Cathy's Story

Exit interviews are as hard to conduct as they are to sit through. The typical employee of a corporation will often see their HR representative as someone who sets himself apart from the rank-and-file. At Persona, this is complicated for agent interviews, since we must ascertain who among them is likely to give away trade secrets or risk our security. A good interviewer will cut through that tension and partner well with his subject.

Some of you may have heard horror stories about the interviewer who dialed the security hotline seconds after his agent left, knowing that betrayal was inevitable. Today I want to tell you about a good interview, and something important I learned from it.

Catherine Sunderland came to us nine years ago. She had spent three years on Broadway as an actress. Our recruiters sounded her out and she took on the job of agent. Initially we were going to groom her as the PR operator for Diver. Indeed, she did well at that. But of all the Icons, the one she was most interested in was Brawl.

For those who don’t remember Brawl as he was - well, you have Catherine to thank for that. In the early days of the Icons team, Brawl’s public personality was what we’d assumed would be appropriate for a strong-man and tough guy. His carbon alchemy gave him plenty of muscle and armor, so of course we thought “he needs to be muy macho”. Catherine didn’t see it that way.

The PR operator who was running Brawl at the time, Henry Simms, didn’t think much of Cathy. There was a big argument one day, which spilled into the managers’ meeting, and Cathy had some pretty sharp words to say about Henry. In fairness, he did deserve some of them. More than that, though, management heard something they liked.

At the time, we had an actual person doing PR for the team. Management didn’t like that. For the Icons to be seen as America’s superheroic protectors, they said, they would have to stand on their own, speak on their own, and be independent. The problem was that none of them were really a “face”.

Cathy proposed something new. “It should be Brawl. He’s this tiny little guy,” she said. “He’s got the right face, the right body language tools.” Management asked for a proposal, and she gave them one. The story line would be that Brawl had taken up Buddhism or meditation or something similar - Cathy improvised a lot of the details later. We’d hire some Tai Chi experts to come in and train the operators running him. He’d lose the hard personality and become a tranquil kung-fu master type.

She was given a budget and six months. The project stretched into eighteen months and four times the initial budget estimates. But Cathy rode it hard. Behind the scenes, there was a lot of grumbling, and Henry finally managed to get her ousted. But by then it was too late - the public loved the new Brawl. Cathy perfected this humble way of talking and moving him that inspired people. Finally the team had its “face”.

We told Cathy that her contributions had been invaluable, and that she’d done amazing work. And she got that look on her face - you know the one, each of you has seen it at least once. “If I did so well, then why are you letting me go?” It’s the same one I’ve seen at other companies, and it almost made me start crying before the interview.

The one question that management absolutely wanted answered, the one thing they told me I had to get before I could let her walk, was this: why had she been so fired up about Brawl? What had inspired this whole thing?

I felt she deserved some respect. So I just asked her to explain. No dancing around the point, no evasive questioning. Just two adults having a conversation.

“Shylock,” she told me with a big smile. I had no idea, I told her. She went on.

“You see, in the stories, sometimes it takes a good person to redeem a bad one. Sometimes that good person is the actor, and the bad one is their character.” She went on to tell me the story of an English actor named Edmund Kean, who had been instrumental in transforming the portrayal of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Kean had made the character more sympathetic, establishing a trend that continued into modern theater.

“I wanted to do the same thing with Brawl,” she told me. “When I looked at him in his fights, shouting insults and flexing his muscles, I just… I think I just saw hurt. I saw insecurity. I realize he’s artificial, but you know what? On stage, a character has a life of his own too, and his own feelings.”

I smiled, and I told her how much I admired her dedication. She gave me her mobile number, and asked me to keep in touch. And that was that.

Cathy’s writing scripts for “Law & Order: Empowered Crimes” nowadays. Legal asked to pass them for fear that she’d give something away. But I went to bat for her with Annette. I told her that Cathy was not a risk, and would never become a risk, and that I’d stake my job on that. Annette told me that I had a deal - including the part about firing me if I was wrong - and told Legal to back down.

Every so often I’ll send Cathy an email, and tell her what I think of the show. She always writes back. She’s done with acting, she tells me - she likes writing a lot more. I like to think that we helped her find her true calling, the way she helped us find Brawl’s. As for the lesson Cathy taught me: it’s that we aren’t slaves to our roles. It’s the human touch, that extra bit of nuance that we bring to our work, that turns a mere job into something amazing.