Celia Finkelstein is For the People

Celia Finkelstein - Photo by Robyn Von Swank

Celia Finkelstein is a writer and actor. She has appeared in films, television, your local internet, and on too many tiny church basement stages to count. She’s probably best recognized for playing Margie Emerman in the movie Horrible Bosses and her recurring role as Gladys on American Horror Story.

I met Celia during her acting years in New York. We stayed connected on social media, and while I’ve been inspired by watching her career grow, it’s even more heartening to witness her fearless voice unpacking a fraught political season.

Tell us about your current project – how did it come about?
I’m currently a staff writer on a show called “For the People” for ABC. It’s executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and created by Paul Davies. I met with the showrunner, Don Todd, about a year and a half ago. When this pilot came around, he brought me in to meet Paul and I found out I had the job about two weeks later. That makes it sound super easy and casual and the reality is, that year and a half was full of pitches, meetings, interviews, and rejections.  I feel really glad to be here.

How did you get your start as a writer?
I didn’t formally study. I’ve been a film and TV actor for about 10 years, so it’s mostly on the job training. About four years ago, I had a back injury that put me out of commission for a bit. I started writing to exorcise some demons and stay active. When I finished a draft of a pilot, I ask some friends to read it and they encouraged me to keep going. A couple years after that first read, I entered it in a couple competitions and that’s how my agents found it.

What inspired your leap from NYC to LA?
It just wasn’t working out for me in New York and I started to think about Los Angeles. Jenna Fischer had written a blog of acting advice and in it she wrote that Los Angeles didn’t have a ceiling for actors. There was no limit to what one could do. That was actually the push I needed and I moved out to LA about six months later.

How is writing for television different than writing for the stage?
I’ve never written for the stage, so I am so not equipped to answer this question! I’m actually starting a play now, so ask me again in a couple months?

What is your passion project?
My passion project is my first pilot. It’s a dark comedy called “Better” and it’s about a woman who has to put her life back together after a failed suicide attempt and stint in a psychiatric hospital.

I feel really strongly that we as a society don’t talk about mental illness in a clear, compassionate, responsible way and I wrote that script with the goal of really exploring what it’s like to be in recovery. Casual diagnoses and slurs get tossed around a lot and it just perpetuates the stigma around mental illness making it harder for people to be open and receive treatment.

Television is the most normalizing force and I would love to use the medium to open the conversation around mental illness and recovery. It’s possible to  live a happy life and have healthy relationships. I’d like to see that on TV. Plus I’ve got all these hilarious suicide jokes burning a hole in my pocket.

Who has been a mentor to you in your career?
Jeff Perry who always reminds me to “Let it be this time.” Never try to recreate the last thing or jump toward the next. Live in this moment and breathe. And that the moment of  “I don’t fucking know” is the opportunity for something real to happen.

Alexandra Billings, who tells the truth all of the time.

Mila Kunis, who does not suffer fools and is a funny, powerful, brave woman who works to amplify the voices of other women.

If someone handed you unlimited money, what would you produce?
I’d make Better. In a heartbeat. I have a dream cast in mind and I know exactly what I’d do. If I could make that show, I’d die a happy woman.

What impact do you hope your work has on its audience?
For a long time, I felt very alone in my own brain. When I started writing, I realized I wasn’t. I want my work to make someone feel less alone or to help someone understand a person they couldn’t before.

What are your biggest career challenges?
There’s so much out of your control in this business. But the biggest challenge is my own imposter syndrome. If I weren’t so worried about whether I belonged here, I’d probably get more done.

How do you give back to the community?
I volunteer with an amazing group called Young Storytellers. We go into schools and mentor students in the writing process. They spend eight weeks writing a play and at the end, professional actors perform their words. It’s the very best part of my year. Those kids are, hands down, the funniest people I know.

You’re outspoken about your politics on social media. Why?
When I talk about my politics, it’s so that people who are scared can see that they’re not the only ones who are scared. Or I’m just so angry, I can’t keep my mouth shut.

How do you define success?
If I’m being honest, taking care of my work, and making someone feel seen, I’m successful.

Watch For the People on ABC and follow Celia on all the socials at @celiafink.

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