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From Keenan Hall to Jake Gyllenhaal

Marissa Frobes | Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Jamie Reidy is an acclaimed author, whose memoir “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” catalyzed the creation of the new film “Love and Other Drugs.” In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Jamie, and Anne Hathaway stars as his fictional love interest.

Reidy is a 1992 graduate of Notre Dame with a degree in English. After serving in the United States Army (he was in ROTC at Notre Dame), he took up employment as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Pfizer, a job he quickly learned to manipulate. Reidy managed to only work 15 hours per week but also become the No. 1 sales representative in the country, peddling drugs of all kind, most notably the 1990s wonder drug, Viagra.

Reidy was “always interested in writing,” and it was selling Viagra that gave him an initiative to start. In 2005, “Hard Sell” was published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Reidy snagged the book deal without an agent.

The Observer interviewed Reidy about the “Evolution” of his life from a salesman to a screenwriter.

What made you decide to write “Hard Sell?”

One of my classmates said to me one time, “When are you going to stop talking about [writing] and actually do it?” That was a great question for me, kind of a kick in the pants.

As far as “Hard Sell” goes, when I was working for Pfizer I was working 15 hours a week, but I had this whole elaborate system for making it look like I was working when I wasn’t working. I thought, “I have a lot of funny stories, but you can only write about sleeping late and quitting early so much.” Then, I got promoted to sell Viagra, and Viagra became a pop culture phenomenon — I knew that was my hook. Drug rep: okay good story, but it’s selling the one drug. That was the hook.

Once you got “Hard Sell” published in 2005, you were fired from pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, where you sold chemotherapy. Do you at all miss your days as a pharmaceutical rep?

I miss people. Being a writer is a pretty lonely occupation. I don’t miss the day-to-day BS of a corporate job, but I do miss establishing relationships with doctors and nurses.

And certainly, I miss selling the chemotherapy for Eli Lilly. I really believed in our drugs and helping patients. A woman from Maui, a breast cancer survivor, once hugged me as if I had invented the drug. That was really rewarding.

Whose idea was it to adapt the book into a movie? How did Fox 2000 Pictures end up with the rights to the book?

I always thought it was a no-brainer, in terms of turning it into a movie. Just add a love story, and boom it’s a romantic comedy: guy selling Viagra, falls in love.

I got in touch with Malcolm Gladwell, the guy who wrote “Blink.” He spoke at the last Eli Lilly cancer meeting that I went to. He told some stories that he had written for “The New Yorker” about the prescription drug crisis. I contacted him afterwards and told him I had a book coming out in a couple of months and wanted to see if he’d be interested in doing a review on it for “The New Yorker.” Of course, I look back now and think, “As if, no way.” I couldn’t even believe he answered my e-mail. My publisher sent him one of the galleys and we never heard from him. I thought, “Oh my God, my book is so bad, this poor guy doesn’t even want to e-mail me.”

I stalked him again. I said, “Hey, my book came out, I got fired, I was on TV a couple times, blah blah blah,” and he said, “Yeah I noticed that, I hope everything worked out.” Then he asked if I had sold the movie rights. I said, “Not yet, here’s my agent,” and he said, “Okay, I know somebody who might be interested.”

So, a couple weeks later my agent got a call from the manager for Charles Randolph. He was hot in 2005, for writing the script for the movie “The Interpreter.” It was the film that reminded Hollywood that adults would go see a movie.

I got on the phone with Charles and he said, “You know why we’re talking right?” I said, “Because you read my book?” He said, “No, Malcolm Gladwell.” I couldn’t even believe it: Stalking totally paid.

So he bought the book. Once Charles got on board the project launched. Universal [Pictures] and Fox 2000 actually ended up in a bidding war, two words you definitely want to hear sometime in your career. Universal won, but two years ago they decided adults weren’t seeing movies anymore. They put it on what’s called “turn-around,” meaning it was open for some other studio to come in and buy it. That’s how Fox got it.

Did you have a role in the filmmaking process, or did you simply hand over the rights to the book?

Certainly when you sign your rights away, it’s just gone. But I worked pretty closely with Charles, probably spent about 20 hours together, either at lunches or over the phone. I was telling him stories that were in the book, and actually I remembered stories I forgot to put in the book — really just explaining the whole life of a drug rep. There’s a lot of stuff in the movie that’s completely true. If it didn’t happen to me, it happened to people I know. He really did a nice job keeping it as real as possible.

And when they were shooting, I was on set for five days, which was amazing.

Do you think the fact that the film has become largely a love story detracts from its ability to portray the life of a pharmaceutical salesman?

I don’t think it detracts at all. In his character’s arc, he becomes a better person over the course of the movie thanks to the love story. He comes to a big realization about what he’s doing in life, which is pretty cool and really fits well at the end. If the movie is as big as we’re hoping it is, it will certainly shine a light on the industry.

Were you happy with the choice of Jake Gyllenhaal to play you in “Love and Other Drugs?”

I don’t know if you’ve seen a picture of me but I’m thrilled, believe me. When I was still for sale after I first made the deal, they could have had RuPaul play me and I wouldn’t have cared. But my friends were really concerned that my large ego was going to grow even further. The girl I took to the prom e-mailed me to let me know Danny DeVito was available to play me. That was a little rough.

When Jake was chosen, classmates of mine from Keenan Hall — I used to live in Keenan — e-mailed me to ask if Jake had to shave his head to play me. And I said, “You guys are such jerks, you know that I had hair when I was 27.” Love those Domer friends.

What is your favorite and least favorite thing about the way “Hard Sell” was adapted?

My favorite part is the fact that in 50 years people might think that I actually slept with Anne Hathaway.

And least favorite, I don’t think — I like everything. And I also don’t want to get in trouble with Fox. I’m trying to make it as a screenwriter now. The whole process was so amazing. On set, I actually got to correct a couple things, make them more realistic in terms of what drug reps really do. They really embraced me.

At the premiere a couple of weeks ago, I felt like the belle of the ball. Everyone was congratulating me, and the director said to my girlfriend, “Aren’t you proud of this guy?” I don’t have a love interest in my book, so I don’t know how they could have made it any better. I’m really proud.

Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on?

The banter between my dad and I in the book got a really good response, so I’m trying to start a collection of humorous essays about my dad and me.

Do you have any advice for Notre Dame students looking to get into the entertainment industry?

You have to write everyday. Whether it’s good enough isn’t nearly as important as honing your craft and writing, writing, writing. My mom said that to me back when I was talking about being a writer. She said, “You know what? I think writers, they write,” which is absolutely true. That is how you get better, doing it everyday. It’s a lot easier to get on a roll when you just start writing.

And the second thing, you have to have an outline. You can’t just write your novel or your screenplay and wing it. I don’t do anything without a really detailed outline now. It really annoys me that I have to admit that because I used to think differently. I’d wake up in the morning sit down at my desk and be like, “What the hell is this? What was I thinking last night?” The outline is key for me now.