It’s been 26 years since Marc Cherry started working in network television as an assistant to Dixie Carter on Designing Women. And in more than the quarter-century that’s followed, he wrote for The Golden Girls, created Desperate Housewives, and these days, he’s finishing up the second season of Devious Maids, his Lifetime series about Beverly Hills housekeepers who have just as many skeletons in their closets as their bosses do.
“I went a whole year without the slightest bit of tension, and it was so lovely, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Cherry said of working with Devious actresses Susan Lucci, Roselyn Sanchez, Ana Ortiz, Dania Ramirez, Grant Show, Judy Reyes, and Rebecca Wisocky.
But it hasn’t always been so easy. The Desperate Housewives cast — Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, and Nicollette Sheridan — found themselves the subjects of countless tabloid stories — and one dismissed lawsuit — over the show’s eight-year run throughout the early ’00s.
“I learned a lot from Desperate Housewives, both good and bad,” Cherry said. “I am thankful for the experience, but let me tell you: It was its own kind of boot camp. I made some mistakes. Sometimes, I guessed right; other times, I guessed wrong. But I grew a lot as a human being and as a showrunner.”
Below, Cherry shares 11 of the biggest lessons learned throughout his Golden, Desperate, and Devious years in Hollywood.
1. There is always a silver lining.
“I was an unemployed 42-year-old writer with an agent who embezzled from me and I had to send her to jail,” Cherry said of the lean years before Desperate Housewives. “Plus, I was going broke at the time, so it was a double whammy. It was devastating, but because of that, I had to get new agents … [and] they were the ones who figured out how to sell this script about housewives I’d written. That changed my whole life, whereas my old agent had the same script, but couldn’t figure out how to sell it. My whole life turned on the fact this agent stole from me.”
2. Learn from your mistakes.
“First of all, the overwhelming majority of the cast of Desperate Housewives was lovely,” Cherry explained. “The truth is, you just really learn to pay attention to the energy the person gives off in the [audition] room. It’s not a guarantee of what the actor’s behavior will be like over the run of a long show, but if you’re going to live with anyone for eight years, you’ll see them at their best, their worst, and their most exhausted. I give people a lot of leeway.
“When I started Desperate, I was kinda looking at the women going, I’m not sure if I know what I’m doing, but let’s keep our fingers crossed. What’s cool now is I’ve made my mistakes. Not to say I won’t make more in the future, but I’ve been through so much that when situations come up, I actually know the best way to handle them better.”
3. Don’t be stuck in your ways.
“It’s the actors that make a TV show,” Cherry stated. “The writing can be so-so, the writing can be good, the writing can be very good, or the writing can be great, but you can get away with a lot if you have the most entertaining cast. There’s a show I won’t name that’s been running for quite a few years now, and I think it’s only so-so written, but the cast is as charming as fuck. It’s eminently watchable because of the actors.
“Actors will say, ‘It’s all in the writing.’ But, while I create the characters, the moment I cast an actor, the collaboration starts. Marcia Cross is the perfect example of this: The Bree I had in mind was much more sly and knowing. Marcia came along, and she has the most fabulously oblivious quality where, sometimes, she didn’t get the joke, so she didn’t know she was being funny, which actually changed the DNA of the character because suddenly, our Bree was a little unknowing about her own Bree-ness. By injecting that into her performance, Marcia did me the greatest service because she made Bree more likable. If we went with my original approach, I don’t know if Bree would have become such a beloved character.”
4. Plan ahead, but not too far ahead.
“I always knew I would have Marisol become one of the employers in Season 2, because I learned the hard way that you have to set up storylines was in advance,” Cherry said of Ana Ortiz’s Devious Maids character. “Desperate Housewives taught me that an entire season can be made or broken on the strength of your mystery storyline. Creating a TV show is a case study in rolling with the punches, that’s why you can’t get more than one season ahead because, the truth is, you don’t want to get too attached to something because life comes along and surprises you.”
And, Cherry added, expect the unexpected. “I had this great storyline planned for Marcia Cross for an entire year and then she knocked on my door one day and said, ‘I’m pregnant,’” he recalled. “It’s painful when you have to change that much. So I learned you need to be far enough ahead that your writers have time to plan, but at the same time, you need to stay open to challenges that come from the actors personal lives, your own life, and production issues.”
5. Ignore the haters.
“They say that success doesn’t change you; it changes the people around you. And that’s pretty true. With the first season of Desperate, I had the biggest hit of the decade; we’re on the cover of Newsweek and all this amazing shit is happening,” he recalled. “But I had friends who reacted badly to the fact I was suddenly so successful. I also made the mistake of going into a chatroom and people were saying the most horrible things about my show. My feelings got hurt. And that’s when I decided I was done. I have never looked back.
