Suburban 'Dexter' writer eyed Hollywood and 'never looked back'
In the career assessment portion of the PSAT in high school, Lauren Gussis struggled to check a box that matched her interests.
"I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what kind. I didn't want to be an English teacher or a journalist ... but then I saw the box for TV/film writer, and it literally jumped out at me in 3-D," said the Deerfield native. "I started on that path and never looked back."
That path led Gussis to Hollywood, where she became a TV writer and spent nearly a decade writing and producing Showtime's Emmy-nominated hit drama "Dexter."
Since "Dexter" ended in 2013, Gussis, 37, is now pitching some of her own TV show ideas to different networks. In the meantime, she's writing half-hour comedy pilots and transforming show ideas into scripts for CBS Television.
"Being in a room full of writers, and coming up with ideas all day, that's my favorite part (of the business)," she said. "I love a room full of people to brainstorm with."
There's buzz online that a "Dexter" spinoff series might be in the works, but Gussis wouldn't confirm or deny.
"It's a possibility," she said. "I have nothing to do with that."
Working on "Dexter" was a career highlight for Gussis. Despite the show's violent theme (it's about a serial killer who works at the Miami Metro Police Department), Gussis said she found creative joy in the process.
"Mostly it was just really fun. Even the gore," she said. "Like, the 'A Horse in a Different Color' episode. It had so much gory imagery in it, it was like performance art."
There were some tough episodes to write, though, such as the ones about the rape and murder of women, which she said were troubling because they were "too real." Most episodes allowed Gussis to write about things that looked and felt real, but could never be real, which is her favorite type of writing.
"The most fun thing about 'Dexter' was writing the voice-overs. It was like writing poetry," she said. "That was exploring the depth of the human experience. Here's what you're seeing, and here's what you're really experiencing."
A graduate of Deerfield High School and Northwestern University in Evanston, Gussis wrote for her college's comedy sketch group but was rejected by the creative writing program -- something she looks back on now as a good thing.
"I ended up doing a bunch of independent studies, which ended up being great for me. And it was a great lesson in perseverance. Like, how much do you want this? In this career, you need to be ready for rejection," she said.
Hoping to get a job writing comedy, Gussis moved to Los Angeles and spent the next five years learning the business while working a variety of agency and writing assistant jobs, learning from her mistakes and letting other writers mentor her.
"I just kept saying yes. When doors opened, I went through them. Even if it felt not exactly what I wanted," she said. "I learned so much. Even on 'E-Ring' (a short-lived NBC military drama), I learned all about the military and the way the government is run."
She believes she got the job writing for the first season of "Dexter," at age 27, because she was so much like the character of police officer Debra "Deb" Morgan (played by Jennifer Carpenter) -- foul-mouthed, headstrong, but also sensitive and caring.
"I am her without the badge, and I'm pretty sure that's why I got the job," she said.
Today, Gussis lives in Los Angeles with her husband, fellow writer Mike Ellis (who wrote the movie "The Wedding Planner," among other credits), and their almost-2-year-old child.
Earlier this year, she partnered with "American Horror Story" writer Ryan Murphy to pitch a comedy series to HBO called "Open," about a couple who go into marriage with an open relationship plan. They shot a pilot, but it didn't end up being picked up.
"The level of access you get when you're partnered with Ryan Murphy is outrageous," she said. "('Open') didn't happen, but it still could."
In the meantime, Gussis is brimming with new ideas for TV projects.
"In TV, the writer is king. The writer's the one in charge," she says. "I'm dying to do something that's magical. Magical, new age-y ... I'm very interested in the supernatural."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
•Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are working in showbiz. Email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.