08 April 2021
I rewatched the final episode of Trying‘s glorious first season on Apple TV+ before my interview with its extremely endearing writer Andy Wolton. It really is one of the most perfectly pitched, utterly honest pieces of writing I’ve seen on television in a really long time. The whole season is special but that final episode (nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy in this year’s Critics’ Pick Awards), boy, that final episode is a gut-punch. Of all the brilliant television you didn’t see in 2020, make Trying a priority.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
I used to write stories when I was a kid. This is actually what happens in my actual writing career: I remember writing a 40-page story when I was about seven years old. I was gonna give it to my dad when he came home, and 10 minutes before he came home, I read it back and I hated it, and I ripped it all up and put it in the bin. Then he came home and I didn’t have it to give him, and I was really upset that I’d ripped it all up. This happens now; I tear up drafts [laughs] when I really shouldn’t.
But as an actual writer, I wrote my first script about 10 years ago for a BBC competition, and I won that competition. Then gradually, off the back of that, I got a career and all the rest of it, and ended up writing. So I entered a competition 10 years ago, but I didn’t do a lot of writing between those times. I was mainly just doing jobs and being very bad at it. I’m not one of those people that wrote an awful lot in their spare time, really.
Who are some of the artists that have always inspired you?
I enjoy Noah Baumbach’s films very much indeed. I think he’s fantastic. I grew up listening to Aaron Sorkin’s stuff; I think The West Wing is the best show ever. Seinfeld is something that made me feel that I wanted to do comedy, and sitcoms. Seinfeld used to be on here around quarter past 1 in the morning, and I used to stay up when I was a teenager and watch it. [With] every other show on TV, I understand where it comes from. I can understand how it’s possible. I can’t write Breaking Bad or the Wire, but I get it. Those two shows, to me, exist on such a level of complexity and genius that I don’t understand how they keep churning it out. So those two, really.
Other writers… there’s a writer called PG Wodehouse, who’s a British novelist. I used to read him as a kid when everyone else was reading kids’ books, and I was reading PG Wodehouse, which is a very Edwardian comedy sort of series, and I loved reading comedy books. I was always watching comedy and TV sitcoms. Always, always, always watching TV sitcoms. We used to have Sky when I was a kid. I loved Mad About You, Cheers reruns, Frasier – all of these old sitcoms.
All American stuff, though?
Yeah, mainly American stuff. American TV is my favourite TV. I think it’s better than anything else. And then you get things like The Office, or Fleabag, or stuff like that that come along. I don’t know if you know about Alan Partridge, but that’s a really great British show. Every now and then you get them, but generally speaking, it’s always been the American shows that I’ve gravitated towards.
But I never got into books, really. I was always a sitcom guy, so it was always Cheers, or Frasier. I’d sit down and watch Will and Grace. I could watch that for a day, or FRIENDS. In terms of writers, Aaron Sorkin and Seinfeld, I guess, and Larry David. But generally, I escaped into TV sitcoms.
What’s your own writing process like when you’re starting a new project?
I find it really hard to come up with ideas for projects; I find the writing much easier. The initial idea for a project is actually quite hard, which is why Trying is based on my own experiences a little bit. I was adopted, and I know about the issues involved in it, so it’s quite good and it comes from that in quite a natural way, because I find it hard to generate these out-of-nowhere ideas.
Basically, I looked at my own life, and I looked at my own experiences, to see if there’s something to write about there, because honestly, that’s just a lot easier. [laughs] Also, when you do end up writing it, you’re gonna know the world a little bit more. It’s gonna be more truthful, and you’re gonna be getting that world and speak with the voice that’s more authentic and consistent.
I haven’t started too many projects; I’ve only had two TV projects – this was the second one. The first one was a sitcom about adoption, and this was a sitcom about adoption, so I am typecasting myself a little bit. But I think it’s really about finding an idea that is true, and authentic, and that you feel that you can properly write and explore in a real way. Then really, it’s just about characters. It’s about finding two voices that you think can carry through that story. And once you’ve got that stuff down, everything else is just sort of hard work.
You mentioned that you’re adopted, and that’s what gave you the idea. How much of your own personal experience went into this show, and especially your parents’ personal experience, and what was their reaction?
