Trained in the London theatre, actress and writer Elena Pavli made her way to Los Angeles where her first play, The Bad the Sad and The Broken Hearted was directed by Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) and starred herself, Seth Rogen, Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi and Kumail Nanjiani. From there, Elena joined the writing team of the TV adaptation of Guy Ritchie’s gangster thriller Snatch. In this interview Pavli talks with us about her love for Scorsese, Tarantino, Kubrick, Bowie and her two upcoming projects; a streaming series of The Bad, the Sad and The Broken Hearted and a new gritty dramedy series titled The Manager which follows an L.A music manager on the brink of burnout whose professional and private strains land him in hot water. Featuring original music by Nasri Atweh, known for producing hits for Justin Bieber, Shakira and Halsey, The Manager might be your next binge-worthy obsession.
Jason Sheppard: Let’s start at the beginning. Is it true you began as a dancer and then that transitioned into acting?
Elena Pavli: I danced professionally, but as a kid. That was probably my main creative outlet, dancing and performing. I got the opportunity to go to high school in Australia at the Newtown High School of Performing Arts which had really good art, drama and dance departments. That was when I realized I can do this professionally. Then I auditioned for drama school. It was the first time I went halfway across the world to follow my dreams. I literally had 100 pounds in my pocket. Now I look back it was a pretty crazy thing to do, but I certainly don’t regret it.
JS: And that transitioned into writing?
Elena Pavli: Out of drama school, I went to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and that was a very intensive three-year course. I got an agent and then started auditioning. I applied to the Royal Court Theatre for another program that fostered and nurtured young writers. At the same time, I was part of a theatre company called The Factory, which was amazing and they also had a writing section. I met the artistic director of the Soho theatre and mentioned that I’d written a play which I’d sent them, but I didn’t have a rep as a writer. I wasn’t able to really get a foot in the door, but I had a chance of meeting him after the show. He read my play, The Bad, the Sad and The Broken Hearted, and it went onto the Soho theatre and I was in that as well. That play came out to LA and was directed by Martin Starr, who a lot of people know from Freaks and Geeks. We had an amazing cast including Seth Rogen and Kumail Nanjiani. And then off the back of that, I got Snatch, the TV series.
JS. Was there an original script you wrote which the team behind Snatch liked and felt that your writing was in the flavour they were doing?
Elena Pavli: Basically, I think you really cling to your pop culture references and I was like obsessed with Seinfeld. I’ve been obsessed with TV and an obsessive Tarantino fan. I love comedy but at the same time, I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen. I’ve got a wide range of interests and inspirations. I wrote a half-hour comedy pilot that was highly biographical. It was a dark comedy and they sent that out to various people and the showrunner of Snatch, Alex De Rakoff, he’s actually a friend of Guy Ritchie’s who wrote the movie, read my pilot and hired me. I was the only girl on the writing team so that was interesting. I grew up with a wide range of interests and I don’t know what this says about me, but I probably used to watch Taxi Driver around once a week (laughs). I don’t know. I was just fascinated by it.
JS: Why Taxi Driver?
Elena Pavli: I was really into Scorsese and ’70s cinema in a big way. In Sydney, I was always going to free screenings, like there would be Buster Keaton screenings that were free with a live band that I would drag my friends along to. Back then, pre-Google, I was just flicking through whatever free magazine I could find and finding out what was on. I think it kind of just explains my work in a way because the plays I wrote—the one I was talking about it came to LA, The Bad, the Sad and the Brokenhearted—is a comedy Western, but it’s present-day and you could probably guess my references if you watched it and I’m actually adapting that into a TV show at the moment which I’m also going to be in so that’s pretty exciting.
JS: Obviously you’re a lovely, kind person so what’s it like writing and creating characters that are not so decent chaps? Where does that come out?
Elena Pavli: I think the creative industry draws a lot of people that have maybe had less than regular upbringings. I was into Taxi Driver, into Goodfellas. I love writing gangsters and I don’t know why. As a writer, I like to approach things from the angle that what if no one is bad? What sort of circumstances has driven this person to a particular place? Obviously, there is good and bad in the world. I do believe that. When I worked with the Synergy theatre company I worked with some guys from that world. One of the guys grew up with an uncle who was a gangster, so it’s like Goodfellas right there on your doorstep. And especially, I really enjoyed writing some of the female characters because for a woman to survive in that white male-dominated culture, she’s got to be made of metal, if that makes any sense. I really like playing with that fine line of comedy and drama, which usually is the absurdity mingled with the bitter truth of the character. I think people don’t wake up in the morning and necessarily set out to do bad things but I think that because of where they might have grown up, or the financial circumstances they might be in or the social norms that they’ve grown up with and kind of explains why they do the stuff they do. Did you see The Irishman yet?
