tv » February 17, 2014

Star-Crossed creator talks background, new series

by Charissa Jelliff

"I fell in love with [New York City], and when I wanted to move there for college -- which was a big deal for someone from a small town like Pottsville -- my parents didn't even flinch. They knew it's where I needed to be."

The rolling hills of Pottsville, Pa., are situated in the heart of the anthracite coal region that stretches from Harrisburg to Scranton. The area thrived through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the economy has struggled to rebound since the mines were shuttered.

Today, Pottsville is most often described to outsiders as the site of D. G. Yuengling and Son, America’s oldest brewery. Soon, that conversation may include the mention of a successful television writer and producer who calls the city home.

Meredith Averill, a Pottsville native, is the creator and executive producer of the new science-fiction drama Star-Crossed, premiering Monday on the CW. She spoke last week with about the new show and how she came to the television industry.

The title of the series echoes the famous line from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, and the show updates the tale of forbidden love so familiar to teenaged English students everywhere — with an otherworldly twist. In the pilot episode, an alien humanoid enrolls in a Louisiana high school and a romance develops between him and a human classmate.

The realization of this series is the culmination of a long journey for Averill. Pottsville is a place that can seem as alien to the dreams of a young writer as the Atrians are to the planet where they crash-landed 10 years earlier.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be,” Averill explained.

As a high school student, Averill channeled her passion for writing into her school newspaper, Tide Lines. During those formative years, Averill relied on teachers who supported her writing and parents who “always encouraged me to dream big.”

While it may be far removed from the sound stages of Los Angeles, Pottsville is only three hours away from Manhattan. Averill’s father would frequently take her on trips to New York City when she was in middle and high school, planting the seeds for her to break out of her sleepy hometown and pursue her passions.

“I fell in love with the city, and when I wanted to move there for college — which was a big deal for someone from a small town like Pottsville — my parents didn’t even flinch,” Averill said. “They knew it’s where I needed to be.”

Following in the footsteps of John O’Hara, Pottsville’s most famous writer to date, Averill packed her bags and headed to the Big Apple. She attended New York University, planning to major in cinema studies.

“I loved writing about movies,” Averill said, “so I thought I might go into entertainment journalism, but pretty soon, I realized it wasn’t for me. I was more interested in telling stories rather than critiquing them.”

She changed her major to screenwriting, and “I’ve been writing scripts ever since.”

Television didn’t play a large role in Averill’s life until after she graduated from NYU. She began watching series like Alias, The West Wing, and Twin Peaks on DVD and fell in love with the medium. Like many potential screenwriters, Averill drafted “spec scripts” — unsolicited screenplays either for an original concept or for a show already in existence.

“My first spec script was for Sex & the City, and I’m pretty sure it was terrible, but I had a blast writing it,” Averill recalled.

For her next spec script, she chose to write an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and spent more time studying the structure of a typical episode before putting pen to paper.

“After that, I felt confident enough to write an original pilot spec, which I ended up submitting to a writing program in Los Angeles called ‘Writers on the Verge‘ in 2007, and I was accepted into that program.”

Averill’s first job in television was as an assistant for Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, a writing team who had also worked as producers on shows like Alias and October Road.

“They gave me my first writing job and hired me as a writer on two of their shows, Life On Mars and Happy Town,” Averill said.

Star-Crossed panel
The cast and crew of Star-Crossed sit on a panel at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International. Series creator Meredith Averill, third from left, spoke with

Now, Appelbaum and Nemec are serving as executive producers on Averill’s show, which marks her transition into the role of show creator.

The new title brings a set of new challenges. Averill is in charge of more than 200 employees at Star-Crossed’s offices in Los Angeles as well as on location in New Orleans, where filming has posed its own challenges. Averill spends most of her time in L.A. with the writers and isn’t able to be on set as often as she would like. However, the advantages to be being a creator outweigh those drawbacks.

“When you work on someone else’s show, you are always trying to anticipate what they might like to see, how they might write a certain character, but it’s fun to be able to apply your own unique voice to these characters,” Averill said. “The best part of being able to create a show … is that the world is yours to play with.”

For Star-Crossed, the creative process began with a three-minute trailer from a Spanish production company. The trailer, titled Oxigeno, centered on a group of alien teenagers being integrated into a high school. The trailer languished as an unrealized project until Averill brought it to life.

“The original idea, I can’t take credit for,” Averill said, “but we got to develop the whole world around it, which was a fun process.”

The series was initially named Oxygen, a translation from the Spanish, but the title had to be changed due to a rights issue with the Oxygen Network.

But what’s in a name?

The new title, Star-Crossed, is befitting of a story in which the main characters come from two different worlds that are not supposed to mix. The titles of the episodes are also taken from lines in Romeo and Juliet. The show, however, is not a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s play.

“We didn’t go out of our way to make any other Shakespearean parallels in the series,” Averill explained. “But I’m sure if you wanted to go looking for some, you could find them.”

Much about the series is indeed original, including the main characters. Emery, played by Aimee Teegarden, is a human girl who has been sick for much of her life and has spent a lot of time in the hospital. Entering high school is an especially new experience for her.

