Interview: Carina Adly Mackenzie

by Ceylan Kumbarji

Here at Taylor Magazine, we’re all about inspiration. One person that fills us with admiration is Carina Adly Mackenzie – most famously known for writing for the hit TV series, The Originals.

Growing up in a strict household, Carina wasn’t allowed to watch TV. Now, all of the hours growing up, rebelling and watching TV when she wasn’t supposed to be, has turned her into one of the most-well known script writers on the scene: “There were a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to watch and I’d have to sneak down to the basement to watch stuff! I would hide down there – it’s funny because if my Mum would have just let me watch the TV I wanted to as a kid, I’d probably be a rocket scientist by now but instead I’m rebelling – I’m a writer!”

Carina started out as a writer’s assistant, but not your typical one. She confesses to us that she was both a really bad writer’s assistant and a really good one at the same time. Expected to sit in a corner, type up notes on not make a scene, Carina was the opposite. Eager to learn, determined and motivated, she admits she just “could not shut up.”

Carina is not only someone to look up to for any motivated writer, she is an advocate for all young women. Our editor spoke to her about her writing, her journey into the world of words and the advice she would give to any young person putting themselves out there.

Some things we learnt from Carina? Stay strong. Be yourself. Most importantly: keep going.

“It’s important that you write what you want to learn – the human emotion that you feel, whatever you’re going through: love; happiness; sadness. Those are the universal feelings that everyone relates to.” – Carina Adly Mackenzie

Taylor Magazine: So… we want to know all about how you got into writing, and then specifically TV writing.

Cadly Mackenzie: Well, I always wanted to be a writer, I was never good at anything else! When I first moved out to LA I was an assistant for a billion different arenas – I was an agent’s assistant, an actor’s personal assistant and then I was a production assistant but I hated all of those things. I felt like I wasn’t feeling my place in LA, but I guess, overall, I just wanted to get my foot in the door.

Back then my roommate – who is now a well-respected reporter at The LA Times – was also just starting out. She told me that they were looking for someone to review The Vampire Diaries on a weekly basis. I immediately thought: “I could do that!” So I did, and they gave me more shows like House, Grey’s Anatomy and a few other things. Eventually, I was making enough money from those things to quit my assistant’s job.

During the process of writing for The Vampire Diaries, the executive producers for the show read my stuff and liked it. One day I met one of the producers, Julie, for sushi and ended up telling her my life story, to which she said: “You’re a storyteller – you’re going to be a writer.”

One day, Julie sent me an email saying that The Originals (the spin off of The Vampire Diaries) was going forward. She said, no promises, but asked if I could survive on a writer’s assistant salary. I thought about it and didn’t think I could, but right around that same time, I got a book deal. So I considered doing both, but Julie wouldn’t really consider me or have a conversation with me until I quit my job as a journalist because it was a conflict of interest. I was so scared but in the end, I did it. I went through the whole interview process and when The Originals came out, I joined the show as a writer’s assistant.

Taylor Magazine: Writing for TV and film seems like a really difficult industry to break into. It must be rare for people to give you a shot and get your foot in the door?

Cadly Mackenzie: A lot of it was that Julie saw herself in me, and very much took me under her wing. Honestly, the whole Vampire Diaries cast did that. I got a lot of access that other journalists didn’t, I made friends with all of them. When the show ended this year, I really felt like I had been a part of something. I never actually worked on The Vampire Diaries – I reported on it – but at the wrap party I really felt like these were people that gave me my place in LA.

When I came out here, I’ve always been a bit of an extrovert, but I was so timid. I always felt like I was in the wrong spot and was nervous on set. Everyone involved in The Vampire Diaries reiterated to me that I belonged here and gave me great advice that I had to act like I belonged here – that gave me a sense of confidence that I could do this and I should do this. That, in turn, made Julie root for me in a way that other people in my position might have got fired for. Julie believed in me and gave me a chance. Eventually, everyone else started listening to me!

Taylor Magazine: What were you doing before you came to LA?

