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Rising Through the Ranks: Jake Lawler on falling in love with the leap

June 27, 2022
Photo courtesy of Jake Lawler
6 min read time

Jake Lawler brings all the focus and determination from his history as a professional athlete to his current career in the writers’ room. I wish 10yr old me could see how good it gets, but I know I’m making him proud,” Lawler tweeted after landing in the room of a live-action Disney+ show. A dream come true for any writer, but especially for Lawler, who had a somewhat unconventional journey.

“I was born in New York, but I was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, being some odd 2,000 miles away, Hollywood is sort of like the mystic fairytale dimension from which no Southerner returns if they go. It was not really on the radar in terms of a feasible opportunity,” Lawler says.

Despite his love for film, television and comic books, “When I was growing up, the external pressure was that you would do something practical and that writing is something that you do for your job and it’s not your job.”

Lawler was able to go to college because of his talents on the field. “I played football; that was something that I particularly played to be of financial support for my parents. It was something that I liked, but it was never something that I truly loved doing. But I worked hard enough to be able to get a scholarship offer from Chapel Hill, and I was kind of trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. There was a moment that I think every player comes to when you realize that you’re not going to make it to the next level. And that can be a hard pill to swallow, especially if your identity is sort of built-up – nearly a decade was enraptured in football.”

Defining moments that lead to the writers’ room

But then it was one of those little life moments that happened, that when you look back, realize they were the pebble in the lake that created the direction your life would go.

“I remember walking out of Into the Spider-Verse in 2018, and sort of just being transformed a little bit by the experience. But even more so, there's a little Black kid and his dad and the kid looks up at his dad and says, ‘Daddy that was me.’ You know which, which broke me in a way because that's not something that I was ever able to see when I was growing up. Me and my brother, we were never able to see that. And that's the same for millions of Black children that were never able to see themselves represented dutifully or correctly with the exception of… I always think of Static Shock as our only real link, and things like Crooklyn, but there wasn't a lot; not in the way that it was for white audiences.”

“I had [also] dealt with some pretty severe issues with depression for nearly a decade,” Lawler explains of the other part of his journey that encouraged him to put fingers to the keyboard. “I knew that I finally wanted to get some help because I had never told anybody, and in June of 2019, I wrote a 2,300-word essay documenting my experiences with depression, hoping that being a Black male college athlete, if I could kind of hit that toxic masculinity triangle head-on, I'd be able to facilitate a better discussion regarding mental health. And it did. It made waves and a lot of people were able to see it. And I think it was the first time that I realized that my writing was good and that it could do some good and after that moment, I decided that I wanted to graduate early, come out to L.A., and do something in entertainment. My coach, Coach Mack Brown, was very instrumental in helping that push forward.”

 

The cross-country journey to staffing

“He was able to set up five meetings for me, which was very kind of him,” acknowledges Lawler. From the time he spoke with his coach to coming to L.A., Lawler spent eight months teaching himself screenwriting. 

“I always say that I may have a degree from Chapel Hill, but I think the degree I use is from Google University. I wrote a pilot about a Black teen with telekinesis as an ode to my adolescence, and sort of an apology to me and my brother because we had been growing apart and it kind of helped us find our way back,” Lawler says. His five meetings then turned into 25 meetings and an assistant job with Luke Ryan. “Through him, I met my manager and my lawyer and they both signed me. That was May 2021, and then it was a deadlock sprint to end up getting staffed.”

“Within that span, there’s like 50 to 55 different no’s that uh, didn’t make things easy,” he chuckles. “But I was like, with football, failure was the default. You fail in everything that you do: You fail in the weight room, you failed [by] messing things up in practice. Learning from that failure is fundamental to being a good player. I think because of those intangible things that I was taught with football, all the failure out here and all the rejection became much easier to swallow because I realized it wasn't personal, because it never had been for me.”

 

Inside the writers’ room

“It's an all-Black writers’ room, which is amazing. From showrunners to assistants, everyone's Black, which is just a beautiful thing to have your first room look like that — it’s very inspiring,”

Lawler’s quiet and assured presence is undoubtedly appreciated in his room, as is the work ethic that he picked up all those years as an athlete.

“I'm very thankful for football, because being a college athlete, your schedule is very regimented. I’m thankful that I had the staff that I had to help instill that [discipline], and that's something that I've carried into this career. I wake up very early. I lock completely in and focus solely on my responsibilities as a writer in this room. It's imperative I think, especially as a young writer, coming into it with an egoless state of mind that l this is not your baby. This is someone else's, and how can you nurture it? I think it's important to understand that you're there to help, you're not there to be the leader.” 

While Lawler finds that “if you love writing, it’s all easy because you can sort of fall in love with the page.” He does put in the work that makes it feel that effortless: From outlines and character sheets for his own projects, he’s continually working on his own horror, sci-fi fantasy projects, as well. “I would not mind doing that for the rest of my life; playing in those spaces. And I don't think it would ever get old because it doesn't get old for me as a fan.”

 

Advice for the next generation of screenwriters

“I understand that I'm in a unique position, due to my age and due to how quickly it's happened. I want to be able to be a beacon for other young writers, just to show that, especially from the South and especially Black writers, that you don't need to listen to those external pressures that I think like a lot of us fall victim to about needing to do something practical. I think we need more voices from the South to show the diaspora of Black culture,” says Lawler.

“It's weird giving advice because I'm so new to it, you know,” he chuckles. “I can only speak from my experience.”

It’s an incredible experience with a payoff a lot of young writers can only currently dream of. Lawler’s advice: “Work the hardest that you can. I love this. It was my dream and I didn't let anyone tell me no. I didn't let anyone discourage me. At the end of the day, the only thing that I had was my life, my story, my vision, and I wanted to be the captain and the leader of the choices that I made.”

“I think a lot of people out here have become jaded and will tell young writers how difficult it is. But if you're a smart person that knows a little bit about what's going on here, you understand that it's difficult. You don't need more people to tell you how difficult it is. I think falling in love with the leap has been something that’s been really great for me; not knowing where I'm gonna land. I don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm grateful for how far I've come and I'm grateful for how hard I worked to get here and I'm excited and blessed for the opportunities that have yet to come.”

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