If you’re going to write a television show that could potentially air for many seasons, you better make sure that you’re interested in the topic. For Mary Kills People creator Tara Armstrong that topic was death, and the Global series, which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. and premieres in the U.S. on Lifetime April 23 at 10 p.m., explores the debate around doctor assisted suicide. Hannibal alum Caroline Dhavernas plays Dr. Mary Harris, an ER doc by day who also helps terminally ill patients end their lives as her side job.
The six part series is the first from Armstrong, a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Prime Time TV Program and part of the class that helped develop the new Netflix and Showcase series Travelers. She partnered on Mary Kills People with Cameron Pictures, the newly formed production company from Rookie Blue showrunner Tassie Cameron and her sister Amy Cameron, who also served as an executive producer. While Tassie Cameron served as the Mary showrunner, Armstrong got in on a lot of the decision making process, including assembling a female heavy creative team behind the scenes.
She recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to discuss what it was like working with Cameron and the types of characters she enjoys not only writing about, but seeing up on screen. Armstrong also details why she felt a need to explore the very complex issue of death and the controversies surrounding doctor assisted suicide.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Tell us a little about your background and whether you always wanted to write for television?
Tara Armstrong: No, I didn’t know I always wanted to write, but I knew I wanted to work in film and TV ever since I was young. I loved movies and I thought I wanted to be an actor actually, and went to acting school. I had an extremely short lived career as an actor and realized it was not for me. I then went to thinking I wanted to produce and be on the finance side of film and TV. Then I ended up working in film and TV where my first job was an office PA on a movie of the week in Vancouver. I worked my way up to producer’s assistant and production coordinator. It was at that time that I started writing, and as soon as I did that I thought ‘OK, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I went and did a degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. It took awhile, but I’m glad I figured it out.
TTVJ: As a young writer beginning her career, you probably couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Tassie Cameron. What were some of the most important things you learned working with her?
TA: Tassie is amazing and she’s such a great example of a leader in this industry. As a showrunner, she leads with a lot of care for everyone she’s working with. She was so passionate about this project and wanted to include me in all the decision making, which I appreciated so much. I think it’s really important when women are supportive of one another, and with Tassie there couldn’t be a more supportive showrunner.
Also Amy Cameron, her sister and partner at Cameron Pictures, is just like that. They are fantastic creative producers and work so well together. I so enjoyed working with them and can’t wait to see what they do next. I’m already a fan and think they are a great addition to the Canadian television and film industry.
TTVJ: As you mentioned, you got to share some of the showrunning duties on Mary Kills People with Tassie. What was that experience like?
TA: She was the showrunner but definitely gave me a ton of responsibility. So I really got to experience all of the responsibilities that come with showrunning–writing, casting, scheduling– and I loved it. I have always wanted to be a showrunner, so it was amazing to be included in everything.
TTVJ: Mary Kills People has such a strong female gaze to it, on camera and behind the scenes. Was that something you and Tassie discussed right from the start and why was that so important to have on this project?
TA: We didn’t necessarily say we wanted an all-female creative team at all. We had been looking at male and female directors, but Holly Dale read the project and loved it. We had a phone call with her and she seemed to totally understand it and feel as passionately about it as we did. It was a no-brainer that we’d hire her because she’s extremely experienced and talented. We were hoping someone would come on and do all of the episodes. Holly was available and wanted to do them.
In the writers’ room we had Marsha Greene, but we did know that it was important to balance out the gender as well. So it was really important to have a male voice in the room, so we hired Michael Goldbach. We wanted to have both the male and female perspective because we want the show to appeal to both men and women. There were things Mike brought up or perspectives that he had that were integral to the show, so I’m so glad we had that voice as well.
TTVJ: Dr. Mary Harris is such a great character to have on TV. She’s complex, multi-dimensional, strong, yet vulnerable and troubled. What’s your favorite thing about writing for that character?
TA: For me, as a woman, I am drawn to stories that have female characters at the heart of the story and all of my projects do. That’s personally what I’m most interested in and want to work on. For the character of Mary, I did want to write a really complex character who is ultimately compassionate, but she also makes really questionable decisions that we don’t always understand. I think it’s important to show female characters in a way that is not straightforward and we don’t always have to like them. The more representations of women, and everything that comes with being a woman, that we can put out there, the more helpful that is for us.
TTVJ: You were at the CFC and part of the writers room program that helped developed Travelers. What’s it been like to now see that developed as a show for Netflix and Showcase?
TA: It’s great and I feel so lucky that I was at the CFC in that year with Brad Wright, who is such an experienced showrunner and so successful. He was a great leader at the CFC and created a wonderful show. We didn’t go into it expecting it to be made, since that’s only happened one time with Orphan Black, but we did all feel that we were making a really great show. We knew that Brad is a powerhouse in the genre world so it was really exciting to see the show happen. We all got credited on script and three of the people from the program went and worked with Brad on the show. So it’s really great to see everybody benefiting from that and getting their own success from it.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with other young writers?
TA: What comes to mind is the old adage of “write what you know,” and I think that’s really good when you’re starting out. Beyond that write what you’re fascinated by, and with Mary Kills People I had always been fascinated by death and knew I wanted to write about it. I heard someone say ‘Write what keeps you up at night,’ and for me that was death. I knew wanted to write about this topic that I feel like I can endlessly research and read about, watch documentaries about and feel very passionate about. Potentially you’re going to be living with this project for many years, so I think it should be something that keeps your interest. I wrote this so I could better understand my own feelings about death and reconcile the topic in my mind. I don’t think I’m any closer, and I don’t think I ever will be really, but I want to keep exploring it. If you can write about something you feel that strongly about then it’ll show in the material.
TTVJ: What I’m hearing is you’re definitely down for at least five seasons of Mary Kills People. [laughs]
TA: I definitely think there’s fodder for a lot of seasons because there’s no denying that assisted suicide is an incredibly complex topic. There’s many arguments for and against it, and I think all those arguments are valid and that we should explore them tirelessly. I don’t know that this is something we’ll ever completely figure out because of the complexity of the issue.
TTVJ: Outside of Mary Kills People do you have any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
TA: I do have another project that is sold to ABC Signature Studios in the US. It’s called High Touch and is about a woman in the real estate development industry which is a very male-dominated industry. It’s very much like Wolf of Wall Street and how she thrives and survives in that industry.
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Mary Kills People airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Global. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.