Cadly Mackenzie: I moved to LA straight out of college and drove out here with a boy… every bad story begins with a boy. So basically, I was on a really long road trip, with this really dumb boy, and when I got here I felt like I needed to get out of that relationship (he was actually great by the way, but I needed to get out of my comfort zone, blossom and find my way).

I was fresh out of college – I had just graduated from the University of Colorado. I went to Colorado because I was a skier and wanted to be near snow. I had a weird college experience – one version was that I loved doing all of the college things: going to the football games; wearing the Colorado jersey. But I was really not sure where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. It was hard for me to be in Colorado when I knew that I wanted to be writing somehow. I felt like if I want to write books, I should be in New York. If I want to write TV, I should be in LA. My Dad basically said to me in the end, you’re never going to get this college experience ever again, so make the most of it and make your move once you’re finished college.

Taylor Magazine: Very wise words!

Cadly Mackenzie: Definitely wise words! When I moved out to LA, the only money I had was a graduation gift from my grandparents. I had a car and I knew one person out here. It was very, very scary!

Taylor Magazine: What would you say got you through the initial difficult stages and stopped you from actually going home?

Cadly Mackenzie: I haven’t ever been able to imagine myself doing anything else. My Dad was in investment banking, my sister is also in banking and my other sister is in HR in New York. I just cannot imagine myself in a cubicle, or in a skyscraper doing something that involves an excel spreadsheet and maths. I honestly felt like it was this, or I have no idea what else I would do. I have an English degree, so the other option is be a teacher and I don’t like children, so I definitely should not teach!

Taylor Magazine: So it was always going to be writing, and LA is the place for writing in your opinion?

Cadly Mackenzie: Yeah – it was always going to be writing. I mean if anyone had said to me a while back: “Hey, you’re going to spend the better half of your 20’s writing about vampires”, I would have absolutely laughed in their face, but here I am!

Taylor Magazine: What was your favourite show to watch when you weren’t supposed to be watching TV?

Cadly Mackenzie: Dawson’s Creek! I was so obsessed with it. When I was in college I developed really bad insomnia, so I would watch the same episode of Dawson’s Creek every night because it became this thing that would let my brain shut down. It was more therapeutic than anything! I could also relate to it – my hometown and the town in Dawson’s Creek literally look the same. I always thought, if the writer of Dawson’s Creek can come up with something like this from their childhood, then I can do something similar too.

I always felt like I was taking up too much space or time, or blurting something out at the wrong moment, or I was too loud, or too big, and all of that was hard for me as a person out in the world – but those are the things that made me a good writer. Impulsive choices and ways of saying things that nobody had ever done before. I just felt like there was a place for me on paper. That’s what Dawson’s Creek made me feel like – there was a place for me on the page.

“I just felt like there was a place for me on paper.” – Cadly Mackenzie

Taylor Magazine: With your writing, specifically for TV, do you draw inspiration from personal experiences or things you’ve watched yourself?

Cadly Mackenzie: I draw a lot from personal experience –  I drew a lot from my family relationships for the first few episodes that I wrote, particularly with my Dad. The Originals is about a pretty dysfunctional family, which mine isn’t, but it’s certainly not functional. I have put, word for word, fights with my boyfriends on the page and wondered if they noticed! I put a lot of my most private feelings down in that writer’s room. I could happily go and sit down in a writer’s room, and talk to everyone about a fight I had with my Dad when I was 20.

Somehow, those emotions can be transferred to the page. There has to be a level of trust for that. Not necessarily a level of trust with the audience, but with your writing team. Putting a feeling on the table, and you’re allowing everyone else to dissect and change it. It’s important that you write what you want to learn – the human emotion that you feel, whatever you’re going through: love; happiness; sadness. Those are the universal feelings that everyone relates to.

Taylor Magazine: Do you think your degree made this easier for you? Would you encourage someone that wanted to be a writer to do this degree?

Cadly Mackenzie: No – I look back at things that I wrote before I was trained at college and they’re actually better pieces. The advice I would give is don’t study for the career that you want, study for things that you love to learn about. If you want to be a writer but are fascinated by marine biology, study marine biology and be a writer later.

