If Shonda Rhimes has created a land and Greg Berlanti has created a universe, then Julie Plec has created a family.
As showrunner of three CW shows — The Vampire Diaries (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET), The Originals (Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), and Containment (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET) — Plec is making her mark on TV by creating characters and stories that generate some of the most passionate fandoms around. With one plot twist, Plec has the power to break hearts or inspire hope in fans across the world. Over the years, she’s done both.
When it comes to crafting those pivotal moments, Plec relies on her fellow writers, her producers, and perhaps just as importantly, her favorite Italian restaurant in the heart of Atlanta, where all three shows film. When she’s in town, Plec can be found at Sotto Sotto roughly three nights a week. The owner knows her name. The bartender knows her wine (and meal) of choice (strozzapreti and a Chianti). And with her headphones on, Plec writes the words that will affect millions.
As Plec continues to expand her family with her newest entry, Containment, EW sat down at that very restaurant with stars from all three shows — Paul Wesley (The Vampire Diaries), Daniel Gillies (The Originals), David Gyasi (Containment), and Chris Wood (The Vampire Diaries, Containment) — along with Plec herself to talk about the world she’s created. To talk about the family she’s created.
On the actor-showrunner relationship
PAUL WESLEY: My experience has been one of safety. I feel like I can come to you and I can talk to you about anything and be as blunt as possible. I feel like there’s this beautiful bond that I don’t know if I’ll ever experience in my lifetime again.
JULIE PLEC: We probably never will. That’s what I keep realizing.
WESLEY: But you’ve worked on shows for a lengthy period of time, what is it ordinarily like?
After working as Wes Craven’s development executive, Plec got her start on the producing side, working on Scream 2 and Scream 3, among other films. Her first writing credit came in 2006 on ABC Family’s Kyle XY, three years before the launch of The Vampire Diaries.
PLEC: There are so many rules that one can tell you to follow — you have to be the boss, you have to keep yourself removed so you don’t let personal relationships impact your storytelling. There are great rules that I’ve just completely s–t on probably. I wouldn’t want to work this hard if I didn’t have a personal connection with the people I work with.
DAVID GYASI: Julie said something to me when we were discussing whether I should come and play, she said, “All I can tell you is we’re going to have a lot of fun, we’re going to work hard, and it will be like a family.” When I go in to meet someone and they’re talking about family and togetherness but also ambition — for me, that’s golden.
WESLEY: TV is a really weird thing because you could potentially be together for six, seven years.
PLEC: In five minutes you’re making this choice.
WESLEY: I think that people are foolish to not embrace the family-like environment because I think it enables people to feel comfortable and safe and be more artistic. Fear is generally a repressive quality. The other thing that’s great about Julie is work ethic. So I can email Julie and I can expect a response within a very, very short amount of time.
CHRIS WOOD: Especially between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
WESLEY: I can email her about literally the smallest minutia of a detail in a script and I know she’ll know what I’m talking about because she’s read it, even though there are three scripts coming in every week. That’s pretty amazing. I know a lot of producers and showrunners that are 9-to-5ers.
PLEC: That’s the thing that I think for better for worse defines me, which is I am crazy ambitious. I’m a totally wildly barely functional workaholic, which benefits everybody in that way because this [gestures to the table] is me. This table is one third of my life.
WOOD: Ian’s [Somerhalder] not here, so that’s …
WESLEY: He’s the other two thirds.
DANIEL GILLIES: Of all of our lives.
WOOD: Of everyone here, really. [Everyone laughs]
PLEC: In a weird way, it’s availability, accessibility, presence, and commitment, because people work very hard so that they can close their doors at 6:30 and go home. And I fully applaud people who can figure that out. I work very hard so that I can be present all the time for what I do and then carve out little pockets of time as I desire for my personal life. But a lot of times the personal life overlaps. I have a deep-rooted personal life with all these people here.
GILLIES: Yeah but I know doctors who work less hard than you.
WESLEY: Oh my god, yeah.
WOOD: You’re also smart about surrounding yourself with people that you trust. You know when there’s something that you need to address, and when there’s something that someone else can be designated to address.
PLEC: It’s been really easy to delegate on Containment because the show is so real-world.
WOOD: There’s no mythology.
PLEC: There’s no mythology that you have to really worry about f–king up, so I can say to these writers who I completely respect and think are quite good, “Whatever you come up with will be great. It doesn’t have to have my signature on it for it to be good.” Most of these scripts on Containment don’t have my signature on it, and I love it.
