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How motherhood taught this TV creator to stop apologizing

Molly Smith Metzler, a story editor and co-producer on “Orange is the New Black” and “Shameless” shares how motherhood strengthened her career, rather than slowing it down.
Molly Smith Metzler and her daughter, Cora.
Molly Smith Metzler and her daughter, Cora.Courtesy of Molly Smith Metzler.

After more than a decade of waitressing and writing plays, Molly Smith Metzler reached her breaking point.

Her play, “Close Up Space,” starring David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez, had been produced by Manhattan Theater Club in December 2011, but the show “bombed,” according to Metzler. Shortly afterward, Metzler and her husband “accidentally got pregnant” and moved to Long Island where he began teaching and she raised their daughter, who was born in November 2012. After almost three years of being a full-time mother, Metzler was ready to start working professionally again—and she wanted to transition to a new industry.

In 2015, Metzler called her agents and said, “You promised me the sun, the moon and the stars. I need a job. And I would like to write for TV.’”

When they told her she would need to take “55 million meetings”—essentially job interviews—in Manhattan before she could break into the television world, she told them, “I can’t because I have a baby.” Instead, she urged her agents to submit her writing to speak for her. Though her agents assured her that it would be a wasted effort, they did as she asked.

Molly Smith Metzler is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter.
Molly Smith Metzler is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter.Sela Shiloni

The following Monday, her agents told her that Steve McQueen, who had just directed “12 Years a Slave,” was looking for a funny female writer to join the writing team for his new television show. And best of all, the writer’s room was in New York City instead of Los Angeles.

The demands of motherhood led Metzler to advocate for herself, landing her an ideal opening in a new industry.

“Becoming a mother made me tougher and less passive about my own trajectory as a writer. I became the CEO of my company. Before being a mom, I was only the secretary of it,” said Metzler, mom of Cora, now 8.

Finding her way

While attending Juilliard, Metzler studied with Marsha Norman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “‘night, Mother,” taught her that playwrights all have their “stuff,” or the content they are really comfortable writing about.

“My stuff is class. I tend to write about class in America all the time. I find it fascinating,” she said. While a part of the playwriting program there in 2010, Metzler composed her breakout play, “Elemeno Pea,” which explores class and ambition through the relationship between two sisters. Metzler said that the comedy raised the question: “How far would you go to join the ranks of the 1 percent?”

In that “weird time” between 2012 and 2015 when Metzler was at home with her young daughter in Long Island, she started layering motherhood into the fabric of her writing. She composed her most often-produced work, “Cry It Out,” a play that demonstrates how socioeconomics affect the choices that we make during maternity leave, taking a sharp look at everything from postpartum anxiety, to back-to-work decisions, to the disconnect between money and happiness.

“Everything is cracked open by the experience of having a child, everything—your marriage, your identity and then in a lot of cases, your body,” said Metzler. “The play creates a place for these characters to connect and be open about that.”

With more than 75 productions across the country, the play feels relevant and essential, but Metzler has had a hard time getting it produced in New York City. “I think theater is behind,” she said. “I'm proud of American theater for how much, how hard they're working toward inclusion. But I feel like there's still a huge blind spot to female writers and female characters.”

Working hard for the money

Metzler said the television industry has been much more open to her ideas about the intersection of class, motherhood and gender.

The Steve McQueen miniseries she worked on—her first “fancy credit” in the TV industry—never aired; HBO interest “fizzled out” after the pilot was filmed, a common occurrence at the network. But Metzler’s dedication to the job helped springboard her into other opportunities. She began working on other prestigious television shows as a story editor and co-producer, including on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and Showtime’s “Shameless,” again showcasing characters, often women, who are struggling to overcome socioeconomic obstacles.

Years of hard work in the industry lead Metzler to become creator, showrunner and executive producer of her current Netflix project, “Maid,” the story of a woman who leaves an abusive relationship and tries to support her daughter with a minimum wage job. The Margot Robbie-produced Netflix is based on Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” and it features real-life mother and daughter—Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley—who were cast as mother and daughter.

Molly Smith Mezler and daughter "Cora" on the set of "MAID."
Molly Smith Mezler and daughter "Cora" on the set of "MAID."Courtesy of Molly Smith Metzler.

Metzler said the story is an “absolutely eye-opening” look at systemic problems with the welfare system in our country. “It’s a very harrowing, but also very inspiring, story because she does get out and she goes to college and she writes this memoir about her experience,” said Metzler.

The show was filmed in Canada’s Victoria Island during the fall and winter of 2020. Metzler initially traveled from her home in Los Angeles to quarantine in Canada alone. She was eventually joined by her husband, Colin McKenna, who was also working on “Maid” as a writer and producer, and their daughter Cora, who was able to attend her L.A. school remotely while there.

Motherhood matters

Metzler has found that becoming a parent strengthened her career rather than slowing it down. In recent months, she has been adding her unique point of view to extremely high-profile, female-driven movie projects. Metzler said, “It’s really good for your art to become a parent. It sharpened my point of view as a human on this earth. Suddenly I really cared more and I had more I wanted to say.”

Motherhood also helped Metzler define her value: “I think I apologized for wanting things before I was a mom. And then since becoming a mom, I tell people: 'I want to write a movie and I want it to be for this much money.' And I know I'm gonna turn in a great movie.”