It’s so important to be driven on how to learn – if I could go back and do college all over again I would study history or fine art as opposed to learning how to write. I think that would have actually informed me better – writing is something that you can only learn by doing, not by sitting in a classroom. Education is important, but no matter what, if you’re in school, you’re learning to write by studying anything. Read a lot and study the things that make you want to learn.

Taylor Magazine: How do you handle criticism – whatever it may be – and how do you cope with it?

Cadly Mackenzie: I’m very good at taking criticism when the person who is criticising is actually informed. I recently read a really well written piece that a fan wrote about race on The Originals. I was reading it and there were points that I really disagreed with, because I knew how the story ends, but there were a lot of things that I really strongly agreed with and wished that we had dug into that issue more. It was a really well written piece by someone that watches and respects the show but has criticism – I like that.

I like heated debates about politics, when people are informed and aren’t coming from a place of bigotry or ignorance. I like hearing differing opinions on my episodes, when the person is a fan of the show. The criticism I don’t handle well, and this is something I get a lot of, is when it comes from people who don’t watch the show and basically say: “I would never watch this show”. They hear about it and suddenly attack – they drum up so much animosity. That frustrates me a lot. 

Personal criticism is always hard for me, particularly from people that don’t know me. I got a tweet from somebody as I was driving here this morning saying a bunch of bad things. It’s such a waste of energy for them and me, but there is something in my brain that just has to read it. It’s the same part of my brain that likes the positive attention! The negatives get into my bones – it’s unfortunate, but that’s human nature.

Taylor Magazine: Do you use the criticism you receive to improve your work?

Cadly Mackenzie: I definitely use it to improve – particularly the valid criticism. There is one girl who writes about the show on Tumblr, who I met up with when I was in Austin one time. I asked her if she wanted to meet for a drink because I really wanted to hear what she thought about the end of the show – I wanted to have a dialogue with her because her criticism was brilliant and I really respected it.

That’s the stuff that’s healthy and good to read. I tweet a lot about politics and the state of the world – some of the stuff I have said has made me receive threats, which is pretty scary. Towards the end of the election this year, I actually held back from tweeting as much because, mainly, I had said what I wanted to say but also because I had received some threats that had made me feel like: “Oh, ok, so this person is about to figure out where I live.” The scariest thing about being a woman on the internet is vulnerability – all it takes is one person posting my address and who knows what could happen next. That’s nothing to do with being a writer, that’s just being a woman online.

Taylor Magazine: You have a solid following, so I guess people do care about what you have to say – they’re interested.

Cadly Mackenzie: The best thing is when people say: “Hey, I followed you because of what you do with The Vampire Diaries, but you inspired me to vote this year.” When people tell me that they didn’t know about politics or what it meant to them in their lives and I, personally, inspired them to make that change, is pretty amazing in my eyes.

Taylor Magazine: If someone you don’t relate to tells you to go and vote, you won’t vote, whereas if someone you respect tells you to vote, you’re going to do it.

Cadly Mackenzie: Yeah, and I think I put a lot of myself out on the internet. If I have the most mortifying, embarrassing moment of my life – I’m going to tweet it. I hate that Instagram girl thing where everything looks pretty and perfect, every meal looks like it came from a michelin star restaurant and you are constantly staring at beautiful vistas. I mean that’s not my life – I’m very messy, I mess up all the time, I cry at work all the time. I’m a disaster but I’m also achieving things I’ve always wanted to do. That relatability is so important – I’m trying to get through life, and you can try to.

“If I have the most mortifying, embarrassing moment of my life – I’m going to tweet it. I hate that Instagram girl thing where everything looks pretty and perfect, every meal looks like it came from a michelin star restaurant and you are constantly staring at beautiful vistas. I mean that’s not my life – I’m very messy, I mess up all the time, I cry at work all the time. I’m a disaster but I’m also achieving things I’ve always wanted to do”. – Cadly Mackenzie

Taylor Magazine: I love that you cry at work. When you can cry at work, bring a box of tissues and wear your pyjamas – that’s the dream job.