My dad sadly died a year before it came out, which is very upsetting, but I talked to my mum a lot about what she went through, and there was quite a lot of stuff about that. Episode 8, where they go to the panel, is based a lot on what happened to my mum when they went to the panel. I talked to her a lot about the process.
Series 2 is when we start meeting children, and we start finding out about the difficulties children have. That is when I lean on my experiences a little bit, and my feelings as an adopted person, and what I went through, and what I still feel. I think that’s what I’m most interested in – those sorts of attachment issues, and behavioural issues, and all of those things that I live with every single day.
I had a breakup recently; for most people, when you’re adopted, a breakup is not just a breakup. Your heart breaks all over again. It’s like your parents are leaving you all over again. For people with attachment issues like that, even a falling out with a friend is tough. All change is tough. We moved house when I was about 10, and I made them recreate the bedroom from my old house in my new house. Exactly the same, because I couldn’t bear for it to be different. Any change is difficult. So when we get into Series 2 and Series 3 – which I’m starting to write now – and we have the children, that’s when I’m able to use my experience more: about what these children are going through, what these children are feeling, how do you deal with those things.
In Series 1, I basically just used my personality- Jason, and Nikki are half of my personality. Half of me is angry and impatient, and not in touch with my feelings, and the other half of me is constantly crying and worrying. So they’re basically both copied off me. [laughs]
You split yourself in half and made yourself a couple.
What can you tell us about the process of getting Trying greenlit and off the ground?
Originally, Apple weren’t looking for comedy. We just sent Jay Hunt [creative director at Apple UK] the script, and she really liked it. We went and talked to her, and she commissioned three more scripts.
I’m a new writer, relatively, and they were probably a little bit scared – so I wrote three scripts, and then the LA guys flew over, and we had a big pitch meeting in London, where I had to be very un-British. A British person in the pitch meetings goes, “I mean, this is probably rubbish, but it could work, it’s probably rubbish” – and they say “you can’t do that, you can’t do that! You have to be American and go “this is the best show in the world””.
So I had to go in there and be rudish, and really pretend that I was absolutely confident that this is definitely gonna be a hit. And then we left the meeting, and they said they really, really like it. They’re gonna greenlight a series.
Then I had to write five more. It was very nerve-wracking, to write three scripts before you get a series commissioned. It’s a lot of work, and stress on each one, thinking “If they don’t like this, oh God, this all comes to nothing” – it’s all terrifying. So it was a long process, but ultimately they really loved the show and they backed us a lot with it, which is great. But I think they wanted to see the three episodes first, to see where it was going.
You’re the sole credited writer in all of season 1. Do you work with a writers’ room at all, or is the series written entirely independently, almost like a novel?
Series 1 was almost entirely me. I got a little bit of help from a few other people, but I actually had a bit more time on Series 1; all three were done before we even got the greenlight, so I was only really writing five in eight months, it was okay.
[With] Series 2, I still wrote every episode, but we had additional material from a couple of other people across the series that have just come for little brainstorming groups, and that sort of thing. I always liked the idea of opening it up to other writers. It doesn’t generally always work that much when it’s such a personal story. It’s absolutely not about being a better or worse writer.
When you’re in the zone with the show, you really feel what this needs now, what this episode needs, or what this series needs at this point, and you’re in the zone a bit more. It generally works if I do it, but I had a bit more help in Series 2 in writers’ rooms where we just brainstormed ideas and punch-ups, and stuff like that. There was additional material, but I’m still the main writer, and I’m doing Series 3. The aim is for me to write Series 3 as well, but we’ll see how tired they get. [laughs] There is much more of a culture in America of writers’ rooms, and we don’t really have that so much in this country [the UK], so it’s a bit harder to make that work.
I imagine especially with season 1, which is more outside your own personal experience, that there was a fair amount of research involved. What were some of the most interesting experiences you had talking to prospective and adoptive parents?
I talked to a lot of parents. There’s a lot of upset and a lot of trauma involved in this process, realizing that there is no adoption without trauma. The adoption situation has changed in this country in the last 30 years. When I was adopted, I was adopted as a baby, and that’s easier for the baby. Now I think there are very few babies adopted. Actually, the people that get adopted are young children, and when they’re taken from homes and have been there for longer, it’s much harder for them, so the children you’re dealing with have a lot more problems than they did in the past. Realizing that we have to be truthful to the fact that we are dealing with a situation where there are children who are very upset and have gone through a lot, and realizing that you can’t just write a happy sitcom. You have to show that there’s real pain and emotional suffering there. So realizing early on, talking to people, that that was something I’d have to wrestle with, and you can’t blow past that.
