This Marine’s epic journey from service to ‘LOST’ to ‘Jack Ryan’
Graham Roland always knew he wanted to be a writer. The problem out of high school was that he didn't really know what he was going to write about. The answer would come when he joined the United States Marine Corps in November of 2000, becoming a Forward Observer. After nearly a year of training, he reported to his reserve unit.
Two months later, the 9/11 attacks occurred. For the next three years, he experienced a series of false alarms before finally deploying to Fallujah in 2005. He experienced what many service members do when transitioning out of the military, and certainly when returning home from a combat deployment: culture shock and heightened anxiousness, though he didn't recognize it at the time.
Instead, he jumped right into film school — a fortuitous decision.
Thanks to the mentorship of one of his professors, Robert Engels, Roland was encouraged to write a television script. In 2006, television was just beginning to morph into the epic storytelling platform it is today. With shows on the air like Dexter, The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood, and of course LOST, television was becoming a new beast for dramatic writing.
Roland's script was strong enough to land him management with Gotham Group and a job as a staff writer for the final season of Prison Break in 2008.
For anyone unfamiliar with the writing industry, landing a high-caliber manager and a staff writing position are both extremely coveted and competitive accomplishments. Roland didn't take the opportunity lightly.
"To this day, that was the longest single writing contract I've ever had. That was more my film school than actual film school," he recalled. The showrunner, Matt Olmstead, made the effort to mentor his young writers, offering them the chance to write a script. It was up to them to excel.
Needless to say, Roland did.
After the series finale of Prison Break, Roland's writing landed him another epic show: LOST. By joining the writers' room in its final season, Roland was able to enter as a fan first, which he described as intimidating.
"It wasn't just a phenomenon for everyone else; I was also a huge fan so it was also a very important show for me. When I came on board, it was like a peek behind the curtain. It's a process of people going to work every day, only now I was writing these characters that I had loved," he shared.
Roland's role was a unique one because he was joining the team as a fan; he literally got to help share what he wanted to see based on watching the first five seasons along with the rest of us.
"I don't know that there will ever be another LOST. There will never be another show that so many people watch live and then talk about it. Game of Thrones did it but so few people watch shows in real time. Especially now when there are hundreds of shows to watch, it's rare for people to care enough to watch it live. TV is evolving."
From LOST, Roland transitioned into another Bad Robot enterprise: Fringe. There, he was not only a writer — he received his first producer credit as well. He worked on seasons 3-5 of Fringe, which he described as the most imaginative writers' room of his career.
"For me, this was the job where I actually got my confidence. I'm still learning to this day, but on my first two shows I really still felt like a student." It was on Fringe that he had bosses who encouraged him to produce episodes, to go to set, and to take ownership of creative responsibilities. He was able to expand and grow in an environment where he was trusted and valued.
"A Dark Chapter"
After the stream of successes, Roland experienced a few creative set-backs. In 2013, he was brought on to Almost Human to work on the show midway through the first season, which would ultimately also be the last. The show was cancelled after its first season.
"Sadly, by the time we were cancelled, we had just started to figure out what the show should be," he reminisced.
Not one to sit still for long, Roland reunited with LOST's Carlton Cuse to create The Returned, an experiment for AE that would prove to be a great experience for Roland as a producer, if not a success for a network built on an audience accustomed to reality television.
Though The Returned would also be cancelled after its first season, his working relationship with Cuse, however, was just beginning.
In 2015, Roland took an open writing assignment from Paramount, who was looking for someone to bring a fresh take to the iconic character of Jack Ryan. They liked his take, but they were wary of hiring him as a first-time showrunner ("rightly so," Roland generously stated).
So he teamed up with Carlton Cuse.
Together, they created the first two seasons for release on Amazon. It was an entirely new experience for Roland. By then, HBO and Netflix had significantly raised the bar for the production value of television, which Amazon was eager to reproduce. The first season took nearly three years to create, expanding over five continents.
"I will always be grateful for the opportunity it gave me to travel all over the world and make a TV show. I'm proud of how ambitious we were," he said, looking back on the experience.
After the first two seasons, Roland decided to step aside and explore something closer to his own roots.
Graham Roland and director Morten Tyldum on the set of 'Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan' in Marrakech.
(Image courtesy of Graham Roland)
HBO and beyond
"The things I'm working on now are all things I'm really passionate about. Not that I wasn't passionate about my previous jobs, but Jack Ryan has afforded me the opportunity to pick and choose what I want to work on," he shared. One of the things he's working on next is a show for HBO based on the Navajo Nation in the 1970s, which gives Roland a chance to reconnect with and explore his own Native American heritage.
Another project he has in the works is a film about the cartels in the 90s.
When I asked him for how his military service has informed his career, he shared that there's a misconception that the military community isn't necessarily artistic. "But that's not correct," he affirmed. "There are a lot of people with an artistic drive who ended up serving. If you get out of the military and you want to work in this industry, whether as an actor, writer, or director, the door is open to you."
Roland is a mentor for the Writers Guild Foundation's Veterans Writing Workshop, which helps veterans develop screenplays and pilots. SAG-AFTRA has also been holding classes for military veterans as well.
"When I first started working, I didn't know any other veterans. I felt behind, but I learned that the industry is now starting to recognize that veterans carry professionalism, tact, and leadership skills with them from their service. To get anything made, it takes intense collaboration, which the military does well."