Cadly Mackenzie: Oh god, I wear my pyjamas into work a lot. The writer’s room is this place where everyone sits but if I’m in my office with the door closed, I’m probably crying. Offices are for crying, and that’s it.

Taylor Magazine: Going back to social media, what is your favourite, and least favourite, thing about it?

Cadly Mackenzie: I’m really active on Twitter – it’s definitely my favourite. The thing I love about Twitter is being able to maintain connections on it. If you meet someone at a party, you can keep a professional relationship with someone through Twitter. It makes me feel more social and makes me feel like I have a voice – my political opinions, promoting the show or even just a song that I loved.

My least favourite thing about social media is seeing my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. In all seriousness, it’s the general feeling of bearing witness to things I just don’t need to bear witness to. The sense of there being someone you don’t like, or someone that has hurt your feelings, or someone that has offended your writing is in your face all of the time, because of the computer. There is a sense of entitlement amongst some people, as if they deserve to know about you.

Taylor Magazine: The movie industry has been under scrutiny recently. What was your experience with #MeToo?

Cadly Mackenzie: Experiencing the #MeToo phenomenon on Twitter has been emotional to say the least. Obviously, it’s a great place to hear people’s stories and read about their experiences. It’s also profoundly triggering. For a lot of my youth it felt like “well, we can’t actively avoid or change or affect the people who do this to women, so we endure them.” It made me feel empowered to shine a light on the problem and demand a change. Even in my personal relationships, I’ve become much more aware of when I’m in danger of letting another person’s opinion of me determine my self-worth. I spent a lot of my 20s letting men decide if I was valuable or not, and I just don’t feel susceptible to that anymore.

I am so grateful to this movement for changing that in me. I’m done taking shit from people. I called my agents and demanded change at my agency, I’ve stood up to people who used to make me cower, I’ve got a very clear plan for handling these sorts of issues if my pilot goes to series. Like, I hate that horrible things have happened to people I adore in order to inspire this change, but I love them for exposing it. Things will change. It will be complicated and nuanced and it will be a long and bumpy road, but things will get better.

Taylor Magazine: Why do you think Twitter is a good platform to voice your opinions?

Cadly Mackenzie: I think Twitter is a good place for amplifying your opinion or your story, but I actually don’t think it’s a great place for genuine debate. I’ve seen someone’s mind change based on a Twitter conversation maybe once or twice over the course of almost nine years of tooling around on the platform. It’s a good place to find like-minded people and to connect with them, then maybe you take it off Twitter and make some plans. One of my friends and heroes, Brooke Vallone – she’s an actress and an activist here in LA – is someone who I ran into at a party here and there, but we connected more deeply once we realised via social media that we had the same passions. Once we realised that on Twitter, we took it offline, and now we are working together to start a new initiative to encourage youth voting in local and mid-term elections. I mean, obviously I love Twitter. It’s the venue I chose to share my own story of sexual harassment during #MeToo, but for dialogue and debate, I still think the best place is over dinner with people who care about you but disagree with you. Is that old school? I’m 31 now, I have to be old about some stuff.

Taylor Magazine: You are vocal about Trump on Twitter. How did you cope with the election result?

Cadly Mackenzie: I knew that the results of the election spelled tragedy for our country, but it’s far, far worse than I ever imagined it could be. I am devastated for the young women and the young people of colour who are experiencing their formative years under this administration. Obama was elected when I was 21 and he made me feel so hopeful at a time when there wasn’t a lot of hope for me and my peers – we were entering the work force during a terrible recession and it was really demoralising – but we had Obama. Imagining being young and hopeful now is very hard for me, because the future seems dark. But here is my advice for anyone who feels like they are losing hope: vote.

Vote in your local and mid-term elections, especially. If you get overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of issues, think about what matters most to you, do some research – using multiple reliable sources, not your drunk aunt’s Facebook – and vote accordingly. Education is your power – demand truth in journalism and don’t give your money or clicks to outlets who don’t.

