Excerpt from Issue 2 of The Messy Mag, Rebel Rebel
Stef was one of the first people who I met when I moved to LA. We saw each other in an Indian restaurant — I slid in next to her in an eight-person booth, and we launched into a conversation about pursuing one’s passions and creating art with purpose. Since then, she has become one of my closest friends and grounding energies here — frequently texting me long paragraphs about YouTube videos to watch, meditations to listen to, and new indie films playing at our nearby cinema. Her playlists consist of mostly 40s music, and she gets overly giddy when she finds a place with vegan nachos. She always carries malachite with her, and she is so in love with the nuances of life. A medley of studying, appreciating life, and portraying human emotion is her full-time job.
She gets so excited when talking about her craft, looking up at the ceiling with a big grin on her face, eyes lit up, and tucking stands of hair behind her ears. For her, acting is a way to connect. In the past two years, she has shed the “perfect girl” persona that came with her first big TV role, trusted her gut, and done the exact opposite of what everyone has told her to do. She shot an entire music video, “Girls like Girls,” without telling her team; auditioned for the role of a stripper at midnight from her closet; and continuously challenges the trope of the female “arm candy.” Her search for humanity and purpose within herself comes through in her exploration of her characters — she fights for female roles to extend beyond simply pretty faces. Once, she read aloud to me a character description that she got. Exasperated, her fingers traced over the words: “Smart. Beautiful, doesn’t know it.” She paused and closed her eyes, “Why can’t I know I’m beautiful?!”
Stef is an artist. Her medium is acting, telling human stories, and she is a rebel for that very reason. Your art is your voice — your way to stand up for what you believe is right. Late one night, we sat around my coffee table and she told her story from start to finish.
For so long, I was pretending to be someone who I didn’t feel was truly me. When you are fourteen, everyone goes through those stages of self-discovery. Being free to experiment is so important, but — because of my job — I was stuck in a box. I had a lot of people who looked up to me and followed me, but most were just recognizing me as this character. In reality, I was nothing like her and was going through the darkest period of my personal life.
It was easier to be the person others were expecting me to be instead of sitting with myself and trying to figure out who I was — and what I was going through. I was playing a person who was “perfect,” even when the camera stopped rolling.
After the show ended, the first thing I did was dye my hair dark. I needed to get in touch with myself because I did not know who the fuck I was.
I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know when or if I was really happy. What was I feeling? I always felt like I had to be somebody else. I had no true friends — none of that. Everything was fake. I had desires and dreams, but I’m not sure if anybody believed I could accomplish them because they hadn’t seen me like that before. I had gone through so much in that time that no one was aware of, and I had depth.
I started auditioning again, but I couldn’t get in touch with myself because I was so lost. I couldn’t hit those certain places in my body. I was an artist without any paint. I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I started reading — studying movies, studying interviews, studying life, and slowly starting to live.
The first thing that came about that I did (which was only a few months after the show and the period of me feeling lost and confused) was get an audition for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which is a rite of passage for so many actors. In this role, the character was raped, drugged, and working as a stripper. It was unlike anything I had done before, but it was everything I wanted to do.
My team was kind of like, “Oh, alright…Send it in. It’s a little dark, I’m not sure if you are up for it.” Of course, that pissed me off and made me want to do it more. I locked myself in the closet and videotaped myself saying the lines so that I would critique myself. I sat on the floor and my mom taped my audition. I put on this shirt (and had it off my shoulder), and I smudged my eye makeup. It was midnight and, I just thought, “You know what, I’m going to do this now.” I sent it over that night and, the next morning, I got a call that I got the part and that they were going to fly me over to New York City. I shot the show, and it was such a crazy experience — it was the first time I was RAW, so raw. No makeup, a nose ring, and pink hair. It was dark. It was so insane being there and being in that place — lying on the floor as the character after she was raped, how intense that is…
I can’t quite explain it, as I have done more work since then, but it was really the first time that I felt that emotional on command. It was electric to cry on camera — and it worked, the tears actually came out and, the moment afterwards, everyone on set was quiet and truly felt it… After I filmed the show, only a couple of weeks later, I found out that they were going to bring me back for another episode. I was so so happy — that was my moment of realizing, “I can do this.” It was the first time that I saw how much there was to explore in my body — in my brain — in my life.
Insidious was a huge thing for me — that was my first lead in a studio film. I worked seven weeks straight, twelve to seventeen hours a day. Just me on camera, fighting for my life. Talk about self exploration; that film was it. The director had me see a psychic, and do so much research (the character’s mom dies from cancer in the film). He had me fill out a whole journal as Quinn (i.e. my character), allowing me to experience these things as emotional preparation. And it was physically draining, as I was fighting for my life and trying to make it real every single time. My worst fear is to have done a horror film where you are the teen sex pot who is just in short-shorts running away from something. And Insidious is a really beautiful story— if you took all the horror away, it is a heart-wrenching piece about a young girl who lost her mom. She is seventeen, deciding where to go to college, and is so lost because she spent so many years being the “mom.” All she is doing is reaching out for guidance, and so many people can understand that. This movie — this story — helps people find peace within themselves. At the end of a movie, you want to feel peace, and you want to feel like you have learned something.
