By Dustin Jayroe // Photos by Jamison Mosley
If there were ever a story about perseverance mustering achievement, Graham Gordy would probably lead the cast list. Or, perhaps he’d write the script. In his many years in the arts, he’s done plenty of both. But the truth is, such a tale is one of the most oft-used tropes in the industry; and the trouble is, Gordy isn’t exactly the type to abet predictability.
Whether for that reason or another, it’s been an aptly alliterative grind for Gordy. (Graham Gordy’s Grind was an option to head this piece, but that felt too predictable.) Over the years, he’s been candidly forthcoming about his struggles, times when he sent his resume across Central Arkansas to find a job — anywhere — to bring at least something to the bank to help with his $150,000-plus student loan bill. Such revelations border on the edge of unbelievable when talking about one of the most decorated screenwriters in Arkansas history, with his fingerprints on a season of True Detective, the hit Sundance TV drama Rectify, Cinemax’s Quarry and the 2018 comedy film Antiquities. But, that’s his story — one that also involved him writing The Love Guru with Mike Myers, which almost upended it all.
Screenwriting, and filmmaking in general, is a tough nut to crack, exacerbated by the modern marvel of streaming. There are so many shows and movies that even those with a vested interest in the industry leave dozens of fine, even award-winning projects under their radar from sheer overwhelming market saturation. And that’s just the stuff that actually gets made. There’s an art to breaking into the industry, turning a foot in the door to a seat at the table of the writers’ room. A science. But then again, there’s not.
“It is one of those industries that seems like it’s a black box,” Gordy tells AY About You. “It’s a complete mystery as to how you would get into it and how you do it. And if you are, somehow, getting something made or are able to make a living at it, then everybody’s sort of like, ‘Well, just show me how you did that.’ Unfortunately, the problem is that I have no idea.”
To break it down succinctly, Gordy goes on to analogize making films and shows against other vocations, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. In most cases, you study the subject, get into the specialized schools, and end up an MD or JD practicing in the field. It’s, of course, not that easy or simple to accomplish, but for the most part, the path is understood. And if those studies were at Harvard Law School or a residency was conducted at Boston Medical Center, the odds of finding a job and “making it” increase exponentially.
The same can’t always be said of filmmaking, something Gordy knows all too well.
Growing up in Conway in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was a much smaller town than it is today, he had a hard time finding his niche, his purpose, until acting in local theater found him. He had always enjoyed movies and sketch comedy, so the draw to it was a natural one. Very quickly, Gordy realized that entertaining audiences through such art was incredibly rewarding, touching some of our most elemental needs as a species for affirmation.
“You go up there, and you do something funny, and people laugh or they applaud,” he says, “and you’re like, ‘Oh man, this is the approbation I’m finally getting that I’ve always needed, in some ways. There was something sort of very basic in that but fulfilled a kind of emotional need in me. But it was also, I can put my anxieties aside for a moment in order to sort of pretend to be this other person.
“I think it all still stems from that initial inclination of trying to entertain people — trying to make people laugh, trying to do that sort of thing — which always felt like my role growing up, whether it was among friends or my family.”
Gordy graduated from Conway High School in 1994, and after a year at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), where his mother taught as a professor, he packed his bags and headed west to shoot his shot in Los Angeles.
After a one-year stint in the city, he came to terms with the realization that acting — at least becoming an actor in this way — was not for him. He witnessed firsthand the quasi hierarchy of steps that are usually needed to lumber up the ladder of LA. Sign with a lower-tier agent, get some work, take some classes, shake some hands, get a bigger agent and then repeat the process with better gigs and bigger hands to shake. It can take a decade or more for most, and even that requires a bit of luck, as well. Some in the industry joke that this is why you’ll frequently see 30-year-olds playing 20-year-olds in major pictures. Oftentimes, it took them that long to make it to that level.
“It was kind of like a tenure process if you really dedicated yourself to it,” he says. “And then I was all of a sudden like, ‘Do I want to do that for the next 10 years?’ I think that’s when the shift happened where I thought, ‘I really enjoy acting, but I don’t love it so much that I’m going to put in the time and dedication to do it.’ I didn’t know that it would be that fulfilling for me in the long run.”
