May 17, 2007
Dreayer finds ‘Suite’ success with talented twins
"I had the busiest two weeks ever; sold another show, made some big deals for twins number three and oy," says Irene Dreayer, her voice husky and a bit tired.|
Gracefully traipsing between the backlot buildings of Hollywood Center Studios, her petite frame wrapped in casual but elegant garb, "The Dray," as family and friends know her, greets everyone she passes, from celebrity to security guard.
"I kiss 400 people everyday," says the executive producer of Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody." "From day one, I hugged and kissed everybody, and it allowed everyone on the show to become family. That's the Jewish producer in me; family is everything."
After graduating from the University of Florida in the late 1970s, Dreayer left her childhood behind to chase her dream in Los Angeles. "I grew up in Orlando, Fla., where you either worked for Disney or a mall, so with my parents' support I came to L.A. and cried every day for a year," she says, her brown eyes peering out from nondescript designer glasses. "What kind of Jewish girl leaves her family?"
Dreayer re-imagined her notions of family and created a self-styled community on her sets, beginning with the discovery of twin sisters who she would go on to produce in the sitcom "Sister, Sister."
On the way back to her office on the third-floor above the stage, she gives a grand tour of the premises, from the craft-services table to the writers' room, and walks through the set, still mingling and embracing.
"This shoot is insane," she declares, "very unusual, with lots of special effects and swing sets for our big Halloween episode."
Her long and rigorous Fridays are spent in casting meetings, script rewrites and live audience tapings, which in recent weeks have boasted a guest list from Matt Damon to Larry David with their kids in tow. The sitcom starring 14-year-old twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whom Dreayer set her sights on when they appeared opposite Adam Sandler in "Big Daddy," is a throwback to classic serial comedies and focuses on a central family narrative: the relationship of siblings.
As Dreayer makes the rounds, she is waylaid by cast and crew who clamor for her attention, opinion and discerning approval. This is clearly her show, and she carries herself around it with poise, ease and an irrevocably pleasant demeanor, setting the tone for a home-like atmosphere. On this set, the metaphoric parent-executives gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the children and Dreayer is conscientious of infusing her professional assessments with warmth and sincerity.
At first glance, one may wonder how such a delicate-looking 55-year-old with a bleach-blonde buzz could command such an elaborate production, but Dreayer's cool sophistication and integrity mark her as an emblem of value, and watching her work elucidates her commanding presence.
Although she is perfectly comfortable trumpeting her various projects in development (including a pending spin-off series of "The Suite Life" currently in negotiations), there is a candor and humility in Dreayer's tone, presumably derivative of her humble, Jewish upbringing. Indeed, the intimate connection she feels to her roots inspired the course of her life.
Her beloved father was a salesman and encouraged her to be fearless in her work.
Her mother was a stage performer with vocal talent. Dreayer recalls watching her sing, "I was smitten. I loved the theatrical world."
Perhaps it is her indefatigable persistence that earned her a place at the head of three syndicated television series. In an industry that demonstrates little loyalty and suffers from chronic fickleness, Dreayer has achieved remarkable longevity.
"When I came out to L.A., I thought I could dance. I could not dance. So I worked in a restaurant, a wine store, baby-sat, delivered flower baskets -- I did all that stuff," she notes.
While her pursuit of producing family programming lingered, she held various management positions in other people's companies and then her own, managing a client list of reputable actors with roles on "L.A. Law" and "Saturday Night Live." However, that roster was short-lived after a crippling industry strike. Reflecting on the despondency she felt then, "I remember sitting in my apartment wondering what I was going to do with my life. Should I move back to Florida?"
Despite the struggle, Dreayer's dream did not waver. She called a friend in casting at NBC who turned her on to 6-year-old Tahj Mowry ("Full House"), but he was taken. "I called his mother and asked, 'Is there anyone else?' and she said, 'Well, I have these twin daughters.'"
Days later, Dreayer abandoned a baby-sitting job to attend her first pitch meeting at Paramount. By the end of the meeting, she had launched her first set of twins, Tia and Tamera Mowry, into their own sitcom, aptly titled, "Sister, Sister." Years later, she followed suit with their little brother, Tahj, and his show, "The Smart Guy."
Her most recent project, "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," has also become a vehicle for Dreayer's highly prized new discovery, Camilla and Rebecca Rosso, blonde-haired, blue-eyed twins from the United Kingdom, who star respectively as Janice and Jessica on the show.
"I'm about to make stars out of my third set of twins," she declares. "Who does that? Who finds three sets of twins, puts them on television and then they become completely famous?"
The Rossos were discovered on a Friday similar to this one, when the warm-up announcer asked the audience who was from out of town. Immediately, the 12-year-olds girls responded.
When the announcer asked if they were twins, Dreayer says she looked up, was transfixed and invited the girls to her office the following day.
"I had a vision the second I met them," she says. "I knew they were special: 12, beautiful and international." A few days later, Dreayer signed the twins with Creative Artists Agency. She promptly booked the Rossos for six episodes on "The Suite Life" and when she showcases her next-big-thing "tweens," she is transparent and elated, "You should have seen what CAA put together. I ... was ... screaming. The look! The colors!"
With two successful stints coupling twindom with stardom, the prospect for the Rossos looks promising to Dreayer. She envisions a franchise empire, modeled after Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's direct-to-DVD film repertoire combined with commercial marketing campaigns. After 30 years in the business, her enthusiasm and commitment to yet another twin team growing up before the camera is startling.
"I think I was destined to do this job because I don't have children but I have so many," she says. "This allows me to be so nurturing to the kids and the crew and the writers. I become the nice Jewish mother."
Her assistant enters the office and informs her that taping begins in 10 minutes, at which point she rummages through her desk drawers looking for moisturizer and lipstick and says, "If you asked me what it is about my Judaism that got me where I am today, one word: chutzpah."
Outlining her lips with a dash of color, she adds, "I do so many things people cannot believe. But I believe in myself, and chutzpah means having balls. It's possessing the confidence to make a choice about something that comes your way and taking advantage of a situation that could otherwise disappear."
Her words are simple but they pulse with conviction.
"And that's the hardest part about being in this business -- that there's an end to every series," she adds.
She pauses before continuing her thought, "It's like leaving family, but like my father said 30 years ago as I sobbed at the airport, 'Isn't it better to feel this way?'"
Descending the stairs with a fresh face and a second wind, she confides, "I love what I do but it's very hard. It can be stressful dealing with egos and not everybody has the same agenda."
The speed of her gait increases with each step nearing the stage door. Her mood transitions from relaxed and contemplative to an intensified excitement. Tonight, the president of the network will appear and The Dray must lead her crew with verve and precision.
Before she disappears into the riotous applause of the audience and the dense crowd of performers, Dreayer makes her final pitch: "I am the world's best salesman. I could sell swampland in the Everglades," and quickly adds, "I got that from my parents."