Graham Norris ’99 
Writer/Producer/Actor
Co-Executive Producer on the television show, New Amsterdam 

Q: You’ve worked as an actor, writer, and producer. Of the three, which artistic process brings you the most joy? 
A: I feel bad about saying this because at CPS acting was my whole world, but it’s writing by an absolute landslide. It’s not close. I came to writing later than a lot of people. I was somewhat in denial about what I was supposed to be doing creatively. My experience with acting versus writing really was the difference between swimming upstream and swimming downstream. My current job is 90% writing, despite being a co-executive producer on the show, New Amsterdam. 

Q: What is the aspect of the writing process that you most enjoy?
A: With television specifically, I love that it’s communal. I still have the camaraderie that I remember from high school plays—a sort of theater camp vibe. I tend to be a brain first kind of person in a lot of things, but the actual act of writing once you’re done thinking about the story, is something completely visceral, musical. It’s all from your ear and your heart and your spirit and your empathy. What a remarkable thing to get to do for a living, right? I am continually shocked that this is actually a career that I get to do. 

Q: What led you to television in particular?
A: I never had a doubt in my mind that I wanted to work in the arts in large part because of those times with Steve Chabon back in high school at College Prep performing in the Buttner auditorium. The theater people were my people for years at CPS. I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting after college. I’d written a couple of shorts for myself to act in and I had developed a contact with a successful writer in television named Rob Thomas. He asked if I had ever thought about writing and after I sent him my shorts he said, “I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. I think your ceiling as a writer is higher than your ceiling as an actor.” Well, brutal honesty. Then he hired me and gave me my first writing job on a show he had on the CW. I’ve been working as a writer ever since. Coming from College Prep and Yale, I’m also aware that I had a really nice scaffolding from which to be able to have that good luck happen.

Q: You are currently producing the television show New Amsterdam, which was inspired by Dr. Eric Manheimer’s memoir, Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, and his 15 years as medical director. Can you tell me more about your role and what aspects of the memoir drew you to this project?
A: It’s a medical show, of which there have been so many, but this show is committed to what the doctor who wrote that memoir was committed to—trying to offer solutions to actual systemic problems. Bellevue Hospital, which is the oldest hospital in New York City is an iconic American public hospital, which means that its clientele are the people of New York, which includes the whole melting pot of New York. The show aspires to have some of the same energy as The West Wing once upon a time, only it’s in a hospital. Creatively, I feel like I’m part of something that’s trying to be good for the world. 

Q: How has the show pivoted to incorporate the impact of the pandemic into its storylines?
A: Our third season, which was our first created under COVID-19 conditions, revolved around the pandemic. For a show set in a New York City public hospital, it was the only choice. It was a major challenge, but also became an opportunity for a show that is designed to try to reach people, uplift people, find hope for people, reflect people, and the reality of a medical system. 

Q: How does your acting background help inform your work as a writer/producer? 
A: I think it’s a huge advantage. A lot of writers have a difficult time having characters talk the way people actually talk. When you read it, it’s a real mouthful a lot of the time. I think acting develops the ear essentially. Also, there’s the power of writing less. How many times have we seen an actor be able to convey so much information with the way she holds her coffee cup? I think that writers would have a little more faith in actors, if they were one. 
 
Q: What aspects of television production are the most creatively challenging for you?
A: One of the greatest aspects of television is, that it is collaborative. During the writing process, I’ve thought a lot about literally every word and now I get to work with the actors, director, the camera crew, and the lighting and costume teams. Basically, everybody has to do a great job, and everyone has to get on the same page imaginatively. That’s a communication skill. If you’ve ever tried to get to the same page creatively with more than one person in a room, you know what that’s like. I usually find it’s an opportunity to learn, to make the scene better. 

Q: When did your passion for acting and the performing arts begin?
A: In the fall of my ninth-grade year, first semester, there was this play based on a set of short stories by John Cheever. My best friend and I were the only two freshmen who got cast, and we were so excited, but it was a provocative role and I was a shy freshman. I was certainly not comfortable in my body. I wanted to be in the school play with all the cool seniors so eventually I got over it and did it. The scene brought the house down. It made me feel like I was a part of this special space and I was unafraid there in ways that I was much more afraid in actual life.

Q: What do you remember most about your
College Prep experience?
A: I have such wildly positive connotations and memories of College Prep. I came out when I was in high school and when I did, there were no other out people. This was in 1997. And I came out at an assembly. I went to the president of the student council, and I said: I’m gay. I’m thinking about coming out. I’d like to like really maybe tell this to the whole community. I went up on the staircase and gave this little speech where I came out. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I think it would be fair to say it was ecstatically received. I received zero blowback during the entirety of my time there. I was fortunate to have that kind of energy and understanding. I don’t know who I would be if I’d gone to a high school where, in that very vulnerable moment, this had not been my experience. It feels like the real “Sliding Doors” moment in my entire life.

Q: What advice would you give College Prep students who are interested in pursuing a career in television, either as an actor, writer, or producer?
A: Work on your craft and surround yourself with people who are working on their craft. And occasionally have the hard conversation with yourself: Am I around people who are really challenging me and making me work to do my best? Friends who inspire you, see you, and challenge you. If you have that, a work ethic, a dream, and a willingness to bend in the way the universe is pushing you, you’re on your way.

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