“There’s a moment, as you get older and win some awards and make some money and meet your material needs, where you take a step back and wonder what your life means and what your obituary will read. The bigger issues start to come to the forefront. When I was younger, I thought fame was important — and it doesn’t suck; it comes in handy when you want to get into restaurants on Thanksgiving. But if you want your work to mean something, you have to just focus on it because there are so many distractions in this world. But, I recently watched our most recent episode [of Devious Maids] and it’s really good. If at the end of the day you can say that, it feels good because that’s what it’s all about.”
6. Pretty fades. Talent is forever.
“Thankfully, my fame came at middle age. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if it came at 27. Who knows what fucking mindset I would have been in,” Cherry said. “Because I own a piece of the show, I’m fine, I’m set. But I always wonder with actors, like the Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl actors, who are already acting full of themselves. I want to come back in 10 years, see how they’re doing once they’re not so pretty and see if they can fucking perform. One of the things I’ve always said about Felicity [Huffman] is she spent years not being the prettiest girl. She even had a little bit of a complex about it. But she knew how to act — everyone in this industry knows Felicity can act — so when her time came, she stayed sane.
“Those [younger actors] forget: It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. You can start out great, but stumble badly. I think it’s especially hard for women because they all come to this town when they’re young and pretty and I think a lot of the women kind of know their attractiveness is what’s getting them in the door. But at some point in their thirties, it starts to hit them that it’s all going to go away, which is when a certain kind of insanity sets in. I think that’s one reason why actresses get such a bad wrap. What we’re really dealing with is a class of people who know they have expiration dates, and that’s hard.”
7. Know when it’s time to close a chapter.
“For the first five years, I said, ‘Desperate Housewives would run for seven years.’ But when we got to Season 5, I suddenly decided I could go longer,” Cherry recalled. “The network wanted a ninth, but I couldn’t physically or emotionally do that. It was too rough and I was ready to leave, so I gave them the extra [season]. Could we have done a ninth? Yeah. But I don’t know how good it would have been. The writer’s room was starting to be one long chorus of, We’ve done it. When your writers are all looking at each other in frustration, you know you may have stayed too long at the fair.”
8. The cream will always rise to the top.
“I created Devious Maids thinking it was exactly what ABC wanted from me,” Cherry said. “The truth is, I was trying to get away from what I’d done before, but I thought they were trying to fill the void [Desperate Housewives left]. There was a storyline that didn’t work in the original script, but I told them I knew how to fix it. I would have hoped ABC would have given me the chance to fix it, but for whatever reason, they didn’t pick it up. And, I gotta say, I’m not sorry I’m on Lifetime. I’ve enjoyed only having to do 13 episodes a season — it makes my plotting better and it’s better for my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It really was the most fortuitous set of circumstances — and feel free to look at all the shows ABC picked up over us: Red Widow, Zero Hour, 666 Park Avenue. A whole buncha ones that went down in flames.”
9. You can sleep when you’re dead.
“I’m like a doctor — I’m always on call,” Cherry chuckled. “One time, I got a call from an actress on Desperate Housewives, and it was 10 p.m. on a Sunday as I was getting into bed. She had a huge problem with the pages we were shooting the next day, but she had some good points, so I went down to my computer and re-wrote the scene. I went to bed at midnight and was up at 6 a.m. — that’s the times when this job is less fun. Now, I don’t want to complain too much. Every writer has been there, but this job means you’re a dad who’s surrounded by 150 kids who all have their needs and you have to take care of all of them. But, Susan Lucci can call me any time she wants.”
10. Do what you love, not necessarily what you know.
“I am fascinated by women,” Cherry said. “About 20 years ago, a very famous screenwriter wrote a movie that made a lot of noise because it was the biggest-selling screenplay for its time and the things this writer had the female characters doing were kind of appalling to me. I just kept thinking, Women do not behave like that. It’s occurred to me that the fact I don’t want to fuck women makes me write better parts for women. Like, I’m not living out some nerd fantasy by creating this hot, sexy female character and have her make love to my hero, which is the symbolic ‘me’ on the page.
“My women are reflections of me and the women I love, so I respect them. I don’t want sex from them. I want them to be funny and smart and heroic and bitchy and conniving and devious and desperate, or whatever it is. That’s where gay men might sometimes have a leg up on the average straight male writer. All I want out of women is intelligence and friendship and humor. I think that desire translates and people notice it when my characters get on the screen.”
11. Take risks.
“I think there are a lot of people in this industry who would be very happy if I continued to churn out the exact same thing, because they know what I do and it’s very easy to pigeonhole me,” Cherry said. “But very soon, I am going to stop doing television and I’m going to write for theater and film so that doesn’t happen to me. I figure I’ve got 15 more years before I become a drooling mess, and I would love to use that time to create some new stuff. But the industry is tricky. The industry really doesn’t want you to be that creative. They say, ‘You’re X, so just do X.’ But I’m trying to let them know I can also do Y. I was a sitcom guy, a failed sitcom guy, so I’m ready to surprise them once again.”