Before she had Bates Motel or Parenthood or Friday Night Lights on her résumé, Kerry Ehrin had the “Show Club.”
Growing up in Woodland Hills, Calif., Ehrin and her sister would produce plays in their driveway. Ehrin would write scripts from different fairy tales—Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan—and the sisters would gather kids in the neighborhood to act them out.
Her flair for storytelling didn’t end at the street. Ehrin begged her teachers to let her put on a play; in eighth grade, she directed A Christmas Carol. “One of nuns said, ‘I don’t think any other kid in school could have gotten kids to listen to them,’” Ehrin recalls.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Ehrin, 54, has a whole staff of writers listening to her as cocreator and executive producer of Bates Motel, set to return for a third season on A&E March 9.
While she never expected to be running her own TV show, there was really no doubt Ehrin would have a career in writing. A voracious reader at a young age, she majored in English at UCLA and wrote her thesis on Lewis Carroll. Her boyfriend’s dad, a writer, suggested she try writing a script and helped her find an agent. Ehrin quickly earned a job writing for the acclaimed late-’80s Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd ABC dramedy, Moonlighting, which led to a stint on The Wonder Years.
Yet work stalled in the ’90s. Ehrin penned some movie scripts and tried developing work of her own. During pitches, she would get nervous. She just needed the right show, with the right characters and working environment.
That came in a trio of Jason Katims-helmed series: Boston Public, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. The shows were all character-driven, with an emphasis on emotion and realism. After spending years trying to shape her words into what was on TV, Ehrin felt liberated in Katims’ writers’ rooms. “I could let my voice breathe,” she says.
Katims says Ehrin has an “uncanny ability” to find herself in her writing. “She’s able to get underneath the skin of her characters and find their vulnerabilities and their flaws and all the qualities that make them fleshed-out human beings,” he says.
Given that ability, Ehrin was initially a bit reluctant to craft a prequel to Psycho and live in that dark world. But driving home from her first meeting, she started wondering about the woman who bore Norman Bates. The series would naturally have some elements of horror; that didn’t mean it couldn’t still be propelled by character.
It was an adjustment at first. Ehrin went from the relatively happy world of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights to plotting rape and murder in the Bates Motel pilot. “I honestly felt like I was doing college abroad,” she says. “I felt like I had gone to a foreign country.”
Even though the show “is ostensibly about a kid who’s growing up to be a serial killer,” says cocreator and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse, Ehrin fills it with humor and humanity. “She really infuses the show with this truthfulness, this insightfulness, because she can emotionally connect herself so well to every character she writes,” Cuse says. “Getting the audience to feel something is the hardest thing to achieve.”
But for someone so adept at finding characters’ voices, Ehrin struggled with her own when it came to talking to the press during panels and conferences. “The wonderful thing about working in a writers’ room is that it’s an incubator, where you’re in fantasy land,” Ehrin says. In time, she learned to embrace her public speaking obligations as well as all the other non-writing responsibilities of showrunning.
Ehrin says she did not expect to enjoy working with the actors as much as she does. During past series, she was not on set much, instead spending time raising her three kids, seeing them perform in plays at a local community theater. “Getting to live in the fantasy world with the actors, being on set…it’s like playing,” she says. “It reminds me so much of being a little kid.”