GILLIES: Are you getting better at delegating?
PLEC: 100 percent, because the show allows for it. There are people in our writers’ room who know more about medicine than I ever will. But in a vampire universe, like who knows more? [Laughs]
WOOD: The answer’s nobody.
PLEC: That’s the thing. You’re making it all up, right? So you’re relying on people’s creativity to be limitless, and everything you like or don’t like is so subjective, which is what makes writing these shows so hard. Powerfully good, but hard. You have no idea if this is going to be the witchy hijinks move that sends us leaping over the edge of tonal credibility. You second-guess everything, whereas in a medical virus show, it’s medically accurate or it’s not.
WESLEY: The problem with supernatural shows in general is that you enter the world of normalcy and then you sprinkle little bits of supernatural, but then by season 7 of 22 episodes, you’ve done all that. So the mystery’s gone. You have to continue trying to find new storylines.
PLEC: You’re struggling against either trying to one up yourselves to a fault — that’s how you jump the shark — or if you try to scale it way back and cement it back in the real world, people are like, “Oh that’s boring.” It’s hard to find the balance.
On the struggle with ratings
GILLIES: That brings us into a whole other territory, which might be a little raw. I feel like we’re doing the best season of the show [The Originals] that we’ve ever done right now. What do you feel when you get hammered with ratings?
PLEC: The problem with ratings is that you can give yourself a million reasons why they are what they are. When I’m feeling like giving myself the reasons to feel okay — “It’s a night move that nobody knew about,” “It’s a premiere that nobody knew about.” So I can make that excuse all day long, or I could say nobody’s watching live TV. But that’s true for everybody so you can’t really target that as the reason for a ratings decline.
WESLEY: Or you could look at, and maybe this is a little raw, the vampire thing. Vampire Diaries was huge success when it first premiered. It was massive, the biggest premiere for the CW. But also, Twilight was really popular and it was a very zeitgeisty thing. And now, True Blood has ended. I don’t think they’re making anymore Twilight movies, and I think that, regardless of how good Originals is on its own merit, it unfortunately has that generalization.
PLEC: But for Vampire, I would say there’s way too many places and other ways to watch TV and most 22-year-olds that you meet don’t own a television. Second is I think some genre and long-running series fatigue that is to be expected. That’s also one of the great things about working on the CW. Obviously they have to care about ratings to a certain degree …
WOOD: But they’ve proven that that’s not how they make decisions.
PLEC: They keep shows on in spite of ratings because they want the shows to live on. So we do get that freedom. I don’t think I’ve had anybody ever say to me, “Well, what are you doing for sweeps?” Every episode’s sweeps, you know? You don’t write better s–t because it’s November, because nobody’s watching it in November, they’re watching it on Netflix.
NEXT: What does it take to run three shows?
Realizing Wesley and Gyasi haven’t actually met, Plec introduces them as they shake hands across the table. Plec manages to get out, “Daniel and Paul and Chris” before Wesley interjects “had a threesome.” Plec adds, “Are good friends,” completely oblivious to the interruption. After seven years, she’s used to it.
On the most important quality for a showrunner to have
WOOD: I think the word precious is what comes to mind. When a writer views their words as precious, they’re unwilling to change, they’re unwilling to allow you to take what they’ve given and elevate it. An actor’s job; we should all be trying to elevate the work. If we’re taking something and just handing it out at the same dimension, then why are we here?
GILLIES: I agree. If you can shut your eyes and listen to the script and know what’s going on, it’s a failure in the writing. It’s radio with models.
WOOD: An actor’s only perception is of their character and they’re looking at one piece. A writer is looking at the entire story. They’re going to see things that the writer didn’t see because they’re only looking through their lens.
WESLEY: And vice versa.
WOOD: Absolutely, which is why the debate has to happen.
GILLIES: It’s a beautiful debate. The issue I think in the United States is this weird idea that confrontation is bad in this country. You can’t do collective art with people without there being debate. And that’s actually a great, great thing about Julie. You’re always trying to find the best way.
WOOD: She’s focused, but she’s malleable. Nothing is too precious.
PLEC: It’s all very precious. It’s very important. I resent everything that they’re saying. [Laughs]
GILLIES: That’s not true. What’s the most important thing for a showrunner — there’s two parts to that. One is permission to fail, and two is give me the f–king ball. I remember hearing, and I’m certainly not comparing myself to Denzel Washington but …
WOOD: It’s okay if you do.