JS: I recently watched it. And then I had to watch it again because of its layers.
Elena Pavli: Yes, exactly. I really enjoyed watching it again. I’ve obviously grown up watching a lot of ’70s Cinema. Those movies are a different pace to what we’re used to now, particularly working in the TV arena—that stuff moves fast. As an actor on TV, I found you’re often getting new pages really quickly, you’re having to really make quick decisions, and the pace of the writers’ room, but when you’re watching something like The Irishman it’s like delving into like a really good book. I sound like an old lady but because of social media, I think we’re used to very short snippets of information. It’s interesting to consider and I think that it’s so great that some of these streaming platforms are allowing that slower pace to come back. I know quite a few people that watched half of The Irishman and went to work and then watched the other half and then watched it again. I think that’s fine. I think any way that you can receive art like that I’m happy about that.
JS: It reminded me more along the lines of The Godfather in terms of pacing, rather than Goodfellas, which was fast, fast, fast.
Elena Pavli: Yeah, Taxi Driver is somewhere in the middle of that. I remember, I took the day off school to go to Sydney Film Festival, which was like 10 Australian dollars at a time to get a ticket to go and see Taxi Driver with Paul Schrader doing an intro. I mean, wow. And he swore more than anyone I’ve ever heard swearing, in real life in his opening, but it was the most eloquent use of profanity that I’ve ever encountered.
JS: And your new series The Manager. Is it coming from a fictional place?
Elena Pavli: I’m collaborating with a guy called Nasri Atweh who’s a songwriter and lead vocalist for the Canadian band Magic! and has produced songs for Shakira, Halsey and Justin Bieber. We actually met at a New Kids on the Block concert backstage. I use music a lot when I’m writing and it’s pretty integral to my writing process and songs inspire me massively from Motown to David Bowie. We were chatting and then said, oh, let’s grab a coffee. We even kind of look alike. It’s like a brother from another mother at this point but we didn’t even set out to write something together. We just started talking like this should be a really good TV show.
JS: Will you be acting in this series along with writing each episode?
Elena Pavli: I think I’m gonna be in it playing the role of Natalie. It’s the journey of a young 30-something music manager in LA and it says much about the undercurrent of the industry but it is really just about his life. I mean, this is a punching high comparison but it’s like how The Sopranos is really about a guy in the mafia but it’s also just about a guy struggling to figure out his family dynamics. The Manager is about the music industry but it’s also about this guy’s journey and how he changed to be the way he is—a real antihero. We’re really toying with the audience in the sense that, how do you have empathy for somebody who isn’t necessarily always acting from a place of kindness? Why does the audience still love Tony Soprano after the things he does? Because the writing is brilliant. And the cool thing about this show is it’s a drama but there’s a huge bunch of comedy in it. And all the music’s going to be original music between Nasri and his collaborators, we’re going to have original music throughout the series, which is very exciting.
JS: So this show won’t be like Glee where the cast sing somebody else’s songs?
Elena Pavli: No, totally the opposite. I actually think it’s great that there’s something for everyone out there. Let’s remember, there was a time where a show would finish and then be you’d be, now what am I gonna watch? Now it’s how do I find time to watch everything I want to watch? But no, it’s not going to be at all like Glee. It’ll be subtle in the sense that you might hear an original song being worked on as part of a scene and then you might hear that completed some in the next episode or in a couple of episodes later. It’s pretty cool. I think what we’re doing is pretty cool if I do say, I mean, we have to think it’s cool, don’t we?
JS: Songs are part of the story then? They’re not just put in there?
Elena Pavli: I should emphasize It’s not a musical. People aren’t gonna break into song in the middle of the scene. Although never say never. You never know but I don’t think so. Tonally it’s more of a dramedy. They love to use that word out in LA.
JS: They did a musical episode of Buffy and fans just went crazy for it.
Elena Pavli: I do remember that. That’s the cool thing as well: to have fans and to be able to interact with fans in that way is pretty exciting. When you’re doing a play the audience’s response will affect what happens the next night. I’ve been in shows like The Merchant of Venice, and I remember we had our press night and then the director was coming the next day “so they love that vibe of let’s do more of that, let’s cut that.” I think that’s why I love theatre. My heart will always be there. It will always influence what I do. It will feed everything. I think that it’s all the same thing if that makes any sense.