The U.S. government is, and always has been full of a bunch of old white men making decisions about the future, but guess what? You and I, young grasshopper millennials that we are, have to live through a whole lot more of that future than those old guys do. So we should have a say. We have to demand a say.

Taylor Magazine: What are you working on just now, like what is a typical schedule for you at the moment?

Cadly Mackenzie: After a lot of thinking time, I’ve decided that I’m going back to The OriginalsI also have a pilot deal with Warner Bro’s – I don’t want to talk about it too much because I’m scared – but I guess I can say that it’s a character drama about the music industry, so that’s the next big thing for me.

I’m also writing another book – it’s young adult but an older type of genre and is about three kids going on a road trip and figuring out who they are. I’m also writing a lot of songs – which is a whole other thing. I’m a terrible singer, so I’ll never sing them, but hopefully someone else will!

Taylor Magazine: That’s the amazing thing about being a writer, you don’t have to stick to one thing! You seem to be really sure of yourself – what advice would you give to people who maybe aren’t as confident in themselves? Advice to boost someone up if they’re having a bad day.

Cadly Mackenzie: That’s such a hard thing for me to answer. I was a really shy kid and it wasn’t until I needed to speak up, that I learnt to. I was one of very few Muslim kids in my high school and after 9/11, a lot of kids at my school had parents that worked in New York, so the school was hit really hard. There was a lot of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in my high school following 9/11, which came from the teachers too. I had to stand up for myself and for my family one day in class to a teacher. It was terrifying, but my whole life pivoted around that one moment. I learnt that my voice had value.

The advice I would give is that everyone has something to say and there is something that you know better than anyone else. If you keep that inside, then that one thing you know better, never gets out into the world. You have to be tough on yourself and challenge yourself  because the truth is, in a world like TV, or any kind of writing, it is a hard thing to get into. If you don’t speak up for yourself, then someone else will speak up first. There is no room to be quiet and timid as an adult – you have to speak. That is something I had to learn and it’s a tough thing to learn.

In terms of real, true social anxiety – if you feel really socially anxious and things are harder for you than they should be – get help. I see two kinds of therapists and I love them. I take medicine for anxiety and I have absolutely no shame in it. There is this weird stigma about the different kinds of support people need and there really shouldn’t be. I’ve talked to so many young girls, who are really brilliant and really creative, but they’re completely crippled by anxiety. I would never think less of someone who needs a little boost to raise their voice. Who cares – you have something to say, so figure out a way for you to say it.

The internet is a really good place to get your voice heard – a lot of anxious, shy people can find a place there that makes it easier. There are two sides to social media – a dark side where you are hiding behind a screen, but the other side of it is because you get to hide, you can be confident there without showing your face to everyone. It’s an incredible tool that our generation has, that nobody has else had before.

“I would never think less of someone who needs a little boost to raise their voice. Who cares – you have something to say, so figure out a way for you to say it.”

Taylor Magazine: Taylor Magazine started because there were very little, if any, places online that focused on self-care. So many sites were talking about what you should change, or what you should add and that’s quite daunting for young females to constantly be reading things like this – it can shut them down.

Cadly Mackenzie: There is a sense that men get to make mistakes and mistakes define them. I feel like, as a girl, if one bad picture or your one embarrassing moment gets out, it will ruin you. It’s so important to remember one thing: you are absolutely not defined by the worst thing you ever did and that’s so important to remind people of that. I talk to a lot of young girls online where they feel like they have no where to go, or no recovery.

Your life has a million stops and starts and I am absolutely not the same person that I was in high school. I had a tough college experience and went through a dark depression during those days. I felt lost – but you get to have chapters in life. Some will be great, but some chapters will be bad. There are a lot of wonderful things about being young and one of the most wonderful things about it, is that you’re not young forever!

“You are absolutely not defined by the worst thing you ever did and that’s so important to remind people of that.”

Keep up to date with Carina’s amazing work by following her on Twitter, Instagram and by visiting her website.

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