Jennie Snyder Urman grew up in Rye, New York and graduated from Princeton in 1999 with a BA in English and a certificate from the Program in Theater. Currently Urman developed and Executive Produces the CW’s Golden-Globe nominated “Jane the Virgin.” The show was also recently honored with a Peabody Award, three Critics Choice nominations, the People’s Choice Award for “Favorite New TV Comedy,” and was named one of AFI’s Top Television Programs of the Year. Prior to Jane, Urman created “Emily Owens, MD,” also for the CW. Other credits include “Reign” “Gilmore Girls,” “Men in Trees,” “Lipstick Jungle,” “90210,” and “Hope and Faith.” She was also named one of Variety’s “10 TV Writer’s to Watch” in 2012. Additionally, Urman wrote the screenplay for the feature film “Something Borrowed” based on the Emily Giffin novel. She is married to Jamie Urman, a cinematographer, and is the proud (and tired) mommy to Theo and Poppy.
Share a significant moment or highlight of your experience studying or participating in the arts at Princeton.
I was an actor at Princeton. That was the whole of my existence, I just loved it. I was always at 185 Nassau, practically sleeping there. Years later, when I brought my husband back to Princeton with me, that was the building I wanted to show him first, where the theater was. The very first play I did in the Theater Program was Mac Wellman’s “The Hyacinth Macaw.” Beth Schacter was the director, and it was a completely different kind of theater than I had been used to. It was staged so professionally, I felt like I was learning from the best people, and it opened my eyes to all the interesting things that were being done in the theater. The Theater Program was so special, small and intimate, and full of all these great professionals. Being close to New York, Michael Cadden was always able to bring interesting people to campus. I got access to people that I wouldn’t have anywhere else.
Tell us about your key arts advisors and mentors at Princeton, and describe those relationships.
Michael Cadden was an important advisor for me at Princeton, always so supportive. I asked Michael Goldman of the English Department to be my thesis advisor. I wanted my thesis to combine my Theater and English studies, so I staged Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal with Tucker Colbertson ’99, and I acted in it as well. I wrote one hulking, 200-page thesis, one part about German Expressionism and the play itself, another part about the experience of putting the play on, and the intersection of the two. I had to unpack the play on an intellectual and academic level, and also stage it. It became a lot about the relationship with the audience and what live theater is, what it can be, and how these old texts become living things once you put it on. After graduation, I didn’t know if I had the stomach for the life of an actor. Michael Goldman invited me over to his home in New York to meet his wife, Eleanor Bernstein. She was an accomplished writer and an inspiring woman. And she wrote “Dirty Dancing!” I went over for lunch, and by the time I left it was eight at night and Eleanor had invited me to come work with her. I absolutely adore Michael and Eleanor. They are great patrons of the arts, and they both really believed in me, encouraging me to do what I wanted creatively. The writing and theater experiences I’d had at Princeton all began to click together at that time. I was able write with very clear points of view and to understand characters in a real way.
Articles from The Daily Princetonian document Jennie’s star turns in campus theater productions.
Tell us about your work and life experiences since graduating from Princeton.
During the time I was working for Eleanor Bernstein, my friend Victoria Webster (’99) asked me if I would be interested in trying to write for TV. I didn’t know anything about the TV business, but I was in my early twenties with nothing to lose, so I took a month off and Victoria and I wrote samples. We sent them to the one person we knew in LA, Mark Rosen (’98.) Mark shared them with some agents he liked and surprisingly some of them wanted to meet with us. So, we drove out to LA and received enough encouragement that we decided to move there and give it a try. I waitressed, we kept writing and refining our package, and eventually we started to get meetings on TV shows. A year and a half later, we were hired as staff writers on the show “Hope and Faith.” I stayed on for three years. One of the writers I worked with was running “Gilmore Girls,” so when “Hope and Faith” was cancelled, he brought me over with him. I worked on “Gilmore Girls”, “Men in Trees,” “Lipstick Jungle” and “90201”. During those years, I was writing a lot for CBS and they offered me a contract. Part of my deal was to write pilots. My pilot for “Emily Owens, M.D. ” was filmed and picked up, and for the first time I had my own show. I was quite passionate about it, but sadly it was cancelled after 13 episodes. After that, the CW came to me with a project they wanted me to adapt from a Venezuelan format, and introduced it with this logline: “Virgin gets artificially inseminated.” I thought, that’s too crazy, I don’t want to do that project. But as I started to think about it, I began to see it as story of faith and destiny, how these small moments happen that change your life, and I began to get more interested. I wrote the pilot for “Jane the Virgin” and it got picked up. And, here I am …
Jane the Virgin: Season 2 Extended Trailer
Describe your daily routine
My daily routine is terrible and magical at once. I wake up at 6:00 am and do about an hour or hour and a half of work before my children get up. I’m with them until they go to school, then I go to the office. Each of the shows takes about 60 hours for me to cut, so most days I spend 8-9 hours editing. During the day I also have to deal with the production issues: answer the art department so the sets can get built, approve casting so costume fittings can happen with the actors—all the departments need approvals from me, or everything bottlenecks. Then, there are the practicalities of the show: a staff of 300, a budget, etc. It’s like managing a big business. I try to have dinner with my kids each night, then I go back to my office or work at home writing until 2:00 am. I write a lot at night because it’s quiet and my phones aren’t ringing. Saturday and Sunday are usually just script-writing days for me. It’s pretty endless. I get asked all the time, ‘What’s the work-life balance like for you as a woman in a really high-pressure industry?’ That question always strikes me as sort of funny, because it’s not something that often gets asked of men in this business. It’s been a balancing act, and I feel lucky that I found a true partner in my husband. We support each other in all aspects of life, so when my work-life balance gets out of whack, he steps up and takes off of work to be home with the kids, something I’m really grateful for.
How did your study of the arts at Princeton prepare you for your professional life today?
A lot of the themes I learned about in Princeton that were so important in terms of English and English theory, have stayed with me and have made me look at everything differently. I remember Elaine Showalter’s class in contemporary fiction, thinking about where the writer is in relationship to the story. And, my first Jr. Paper, looking at the relationship between narrative and narration in a novel. All those things are still sitting in my gut and I’m playing them with now in my professional life. My current project, “Jane the Virgin,” is an homage to the telenovela, with a lot of self-awareness of the tropes and what goes into them. At the same time it is a telenovela, exploiting all those tropes: surprising familial relationships, the “evil twins”, the shocking turns and twists. It wasn’t until I figured out the relationship of the narrator to the narrative that the whole piece clicked together for me. I realized that we could play with this form, exploit some of those tropes, maybe do something a little more thoughtful and original. And honestly, I began thinking about those things, the roots of that discussion, at Princeton.
What piece of knowledge or advice would you share with a current student or young person interested in your profession?
The biggest thing I can say is, be ready to come in and learn at the bottom level. There’s a ladder you climb when you’re a TV writer. You start as a staff writer and go through each level until you become an executive producer. Princeton taught me to believe in myself as an artist, to work diligently, to collaborate with people, but the actual business of running a TV show I learned from real life experience. Find those people who will mentor you and kill that PA job—be amazing at just getting coffee. If you prove yourself indispensable, the people in charge will want to bring you up with them. You have to be talented, you have to be a good writer, but you have to be willing to do all of the parts of the puzzle, not just the last shiny piece.
Read more: “The Awesome Way Women Are Running Hollywood Right Now” on Refinery29.com, featuring quotes from Jennie ….