But also, the humour people used to deal with that was pretty amazing, and the strength that people have. I was talking to someone with four children – one natural-born child and three adopted children – all under the age of about five, and she’s on her own, a single mom. It’s just a crazy mad life, but she’s having fun. She said she came down, and they’d all had traumatic experiences in their lives, but she came down one morning and all the children were arguing about which one of them had had the hardest life so far. [laughs] Then her biological child chipped in and said, “I’ve had the hardest life!” She said, “You’re my child. You haven’t had a hard life at all!”
The constant strength that it takes to do something as amazing as adopting, especially now, blows you away, and the way that you just have to take it in stride. People don’t really understand how difficult it is, which I think is part of the reason why I wanted to write it.
Speaking of trauma, you’re nominated in the Comedy category, but I sob my way through the nominated episode every time. That final one. Just sobs, every time. Tell me about striking that tricky balance between comedy and drama.
It’s what I like most, I think; I feel there needs to be truth in shows. The best shows have truth in them, and I find life quite sad a lot of the time. I’m quite a sad person, I suppose. I think it’s left over from being a kid. But I don’t know any other way to do it. I don’t know any other way to write comedy without some sadness. I don’t know any other way to put stakes into a show without sadness, without the threat of loss. Someone could die, someone could leave you – that’s constantly stalking, every waking hour.
I really like the challenge of taking something sad and making it funny, and making it poignant. That’s my favourite thing – just a really poignant moment, or a scene. I can’t tell you how I go about doing it, because it just seems very natural to me. If I had my way, every conversation in the show would just be two watery-eyed people [laughs] talking to each other. That’s really what I want.
One of the opening scenes is them talking on a park bench about how they’d go on, because they can’t any more. And we actually had to cut the joke – “We can’t have children– what should we do?” And he said, “Well, should we just kidnap that one?” And a really cute boy walks past, and “No, we can’t – they always look harder for the really cute ones.” We had to cut it, because we couldn’t do that joke, but I just like the idea of smiling through the tears. That strikes me as a really nice space to inhabit, I think. And I think I’ve been sad in my life, so I think I have a sense of what it’s like to be sad [laughs]. I need this award, I need it! [laughs]
Imelda Staunton is also nominated for her work on this show this year. Can you tell us a little bit about working with her, and also with the rest of the cast? Especially when you’re casting people to play what we’ve now learned are two halves of you.
Esther Smith, who plays Nikki, was the first person we cast, and she was who we wanted from the start. She just blew us away, because she really is Nikki. There are so many similarities between me and Esther, but also so many similarities between Esther and Nikki – and she cries all the time as well, she’s a bit like me – so she sobbed her ways through the series.
I think she’s such a key to the show because you really have to feel sympathy for her character. You really have to want her to succeed. And she is so good at straddling those comedy and sad moments. So brilliant at it, because she’s a brilliant actress, as well. We’re in such safe hands with her. She just gets the emotional heart of it, you know? You can give her anything and she’ll find the emotional reason behind it.
Rafe [Spall] is a great counterbalance to that, because Esther will come in and she’ll have a chart at home with the emotional journey of the cast all the way through the series, and Rafe will come in not having learnt any of his lines at all. It’s quite nice because you get that balance, and that’s what you want in the show: you want the tension between these two parenting styles. These two people who are very different and learning to be together, and they do that so well.
There’s not many interesting stories to do with Imelda, because Imelda [Staunton] comes in and just nails it first time, and then goes. She’s just so brilliant and perfect and wonderful and amazing, and she was so lovely and generous about the script and the words, and she was so happy with it. She’s been nominated for an Oscar. For someone to be that happy to come and do a show is so lovely, but she’s just such a complete professional, and her as well as Phil Davis, who plays Vic, who we see even more of in Series 2 in a really good way; they’re such brilliant, brilliant professional and brilliant actors. They blow my mind. They’re really amazing. But Imelda’s the most professional person I’ve ever worked with. She really is. I mean, she turned up to the read. You think Imelda Staunton may not come to the read, but she came to the read, gave it all the bells and whistles, started crying at the end – it was great. It’s such an honour for her to read; I can’t believe it’s happening sometimes.