Even still, his time in LA was not all for naught. As brief as it was, his natural talents impressed enough to land him a spot at The Groundlings Theatre and School, which is often heralded as a feeder for Saturday Night Live. People like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, Jon Lovitz and Chris Kattan all walked paths that led through The Groundlings. There, Gordy fell further in love with the art of sketch comedy and found a new adoration for writing.
He brought this new perspective back to Conway, but Hollywood felt every bit of the 1,600 miles between the two cities. At the time, there wasn’t much of a community in the Natural State for budding filmmakers, and UCA didn’t have the writing program that it has today. So while Gordy could find expression through plays at local venues like The Rep and put on by the university, that life as a career felt out of reach. Instead, he devoted his curriculum of choice to English and philosophy.
After achieving his undergraduate degree, Gordy had aims to pursue academia (a life he knew very well through his mother) and attend graduate school for philosophy. But, an advisor in the department talked him out of it, saying, “I don’t know that you really want to go into academic philosophy. Not because you don’t love philosophy enough, but because academic philosophy is probably not going to make you love philosophy more.”
Instead, Gordy applied for grad school in playwriting, an art form he had picked up from his many experiences to this point. He was accepted into the prestigious and extremely selective New York University (NYU), where he earned an MFA and received the Goldberg Award for Playwriting.
He’d go on to live in NYC and write a number of plays during his time there, but being a playwright is not exactly a money-making endeavor, even if your work is getting produced. Most go on to be professors or find their way to television or film. Gordy took the latter road, for now.
Through a mutual friend, Gordy linked up with Mike Myers, the Canadian funnyman known best for Wayne’s World, and the Austin Powers and Shrek franchises. Myers was in the market for a writing assistant, and to Gordy’s excitement, he was selected to fill that role. At the time, it seemed like his big break. He needed it. The price tag of the loans he took to get through NYU was looming, and he was making next to nothing in one of the most expensive cities to reside in the entire world.
Gordy would spend around five years alongside Myers, which ended with the critically panned and box office flop The Love Guru in 2008, for which Gordy has recalled feeling “out of control,” “baptism by fire” and that the original concept was unrecognizable to what was delivered to the screen. It has become quite the complicated piece of record in Gordy’s filmography; despite the apparent clout of merely his second official screenwriting credit featuring the likes of Myers, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Alba and Jessica Simpson, it left his door shut instead of creating more offers. To make matters worse, the entire global economy then collapsed in the worst recession since the Great Depression. The NYU product went dark for the next half-decade, and not exactly by choice.
In 2016, Gordy told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that, during this period, he “emotionally crashed.” With his first wife expecting their first and the bills amassing, the two moved back to Little Rock after almost a decade in New York.
“I thought, ‘If I’m this exhausted, how can I raise a child?’” he said at the time.
His daughter was born shortly after they got back to Arkansas, and his wife soon found herself pregnant with their second child, a son. Regardless, their marriage soon crumbled beyond repair. It was a five-year stretch when so much happened in Gordy’s personal life, but so little came to fruition professionally. He recalls having applied for too many jobs to count across Central Arkansas during this time, trying to find a way to make money in any way he could. But, as he is now comfortable joking about, not many businesses are quick to hire philosophy majors with a few writing credits to their name.
“When you get a degree in English and philosophy, and then you go and borrow a ton of money to get an MFA in playwriting, you haven’t really set yourself up in the sort of global marketplace,” Gordy says behind a laugh.
He broke out of his filmmaking funk in 2013 in a rather capricious way with the short film Spanola Pepper Sauce Company, which has become a bit of a cultish classic here at home and at film festival screenings. Gordy wrote the short and starred in its only role, Tookie Spanola, the owner of, naturally, the pepper sauce company. Gordy’s friend and Academy Award winner, Ray McKinnon, directed the project. From the outside looking in, judged against the backdrop of this roughest patch of his life, it seems almost a motif for where he was at the time. It’s fun and hilarious but is also erratic and dark. In just a few minutes, Spanola goes from bragging about the barbecue sauce and injectable marinades possible with his peppers to vampire threats and self-harm.
“Inevitably, some of that kind of subconscious darkness comes out in those ways,” Gordy says. “That was definitely sort of a product of that time and my mental space.”