JS: Are all the episodes already written? I think you just said you’re currently writing.
Elena Pavli: Yes, we are. Yeah, there are episodes already written continuing on. Pretty exciting. A good place to be. It’s nice when you’re in it.
JS: How many episodes will be made for the first season?
Elena Pavli: Nine episodes in the first season. Now the vibe is really to plan out the next season. Obviously things can change dependent on casts and release dates and things like that. A lot can change, but we kind of know where it’s going. Sometimes you know the end of the whole thing but you’re not entirely sure of the map to get there. We’re really just honing this first season now and Nasri’s work ethic is amazing because he’s worked with a lot of different artists. It’s great stuff about LA and the hustle is real as they say but at the same time, there are some great creative minds and people to learn from and it’s been a real treat watching with him, and his wife’s also an actress. There’s a very creative environment and working in studios is pretty great. It makes me feel a bit rock ‘n’ roll. I think every actor just wants to be a rock star somewhere deep inside (laughs).
JS: That’s probably why you see a lot of actors portray rock stars.
Elena Pavli: It’s so true! I’ve got some musician friends in London as well, and they’re always like, that actor got it right, that person didn’t. It’s very funny. When I started writing The Bad, the Sad and Brokenhearted and Snatch, I always had a playlist. My mom was really young so she was clued into pop culture and going to movies at the time was one of the early affordable things to do. Then I’d be at a party and say, “I’m not feeling this vibe, I gotta go home. I’m tired” and I’d just sneak off to the cinema. I remember I couldn’t get into Pulp Fiction, because they would be pretty tricky with checking ID so film festivals were a loophole. I couldn’t get into Pulp Fiction because of the rating. But that soundtrack was played at every party and social gathering. I literally knew the soundtrack by heart before I even have seen the movie.
JS: Yeah, that’s interesting. I saw Pulp Fiction in the theatre and I was only a teenager myself but there was nothing like it. I still say when that movie came out cinema changed overnight.
Elena Pavli: Okay, do you want to hear my Tarantino story? I just had an audition in LA and I thought it had gone well but you never know. You’re kind of on a high but you also feel like you’ve run the marathon because of how much energy goes into these things with the mental and physical preparation. I go into a record place to look for a cheap birthday present for my friend and I’m up in the top nerd area on the top floor and I look over and it’s Quentin Tarantino! And bear in mind, I’m not starstruck as I’ve realized in moving that nobody is better than anybody else. Nothing like moving around makes you realize that you know we’re basically all the same. When I was at drama school, there was a very dodgy bookshop where downstairs was like a very dodgy sex shop and upstairs is a really cool discount bookshop. That’s London for you. And I have gone in there once and bought with whatever pennies I had left a copy of the From Dusk ’till Dawn screenplay for three pounds. Anyway, for some reason, I carry it in my bag quite often because the way that From Dusk Till Dawn is written is really helpful and clear and interesting and theatrical and it just inspires me. So because I was nervous that morning I threw it in my bag. So, cut to me back on the top floor of the bookshop and I thought if it’s in my bag, which I wasn’t sure it was, I’m gonna get it out, I’m gonna go over and say hi and ask him if he’ll sign it. And if it’s not, then I’m just gonna smile and be on my merry way. So it was in my bag and I walked over and God knows what I said but I kept it short and sweet. I basically said “Hi, Mr. Tarantino. You’re my favourite writer and you’re probably the reason I am a writer. I bought this book when I was studying” and he said, “You carry that around?” and I said, “I actually do and from nerd to nerd, I think that’s pretty impressive.” He was so flattered and so nice, and said “good luck” and signed it and he asked me my name, which I couldn’t remember for a second. When I said I’m usually not starstruck I’m really not but I remember walking down the stairs and my legs felt like jelly because he was just so fucking nice. It was cool. It was really cool. And I thought well, there you go. There’s a sign. Keep going (laughs).
JS: Tarantino has been criticized for his use of violence in his movies. Do you keep that in your mind when writing an episode of a show like Snatch?
Elena Pavli: As a young woman I have a different take on it. I think it’s freedom of speech. I think it’s really great that people debate these things but I certainly understand why the violence is there. I think it does provide the catharsis for certain people that have perhaps endured violence, or been around it. For me, I’d say I’m a pacifist. I can’t stand violence in life but I don’t have a problem with it in certain movies. I’ve seen Once Upon a Time In Hollywood about a million times and I think you have an understanding of certain genre films, again, in Pulp Fiction, it’s the absurdity of the violence that becomes part of the commentary. The whole thing about the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs is so interesting because these people forget I think that you don’t actually see it. One of the most violent things I’ve ever seen on stage was the production of King Lear in England, directed by this amazing director who does some pretty dark stuff. There’s a scene where someone’s eyes get cut out and it was really the sound and lights out you can feel it viscerally. As a theatre person, you start from the dialogue. I’ve learned a lot from Snatch about writing a chase scene and writing powerful scenes without dialogue but my strengths are in dialogue writing for sure.
