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This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If there’s a word to define the woman who introduced millions to Lena Dunham‘s naked body, it’s far from the one Sue Naegle uses to describe herself on a recent sunny morning inside SoHo House.
“I’m actually totally the prude of my family,” laughs the blond exec, dressed casual-cool in slim pants, a black blazer and jewel-tone-blue blouse (she opts to wear such labels as J.Crew and Rag & Bone). “My mom actually likes Girls a lot,” says Naegle, sipping green tea. “It’s funny to her that the show was so controversial in how it depicted sex and nudity. But I do think the honesty is nothing we’ve ever seen before, and the ability to talk about the awkwardness is revolutionary. I really envy Lena’s level of self-possession at such a young age.”
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Since the former UTA agent took her post as HBO’s entertainment president in 2008, the premium cable network can still — despite battling its toughest glut of cable competition in its 40-year history from such networks as AMC, FX and Showtime — boast the highest number of critically acclaimed comedies and dramas on television. Under Naegle’s leadership, HBO again earned the most Emmy nominations of any outlet (81), including two for best drama (Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones) and a record half of the total potential nominees for comedy (Girls, Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm). (The network also had high hopes for its Dustin Hoffman horse-racing drama, Luck, but the series was canceled in March amid the deaths of horses featured on the show, a subject about which the network and Naegle decline to comment further.)
While Emmy’s top prizes went to Showtime’s Homeland and ABC’s Modern Family, Naegle, 43, remains undeterred in perpetuating HBO as the medium’s most fervent purveyor of edgy material. Currently the most powerful woman in premium cable (and most other scripted cable outlets, including AMC and FX, who have male entertainment chiefs), Naegle says her proudest accomplishments on this front are Thrones and Girls, the latter of whose cultural buzz was underscored when its three-time Emmy-nominated star Dunham recently netted a $3.5 million book deal with Random House.
“The best part of my job is that we can be making shows like Boardwalk, Thrones, True Blood but also female-centered comedies like Enlightened, Veep and Girls,” says Naegle of her current slate. “It’s my primary responsibility to protect the talent and make sure their voices stay distinct. I’ve always wanted to be close to the content. I mean, I actually still read for pleasure!”
The seeds of Naegle’s love for television were planted during her childhood in Rockaway, N.J., when her parents (her father was a high school coach, her mother a medical-market researcher) allowed their two daughters the most luxurious of habits.
“They weren’t restrictive about what we watched at all — Dallas, Falcon Crest, Saturday Night Live and a lot of comedies,” she recalls. “It’s funny. … I’m much tougher on my kids. They aren’t allowed to watch TV at all during the week,” she says with a laugh about life at home with her three adopted daughters, ages 10, 8, 3, with her husband, writer-comedian Dana Gould. (They met at comedian Kathy Griffin‘s annual Christmas party in 1996.)
Naegle studied comparative literature and communications at Indiana University, but the tug of showbiz pulled her to New York, where she interned at Orion Classics (now Sony Pictures Classics). Fearing financial insecurity in New York, she moved to Los Angeles, and, though void of “any connections” in Hollywood, she applied for and scored a job in the UTA mailroom in 1992 on the advice of a family friend.
“It was the best way to learn the business; it’s Darwinian yet also a meritocracy,” says Naegle, who at age 22 spent only two months shuffling packages before being chosen to work with agent Nancy Jones (now at CAA). By 24, Naegle had her own clients and had fallen in love with what she calls the “nobility” of introducing worthy talent to the masses.
One of the many benefactors of Naegle’s “fringy” taste was filmmaker and Enlightened creator/star Mike White, who became her client in 2004 after a tough entree into TV. “My ABC show, Pasadena, had been canceled, and I felt unprotected in the world of agents, kind of like a junkyard dog,” recalls White. “Sue was aggressive, but very helpful, in talking me through other options at places like HBO that were better for my style of work.”
After seeing such star clients as screenwriters Alan Ball and Charlie Kaufman win Oscars (American Beauty and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, respectively) and dipping her toe, successfully, into the programming arena (she was instrumental in getting Ball’s series Six Feet Under on the air), Naegle took the opportunity to succeed HBO’s long-serving entertainment guru Carolyn Strauss and help guide the network — then on the cusp of its flagship drama, The Sopranos, leaving the air — into its next era.
“I was totally bereft when she left us,” admits UTA co-founder and board member Peter Benedek. “She was a wonderful agent and took it very personally when buyers didn’t get how amazing her clients were,” he says, adding that Naegle first learned of his client, Dunham, after he suggested she watch Dunham’s hit indie film Tiny Furniture. “She immediately asked, ‘OK, how can I get into business with this girl?’ There would be no Girls without Sue.” (There’d also likely be no Thrones, of which Naegle was an early champion, despite the dense content of George R. R. Martin‘s fantasy novels.)
“It’s really exciting to see someone like her in the driver’s seat at HBO,” adds White. “Someone who cares about the content above all else.”
Naegle admits her passion makes the gig “a hard job to turn off,” and spends all her free time taking in as much reading as her eyes can handle. “[HBO co-president] Richard Plepler and I are both insomniacs, and sometimes he e-mails me late at night,” says Naegle. “One time I was like, ‘What are you doing up?!’ and he wrote back, ‘I can’t sleep, there’s just so much to know.’ I thought: ‘That is exactly right. But the hunger for knowing is what excites me. I get to geek out about editing, be on set, give notes to writers — I love it all.”
And did she, ahem, lose any sleep when rival network Showtime scored the coveted best drama series win at the Emmys? “Let’s not get crazy — I wasn’t raising a glass when Homeland won,” she says, laughing. “But it’s hard not to root for them. I’ve known [Showtime Entertainment president] David Nevins for 20 years. But our networks have different personalities. That’s why it’s such an exciting time to be doing what we’re doing.”
She pauses, smiles and adds with no reservation, “I welcome the competition.”
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