“When thinking about the character of Emery, I liked the idea that she could relate to the Atrians in a way — that she, too, felt like an outsider on her first day of school,” Averill said.

Teegarden was the production team’s first choice to play Emery, and she was the first cast member hired, partly as a result of her role in NBC’s Friday Night Lights. Averill and several other executive producers were fans of the high school football drama, so they were already familiar with Teegarden’s work.

“We knew we needed Emery to have a girl-next-door quality and be instantly likable, but also strong and confident,” Averill said. “We loved [Teegarden] so much on FNL, and after we met with her and found out she is also a huge sci-fi fan, we knew she’d be a great fit.”

Roman, portrayed by Matt Lanter, is the son of the leader of the Atrians, “but he’s also someone who is a bit rebellious and constantly questioning whether integration is really the right move,” Averill said.

Lanter was one of the last cast members to be hired.

“We had a very hard time casting Roman,” Averill said, “because the role requires so much: he has to be noble and strong-willed, but also vulnerable — and, of course, gorgeous, because it is still the CW.”

In fact, it was the teen-oriented network that first suggested Lanter, after the cancellation of his previous show, 90210.

“We met with him and felt immediately he was the right choice, and he was very excited to play a role unlike any other he had played before,” Averill said.

The distinctiveness of Lanter’s character was a conscious choice for Averill and her team. They wanted the Atrians to be a singular extraterrestrial race, but it took several episodes to establish some of their trademark characteristics.

“We knew certain details about the Atrians when we were developing the pilot — the birthmarks, the idea that they had this herb called ‘cyper’ that may or may not have curative properties,” Averill said. “But it wasn’t until we got into the season — and I have to give our writing staff credit for contributing to this — that we really developed who they are as a race, what makes them unique and unlike any other alien race you’ve seen depicted on television or in movies before.”

Star-Crossed panel
Averill poses with fellow executive producer Scott Rosenberg and lead actor Matt Lanter on-set in New Orleans.

One other alien race that some fans have been quick to draw a comparison with have been the aliens of another teen sci-fi drama, Roswell. Even without looking too closely, though, there is one big difference between the two shows: Roswell’s aliens had to live in secret, while the world knows about Star-Crossed’s Atrians. The presence of the Atrians, including the fact that thousands of them live in an internment camp, serves as a backdrop for some of the more serious motifs underlying the series: the politics of integration and the government’s treatment of the Atrians.

“Even though we don’t try to hit you over the head with this theme, Star-Crossed is also a show about racism — and how we treat ‘the other,'” Averill said. “I think that’s what makes it unique and unlike other sci-fi shows you’ve seen.”

So what will Star-Crossed‘s fans have to look forward to this season? According to Averill, a lot.

“The benefit of doing 13 episodes in the first season is that we really jam-packed every episode with as many reveals and juicy mysteries as we could.”

The Atrians’ “powers” — what makes them unique — will be exposed fairly early in the series. About midway through the season, the reason for the Atrians’ crash-landing on Earth will be revealed. The show will also be introducing “warring factions” within each race: the anti-human Trags and the anti-Atrian Red Hawks.

“They’re both equally evil and out for blood,” Averill said. “Their constant battle for power is what drives much of the action in the season — and how our characters work to stop them.”

And, for the teen demographic so important on the CW, Averill teases the romances of the series.

“A new love interest will complicate things for Emery and Roman, who are not our only couple in the show. Some interesting and surprising other pairings will emerge.”

The premiere of Star-Crossed is a big moment in Averill’s career. But Averill, who has also been a producer and writer for The Good Wife, is quick to note that her success would not be possible without plenty of support, both in the television industry and back home in Pottsville.

“I don’t remember who gave it to me, but the best advice I’ve ever been given is, ‘Don’t be a jerk,'” Averill said. “[Television is] a small industry and people know who the jerks are and you don’t want to be one. Be as courteous to the assistants as you would be to the executive producers.”

As for the father who fanned the flames of her passion with those trips to New York when she was a girl, he now lives in Florida and surprised Averill last year by flying to Comic-Con where the cast and crew of Star-Crossed introduced the series. Averill’s mother still lives in Pottsville, and both her parents are just as supportive as ever.

“They’ve now each seen the pilot probably 20 times,” Averill said, “but I know for sure they’ll still be watching [Monday] while wearing their Star-Crossed t-shirts.”

Bringing a television series to the screen is no small accomplishment for the girl from coal country. But Monday’s pilot episode, of course, is just the beginning of a new story.

“I just watched our finale, which we filmed in December, and I feel like I’m not exaggerating or over-selling when I say the season ends with one of the most intense, shocking cliffhangers I’ve seen on television — it’s incredible. And I can’t wait for everyone else to see it!”

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Charissa Jelliff is a self-proclaimed "fangirl" who loves nothing more than discussing her favorite books, movies and TV shows with fellow fans. She's currently finishing up a Master's in literature and dreams of becoming a writer some day.