A Conversation With Midwest-Born Screenwriter And Actress Stephanie Sanditz
Actress and screenwriter Stephanie Sanditz has just returned to Los Angeles from a trip to Japan and Indonesia, a trip she’d planned to celebrate her birthday. Compared to her life growing up in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, Missouri—which serves as the backdrop for one of her first scripts—it feels like a universe away.
You can see the fruits of Sanditz’ acting labor with parts in films like “Kate and Leopold,” as well as “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “Strangers With Candy” and most recently a web comedy series, acquired by Amazon Prime, called “37 Problems,” about one woman’s struggle to carve out a screenwriting career, confronted with the fact that she only has one viable egg left. Sanditz showcases a natural aptitude for comedy, which finds its energy in truths that feel hopelessly imminent, about which all the characters can really do is laugh.
Sanditz has also developed a strong foothold as a screenwriter, adapting books into films for studio production and having just sold a series called “The High Life” to Mila Kunis’ production company, Orchard Farm Productions. We spoke with her on the phone to discuss life as an artist, the ways growing up in the middle of America informs her work, and how she has carved out a career in Hollywood amidst what could be the overthrow of maddening cultural silence around sexual exploitation of women.
Tell me, what is “The High Life” about?
It’s a TV series about a highly neurotic yet relatable family, in which their charming and ambitious fuck up of a daughter moves back home and attempts to find God out of her childhood bedroom. She’s a charismatic yet reckless and disillusioned woman in her early 30s who went to have a bigger career in entertainment and ended up really bottoming out. She hasn’t found what she’s looking for in the limelight and moves in with her mixed religious parents—her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian. They’ve also adopted two Chinese twins and her brother is a gay libertarian.
The series follows the family’s multi-generational exploration of different religions and spiritual practices in an attempt to find meaning, happiness and purpose. A dysfunctional family dramedy that also explores things like, “How can you practice the detachment of Buddhism when you want success and you have to check your email every day?” It’s early, though. I just finished the pilot, and we still have to take it to networks. It’s been a fun and exciting process.
What was your inspiration for the series?
Four years ago, several members of my family and friends died of cancer and various ailments. I went to a lot of radically different memorial services and watched how people looked at their own mortality. I thought, ‘there’s actually a lot of humor and absurdity in how people deal with death,’ and a lot of sorrow. It’s a bittersweet comedy. It’s also a very politically charged time right now, and I wanted to touch a lot of subjects, including religion, addiction, sexuality and race.
I wanted to make something that approached these taboo subjects, and I try to do so through this incredibly flawed but relatable family. To describe my writing, I try to make really rich characters with a lot of heart, who are also sometimes neurotic and inappropriate. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as they say.
I love that. Take me through your background and how you got into film acting and screenwriting.
I grew up in St. Louis and went to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. At first, my parents didn’t want me to do it. The deal was that I could go to the actor’s conservatory if I double-majored in writing. I was in two different theatre companies, and I’d bartend nine months out of the year so I could take off and do plays for three months. Then I acted in everything I could in New York City: the Law and Orders, a few indie films and some parts in some studio films.
But still, waiting around for auditions as an actor can be really disempowering. I didn’t know if I had enough life experiences to write yet, but in my spare time I started writing the screenplay for what became “Creve Coeur, Missouri.” My grandmother died, and my grandfather gave me this collection of letters he wrote to her during World War II when he was a submarine captain. They were so beautiful. The ’90s in Missouri was a weird time. There were boy bands and “Fresh Prince Of Bel Air” and “Saved By The Bell” on TV, but mom-and-pop stores were closing down and being replaced by big superstores. I felt this dichotomy between wanting to rebel against this sanitized growing cult of homogeny and feeling something authentic—which I guess was the heart of the post-punk grunge movement and hip-hop, but also this throwback idea from the ’80s that bigger is better.
I began writing a story of three generations of a family, all trying to find love and going through awkward coming-of-age moments at the same time. I wrote a version of that script that I didn’t think would go anywhere. Years later I gave it to a friend who shared it with Blye Pagon Faust, who would go on to win an Academy award for “Spotlight.” She heard something in my voice and submitted the script to the Tribeca ALL ACCESS Film Festival New Voices In Screenwriting competition. It won an award, and I ended up getting signed with an agency in California for acting and writing. That script opened every single door for me. It’s at a production company now, and we’re still trying to gather financing to get it made.
How did your career evolve from there?
