Wingman Wednesday

Sam Medina

Medina as Axel on the set of “Mile 22”

As sinister as he can be on film, which is on display in his latest project “Mile 22” opposite Mark Wahlberg, Sam Medina is nothing like his on-screen persona in the reality that we all call home. Affable and eager to discuss the filmmaking process, the Vietnam-born actor is reveling in his current run of projects, which also includes the upcoming “Venom,” “Alita: Battle Angel,” and his directorial debut, “Code Name The Dragon.”

We recently sat down with Medina to discuss the pinch of strangers, why his journey to Hollywood was part of a matrix-like design, and the reason his character’s hands only get dirty when they need to in “Mile 22,” which opens in theaters on August 17.

TrunkSpace: You have a whole lot cooking between now and the end of the year. It must be a crazy, exiting time for you?
Medina: It is an amazingly exciting, crazy, chaotic time, and I love every single minute of it because you can’t just have the good. You also have to have the bad, whatever that might come with it. You have to accept it all. The schedule is crazy. Work is crazy. The road is crazy. But I mean, you live for this. I live for this. I dreamed of this before, so believe me, brother, I’m probably going to talk to strangers today and ask them to pinch me. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: You spent the first 12 years of your life in Vietnam before coming to the States. When did the dream start? What was it that sparked performing and everything else you’re currently working on?
Medina: Well, I was a musician. I was a producer for a lot of rap artists and R&B singers down south. I was always conducting, producing, and kind of directing rappers on how and what kind of songs we should do with the beats that we were making. But the passion for filmmaking and becoming an actor happened after Katrina. It was by design. I can’t really tell you it was a choice at first. It was by design – like if we were living in the matrix, because after Katrina there were no jobs in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was just one of those guys outside of Home Depot and Lowe’s, doing construction work. I was getting sick, and I was just speaking into the universe that I needed to do something else before I died from smelling all of the mold. That was 12 years ago.

The number 12 kind of is lucky for me, I guess, because I moved here when I was 12 and it’s been 12 years ago since I started this film career. And now we’re having a conversation about it. So I think the number 12 might be a lucky number for me.

TrunkSpace: Someone might see your work in “Mile 22” and say, “Sam Medina is an overnight success,” but like you said, you’ve been at this 12 years now.
Medina: Yes, and I also studied many, many great ones that came before me. Most of the “overnight” to people, it’s usually a 20-year career span, so I still have another eight years to really make a mark. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: “Mile 22” is an action film, which are always a fun ride for viewers, but in terms of production, they’re the most technical to shoot, correct?
Medina: Yes, it’s the hardest. The action has to be shot with a preface, which is a set of videos by the team – the stunt coordinator, fight choreographer – they put this stuff together. They hire stunt performers. They do the action. They shoot clips of it. They send it to the director. The directors and studios approve it before we even get to set to shoot. If they don’t, we change it. So technically action, for the audience to continually be engaged, is the hardest thing to do. You can see a scene that lasts 30 seconds on screen, but it probably took over two weeks to film and maybe two weeks to prep.

TrunkSpace: In the trailer your character Axel, the big bad of the film, comes and goes in a very ominous way. We don’t get to see him get into any of that nitty gritty action fighting in the trailer, but is it safe to assume that we will see some of that?
Medina: You will see some of it, but with Peter Berg, the director, the way that he wanted to design the film, it was slightly different. I’m the head honcho, so my hands only get dirty when they need to get dirty. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: The film has a thriller element too, which in this day and age, audiences really seem to expect that multi-layered entertainment. There aren’t a lot of films that are just one thing anymore.
Medina: Right. There’s so many underlying tones, and so many layers to the film. That way you keep the audience engaged. Once you watch it, you will go back through it you and will say to yourself, “Oh, okay now I understand why they did it with that, why they did this, why this was this and why that was that in the story.” Yes, audiences are smarter now and in order for you to keep the audience engaged, you have to service the audience. They deserve more.

TrunkSpace: With so much really great television nowadays as well, audiences seem to be looking for more character-driven material that plays out in a longer way. And we know you have your directorial debut coming up later this year, so we’re curious if that is something that you think about from both sides of the camera now?
Medina: Of course. I’ve been blessed in my life. I’ve been lucky and blessed. I work extremely hard, but once again, I have to say that it’s the way how it was designed. It was destined. My resume includes so many legendary directors and I watch every single one because that helps me with my first feature that I’m debuting this year. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned from them to make it my own style.

You do have to serve the audience in a story. A punch is a punch. A kick is a kick. A shoot is a shoot. A gun is a gun. But if the story doesn’t deserve the action, the audience will fast forward everything and just look at the action, whether it’s a shoot-em up or a fight movie. So for me as an actor, if I’m looking at a part – or as a director – I want to look at the story first. You have to have a story to earn the right to the action, to earn the right to a shootout. Then the audience will understand. “Now I understand why this is happening!” So yes, storytelling is really key.

TrunkSpace: Well, and there’s an element too of being invested in the character so when there is that shootout, there are real stakes for the viewer as well. You don’t want to see your favorite character hit by a bullet.
Medina: Of course. You are 1,000 percent correct, my friend. Everything is about the story, because just like you say, if the audience is not vested into your characters that you lay out at the beginning of the movie, then they don’t care. They won’t go on that journey that you’re trying to take them on as an actor, as a filmmaker, or whatever it is you’re trying to do. They won’t go on that ride with you, so you have to create characters where they want to take that ride with you, and they sit in the theater for two hours to watch.