Jim O’Hanlon directed every episode in season 1. Tell us a little bit about working with him to help shape the vision of the show.
Jim is great because we both inhabit the same space of comedy and drama, and he’s very good at not letting it get too sad. He’s a very real director, but he’s also very, very conscious that it’s a comedy and we need funny stuff, or we need jokes. And he’s got a great artistic vision, and great vision for what looks beautiful on screen. And Apple; luckily we have the money to make it look like an indie film, make it look good.
But he’s very, very good at reminding me that this can’t just be two people talking about their feelings. We need stuff to happen, and we need drama, and we need funny jokes. I give him the scripts. I feel like that’s my job done, and then I turn up on set, and he’s like, “We’ve got half an hour. Do you wanna see if you can think of another two jokes?” and it’s like, “I’ve gone on like this for a year. Can I not have a day off?” He pushes me hard to make it funnier and funnier and funnier, which is really what you need. What you don’t want is someone just taking the script and going “Great, we’ll just do that.” He really cares about it, and he really pushes it. There are probably another 40 jokes in series 2 because he came to me and said, “There’s space for jokes, see what you can do.” He’s great. He’s so invested in it, it’s brilliant, and I trust him now completely.
Did you have a favourite moment in season 1?
I’ll tell you one that really clicked for me, that we had a show that could be really good. In episode 1, they have sex on the bus and then they go straight to the doctor, and they tell them that they can’t have kids. I was sat on the other side of the room watching it on the video, and Esther did this thing where she said “You mean I can’t have a baby?” And her voice just broke. And I was like “Oh my God, this is proper acting, this is proper drama. She’s amazing!”
And Rafe is brilliant as well in that scene. I was suddenly like “Oh my God, I can write real drama stuff for them, and they can do it! This is not just a sitcom. They can really do that!” And I really thought “Oh God, this really opens up so, so much.” That was probably the moment when I thought there’s something special, and there’s a really good show here.
You’ve already done this a little bit, but tease us a little more for the upcoming second season.
Series 2 is filmed and in the bag, and what happens is, Series 2 is more the search for children. So they’ve been approved, and then in Series 2, they search for the children. They miss out, and they come close; they don’t come close, but eventually they find a child that they really want to adopt, and so most of Series 2 is them trying to get to adopt her, and with a twist at the end. [laughs] I think that’s all I’m allowed to say.
Do you know yet when it’s dropping?
It’ll be the summer, I think. I don’t know. They’re doing it as quickly as they can, so I imagine it’ll be early summer. And they might do it all at once, they might do it one episode at a time. I’m not sure. [Update: Season Two premieres May 14th!]
Would they have had to film that during quarantine?
We filmed it, yeah; September to December last year. So we were allowed to. In Britain with the TV industry, we were ludicrously classed as key workers [laughs] even though we’re just making a TV show. Here’s what I think, Kelly: the government can’t afford to shut down the TV industry in this country, so they’ve had to just call us key workers. So we were just masked up for three months, COVID-testing three times a week, constantly washing our hands all the way through, and somehow we managed to get through without a shutdown, without anyone getting hurt, and so we did that, and now it’s just being edited and it’s gonna be out in the summer. Hopefully I’ll write Series 3 now, and by the time we film it, this will all be behind us, I hope.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’ve always liked Canada. I’ve always thought you were the best. Came to Canada when I was 19. I loved it. I went to Montreal. I had a really nice time. And my girlfriend left me, so this award would mean a lot to me – I don’t want to put any emotional pressure on you to give it to me [laughs] I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’ll be fine. This is the second award I got nominated for, and I’m very honoured. The idea that people in Canada watching the show is crazy to me. Just the idea that people all over the world watched it. I know, I know – but there was someone on the crew this series who was from Mexico. He said “Oh, my mum and dad in Mexico love it.” I’m like, “This is so crazy! So crazy!” I’m not used to it. You write for the BBC, and it just goes out on the BBC. It’s amazing to me. Thank you for watching it, I suppose. [laughs]
Well, I loved it.
I think Series 2’s even better, I gotta say. It’s gonna be really good.