I moved to L.A. a little after “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” were coming out. I was never into fantasy and sci-fi, but I do have this kind of jaded, sarcastic, hyper-intellectual teenage girl voice. A die-hard romantic hiding behind sarcasm and wit. My experiences growing up as a teenage girl in the Midwest spoke to these people, and I got hired to write five different books and adapt them into movies for various production companies and studios. Some are still in development. The first one I did is called “The Mediator,” by Meg Cabot, for a company called Greene Street Films. They did the films “Swim Fan” and “Thank You For Smoking.” That got me into the WGA [Writer’s Guild Of America], and it was my first big paycheck. I went and bought my first Jeep Wrangler.
From that, I did a couple of other smaller films and wrote the prequel to the Mortal Instrument series, released by Sony and Screen Gems, which is now a show on Freeform called “Shadow Hunters.” I also went more ‘adult’ and adapted this book called “Beautiful Bastard,” a sexy romantic comedy about an intern who has a really racy love story with her boss. Last year, I wrote and produced a young-adult show for DreamWorks’ AwesomenessTV called “Chat. Like. Love.” And through it all I’ve been coming up with my own original content.
My parents gave me this amazing education that led me to leave St. Louis—there were more opportunities in New York and L.A. I’m a big advocate of traveling. Many people work in Hollywood, but there are so many stories that need to be told elsewhere. I am so grateful to have grown up in St. Louis. Though there are many problems, I feel really fortunate that I got to grow up there when I did. I tend to write about real, relatable people who are trying to be good people in the midst of lots of problems. Like, how can you be a romantic when there are lots of blaring socioeconomic issues around you? There are a lot of people who I feel have numbed themselves, and I’m interested in how people get woke and manage being a conscious person.
I think artists are also people who just feel ‘different’ growing up, and out of survival needed to express themselves. For better or for worse, artists are really passionate people who feel things dramatically high and dramatically low. It can be really hard. But I think people who choose normal careers are just as prone to those highs and lows. Artists just do it more in the spotlight.
The film and entertainment industry has been shaken by women coming forward and sharing their stories of sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of men in power—i.e., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback. What is your perspective on that?
It’s an incredibly polarizing time right now. The world is having to look at some ugly truths within our society, and Hollywood has always been our mirror. I wish I could say I have not experienced some of the types of sexual harassment or sexual assault being exposed—I have; I know it has made me stronger. But I’d also like to think I would have still found my strength without having to endure such experiences and navigate their effects. It’s a very difficult thing to not only be subject to behaviors you did not ask for, but then feel shamed or scared of how it may damage your career by speaking out.
I am heartbroken and horrified to hear of other women’s stories. But I am also profoundly inspired by the courage of those who continue to speak out. I can only hope their bravery and exposition will protect future women from such harassment, and help the community as a whole feel that we can no longer collectively turn away from unethical and disrespectful behaviors of our peers—no matter how powerful they are, or how much we like their films. There are thousands of respectful, enlightened, hard-working women and men out there with stories that deserve to be told. Let’s make their movies.
Sanditz in “37 Problems”
How have you worked through the challenges of Hollywood?
Particularly my sister, Lisa Sanditz, an incredible artist and just really special human. Many of my closest friends are still those I grew up with in Missouri. You have to be surrounded by people who ground you and inspire you. It’s a combination of surrounding yourself with good people you can be honest with and living a varied life. For me, it’s a focus on family, political efforts and helping other people out. The world needs a lot of help right now.
What’s that quote—”How do you gain self esteem? By doing esteemable acts, for others and for yourself.” I have a pretty regimented lifestyle. I wake up, write for five hours, go to the gym, write for five or so more depending if I have meetings or auditions. Then I obsessively watch the movies and shows I need to see with my dog and my wonderful boyfriend of eight years, who’s also in the business, and do it all over again until I get to travel or go into production. I also kickbox, dance and do yoga to run away from my inner demons. And I also take costume parties very seriously.
I’ve also been working on charity projects in St. Louis with my dad, Ted Sanditz, raising money for Planned Parenthood and for the St. Louis County Library Foundation. We were able to help open a library in the North St. Louis and Ferguson areas, as well as help finance an adult continuing education program. St. Louis is a very polarized political town, but I’d like to think everyone can get behind helping to increase literacy and education for its citizens. I hope to continue to actively help in this area.
Having grown up in the middle of America, what’s it like living in L.A.?
L.A. actually feels more like St. Louis to me, especially with car culture. I’ll always have a base here. I’d love to be tri-coastal, between here, New York and St. Louis. L.A. is a good hub, but there’s more world out there. I try to come back to St. Louis at least two or three times per year. It is my home in my heart.
Cover image by Jakob Owens. All other images courtesy of Stephanie Sanditz.