It’s no accident that writer-producer Craig Wright’s latest creation, OWN’s megachurch drama Greenleaf, centers on religion. Before his days writing for Six Feet Under, Lost and Tyrant, among others, Wright was working as an associate minister when he got a call from two agents asking him to come to Hollywood. Nearly 15 years later, Wright serves as creator and showrunner on Greenleaf,on which Winfrey serves as both an exec producer and a recurring guest star.
Ahead of Greenleaf’s season-two premiere March 15, Wright spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his path to success.
I thought I wanted to be an actor or a songwriter. I was at boarding school when I was 14 and a teacher asked if I wanted to try out for a play, The Fantasticks. It really opened my eyes up to a whole new world because at the time I had a very bad home life and, like a lot of people who enter theater, I was looking for a family and I found one.
I was never good at acting at all — I was far too self-conscious and aware. I tried out for a part in a play at the Children’s Theater Company a few years later. I didn’t get it, but the artistic director came and found me at the record store where I worked and he said, “I want you to come be an apprentice in the company.” I became an apprentice at the company and later, a journeyman. That second year, I met a playwright in the production who said, “You should write a play and submit it for this thing called the Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center.” So I wrote a play and I got it. I was 21 and I got $5,000 and this was in like 1986 or 1987, so I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I’ll do that, I’ll write plays.’
After that, I treaded water for several years. I crept ever so slightly ahead. I certainly wasn’t achieving what I thought I would want to achieve. I read a book by the poet James Merrill called The Changing Light at Sandover. I liked it so much that I called information, got his number and left a message on his answering machine saying something like, “I’m Craig Wright. You don’t know me but I love your book and there’s no reason for you to call me ever, but wow.” He called me back and we started this friendship writing letters back and forth talking about writing and books. As a result of my friendship with him, I wrote a play called Molly’s Delicious when I was about 27 years old, and I finally got what I thought was my big, big break. We started rehearsals for the play at the Hartford Stage and then it suddenly got canceled and I actually cried. I just felt like, “I’m never going to get to do what I want to do.”
After that, I looked up seminaries in the yellow pages and I went and interviewed at all the different seminaries in town. When I was a kid, I was super precocious and read very early so I went to my rabbi’s house at least two or three days a week after school because they told me I was supposed to be a rabbi. So there was this seed planted that somehow I was going to be involved in something like that.
So I went to seminary for five years and got my masters in divinity degree. While I was there though, I didn’t stop writing. Seminary gave me the content to write about, which was spiritual stuff. So I wrote these two plays [The Pavilion, Orange Flower Water] which suddenly launched my career. I did what I recommend to any writer now any day of the week which is always be advancing. I finished my degree, and I grew my playwriting career that way.
Then one day, I was working as an associate pastor at a United Methodist church in St. Paul, and I came home from work and my then-wife said to me, “Some people called you. Here’s the number.” It turns out they were two managers from AMG. Marc Korman, who’s still my agent to this day, said, “We think we can get you $450,000 a year working in Hollywood.” They had read Orange Flower Water and had given it to the executive producers of Six Feet Under. They asked if I wanted to come out to LA and meet Alan Ball, David Janollari and Bob Greenblatt. I didn’t even have cable at the time. So I met with them and they gave me a job on Six Feet Under.
The minute I got here, I started writing against money, against privilege, against everything. After Six Feet Under, I got a job on Lost and signed a deal with Touchstone Television. When I finally got a chance to create a show, it was Dirty Sexy Money, which was a show about the dangers of money, of falling into a trap, then I wrote Underemployed, which was about people who are at the risk of losing their lives in the pursuit of security, and now Greenleaf is about how the love of money can be the root of all evil.
I view my time in Hollywood not at all in terms of achievement; I view it entirely in terms of who did I learn from. I see it totally as moving up a ladder where I have access to smarter and smarter people. Whether I was working at the church or in a writers’ room or getting notes from the studio, I do the same thing, which is I listen, I offer ideas and then I try to form them into linear stories.
I met Oprah when she made a documentary series for OWN called Belief. I got invited to come to a screening to give my thoughts before it aired. She and I started talking and she found out I used to be a minister, so she started telling me stories about her history in the black church and I started telling her stories about my history in the white/everything else church and it just grew.
We declared early on that our intention with this show was to lovingly and respectfully interrogate the black church, not to tear it down at all but to make it even better by asking tough questions. We both had experiences where we tried to ask more questions than people wanted to answer. I asked a question of my boss one time at the church, and he said, “Craig, you can either work for the church or on the church, but you can’t do both.”
Personal: Lives in Los Angeles with his wife and has two children (and a third one on the way).
Reps: Marc Korman at WME, Ziffren Brittenham
Hot Project: Creator, Greenleaf (OWN), returns March 15.