The more I have lived and experienced, the more I have realized that these parts are in everybody. That’s the beauty of film, and that’s the beauty of acting: it brings that out in everybody and makes people feel connected and less alone. I get so excited talking about it because that’s what it is. Everyone is suppressed — everyone is told what to feel and how to act. But it’s your human right to feel emotion. That’s your intuition. That’s why I believe that everyone should study acting. Acting embodies discovering yourself and discovering life within…life.
With having more work, you have to do more work internally. That’s the problem with actors these days. There are actors, and there are celebrities. Celebrities are mistaken for actors because they don’t do the work; they don’t understand themselves; they are not presenting a performance that evokes feeling. They are just doing it for the bells and whistles and, on a deeper level, validation. There is a complete difference between that and true art. I want to do my part and my character justice. I want somebody who went through what my character went through to see that honesty — and to see themselves in my performance. I want them to understand and empathize and feel. Meryl Streep once said, “ Empathy is the at the heart of the actor’s art.” Authenticity. Vulnerability. Empathy.
I feel like I have attracted roles into my life that speak to female empowerment and authenticity and realness. I still audition for the sidekick/girlfriend/“arm candy” roles, but I never get those parts because I don’t vibe with them at all. I know in my heart that I have too much to say to be on the side.
I was watching a documentary about actresses and, in it, they are complaining about how they are taken advantage of in this business. That’s going to be the way it is until WE, the actresses, do something about it.
I understand these breakdowns, and I see what they want. Ok, “it’s a smart, beautiful girl who doesn’t know it” and all of that bullshit. It’s my job to bring that to life with what they want — but to bring more to the table (by leaving them with a performance better than they imagined).
I just played a fifteen-year-old girl who wants to be a prostitute. To me, there’s way more to it than the judgmental, “Oh, she’s messed up,” because: she has a whole life behind her and ahead of her. It’s not about her being a prostitute — it’s about how she got there. It’s my job to bring her pain into that. At the end of the movie, the director told me that I brought that character to life more than they could’ve imagined, and it’s truly because I put the work in and decided to make my character a HUMAN (not just a shell who fills some space in a film, or a brick in the wall who is used to bring everybody else up). She is a completely different person all on her own.
As much as actresses complain that the business is messed up, they aren’t going to get anywhere by complaining. We have to rewrite it in order to do something about it. Do the work; create an awesome character; have a discussion with the director; share your point of view; be strong. So many people are scared to stand up to directors, but they are just people — and you are an actor, a person too. They couldn’t do their movie without you. It’s a collaborative experience.
Just because something is on the page doesn’t mean that it has to be that flat. Your job is to bring life to it. When you get a description of a scene or a character, it’s your job to make it as authentic and real as possible. You can put power behind a part — and you have the power to prevent yourself from being objectified. Back it up with emotion, back it up with knowledge. You have to put life and power behind your part and be a powerful woman. I mean, how sexy is a strong woman? Strong is sexy. Forget about boobs, it comes from your personal power. No matter what you look like, I find sexiness in strength and confidence.
For “Girls like Girls,” my friend Hayley wanted to direct the music video and was telling me stories that she had in mind. My whole team told me not to do it, but I had to (and I don’t know where that power came from). Looking back, I have no idea why I did that — but I am so happy that I did.
I had to express everything without words. I had to do the whole thing with my eyes, which is such a challenge because you don’t really realize the potency and power of our eyes when it comes to conveying meaning. You can say so much without saying anything. You have to let it all go and just be. I love that story so much because it is about best friends who fall in love. It’s all self-exploration. I wouldn’t classify it as a lesbian film — you could put any gender in either role and it would work. It’s just love. Everybody knows love, and everybody knows connection. Those are my favorite moments to watch on screen: when people kiss for the first time because you see the build-up and the tension. The cool thing about the video was standing up for pursuing and following through with it. Coley — in the music video — stands up for herself, defies all the odds, goes for the girl, and gets her at the end. You don’t know what happens after the video, but that’s such a cool moment — when she’s on the bike.
With the wind in my hair and blood on my face, I just felt free. That’s the most beautiful part about acting — I get emotional talking about it. When you are in a scene with someone and you forget about the lines, you forget about everything, but somehow the words come out.
You just feel it. I feel my heart flutter sometimes, and I feel the choke in my throat when a tear wells up behind my eyes. That’s the part that excites me so much and makes me want to do it. All of the feelings that I hadn’t let myself feel for so long come through. Authenticity. Empathy. Vulnerability.
At time of post, Stefanie is wrapping her next project, a sci-fi film, “First Light”