The Sit Down: Thea Mann

From the moment we met over Skype two years ago, I knew Thea Mann had “It.” She’s SMAC’s resident guru for pretty much anything you want to know about entertainment and culture: she’s got the low-down on what to watch on TV; the must-see movies of the season; the best, new books; and the hottest ticket to get on Broadway. That’s because Thea has been working in entertainment for nearly two decades. An Emmy-nominated producer and development executive, she’s developed and produced series for cable and network TV—including the hit syndicated game show Celebrity Name Game and the cult-fave Cougar Town—along with independent short and feature films. She’s cast for such blockbuster shows as The Amazing Race and Survivor, and was a producing partner at Courteney Cox and David Arquette’s Coquette Productions. Now, Thea oversees scripted development and production for SMAC. Her latest project, as executive producer on the new SMAC scripted series, Last Chance U (starring her pal Courteney), is in the early days of development, but already the energy around the show has that special mix of passion, talent, and hard work that is sure to make it a hit. (I’ve got Thea’s word that as soon as it is humanly possible, we’ll get a sneak peek at an episode.) In my opinion, she’s great at whatever she sets her mind to and we’re all really lucky to have her (it doesn’t hurt that her dad was a huge Strahan fan, too. LOL!)

Her backstory: “I honestly think it was my grandmother, Mimi, saying she thought I should be a writer. While I am not exactly a writer, I get to live in their world and really appreciate writing. And who knows? Maybe someday, I will put pen to paper … or finger to keyboard.”

Her career: “My current career is truly an homage to [the idea of] right place, right time. I met Courteney Cox through my cousin, Lisa Kudrow. I was casting a home-design show Courteney and David were producing, and Lisa had gotten a development deal at Warner Bros. and wondered if I might want to work with her. I really didn’t have the time because I was also an on-camera host for Courteney’s show, so Courteney said when our show wrapped, she would get a deal at Warner Bros. and I could work for her. She did—and I did. Right place, right time.”

Her turning point: “[It’s] hard to pinpoint. I am certainly more equipped and knowledgeable now as a producer and a development exec than when I started [but] it’s a slow build. And if you’re lucky, you learn and grow with every experience.”

Her SMAC day-to-day: “I’ve been with SMAC for more than two years. A typical day doesn’t really exist because nothing is typical: There’s a lot of script reading and a lot of looking for ideas in magazines, newspapers, blogs, on Instagram, etcetera, [for things] that might make a good series. Meetings all over the place. Trying to find IP’s (intellectual property) for series and thinking through an experience that I could pull apart and turn into a show. Hearing the word ‘no’ many, many times. Cold-calling agents and managers to talk about passion projects and see if their writers might match our vision. Hearing the word ‘no’ many, many times. I love lots of things about the job, and Michael and Constance have set up an environment where you are trusted and supported to do your best work. It’s a really safe feeling; they will always have your back. Another amazing perk: Sadie, my dog, is allowed to come every day.”

Her work ethic: “‘Hustle like your broke.’ It’s a stolen motto from Michael and Constance. And we all do it.” 

Her success secret: “You have to be passionate, and you have to be secure that what you are saying to people is the right thing. For me specifically, I had a very creative upbringing. I was exposed to music, art, and literature; I was an avid reader and traveled a lot; my father was an orchestral conductor/composer and my mother was an opera singer, so I had a million experiences, learned about different cultures, and have always been fascinated by people. All of that helps when you’re building a script.”

On the Last Chance U project: “I became obsessed with the docuseries on Netflix, and equally obsessed with [the show’s star] Brittany Wagner. On a little Post-it note on my desk, I wrote ‘Brittany Wagner life rights?’ That’s how it started; I thought there was a show in Brittany’s life. And I mean, there’s no one better to play Brittany than Courteney Cox. They share so many qualities, it’s uncanny. When Courteney and I flew to Birmingham, Alabama, where Brittany was currently living and where Courteney grew up (hello!) … it was meant to be. I was interested in the aspect of what this woman was able to accomplish; I wanted to know what made her tick. She was so unbelievably dedicated to her students and to that school, I wondered how she had any time left over to be a single mom [with] her own life and her own needs met. There were layers there that I wanted to see unfold. Plus, she kicked ass—and I like to watch women kick ass.”

Her must-haves: “I love clothes (it’s a bad habit). I love interior design. Theater! And I’m all about animal rescue. If I had the time, I would get back into Pilates; there’s nothing better for me than Pilates … it’s a game changer. I’m technologically challenged, although I do read on a Kindle. Does that count?”

On moving behind the camera: “I made conscious decision to leave acting. My love and passion is theater, specifically musical theater (nerd!), and when I left that behind, I didn’t find on-camera work as plentiful or as fulfilling. Sitting in a creepy, ‘don’t sit there’ double banger (translation: on-set trailer for actors) while the camera was being turned around on set, all while my inch-thick makeup was starting to flake off, was not for me. Production was such a lucky right place, right time thing, and thank goodness!”

Her greatest influence: “Family is my greatest influence. How can you not be influenced by your family?”

The talent she’d most like to have: “I would like to be 100 percent fearless. That’s not a talent, per se, but it’s a good goal.”

Her words to live by: “‘Breathe.’ I have to remind myself 100 times a day to just breathe. I even have it tattooed on my inner arm.” 

What’s next: “More! More sales, more pilots, more shows that make it on air and last multiple seasons and bring us Emmy nominations and [then an actual] Emmy.”