Taking a write turn

Taking a write turn

By Michael Pickard
August 10, 2023

The Writers Room

After appearing in historical fantasy drama Outlander, Scottish actor Joanne Thomson is building a writing career across stage and screen. She opens up about shifting careers, facing rejection, and writing what you know – as well as what you don’t.

As the winner of the Studio21 Drama Series Script Competition in 2021, Joanne Thomson established herself as a rising screenwriter and a talent to watch. But remarkably, her winning pilot script was the first one she had ever written, and marked the start of a shift in her career from being in front of the camera to behind it.

After graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Glasgow-based actor further trained in LA and went on to work extensively across the UK in numerous theatre productions. She later starred in ITV true crime series In Plain Sight and BBC drama The Victim.

But her biggest role to date came when she landed the part of Amy McCallum in season six of long-running historical fantasy series Outlander. Thomson was in LA before the Covid pandemic when she sent in her audition tape, and she didn’t think too much of it when she didn’t hear anything for several months – it was her fourth audition for the show, dating back to season one.

“Quite often when you get auditions and you’re feeling low and dejected, it’s hard to see it as an opportunity and not a rejection waiting to happen,” she tells DQ. “It’s one of those ruts you get into. But in November 2020, they asked me to do another tape. It turned out filming had been pushed back, and then I got it.”

Playing a character who was new to the story “and quite out of her depth,” Thomson jokes that there wasn’t a lot of acting involved. But ongoing Covid safety measures meant her experience on the show was unlike anything she had experienced before, with cast and crew mixing limited while she filmed her scenes for the season over a six-month period.

“The biggest thing for me was I had some scenes with [series stars] Catríona Balfe and Sam Heughan, and I remember being completely astounded by how welcoming, calm and grounded they were, six seasons in, in freezing cold temperatures,” the actor says.

Joanne Thomson

It was before filming Outlander, during the Covid lockdowns, that Thomson began to explore screenwriting for the first time, having not secured any acting work for two years. “I was on the brink of completely quitting. I couldn’t take the rejection anymore,” she admits. “I had a really good agent, I was going to lots of auditions, I was getting really far for really big things and just not getting them, and I hit a massive wall.

“Then Covid happened, and you were in one of two camps as an actor – either you were about to get your big break or about to do a huge show and it got cancelled or maybe never happened, which is awful, or it was more of the same. And for me, it was more of the same.”

When Thomson subsequently found herself furloughed from the part-time jobs she worked to support her acting career, a friend from drama school revealed she was travelling to Norway to stay in a cabin where she was planning to write a script, and suggested maybe Thomson would like to join her.

“I hadn’t written anything at that point and I started an entirely new career,” she says. “It was because I was getting furloughed from these normal jobs that I was able to spend my time on it. I tried to do it when I was working a full-time job and it was nigh on impossible. It was a nice accident, but to have that financial security and the gift of time was just brilliant.”

During her time in Norway, Thomson wrote the pilot episode of a series called Spinner & Marie, which would go on to be one of two winners of the Studio21 Drama Series Script Competition at Content London 2021. Alongside a £10,000 prize, Spinner & Marie was put into development with Studio21, which was set up by C21Media to discover, develop and connect emerging writers and projects with the global content business.

The story takes place in the wake of a nightclub shooting that rocks the queer community, leading a religious Scottish widow to make up for lost time and drive her red mobility scooter right out of the closet, across the Atlantic and on a weed-fuelled road trip with an eccentric woman she met online.

“I’m pitching it as this geriatric, queer adventure, a coming-of-age thing in your 60s,” Thomson explains. “It’s a story that’s really important to me because it’s based on someone coming out to me later in life, and they didn’t know I’d been figuring out how to come out to them. It’s about the intergenerational trauma of hiding who you are when you don’t really have to, and all the complexities that come with the lost time.

“There are so many queer elders who led the movement and led the protests, but there are so many who are completely left behind. When so many in that elder generation are widows or widowers, they have really known pain and grief and what it’s like to lose someone. So if they’ve got an opportunity to be who they really are, is it too late to join that ride? My aim for it is to be a tonic for people who know what that feeling is and create characters that are so completely loveable. When you sit down with those characters, I want you to reach a level of understanding and empathy through laughter and watching a community. That’s my aim, for sure.”

Since winning the competition, Thomson has continued to audition for on-screen roles, resulting in an appearance in upcoming horror thriller Kill, which centres on three brothers and their violent father who live in a remote forest.

Thomson finally landed a role in Outlander’s sixth season after several earlier auditions

She has also created a full pitch document for Spinner & Marie, with detailed outlines for each episode and where the story could lead in future seasons as development with Studio21 continues.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “That was the first thing I’d ever written, the first time I was paid as a writer. It was a lovely surprise, and a nice reminder that the thing you do as a writer is actually quite rare. It was a really important story to me.”

Thomson has also written her first play, Jack in a Box, a surrealist comedy that is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 37 Plays initiative. And her short film On the Twelfth Day of Findom, about a supermarket worker’s entry into the world of financial domination, was shortlisted for funding from short-film scheme Sharp Shorts.

“Everything I’ve written so far is about something that makes me angry in the world, a wrong I want to right,” she explains. “I’m sure that doesn’t last forever, but if I’m writing something I’m passionate about, it’s important for me to have some ulterior motive. It will get rejected – my writing gets rejected every day – but I feel way more in control of it than my acting.

“I’ve been asked by a few people to co-write things, which has been nice and a new process. Then when I write new things, I tend to try to write it for an application or for a scheme or something specific, which gives me a deadline. Because I’m from a benefits class background and a part-time carer, I just don’t have the means to continuously write for the sheer hell of it. So I’m carefully trying to manage my time with the things I’m applying for. With everything, I try to have a bit of an aim before I write, because deadlines are definitely useful.”

As Thomson continues her journey to break into the industry, her advice to others remains the same whether they are an emerging actor or writer. “Find who you are as a person first, because I spent almost all of my 20s completely focused on this goal, and I still am. I just figured out how to not make it completely all-consuming,” she says, adding that had she been acting full-time, she might never have had a chance to step up her writing work.

“That is the reality of it. It was out of frustration. Ironically, I haven’t written any of my parts for me to play. Acting ground me down into a pulp where I think I can’t possibly be the person for a part, even though I’m writing a character that’s basically me.

“If you don’t know where to start, look back at your own life. Write what you know – and write what you don’t know. What’s a theme you know or a topic you know a lot about but there’s this little space in it [to explore]? That is my best piece of advice, because everyone comes with their own knowledge and it’s about why you, why now, why are you the person to write this?”

Thomson is also an advocate of finding a group of like-minded artists to share work and feedback with, while there’s one feature of the US television system she’d like to see more examples of in the UK.

“I’d like to see a writers room scenario develop over here like it does in the US,” she says. “It’s a really nice way to work because it’s brings together a wealth of experience and understanding about the world. You can’t go wrong with that. Succession is a lot of British writers in a room together. Where are the rest of them? It clearly works.”

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