Changing Roles

This past August I had the chance to work with the very talented actress, Vinessa Shaw on the film, Crossing the Bar. However, we weren’t running scenes in the way you would imagine. For this coming of age film, she placed herself behind the camera in the Director’s chair. This film was the first time I have had the opportunity to work with Shaw on a film and get to know her personally. I have always respected her for the way she carries herself with grace and compassion in both her professional and personal life. But, after working so closely with her I have a whole new respect for this hardworking, multi-talented woman. I was able to talk to her about her experiences in her career and the industry and was blown away even more. Read, learn and be inspired.

vinessa shawYou started acting professionally as a child. When did your acting go from school plays and a dream to a reality?

I started acting when I was 12 because a friend of the family basically threatened my mom with the words, “If you don’t get Vinessa a talent agent, I will!” My mom, an actress herself, wanted me to wait until I was old enough to drive myself to my own auditions. My sister was interested in acting too, so I think the thought of driving the three of us around Los Angeles to all of our auditions was slightly overwhelming! But she committed to it and away we went! It was the early 90’s, the heyday of work for the industry, so we pretty much had auditions every day after school.

So your after school activity was acting auditions! 

Yes! My mom’s car was filled with changes of outfits, food, and homework for our hours spent in the car daily! Within the first few months of auditioning I booked my first job-an Oreo commercial. I was so excited! Not only for the commercial, but for the fact that I got to eat Oreos all day! My parents didn’t allow me to eat sugar at that time so I basically OD’d on them. Never ate an Oreo again. Ha!

When did you get your first film role?

When I was 14, I booked an NBC movie-of-the-week. It was a Grapes of Wrath type story with Mark Harmon. I played Clara Tarpin; a pregnant teen from Oklahoma in the 1930s dustbowl era. It was not a normal first job for a 14 year old! I managed to pull it all off with ease. After that, I was hooked!

Since you spent a lot of your childhood and adolescence growing up in the business, do you think that you have a different view of the entertainment industry compared to someone who entered the business as an adult? 

I believe I do. When you’re that young you have to be professional, it makes you grow up quickly. It’s definitely a unique situation: you’re developing your career while developing as a human being at the same time. If you’re an adult, experiencing rejection is nothing new. You can remember back when you didn’t make the baseball team or someone wouldn’t sit next to you at lunch at school and you learned from the experience. As a child actor, you’re learning how to be a professional, how to take rejection, AND someone isn’t sitting next to you at lunch—it’s all happening at once!

Did you look at Hollywood as an exciting place?Vinessa and camera

I wasn’t starry-eyed about the entertainment business. To me, it was a business from the beginning. Maybe I was unfazed because I grew up in Los Angeles and I knew most of the working kid actors right away. Even the kids who I grew up with who weren’t actors knew someone in the business. I guess its part of being an LA kid. Everyone saw Arnold Schwarzenegger riding around in his Hum-V smoking his cigar, or Angelyne riding around in her little pink corvette. Most of LA has the industry imbedded in it. So most LA kids are unfazed by the industry.

So many child actors have a difficult time having the world no longer see them as children when they become adults. We have seen so many talented child actors lose their way to addiction, depression, problems with the law etc . What has kept you centered and on a good path all of these years?

My mom always said that acting is what you do; not who you are.  There were times when I really didn’t understand what she meant. I understood logically, but not with my heart.  Because child actors work hard at such a young age, most of them don’t really get a chance to develop themselves. It’s all about work and school. So when you hit 18 and school is done, and there is a lull between jobs, you panic, because you don’t know this other part of yourself yet; the part without all those aspects. I have to thank both of my parents for their wisdom. I grew up a Nichiren Buddhist which talks about believing in your true self, who you really are.  Once I started practicing that philosophy, I understood how to connect to who I was, not just to what I do.

What is one of the hardest aspects about the entertainment industry and acting that you have had to overcome?

I’ve had to overcome being pigeonholed. I remember a distinct point in my early 20’s when people wanted to label me as the hot girl or the girl next door and I actively sought out roles that weren’t that type. It was very hard because I knew I was narrowing my options. But I felt better and in more control of my career when I did. I would’ve died if I ever became the “it”girl. To me it was the worst label of them all. Rarely an “it” girl survives that label. It’s the oxymoron of longevity, which is what I’m seeking.

What do you attribute to your success?

In the business and in life, there are so many ups and downs.  I know I’m very fortunate to have had many successes, especially as an adult. Many child actors aren’t able to transition into adult actors. Now, I believe my continued success is because I’ve never given up in the face of adversity.There have been times when I have wanted to give up, but I persevered and overcame myself. I’m also vigilant against ever becoming bitter.  I think it is the kiss of death and makes you feel old. I’m a kid at heart and I allow that side to come out of me as much as possible!!!

Recently, you have tried your skills behind the camera as a Director. Is that something you have  always wanted to try?

It had never occurred to me until this project! I have always had a special reverence for directors and felt I could never fill those shoes! As a director, you have to be the captain of the ship and I felt like that was an overwhelming responsibility. But when I was approached about Crossing the Bar, something in me felt I could do it. Maybe I felt that way because it was a short film! Ha! But, I soon remembered that in the past there were times when I was in charge of many things. I also realized, that by being on a jillion sets, I learned a lot about directing through osmosis.

Clapboard VSWhat were some of the biggest learning experiences in leaping to the role of director on this film?

I learned how important every person is on a production. Because our crew was so small, I could see the bones of that very clearly. I also learned how no one likes driving scenes, and how they are strangely technically complicated. As an actor, I like acting in driving scenes because there’s so much layered stuff you can reveal as the character since you’re not facing the other character the whole time. But as a director, not so much! I couldn’t get the same intimate feeling I’d get as an actor acting in a car scene.  It was in fact, the extreme opposite! I felt very distant!

Would you like to direct another film? 

Yes! I’ve been bitten. I shared with a well-known director recently about my directing and he said, “It gets under your skin, doesn’t it? And you think to yourself, ‘Why would I ever only be an actor ever again?’ Hilarious and I think he is right!

Whats next for Vinessa Shaw?

I’m working on a Netflix original movie called Clinical, a thriller. I play a psychiatrist who has to wrestle with her own demons.

“There is no one as strong as a person whose heart is always filled with gratitude.

– Daisaku Ikeda

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(photo of red carpet courtesy of @iamvinessashaw twitter and Vinessa Shaw)

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