GILLIES: I’m a little bit Denzel, let’s be honest. [Laughs] If only in looks. But Spike Lee was talking about Denzel Washington in an interview one time and someone was saying what’s it like to work with him. Spike Lee goes, “It’s like what they say when they’re talking about Jordan: Give him the ball. Just give him the ball.” I like to be given the ball. Let me play.
GYASI: For me the word is flexibility. Flexibility is the key to knowing the moment when you need to call upon your team and the moment when you need to lead. What I’m trying to do is make the best show that I can make. If you employ me and you accept my passion, you accept my ambition, and you accept my work ethic, and we work together with that, then we can hold our heads up high when it’s all said and done.
PLEC: If we do it well, then I’m okay if people don’t like it. I might go bang my head against the wall but I can still hold my head high because what we did we did with integrity.
WESLEY: That’s what’s hard about being a showrunner though. I would imagine that it’s difficult to be in that place and feel safe and comfortable in that place.
PLEC: The problem with my job is that you say flexibility — which is the ability to put on my artist hat, to put on my producer hat, to think like a director, to think like the lighting guy, the camera operator — which I completely agree with. It’s being able to juggle all those different parts of my brain so that I’m not just coming at it from a precious place. Semantically, used in a different way, I hear flexibility and I’m like [gasp] because my fear is constantly, “How do I have a collaborative relationship with everybody and not be a f–king pushover?”
GILLIES: That’s not a concern.
PLEC: [Laughs] Daniel’s like, “Trust me you’re not.” My fear is 1. Not to be a pushover. 2. Not be so codependent on wanting other people to be happy that you then cease to follow your own instincts and 3. Is opening a Pandora’s Box of if you’re open to everyone and their ideas and their opinions, then there’s a tsunami of points of view coming at you and you just frankly don’t have time for it.
GYASI: I don’t envy it. I admire it.
PLEC: It’s crazy. It’s bananas. But I think that, for me, the key word is compassion.
Gyasi excuses himself but asks that Gillies take notes for him as he doesn’t want to miss what Plec says next.
PLEC: This is my greatest Achilles heel in my personal life and either my greatest Achilles heel or my greatest gift in my professional life, but the idea that it is so easy to put people in a box and say it’s us against them. For me, in my personal life, if somebody does something that I find offensive, I think well what would make them say that? Is that really what they meant? I’m almost giving people too much of the benefit of the doubt in my day-to-day life in that I have, I’m sure, in my life, been mishandled, mistreated and walked over by peers. And more often than not, the truth is in some sort of in between. Rarely is someone an asshole, a bad person, a diva, a s–thead.
GILLIES: Now and again though…
PLEC: Now and again. Every now and then people are just f–king crazy, you know? That is the hilarious part of working in this business is you have to realize that those of us who put ourselves out there on a daily basis and expose ourselves raw creatively to see ourselves or our words on camera, we’re f–king crazy. Showrunning is an arrogant job. You have to be arrogant and hold yourself strong in order for people to hear you. Confidence partners with arrogance. The only person you have to trust is yourself. The only instinct you can trust is your own.
WESLEY: Arrogance is good.
PLEC: Because somebody needs to be the person that makes the decision.
Gyasi returns, and Gillies and Plec work together to catch him up on her thoughts on compassion.
WOOD: That’s why my one word was bulls–t and it was two words: Firm malleability.
PLEC: That’s an oxymoron.
GYASI: That’s the point.
WOOD: It’s flexibility but also the truth is, the showrunner is steering the ship and if the showrunner has no vision and listens to every whim of every person that comes at them, there’s going to be no cohesiveness. So that’s why it has to be firm, but it has to be willing to absorb that which is good and is elevating.
PLEC: I 100 percent agree with that, because ultimately if you are unflinching in your point of view, you are intransigent. I think that’s the word right? When you’re unwilling to be flexible. [Plec looks to Wesley to see if she’s correct.]
WESLEY: You’re the writer.
PLEC: Oh f–k it. I don’t know. If you are too malleable, you are weak. And your point of view is confused. So how do you stay strong, honor your own point of view, embrace and be willing to hear other people’s ideas that could make your own stuff better? How do you integrate that without feeling overwhelmed by other people’s ideas and, in spite of all of that, to keep enough of a positive attitude so that people actually like coming to work? Because, like Paul said, when you are spending seven years with somebody, imagine spending seven years with people you hate. That, to me, is a fate worse than death. I’d rather not work. I’d rather go back and wait tables. I liked waiting tables.
GILLIES: God, you’d be the richest waiter in the world.
