When you talk to Moira Walley-Beckett, your first instinct might be to mention that she penned one of the greatest hours of television ever. That would be a mistake.
The author of “Ozymandias” — the third-to-last episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad and one that many fans of the show consider its zenith — will only laugh and deflect the praise to Vince Gilligan, the series’ visionary creator and her mentor. She’ll also say a few things about how it just happened to be her turn in the script-writing rotation and that it was really a team effort as well as a lot of other self-effacing words.
But when the 2014 Emmy was announced for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, she walked alone to the stage to collect that majestic hardware, a moment that she admits was, “extraordinary.”
A year after her triumph, she prepares to join the ranks of television creators with the premiere of Flesh and Bone, an eight-episode limited series debuting on Starz November 8 (the entire series will be available that day to subscribers via Starz Play and Starz On Demand).
Set in the world of elite ballet, it’s the story of a brilliantly talented but emotionally troubled dancer from the wrong side of the tracks who becomes an improbable star. It’s also a story that Walley-Beckett has wanted to tell for a very long time.
“This project was gestating for me,” she says. “It was really nice to be so at home in the material. It is a very personal project.”
Walley-Beckett’s own story is a familiar one for a TV writer: she grew up a dancer, moved into musical theater and acting in her 20s, then started her writing career by adapting a play, The Lower Depths, by Maxim Gorky, the early-20th-century Russian political activist, for her L.A.-based theater company.
Wait, what? There’s nothing familiar about that at all.
“I undertook [the Gorky play] for no reason I can explain,” she says now. “I just decided, I’m going to take a bash at that. Then it was produced, it went well and I caught the bug. I started writing plays, then transitioned into television and the rest is history.”
She broke into TV on short-lived shows like NBC’s Raines, with Jeff Goldblum, and ABC’s Eli Stone, with Jonny Lee Miller, before joining Gilligan’s staff for the second season of Breaking Bad. Now the three-time Emmy winner (she also has producing awards for Breaking Bad, from two of the years it was named Outstanding Drama Series), is running her own show.
“I learned everything I know about showrunning on Breaking Bad,” she says. “It was an extraordinary opportunity Vince gave us to learn in the trenches. It was never questioned, no matter where you were in the pecking order. You were going to be thrown into the war zone, and you were going to produce your episode. I realized it was something I had an affinity for.
“Everything I learned about how to run a writers’ room — the attention to detail, the excruciating way we broke story on Breaking Bad — is how I’ve moved forward since then. Thoroughness is key. I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to Vince and all those years in the trenches.”
A single episode of Flesh and Bone makes it clear she’s not exaggerating. Its hypnotic beauty and intense veracity could have viewers checking their feet for blisters and dusting rosin from their sets.
That attitude extended to the casting process, in which Walley-Beckett and two of her fellow executive producers, Lawrence Bender and Kevin Brown, understood the challenge they’d set for themselves. It’s hard enough to cast a show with trained actors, but to find dancers who could actually act, too?
“I was looking for unicorns,” she acknowledges. “And finding them was green light–contingent. I had said out of the gate to Starz that I didn’t want to fake it. Verisimilitude was very important to me, and I wanted to hire virtuoso dancers who could act, because I wanted it to feel real.
The vérité was extremely important, to be able to capture these thoroughbreds doing what they do. Bleed and sweat and suffer with them as they pray to the altar of this dance form, and put the camera wherever I wanted.”
She found her mythical creatures in Sarah Hay — who plays Claire, the series lead — as well as standouts Raychel Diane Weiner and Irina Dvorovenko, who play key supporting roles. All three were acting novices (Dvorovenko was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater) and each shines in the series, rewarding Walley-Beckett for the chance she took on them.
“People will react how they’re going to react, and whatever happens, it’s on me,” she says. “Starz was very supportive of my vision and, within reason, stood back and let me do my thing — and it’s kind of wild, because it was such a massive undertaking.
"But, for better or worse, I made exactly the show I wanted to make.”