‘Jane the Virgin’ showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman is ready to say goodbye
A conversation with ‘Jane the Virgin” showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman ahead of the show’s series finale on the CW.
Sitting in her Encino office on a recent Thursday, Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator and showrunner of “Jane the Virgin,” is more upbeat than one might expect, given that she’s in the last stage of wrapping a series after five seasons on the air.
The night before, a pivotal step toward getting the series finale over the finish line was completed, bringing the end even closer. But Urman isn’t wistful. OK, she’s a little wistful. But mostly she’s beaming through phrases such as “I feel great” and “It’s what I wanted it to be.” Because she’s ready to release it to viewers after living in a vortex of goodbyes.
There was the goodbye when the writers crafted the last episode. The goodbye on the final day of filming. And then the goodbye of post-production, when the finishing touches are made.
“That’s where I’m at now,” she said. “One by one, the editors start to leave. It’s this long goodbye, and it has all these different emotional steps to it. I’m just grateful to have had it, and I’m ready to say goodbye — the final one — now.” The series finale airs July 31.
“It was emotional writing it,” she continued. “I was a freaking mess on set. The final scene we shot was on a bus, which is how we ended the pilot at four in the morning six years ago.”
While a modest performer by traditional ratings standards, “Jane the Virgin” nonetheless left an indelible mark by offering a rare portrait of a complex Latina character and her tight-knit Latino family. And it was a formative experience for Urman.
Being a TV writer was not something she considered much while growing up in Westchester, N.Y. Urman’s love was books. She couldn’t go anywhere without one. She thought maybe she’d become a novelist, or an English professor — maybe even an actress. It was her college roommate who suggested the pair try writing for TV. They spent a month writing spec scripts for shows including “Sex and the City,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Law & Order.”
She eventually scored her first writing gig for ABC’s Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford-fronted sitcom, “Hope & Faith,” then steadily built her TV resume from there, working on such shows as “Gilmore Girls,” “Lipstick Jungle” and the “90210" reboot before getting the green light from the CW for her medical drama “Emily Owens, M.D.” It didn’t last a full season.
Then came “Jane.” Based on the Venezuelan telenovela “Juana la Virgen,” the series boasts an outlandish premise: Its heroine, a conscientious, 20-something virgin named Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine gynecological exam. The series fully leaned into its telenovela roots and charmed critics along the way.
At her office, surrounded by framed posters for the show, Urman talked about life after “Jane,” the intensity of the Team Michael/Team Rafael fandoms, and how being a walking enthusiast fueled some of the show’s biggest moments.
Great bosses pay it forward
I had this boss on my first show, “Hope & Faith” — her name is Joanna Johnson. She runs [Freeform’s] “Good Trouble” now. And she liked voices wherever they came from. It wasn’t like, “Oh, well, you’ve been doing this 10 years, so your opinion is more valid.” She was really just open to voices, and she happened to like mine. That’s such a huge gift, because it starts you off with confidence. I wanted to work hard for her because she believed in me. When somebody gives you that gift of belief and trust, you don’t want to let them down. David Rosenthal on “Gilmore Girls” was another boss who made me feel like I was capable of doing things I didn’t think I could. He was coming in to run the last year and brought me in. I hadn’t done an hour series. And he told me he knew I could, that he wasn’t worried. I watched the first season, then I actually listened to [the] next six seasons while walking. I wanted to understand the dialogue. So I would just listen. And for me now, running “Jane,” it’s really taught me a lot about managing people and how to pay it forward and give that confidence and trust to my team.
‘I want to write a show that gets on the air’
At the time of “Emily Owens, M.D.,” I had just had my daughter and I was like, “I’m going to stay home and just write pilots.” And I was really thinking: “I want to write a show that gets on the air,” which is kind of maybe the backwards way to do something. So I thought, “OK, medical show.” The hugeness of the learning curve of that was just how relentless it is and how you really have three jobs as a showrunner: one is writing and overseeing the writers’ room, the second is production, and the third is post. And when all three of those are going, you’ve got nothing left. There’s no time. There’s no difference between a Sunday and a Wednesday. I mean, I would wake up literally throwing up just from exhaustion. But the thing I always tell people, it’s like a muscle. You get better the more you do it.
Trying to be good doesn’t have to be dull
A lot of “Jane” was about, “Can this good person be interesting too?” Does she have to be dark and tortured to be an interesting character worthy of holding the center of the stage? I think in the case of Jane, the answer is yes, that she’s interesting; that trying to be a good person in the world is hard too, and that you’re faced with constant complications and dilemmas and choices that are not clear. I think because “Jane” has all the signifiers of more female-skewing television, and of television that isn’t taken as seriously, it gets stuck in that perception.
I think that has a lot to do with whose voices we value, what we think of in society as what’s important, what criticism we value and who it’s coming from, and also just the signifiers of what makes something important — not recognizing how limited those signifiers are and how specifically they are aimed at a certain audience and not an inclusive audience.
‘I didn’t know if this was my story to tell, and I still don’t know’
I didn’t know if this was my story to tell, and I still don’t know. Except that I know that this iteration of “Jane” was mine to tell with the group of people that I surrounded myself with. But I felt anxious about it. And then I took a walk and the pilot just laid out for me ... and it became a story about mothers and daughters and grandmothers and that matriarchy. I knew I had to make sure there were other voices in the room besides mine filling in what I couldn’t. If it was offered to me now, would I [do it]? I don’t know. Probably not. But there was something about this story. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be centering stories around women of color, because I feel like that’s important to use your platform, whatever you have, to give opportunity.
Walking as writing process
It’s hard for me to sit still. There’s something about walking that frees me up to not be too worried about what I’m doing; I’m just on a walk. And then ideas come from there. I can go for hours — my husband’s gotten calls, like, “We saw your wife. She’s in Tarzana; she didn’t look well. Is she OK?” 'Cause you know, I’m in sweatpants and I got papers. I think it’s because I used to live in Manhattan and I used to walk everywhere. But, yeah, if I’m writing a script, I’m walking 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day. Right before a season starts, I’ll walk hours a day. Every time I read a script, I’m walking. And every time I’m thinking about what I want a script to be, I’m walking. The idea for Petra to have a twin sister came from a walk. The idea for Michael’s return came from a walk. Every big moment happens for me on walks.
‘I’ve gotten pictures of myself with devil horns’
The fandom for Team Michael and Team Rafael is so intense. I struggle with it. I’m grateful that people feel so engaged and so passionate — because then you know you have reached people. But they’re so ... mad. And I mean mad. I get it. There’s a love story and you’re going to have your favorites. I’ve always thought, ‘Well, people are going to be rooting for Jane, and they just want her to be happy.’ Oh, I was wrong. They want her to be happy with their choice. I’ve gotten pictures of myself with devil horns. Now it’s my husband’s screensaver. I just try to ride the waves of it and not respond, because I understand it’s coming from passion. I do wish people would be nicer.
Loving the feeling of working isn’t enough
“Jane” has given me a real sense of my worth as a writer and as a producer. Knowing how much work I put into everything, and then on top of that, having it be well received — that kind of confidence, you can’t just sort of generate by yourself, or if you can, I couldn’t.
I’m still so in the middle of it all, even as we near the end. My struggle now is not to say yes to a million things right away just because I love the feeling of working. It’s really making sure what I write next is the thing I’m dying to write. That’s what “Jane” has really taught me. I’m excited to write again without the pressure of production and the pressure of all things of running a show.
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