Photo Illustration: Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

First person of color to be president of WGA East talks crucial timing of position

Television writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is making history, and she’s not thrilled about it. 

Cullen, 52, who was elected president last month of The Writers Guild of America East, which represents writers of motion pictures, television, news and digital media, becomes the first person of color to lead the organization in its nearly 70-year history.

With members currently voting on whether to ratify the tentative deal reached with Hollywood studios after an arduous five-month strike, Cullen, who’s worked as co-executive producer of NBC’s “The Endgame” and as a consulting producer on “Law & Order: SVU,” reflected on the significance of her leading the guild.

“Our guild has existed for 69 years, and I’m only the third woman to be the president? And I’m the first person of color? That is nonsense to me. Just pure nonsense.”

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

For her, being a “first” is reflective of what she says is the stubborn pace at which progress is being made in the industry. 

“Our guild has existed for 69 years, and I’m only the third woman to be the president? And I’m the first person of color? That is nonsense to me. Just pure nonsense,” Cullen, who ran unopposed, said in a phone interview, incredulously. “The fact that it took this long does say a lot, not necessarily about our guild, but really about our industry and how it continues to remain dominated by a certain demographic.”

Cullen’s new role came amid a contentious monthslong back and forth between Hollywood writers, who protested for pay increases and artificial intelligence regulations, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the trade association that bargains on behalf of Hollywood studios, television networks and streaming platforms. (The association represents NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

Cullen, who grew up in Japan and moved to the U.S. to attend Rutgers University, has developed pilots for Apple, Netflix and ABC among other networks in her 12 years in the industry. She is currently in an overall deal with Universal TV and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two kids. 

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Thousands of hours hunched over in meetings and on the picket lines under the hot summer sun culminated with a contract that, Cullen said, she’s “thrilled” with. For many from underrepresented communities, labor concerns end up being a dealbreaker for retention in the industry, Cullen explained. According to WGA data, white writers represented more than three-quarters of working screenwriters in 2020. Both Latinx and Asian Americans made up just over 3%, while Black writers made up 6.9% of screenwriters. 

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In some ways, it took the first strike in more than 15 years to illuminate to the public what those from communities of color have long experienced, she said. 

“Writers from marginalized backgrounds tend to be the ones with less of a financial cushion. They tend to be the ones without family connections in the business. They tend to be the ones without networks or support systems. All things that you need in this extremely challenging business,” she said. “The strike laid bare just how much our colleagues from marginalized backgrounds struggle versus those who have generational wealth and who have the networks.” 

“Writers from marginalized backgrounds tend to be the ones with less of a financial cushion. They tend to be the ones without family connections … All things that you need in this extremely challenging business.”

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Though Cullen had been active in the WGA East for some time, joining its leadership council in 2016, she hadn’t necessarily planned to lead the organization. And she’s “not by any stretch the most famous or fanciest” member of the guild. Cullen started out as a journalist for nearly two decades, most notably as a foreign correspondent and staff writer at Time magazine. She said she “stumbled” into television writing when she wrote a spec pilot and then pivoted careers. 

“We have household names in our membership, people who have truly reached the pinnacle of writing for television and movies,” she said. “I’m someone who switched into this career only a little over 10 years ago. I’m still finding my way, but I like to think that what I bring is a tremendous reserve of compassion. Maybe this is my fatal flaw, too, but I really, really care. I care about every single one of our members.” 

But she emphasized that it was a necessity for union leadership to reflect the changing demographics of the industry and the reality of its members. Traditionally, she said, leadership has often been occupied by those with “illustrious careers” who have accrued a lifetime of IMDb credits. 

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“It’s critical to a successful guild to have leaders who understand what their members are going through because they’re going through it themselves. We cannot have a guild led by people who are so far removed from the everyday problems of our rank-and-file members,” she said. “That’s not how the WGA East ought to work in my view.” 

“Maybe this is my fatal flaw too, but I really, really care. I care about every single one of our members.”

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

While the rarity of a woman of color being in her role isn’t lost on her, Cullen said she never felt out of place at the negotiating table or in any of her duties as a guild leader. The occasional nag of imposter syndrome that she says is so universal across the entertainment industry has more often fueled her. 

“It’s impossible to walk into a television pitch and not feel some level of ‘I don’t belong here.’ … And I don’t think that that fear is a bad thing. I think it keeps us on our toes,” she said. “I’d like to think that we live in a time where a a woman of color like me who didn’t grow up in America like me, and who switched into this career at a later age like me, and who has a family and lives in New Jersey and, you know, and doesn’t check all of the traditional boxes can still stand up and you know, advocate for her colleagues and be taken seriously.” 

As the parties await to ratify the agreement, with voting scheduled to end on Oct. 9, Cullen said she’s optimistic about the future, as those from a variety of backgrounds continue to organize, compare notes and find community with one another. 

“The more of us there are, the more we will create our own networks and our own support systems. So what if we didn’t come from this background and we don’t have an uncle who is a WME [William Morris Endeavor] agent, or a cousin who is a film producer. We’re never going to have those things,” she said. “Until our generation, our peers, achieve those things, then we can do those things for future generations. I think that there’s hope in that.”

Kimmy Yam

Kimmy Yam is a reporter for NBC Asian America.