PLEC: Dude I was really good. [Laughs] It goes back to family. We bicker, we have fun with each other, we make fun of each other, we get annoyed with each other, but when all is said and done, I get to Thanksgiving and I’m like, “Who am I going to spend Thanksgiving with?” Any of these people, if they said, “Come have Thanksgiving with my family,” I would go in a heartbeat. I’ve met their parents, I’ve watched them get pregnant, I’ve seen people couple up, I’ve seen people break up, I’ve seen people grow up. There are plenty of people who do what I do that don’t need that and that’s great for them, but if I didn’t have that, it would be just work and it wouldn’t be fulfilling.
NEXT: The group weighs in on the changing landscape of the CW
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of dessert, a variety of gelato flavors for the table to share. Plec can identify some of them by appearance, and for the rest, Gillies is more than willing to lend a hand, making sure everyone knows “this banana one is f–king out of this world.”
On the perception of the CW
GILLIES: Typically in awards season, we’re going to award a Showtime or an HBO or an FX. You’re not going to award network television and certainly not the CW. Do you ever feel that there’s an injustice to that?
PLEC: Yeah. We don’t do this for accolades ever but what is frustrating is that what’s become of the TV awards landscape: There is no room for the broadcast model because on cable, there exists both Bates Motel and Game of Thrones — a show made for two dollars can go up against a massive, massive exceptional HBO extravaganza and they’re all in the cable universe. I was convinced that Nina [Dobrev] should’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe the first season because [the Hollywood Foreign Press Association] has a history of nominating young actresses. They nominated Keri Russell; they nominated Sarah Michelle Gellar. They always pick the young, interesting actress from the new generation, and that year, they nominated Piper Perabo from Covert Affairs. And I was like, “S–t! That actually could’ve legitimately been Nina’s award.” But we’re a show that shoots in Atlanta. The Golden Globes are a campaign awards. In order to campaign for a Golden Globe, you do set visits, you throw luncheons, you do all those things.
WESLEY: Also there’s a stigma with a supernatural show.
PLEC: 1000 percent.
WESLEY: I’m very critical of television and of myself and of The Vampire Diaries, but I will say the first couple seasons of Vampire Diaries were f–king out-of-this-world good.
PLEC: There’s no reason why [director of photography] Paul Sommers shouldn’t have gotten an award for what he did in the first season of the show. Every single show on the CW has emulated the look of The Vampire Diaries — and other shows on broadcast emulate the look of The Vampire Diaries — because what he was doing was he was making a movie. So at least acknowledge him in some way. Don’t give him an Emmy, I don’t care. But find a way to acknowledge the craftsman.
On how the perception of the CW is changing
PLEC: The press in the last two years has been so kind and benevolent toward the CW brand in a way that they used to be very dismissive and patronizing. That’s what’s been nice to see because none of us sit around and say, “So we’re making a CW show, guys.” No one is sitting around and being like, “Well I gotta look this way and feel this pretty and show my abs this much.”
GILLIES: Well I am. Whatever. It’s no big deal. I work out.
WESLEY: No carb Mondays. [Laughs]
PLEC: Somebody made a comment to me the other day like, “Oh make up was afraid to make that person too dirty because of what we air on” and I said, “I never want to hear that again. I never want to hear your fear of dirtying someone up because of the network that we’re on.” That is completely counterintuitive to what we’re doing. And these guys from the beginning have all been so completely cool with embracing the job that they have to do in spite of the stigma attached to the brand in early years. The CW had to create its own brand coming off of UPN, coming off of the WB, and it takes a couple years to get into that and I like to think that [The Vampire Diaries and The Originals] had a part in that and I think that’s great.
WESLEY: I think so.
PLEC: So Arrow and Flash, they do those shows very smartly and they spend money and they do them well. And they don’t say, “Oh we’re on the CW therefore we don’t have to try that hard.” They set out to make action sequences and superhero s–t that’s 10 times cooler than anything you see on TV and that’s their mark of honor. Our mark of honor is sophisticated storytelling and sophisticated visuals and sometimes we hit it and sometimes we don’t but that’s what we aspire to. Containment is all about [looking] like nothing else on the network. This is like a real world slice-of-life capture, almost documentary of what would happen in this very real situation. That’s what’s fun. No other network is going to be like, “Sure you look like nothing else on our network so sure, go for it.” It’s free reign, which I love.
GILLIES: Let’s talk about Reign. [Laughs]
WOOD: No one talks about Reign anymore.
GILLIES: Let’s talk about making it rain. Let’s go to the f–king strip club. [Everyone laughs]