Carlton Cuse. I was a huge Lost fan. When that show premiered everything on television at the time was procedural, including the first show I was on at the time Eyes. That show came and blew everything out of the water. It broke all the rules and redefined what was possible on network television. It honestly was one of the weirdest, smartest shows I've seen.

When I got a call saying that Carlton wanted to meet with me that wasn't exactly my plan. My plan was to sort of go off and develop, but I was such a huge fan of his that I felt that even if I go sit in the office with him and I turn down the job, it would have been and an incredible thing just sitting across from him and having a conversation with him.

To share the same creative space as the people you admire so much, who changed your medium, is a huge honor and a gift. So that was all I was committing to.

I went and had a two and a half hour meeting with Carlton. He impressed me so much. We had such an interesting connection that I felt that the best move for me creatively was to collaborate with somebody like him.

I still felt even after 12 years of making television that there was room for me to grow and learn from somebody who has been doing it for so many years so successfully.

I have a lot of ideas for shows that I hope I someday have the chance to make, but showrunning is an incredibly consuming thing creatively. At least it is for me. So I live, breathe, and eat The Returned right now. I definitely see myself someday when this is over to … hopefully get the opportunity to tell my own stories, but at the moment The Returned is where my heart is. 


Personal: Married, no kids. Lives in L.A.
Reps: Marissa Devins and Larry Salz, UTA; Joel McKuin at McKuin Frankel. 
Hot project: The Returned (A&E), March 9.