In the new movie Seeing Other People, Jay Mohr and Julianne Nicholson star as a happy couple, who, weeks before their wedding, decide to engage in an "experiment" in which they will sleep with other people. What might sound like the setup for a raunchy sex comedy ends up being a very funny and sweet meditation on the limitless boundaries of true love. The film's charm is due largely to its stars: Mohr is an underutilized actor who normally plays sleazy slicksters but indeed excels as a likeable Everyman in films that include this and Picture Perfect, and Nicholson is a rising star who won raves for her work in the indie film Tully and was briefly a series regular on Ally McBeal. But credit is also due to the team behind the camera: writer/director Wally Wolodarsky and his co-writer Maya Forbes.
Wolodarsky and Forbes have been married for five years and together for 10, and each has forged successful careers outside of the partnership. Wolodarsky was on the original writing staff of The Simpsons, where he and partner Jay Kogen penned some of the series' classic early episodes. After leaving The Simpsons, Wolodarsky pursued directing features, making a memorable debut with the black comedy Coldblooded, which starred Jason Priestly as a quirky hitman. Forbes got her start writing on the acclaimed HBO series The Larry Sanders Show before moving on to sitcoms that include The Naked Truth. She is also rumored to be the basis for the Laura San Giacomo character in Just Shoot Me, also named Maya, which was created by Larry Sanders producer Steven Levitan. Forbes and her future husband met in 1992 through mutual friends in the writing community but didn't become a couple until 1994. The reason why, appropriately enough, is that both were seeing other people.
Back Stage West: How much of this story is based on your real lives?
Wally Wolodarsky: Well, characters and situations are taken from people that we know, but we've never engaged in poly-amory.
Maya Forbes: With each other. In the past, I had a long-distance boyfriend, and we tried it—we tried to see other people. It was unsuccessful. And my grandparents actually tried it. They had something they called "The Experiment." It didn't go that well. They saw it through and it caused a lot of heartache, but they were together for a long time and they got past it.
BSW: When you two met was there any hesitation about dating a fellow writer?
Wolodarsky: Not for me.
Forbes: I don't know if I've ever dated anyone but writers.
BSW: But in such a competitive industry, is it hard not to be competitive with each other?
Wolodarsky: We work a lot together. For me, the projects that we don't work together on, it's like having a hidden collaborator, because I'm getting to show all my material to her to get her thoughts, and the same thing in reverse. To me, I view it as an extension of our relationship. So if she makes more money—and she has, many times—it all goes to the same place anyway, so it doesn't matter.
Forbes: I wish he made more money than I do. I feel like any success is good for both of us, and I don't feel competitive about that.
BSW: How do you find actors?
Wolodarsky: I like to cast—and I get yelled at all the time for this—by meeting people. An audition is almost a secondary part of the process. Meeting with someone, getting their thoughts about the script, trying to gauge what kind of person they are—those are more important, ultimately, for me than what's the audition like. I've actually auditioned here and there, and you only have to do it once to know how incredibly nerve-racking it is and how you're often not at your best when you're doing it. It's a kind of unfair process.
BSW: Did you start out wanting to be an actor?
Wolodarsky: I'm like most writers in that I'm really a closeted actor. But I've always cared about being a writer and a director. I love acting, I love it. But I get cast in movies I direct and friends direct, and that's about it. So I'm not making a real effort, but I find it to be a very creative form of expression, and it's really a challenge for me because I spend all day talking to actors, and I really try to channel that when I'm being an actor. It helps me be a better director.
Forbes: I don't want to be an actor. So that's the secret of our relationship. I acted as a child. My mother was involved in the theatre, so I did some acting when I was 7. After that I just never wanted to do it again. I didn't like the attention. And when I would audition for things and didn't get them, it was painful. It's hard for me when children audition. I did a pilot a few years ago, and a little girl came in to audition, and I couldn't stay. It's not my bag.
BSW: How did you break into the business?
Wolodarsky: Jay and I were runners on It's Garry Shandling's Show. Jay was the person who initiated it. I kind of understood that I wanted to be in that world, but I didn't even really have the idea of being a TV writer. Jay's father was a TV writer, and he provided the impetus for me to get involved. And we just hooked up with the right group of people, and our scripts were accepted by them, and we got hired. It's sort of the dream— to be a PA and get hired as a writer. It can happen. I'm living proof.
Forbes: I came out after college to be in the Disney internship program for screenwriting for a year, and then they have an option to pick you up, but they didn't pick me up. Then I wrote some spec scripts, and I knew a lot of guys because I was on the Harvard Lampoon and there were a lot of people a few years older than me who had gotten jobs and were starting out, and they were helpful to me in terms of getting an agent. Then I got an offer from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Larry Sanders Show, and I ultimately decided to go to The Larry Sanders Show. I didn't even realize at the time how terrific it was, because the kind of writing I was doing later for more traditional sitcoms, I hadn't realized how free it was to write the things that made you laugh that didn't require a huge audience to laugh at them, too. It was really a very satisfying writing experience.
BSW: Is it difficult for a woman to write for television?
Forbes: Writing for comedy, there's definitely a lot more men in the room, and there are some rooms that I've been in that are a little more … immature. But my primary experience, at Larry Sanders, was really very positive. I learned a lot there, had a very good rapport with Garry Shandling, and I think you'll always get different personalities in any work environment. I didn't have a hard time, but I could see how some people might. It is hard, to some extent, not wanting to be hanging around until 2 in the morning, which is the environment for a lot of TV shows and is not a choice I can make anymore in my life. But if I were a 40-year-old guy and unmarried, I'd probably still love hanging around in those rooms all night long. It was fun when I was 26.
BSW: Wally, you left The Simpsons, a huge hit show, in its fourth year. What prompted that?
Wolodarsky: Jay and I were the first guys to leave. It was a time when there was a lot of money flowing around, and it was hard to resist. We'd also been at that company, Gracie Films, for the first five years of our career, and so it felt like the time to leave. The whole reason I got into it was to direct movies; that's where I always wanted to land. And two years after we left, I directed Coldblooded, and that set me on the course I wanted to be on.
BSW: How do you handle setbacks?
Forbes: You just never know what people are going to respond to. It's important just to keep putting stuff out because it's surprising: Some things you think are the best things you've ever done, people are just lukewarm about, and other things that you had a fun time working on, they respond to. Just keep producing things. It's hard when your stuff isn't perceived well, so it's good to keep putting something else out there behind it and trying not to dwell on it.
Wolodarsky: Even if you break through and you sell a script or get a job, that lasts such a finite amount of time, and you're immediately required to do as good or better by the next person. This is a rejection-based business. I'm sure even Jack Nicholson has experienced great disappointment in his career for something that he didn't get or for something being received negatively that he cared about. It's sort of like an athlete practicing his shot. People only see Michael Jordan being amazing on the court, but nobody is looking at that foundation that he's put in through hours of practice, determination, and will. That's what I think sort of insulates you ultimately: You just have to have faith that you're going to persevere in the face of rejection—which is coming, no matter who you are. BSW