JS: I write for a local magazine in my Canadian province as a journalist and I do profiles and interview performers and I often get stuck as to how to begin to write the article but I’ll put on an Aaron Sorkin movie or TV series like Sports Night and that will inspire me so much.
Elena Pavli: Well Sorkin is fantastic. I mean, that dialogue is just a gift, isn’t it? I remember as a family we watched The West Wing and loved it. We’re English so it’s not like we grew up with that political background but boy, was it good. I was about to say about being a journalist, I was reading one of Pauline Kael’s books, they’re really good. She was talking about her advice to anyone who wants to be a screenwriter is be a journalist and that’s absolutely brilliant because they’re both about observing and they’re both about inquiring and they’re both about learning about people and what makes them tick. It’s one of those things where I was watching (the 1986 Nora Ephron film) Heartburn a couple of weeks ago. Jack Nicholson is just mesmerizing but Heartburn is one that’s highly autobiographical for Ephron. It’s about her relationship with Carl Bernstein, in a sense, thinly veiled. It’s all about being a journalist and a relationship drama-comedy, but when it’s well done, there’s nothing like it.
JS: And there was a lot of pain in that in that movie I remember.
Elena Pavli: It’s also hysterical because of Jack Nicholson. I don’t know if you ever been to the new Beverly in LA but they show classic movies and I watched The Shining last year and Jack was so terrifying in that.
JS: I think Kubrick is probably the greatest director that’s ever lived.
Elena Pavli: I’ve only ever seen A Clockwork Orange on my 15th birthday. It was banned for 35 years. The school I went to a lot of kids wore A Clockwork Orange t-shirts but they’d never seen it. Couldn’t get it at a Blockbuster, you know, But then there was a release 35 years later and I’ve only ever seen it once and I think it’s incredible. I didn’t get to see it again because to me, I can handle quite a lot of violence in movies, you know, all that stuff in Casino and all of that but to me, it was about the psychological effects. Thank God I’ve seen it but I just don’t think I could sit through it again because it was how I think it’s supposed to be. I think it’s very successful, or what it does, and what it sets out to do rather.
JS: I heard you mentioned in one interview, you’re such a huge fan of David Bowie and he has that connection to Twin Peaks.
Elena Pavli: Someone gave me a VHS copy of Eraserhead and I was like, wow. Then when I moved to LA I watched Mulholland Drive and there’s nothing like watching that movie when you’re in LA I will tell you. It takes on such a new meaning. I actually meditate but you probably can’t tell because of the caffeine balance (laughs). Transcendental Meditation, I know that David Lynch is a big advocate of that. I was working on something and I meditated and just had such clarity come on. I’m not very hippy-dippy and you can probably tell I’m not, you know, London girl but I will say works. It’s been scientifically backed. It’s interesting to be meditating and then rediscovering David Lynch, and be like, man. I couldn’t be a bigger Bowie fan and he was a pretty great actor as well. Just look at The Last Temptation of Christ.
JS: And when and how can viewers see The Manager? Will it be streaming somewhere?
Elena Pavli: I can’t talk about where it’s going yet officially. I’ll definitely let you know where people can watch it. It’s gonna be pretty cool. I’m very excited about it, and obviously The Bad, the Sad and the Brokenhearted as well. I’m not sure which one’s actually going to be out first. You never know when things move at different paces and you definitely won’t be able to miss that.
JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Elena Pavli: Just that to think about moments where you gotta hang in there. It’s undoubtedly a journey of highs and lows but sometimes a phone call can change everything in a day. It’s just about sustaining yourself creatively in the gaps. I think if you’re any good at something, you should give a lot of yourself. And I think it’s just about surrounding yourself with great people. When I first moved to LA, I knew two people. It’s quite hard to surround yourself with great people when you don’t know anyone. I think a lot of people feel like that. Find that inner drive, that self-motivation. One of the best things I did in LA was to join the library. It sounds so silly, but it was books that really opened my mind again and I discovered Pauline Kael who inspired me to write and led me to where I am now. That’s what I love about America. That and free coffee refills.