The following interview is part of a class assignment for Entrepreneurship and the HeroAdventure at SMU, Meadows School of the Arts. Each interview has been conducted and created by students for this course, which celebrates those heroes in our communities. Heroism, for the purpose of this course and assignment is described as:
- Service of something larger than oneself.
- A willingness to sacrifice in the name of service.
Author: SMU student Kyle Given
Q: How did you find yourself on the path you are now?
Well, I was a very shy child, and my mother made me go out for a play (because I was always attached to her hip). So I did, and I got a part, and I found that I really liked performing. I did that all through junior high school and high school, and I kind of never thought I was never going to do anything but be an actor. I went to Montclair University, which is in New Jersey, and I got a BFA in Acting. And then I ended up studying with William Esper at Rutgers University and got my MFA in Acting. Then I moved to New York City, and lived and worked there for about five years.
Then a friend was starting a theater company in Carmel, California. It seemed like the right time, so I hopped on a plane and I did the play. I knew one person in Los Angeles, so I bought a car, drove down – I had a thousand dollars to my name – and I just stayed on her couch. I just started auditioning, and then quickly realized that everything I liked about acting had nothing to do with the reality of the business. At one point – I was in my late twenties – I was like “this isn’t happening.” My big epiphany was: I was up for one line on Murphy Brown. The line was like, “Murphy, the elevator’s here.” Something crazy like that. And I didn’t get it, and I was devastated. And I was like, “wait a minute, would saying ‘Murphy, the elevator’s here’ in any way artistically fulfill me? Clearly I’m banging my head against the wall to do something that – even if I got it – wouldn’t be fulfilling. And I just said, “I think it’s time to stop.”
I was a waitress at the time – I was a great waitress. And I just said, “that’s what I am. I am a waitress until I figure out what I’m going to do.” So I stopped auditioning. I was in Los Angeles, so I was waiting tables at this place called Dive, which was owned by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. One day, ten people from Amblin – Spielberg’s production company before it became Dreamworks – came in and, I don’t know if it was the way I put the shrimp down on the table, but they kept peppering me with questions. And they were like, “so what do you do?” And I just said, “I am a waitress.” “Come on, what do you do?” “I am a waitress.” And for whatever reason, Kathleen Miranda, who was the head of HR at the time, just handed me her card and said, “I think I have a job for you.” And I was the last Amblin hire – the fortieth person in that company – before it exploded into Dreamworks.
So I worked on the Universal lot, I was on the cool Amblin building, got to work in the story department, and got to meet all the development executives. It was a cool, magical time. And I ended up landing a permanent gig there, working for an animation attorney: I was an administrative assistant. And he was perfect, because – despite being the smartest guy I ever met – he was one of the few people devoid of ego. Maybe because he was the smartest person, he didn’t have to be. So I just had a really great day job with him, where I could just do it. He was a good guy, and was really supportive of my work.
Then I just had this idea, and I wrote this short script. I showed it to a friend, and she really liked it, and she encouraged me to shoot it. I thought maybe I’d just do it on video, and she said, “no, this is really good. You should do it on 35mm.” So, in the bliss of ignorance, I spent a year and a half raising about a $120,000 worth of in-kind donations, and $25,000 cash. And I shot a 20 minute film. It was on 35mm – I had a 40 person crew. It was totally professional. I had Kristin Davis from Sex and the City in it. And a lot of other great actors who you might recognize their faces but not their names. It was the first thing I’d ever done artistically. It did really well: it got bought up by the Sundance Channel, and it was in over 25 film festivals. It won five awards – it did really well.
And then I wrote a second one. I got smarter with that one: it only cost me $1,500 dollars. And while I was doing that one, Blaire Witch came out. I had this idea for a parody of that, so I shot it. That exploded on me. It was like, no money, but it was the right time, the right idea, the right execution. And that got me on The Donny Marie Show, and Entertainment Tonight, and all the trades. I ended up getting my first professional directing gig out of that. I directed an MTV series called Undressed. So that came directly out of that stupid Blaire parody thing.
From the MTV thing, I lived off the money from that for two years. I just adopted a rescue dog, and hung out by the pool and wrote a screenplay. It was just a glorious time. Just meeting people at Starbucks, writing all day. Getting up, taking the dog on a hike. So that was Out at the Wedding. My plan was to direct that myself, but I could never get it off the ground. But then my friend – Lee Friedlander, who always loved it – asked if she could have it. She was able to get the financing, so she directed it.
During the festival circuit for that film I met Anne Renton, the director of The Perfect Family (before she did The Perfect Family). Met her, connected, and she had the financing for that, and hired me to write the script. And that was a big experience. And in the midst of all that I ended up moving to Dallas.
Q: How did you find yourself wanting to become a professor?
Well, I was a stay-at-home mommy. In the midst of all that writing and creative work I had also done a lot of corporate gigs. I worked for American Greetings for five years, I was grand manager for egreetings.com. I did a lot of producing, and I worked for a mobile company, bought media. So there were a lot of things I would do for a paycheck, and then I would write on the side.
When I had come out here I’d given up a high paying job at a mobile company, mainly because I wanted to stay at home with Sam, my son. I wanted to be able to be at home with him and freelance write, until he was in kindergarten. And I did the first two years, but then I decided I need to bring in some money.
Kelli Herd, who’d had the position before me – we had some mutual friends – I just kind of tracked her down and made her have coffee with me. And we got along. She refused to have coffee with me forever, and then she finally found out I wasn’t a crazy person. And that started a friendship, and oddly enough – six months later – she just called me and said, “I’ve suddenly decided to retire. They need three courses taught in the Fall, would you be interested?” And I said that I have my MFA, but never really thought about teaching – but it’s definitely something that appeals to me. And it was great timing. The Perfect Family was shooting, and I had to have a phone interview with Sean (the head of the Film department) because I was on set with Kathleen Turner. So I think I appeared very sexy.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone going into the entrepreneurial arts?
Well, first thing I would say is: don’t do it. Because if you’re meant for it, you’ll say, “F you Paula. This is what I want to do.” If you have thick enough skin to take me saying not to do it, then you probably have the mettle to succeed in this business. Because it’s rough – it’s really rough. You’re faced with rejection. Artists are per-gig. It’s hard to enjoy what you’re working on because you’re thinking, “how am I going to get my next thing?” So it’s really hard to be present and in the moment. So to that first step of advice I’d also say to learn to be present in the moment. Try to enjoy what you’re doing at the time. My second advice is to have a full life: have friendships, have love, have hobbies, have other interests. In order to be a creative artist, you have to be a creative person – to have things in your life to draw from. If you’re a writer and you only read writing books, and only talk about writing stuff, you’ll have nothing to write about. So…go to NASCAR if you like that, go bicycle ride, go to the Star Trek convention. Just have diverse interests, and be engaged with other people. Be a people watcher. Because it’ll – it’s twofold – it’ll help your art, because you’ll actually have something interesting to explore, and it’ll help you in the downtimes when you’re not always working. I always say actors always need to be in acting class – not because they need it, but because they need to keep their instrument going. Like you wouldn’t expect an athlete to go out on Sunday and play football without stretching, and practicing all week. In this business we forget that.
For my third piece of advice, I feel like relationships are really super important. There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese has done five films with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. They met when they were in their twenties just starting out. It’s twofold: One, it’s scary to work with new people. And two, when you work with someone for a while, and you get a shorthand, it’s much easier. I’m sure Scorsese can just say one word to De Niro and he gets it: he knows what he’s going for, he knows his temperament, he knows his tone. So the relationships and the friendships that you make now will be remembered later.