After working for nine seasons on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” as executive producers and later as showrunners, the husband and wife duo of Tony Phelan and Joan Rater is moving on to another procedural: the new CBS legal drama “Doubt,” which stars Katherine Heigl, Elliott Gould, and Laverne Cox. Phelan and Rater talked to Variety about what they learned from their “Grey’s” days, the need for a non-black-and-white depiction of the criminal justice system, and casting a transgender lead on the show after their own son transitioned.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
Phelan: It came time for us to do our own show and so we knew that we wanted to move away from medicine and we are big news junkies and law junkies.
Rater: We wanted to create a show that was as much a procedural as it was a story about the personal life of our characters. What was really nice about “Grey’s” was the high stakes. You put these sort of regular people in high stakes situations and it makes really fun storytelling. In criminal defense you have similarly high stakes. People’s lives are literally in the hands of our characters. It provides us with so many storylines. At the same time we were having this interesting conversation when we first started just about how the relationship between a client and their attorney. It’s really…
Phelan: Intimate. We also were looking around the landscape and noticed that since 9/11 there’s been a lot of shows about prosecutors catching bad guys and we were interested in looking at that from the other side of the equation. Who is that person who is going to stand by if, God forbid, you’re accused of a crime. The other thing that weighs on us is all this talk about congressmen coming together over the issue of criminal justice reform and how the system that we have now has some very serious flaws, but everybody agrees it doesn’t work as well as it should. That felt like interesting, fresh ground to examine.
What were your hopes in bringing up these political issues? How does the show go about doing that and take on some of these touchy, of-the-moment political issues?
Phelan: When we set out to do this show, we were pretty committed to presenting these legal stories in a grey world where there is no absolute right and absolute wrong, and we want the audience, along with our characters, to shift their allegiances back and forth as the stories progress.
Rater: The more you find out about a case, the more complicated and less black and white it becomes. One really helpful thing we did was hiring an ex-homicide prosecutor.
Phelan: A guy who worked a the Bronx public defenders office.
Rater: So we had these opposing opinions right in our writers room.
Phelan: Battling it out over these very delicate issues. We tackle the issues of campus rape, attorney-client privilege, vigilantism.
Rater: A hate crime against a trans person. We strive not to be preachy or didactic. We present these cases from all facets and through the lens of our characters and how they struggle to do the right thing under very difficult circumstances.
What was it like to work with Katherine Heigl again? Did you pull her into the project from the start?
Rater: When we heard she was available, we really just jumped at the chance to work with her because, you know, it’s one of these things when you’ve written this character and you’re like, “Oh my god, it is Katie Heigl.” Katie has the ability to be so funny and yet so smart and relatable.
Phelan: And vulnerable.
Rater: All at the same time. It’s been kind of dreamy.
Phelan: She’s been a fantastic leader of the cast. She’s number one on the call sheet and she takes that responsibility very seriously, always the first person on the set and the last one to leave. She had a tremendous workload, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant, but she was an incredible trooper and really led by example, and also has a great sense of humor, so we keep marveling at the fact that all of our cast seem to really like and enjoy hanging out with each other.
What do you think you’ve learned from working on “Grey’s”?
Rater: Oh my god, we learned so much from “Grey’s.” We were at “Grey’s” for nine years so it was basically our schooling on how to write and run a TV show. What “Grey’s” does really well is how strong the writing team is. You trust the writers to do their work. It’s like a big happy family. We also brought in the idea that we had started on “Grey’s” bringing actors in early in the process to ask them what stories they’d be interested in telling.
Phelan: All the actors for the most part were doing their own research about criminal defense and their characters. We found it very helpful to sit down with each of them individually in the writers room and say, “here’s kind of what we’re thinking of for season-long arcs for all of you. What do you guys think? What would you be interested in doing and based on your research has excited you?” The other thing is trying to create both onscreen and in the shooting process as much as a family atmosphere as you can because in terms of the audience, you’re inviting this group of people into your home every week. You want to be invested in and keep coming back to these characters. Also in terms of creating a work environment where everyone feels valued and like they’re a contributor to the whole and product. Getting people invested in what we’re doing came from our experience on “Grey’s.” We certainly wish each other well. When we left there, we just felt like we had done what we could do on that show and it was time to go off and create our own thing.
In many shows, a trans character’s gender identity is often used as just a plot device. Why was it important to include a trans character on screen and how did you make sure Laverne Cox’s Cameron was completely fleshed out?
Phelan: Right about the time we were writing “Doubt,” our son had come out to us as trans when he was about 16. We were living a sort of learning curve at home, learning about our son and what he was going through and it was fascinating, complicated, and wonderful. Learning that he was trans was a big change in our lives, but also that not so much a change. He was still the same funny, smart, messy, theater-obsessed guy who’s also trans. He was a fully fledged human being and we didn’t sit around our house talking about his gender so much. We were too busy living our lives. A lot trans characters on TV, the focus has been — rightly so as it’s an important part of the experience — on their transition, coming out and we wanted a character who had come out and who was assertive beyond that point and just living her life. We wanted a fully realized human being whose life we could just drop into.
Rater: While her being trans obviously is a part of her, it’s not necessarily the part that she leads with all the time. In conceiving of this character, we had Laverne in mind when we were writing it, but we knew that Laverne was doing “Orange Is the New Black” and was unavailable so we kind of resigned ourselves to doing a nationwide talent search to find a trans actress to play the role. Once CBS announced they were going to move forward and make the pilot, the script then went out to the industry and within a day, Laverne’s rep called us up and said, this is Laverne’s role and she’s flying herself from New York to Los Angeles to audition for you.
Phelan: She’s always wanted to play a lawyer and she came into the audition with this giant monologue, a closing argument, and she had it down word for word and she just blew it away. It was clear the role was hers. One of the big arching love stories of the season is Cam’s relationship with a cis man. They have all sorts of issues.
Rater: Some of which relate to a prosecutor dating a defense attorney and some of it relates to a cis dude dating a trans woman and discussions and issues that might come up. Really interesting, powerful discussions that I think are going to be new for TV that we’re really proud of.
There’s a lot of shows on TV right now that are doing social activism by presenting these diverse characters. By including this character, the theme of criminal justice and exploring the nuance of whether someone is innocent or guilty, what do you think that’s going to bring to the audience?
Rater: We want our audience to love the characters the way we do. We very purposefully didn’t make it a super serious show. We wanted the show to have humor as well as serious aspects. I think by loving our characters, by loving Cam, you go a long way towards showing people that transgender people are, for lack of a better expression, people.
Phelan: And aren’t scary and are just like anybody else. Just having something like that in your living room week after week after week goes a long way to social acceptance, especially for people who don’t necessarily have gay or trans people in their lives. Seeing these people as people rather than as issues I think is really important. Similarly, I would say, opening a window on criminal defense and the criminal justice system as it is in America now and trying to tell truthful stories as much as we possibly can–
Rater: Complicated, non-preachy stories that don’t show the criminal justice system and the work these people do as black and white but the very fine, complex, nuanced, interesting, difficult work that these people do every day heroically.