Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Erica Messer, executive producer of Criminal Minds.
Just 25 years ago Erica Messer, 48, graduated Salisbury University in the winter of 1995. Today, Messer is known for her work on a variety of TV shows such as Alias, Charmed, The O.C. and Criminal Minds.
Messer attended SU shortly after transferring from Florida State University.
Over the next two years, Messer appreciated the intimate experience SU provided.
“When your class size is smaller, the professors are gonna know who you are, if you’re there or not; all that stuff really mattered to me,” Messer said.
While at SU, Messer majored in communication, double minoring in psychology and sociology, all of which contributed to her success today.
Messer felt SU’s various communication courses allowed her to narrow down her career interests.
“Everything that the [SU] communications department offered, I just gobbled it up.”
Messer particularly enjoyed communication courses offered by the late Dr. Frances Kendall, whom Messer considered a mentor.
“She [Frances Kendall] was so excited to be teaching, and she was extra excited if you were a really curious learner because she was too. She was always learning things. She absolutely inspired me to keep going and all that. She was great.”
During a winter term, Messer interned for FOX 5 in D.C., studying public relations at WTTG.
Although Messer did not pursue PR further, the opportunity allowed her to determine exactly what she wanted to do with her career.
“… and [I] learned through that [FOX 5 internship], that wasn’t really where I wanted to spend my time either — that I was definitely a content provider," Messer said. "I wanted to be writing. I wanted to be editing. I wanted to be directing and providing that content — that was my happy place."
Messer’s minors also influenced her success, allowing her to acquire skills she still uses today.
“I double minored in psychology and sociology, and I had some amazing professors in that world as well. Dr. Cipolla was one of my favorites. I think his classes always provided really interesting, simulating conversations … I think it was the conversations and the comradery, all those things that … cemented for me that I made the right choice in going to Salisbury.”
“I would argue I probably use those two [psychology and sociology] more than I use my communications skills because I have that [communications-related writing] down now … The thing I use constantly is psychology. Because as a leader and a manager of people, it’s really incredibly helpful to know what makes them tick — all of the behavior you can’t really predict but you might see patterns in.”
Just one year after her graduation, Messer headed to Los Angeles.
Messer felt this was the best way to branch out and truly explore her career options.
“It’s funny, when you’re in it [the moment], and you know you wanna do something like that, it doesn’t feel big to you in the moment. If I look back on it now, I say ‘Oh my gosh, at 23 we [Messer and her husband] just filled up our Ford Taurus Station Wagon and drove across the country, that’s crazy.’ But when you’re in it, it feels like it would be crazy not to do it.”
After one month in L.A, Messer interviewed for a temp position on the 20th Century Fox lot.
Erica Messer (younger).
Messer worked at the lot for a year, allowing her to network and connect with TV assistants. These connections eventually led to Messer’s next job on the TV show, Party Five.
“It felt very much worth the weight, worth the struggle, saving a lot of money to come out but not working at the Gap. My first job was on the Fox Lot.”
Five years later, Messer became a screenwriter for the TV show, Alias after meeting J.J Abrahams, the show’s creator, in 2001.
“At that point, we’d been here since 1996, so, five years later, I’m saying, ‘okay I’m just getting started’ cause now I’m being hired as a writer, my job is to create content, this is exactly what I was hoping for, but it was five years between doing the move and sitting down with J.J”.
“I was really excited. I had gotten some training via osmosis on Party Five, so I knew the protocols in a writers’ room. I knew that I was one of three women on the show [Alias] that was about a woman at its core, so that — there was a value I had — there were a lot of guys in that room — that they didn’t have. I felt like I was really supported in that environment. Relationships happen quickly in a writers’ room because it’s really intense and you’re all together all day long and you’re coming up with all these incredible stories for characters.”
Messer’s thirst for success remained unquenched with each coming project, contributing to her strong sense of motivation.
“And every time there would be another show or another opportunity, I’d always feel like ‘okay now I’m just getting started, now I’m just getting started’. Next thing you know you’re here ten years…”
It was this sense of motivation that eventually led Messer to becoming the executive producer of Criminal Minds, a widely known crime drama. In addition to her motivation and stamina, Messer’s own personal experiences inspired her work on television.
“Yeah, I think if you just end up paying attention to what’s going on around you and being inspired by those things, then it leads to creativity. Sometimes that’s all you need, you just need a little bit of inspiration and you turn it into whatever ride you want it to be.”
That said, it may come as no surprise that a few Criminal Minds episodes are based off nearby towns such as Salisbury, Ocean City and Berlin.
“Yeah, I think that there’s something really incredible about dissecting sort of All-American towns, and Salisbury, Berlin, Maryland, wherever my old high school was, all of those feel so siege in history and they’re like the cross section of America in a lot of ways. One of the things with Criminal Minds was we always wanted to feel like ‘this could happen to you…’. I was always drawn to those communities versus the big city stories, which still have incredible value, but I was more drawn to the county sheriff versus the big city detective.”
Messer’s inspiration also draws from emotion.
According to Messer, personal fears played a significant role in the writers’ room of Criminal Minds.
“For Criminal Minds, for example, what worked so well with that show was there’s usually about eight to ten writers on that staff, and everybody needs to bring what scares them to the table. Because what scares them might not scare you, but it might scare a million people who are watching. And the show from the beginning was really supportive of your voice and finding the things that fascinated you. Because if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, the audience will be passionate about watching it.”
One of Messer’s storylines was based on “losing her kids” at a museum, not realizing they were standing to side with their mother in-law.
“It came from a real-life moment of me being incredibly freaked out as a mom,” Messer said.
Messer’s experience in television also taught her characters needed to be just as believable and relatable as experiences themselves, when creating a fictional reality.
“If you don’t have characters that people wanna watch every week, then you don’t have a show,” Messer said.
Messer believes these aspects are what made the show a success — a success that eventually turned into a spin-off called Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.
When producing the spin-off, Messer wanted to ensure the show was not a duplicate of its predecessor.
Messer focused on introducing a new perspective — one that put an emphasis on travel.
“The question’s the same, which is, ‘Why do we need this show? Why do we need it right now? Why are you passionate to tell this show?' Those questions and answers are important the whole time whether it’s a spin off or an original piece.”
Who could have guessed what Messer would surmount to just after moving to L.A. at the age of 23?
For students pursuing a career in the television or film, Messer gives this advice:
“I say go for it. I think that there’s more opportunities now on the East Coast then there were 25 years ago. Atlanta’s really a hot spot for television and in film. I think if you feel like you might want to try that, try it because you might regret it if you don’t.”
And, to those graduating and pursuing their careers, as Messer once did, “Be open because every opportunity could lead to something even greater.”
Photos provided by Erica Messer.