He says it’s the closest thing to a Rorschach test for audiences as anything he’s ever created, with responses generally ranging from cackling laughter to, “I’m worried about whoever did this.”
No matter the viewer’s interpretation, it was the jolt he had needed. Shortly after, he joined McKinnon on the TV series Rectify, which was well-received by both audiences and critics alike. In 2016, he and Michael Fuller created the show Quarry, which was picked up by Cinemax. It was also highly regarded after its first season but fell into production limbo when a regime change took place at its parent company, HBO. Ironically, just after it tooketh away, HBO giveth with True Detective, for which Gordy was a staff writer for the anthology’s third season, as well as a consulting producer.
Such instances were lessons learned for the heating up Gordy, preparing him for similar experiences and not to take rejection or cancellation personally, like with him and Fuller’s The Wreck, a series that AMC originally picked up but ultimately dropped. It’s easy to stumble into the weeds of “what if” moments that might have changed this course or that, and it’s much harder to block out that noise. But the now veteran Gordy, seasoned by some bouts with pain and peril, is better at finding that peace these days.
“Every single person that I know or I’ve met that does this for a living has a different story of how it happened to them,” he says, adding that what’s most important is just to make and take the path that’s put before you.
Experience has also led him to better ways of fighting the archnemesis of any creator: writer’s block. He’s a reader by nature, and throughout college and early in his career, he would lean on reading as “research,” his personal excuse to procrastinate. This behavior often left him up against a wall, through which he could only surmount through all-night word binges.
“That sort of became my process for a long time, is that the anxiety had to kind of be part of the engine,” he recalls. Breaking that cycle took having some very detrimental negative health effects. “I have an autoimmune disease and stress [exacerbated] that. And I thought, ‘I have to change the way that I do this. This is not healthy.’ I think that I was kind of addicted to that process because I thought it was part of my writing working in some way.”
For screenwriters like Gordy, so much of story building is finding the “solve.” That can be coming up with a character connection, a climactic moment or a coveted conclusion. Solves for his creations can arrive in his mind at any point of the day. But in his own life, the solve was a routine, a work schedule — easier said than done for a filmmaker who primarily still works from his home in Little Rock. He’s found that many of his roadblocks are solved by simply “getting in front of the screen” every day.
Sometimes, he “has it” almost immediately, and the pitter-pattered pecking of his keyboard echoes through his home all morning; other times, the silence of the afternoon is broken only by his soft sighs and whispers of a page flip from his reading material. Some days are more useful than others, but he makes a point to put each day to use, be it for five hours or 10. He’s on the other side of 40 now; he’s outgrown all-nighters in both ability and maturity.
In more ways than one, it’s hard to shake the original sensation of unpredictability when it comes to Gordy. He’s Hollywood, but prefers the humbler life in Little Rock, where he can be available as a family man to his two children and wife of almost 8 years, Amy (who he actually met when she interviewed him for an AY Magazine story in 2011). He’s a writer, but doesn’t really fit into the stereotype that some might prescribe to his ilk; rather, he is funny and charismatic and charming. He’s found a level of success that most never reach, but continues to grind as if there’s plenty left to prove, or “tune in this old piano,” as he puts it. In parallel, his favorite ways to tell stories utilize unpredictability and the unexpected, blending genres in jostling ways. It’s why some of his favorite creators are Taika Waititi, Donald Glover and the Coen brothers — they can tackle the complexities and contradictions of life, as well as the comedy.
Looking ahead, Gordy is slated for an acting role in the David Arquette produced Ghosts of the Ozarks, which was filmed in Arkansas, and is writing a limited series adaptation of Tom Cooper’s Florida Man with Joel Edgerton. Still, he estimates that out of every five projects he writes, one gets picked up. It’s the nature of the business.
“My best work and the things that I’m proudest of are the things that I’m working on and haven’t reached the light of day yet,” he says. “A lot of that just comes from hope [and] the attempt to try to make something better than the things that you made before.”
It’s living on a line of hope that his experiences — the good, the bad and The Love Guru — were all for something. Not necessarily in a cosmic or predestined way, but in a romantic sense that is instinctive for a writer such as him.