TrunkSpace: In terms of your performance as Axel in “Mile 22,” so often we hear actors say that in order to play a big bad or just a bad guy in general, you don’t view them as bad. It’s that you have to try to find their particular motivation for the actions that they’re taking. Is that how you approached Axel?
Medina: Of course, because I believe, and I’m sure you do and many other people also do as well, the villain wasn’t always the villain at one point. At some point, something or someone happened, and then he had a change of heart. But he has a purpose to it. He has a point of view to it. Just like the hero has his or her point of view, the villain also has his or her point of view as well. And because they have different point of views, when you put them in the room together, you want to see who is going to win. There it goes back to your statement, the stakes are high as hell, because now they’re trying to impose their point of view on each other, and so you have a great story.

You have to have a great villain, but I also wanted to play the villain to where you actually believe why I do what I do, just like you believe the hero has the right to do what he does too, in this case it’s Mark Wahlberg and his whole team.

Medina in “Venom”

TrunkSpace: You recently appeared in a great segment of the latest “Venom” trailer. As an actor, you can probably never anticipate what will happen day to day, even down to the point of whether your performance will wind up in a particular scene or trailer. Do you find yourself getting emotionally invested in everything that you do, or do you have to keep each job at arm’s length to, in a way, sort of protect yourself?
Medina: Well it’s hard, because I think that it’s in individual cases, but for me my heart is always in it. I was in the first “Ant Man” and when me and the Colonel in the Hispanic army got edited out of the film, I was devastated. That was my first Marvel movie. For me, I’m invested in every project that I do. I can’t step away from it, because I love every aspect of the filmmaking process, from the beginning to the end and during. I do invest a lot. I do go up and down with myself, because sometimes you don’t make edits in a movie. Sometimes you make the trailer, sometimes you don’t. But for me, if I don’t care, then why would I do it?

Yes, it can be a letdown, but it can also be a letup. As actors, as filmmakers, we live on the creed of hope. We hope for the next job. We hope that the film we make is well received by the audience, so I have to live by the creed of hope. For me, I definitely get invested, and I definitely get my heart broken many times. But if you think about it, we audition for a thousand roles before we book one.

Mile 22” opens August 17.

Venom” opens October 5.

Alita: Battle Angel” opens December 21.

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Wingman Wednesday

Jocelyn Hudon


With the talent to sear a celluloid pop culture pathway into your brain and a classic, ageless beauty reminiscent of Kate Beckinsale, Jocelyn Hudon is our favorite actress on the rise. With roles in AT&T Audience Network’s “Ice” and the upcoming Netflix series “The Order,” the Canadian born thespian is on her way to being a force to be reckoned with inside Hollywood.

We recently sat down with Hudon to discuss the current television content climate, the reason she’d be acting no matter what generation she was working in, and why pretending to be someone else can be extremely cathartic.

TrunkSpace: We were doing a little research on your Instagram and we saw that you were in South Africa recently?
Hudon: Yeah, that was amazing.

TrunkSpace: Was that a perk of a particular job?
Hudon: Yeah, it was. It was the best. I don’t know how I can beat that but I’m going to try.

TrunkSpace: Not too shabby for a place on location!
Hudon: South Africa was amazing. Surfing and nature and hikes. It was awesome.

TrunkSpace: Do you have to be extra careful surfing over there? Isn’t that where a lot of the great white sharks are?
Hudon: Yeah, there are, but they have shark spotters. On the highway there’s a bunch of little huts and they’ll have drones flying over. I had to get out of the water once because there were two great whites, but it was fun.

TrunkSpace: Well, let’s transition into something a little less terrifying! You appeared earlier this year on the second season of “Ice,” which airs on the AT&T Audience Network. You also recently shot “The Order” for Netflix. As an actress, is it an exciting time right now to be working, not only due to the quality of the content, but because of the quantity as well?
Hudon: Yeah. There’s a lot of good stuff out right now. Every other audition I get I’m like, “This is the one!” Then two hours later I get another audition and I’m like, “This is the one!”

TrunkSpace: Does it make things less competitive than it once was because there are more jobs available?
Hudon: I think so. I still have to work my ass off. Sometimes you go to an audition – this happened to me twice this year – but I go to an audition and I see someone I watch on TV and we’re going for the same role and I’m like, “Oh my god, I love you.”

TrunkSpace: Do you think you’d enjoy acting in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in television, when the shows being produced weren’t as sophisticated or character-driven?
Hudon: Yeah. I just love performing no matter what it is. I think maybe it would have been easier because there was less people. I feel like social media and stuff, everyone is in the spotlight now so I feel like there’s a lot more people going for a lot more jobs, so I guess networks can be a little bit more specific as to what they choose now acting-wise.

I would have fun no matter what. I love it. I don’t think I could do anything else.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned social media. That seems to be a component that is involved in acting careers now as well. We have heard stories about people not getting jobs because someone else had a larger social media following than they had, which seems like it adds a whole new stress to the process.
Hudon: I hope that’s not true. I had a girlfriend say the same thing last night, that she didn’t get a job because she was going against this Disney star who had millions of followers. I really hope that’s not the case. I hope whatever projects I go for don’t do that. I’d rather get the job because of my talent than what I take pictures of, you know?

TrunkSpace: Absolutely. Social media should be a tool in the toolbox, not the toolbox itself.
Hudon: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not huge on social media. I just have this thing that… I was on a train once going from Montreal to Toronto and I ran into this girl. She went and sat behind me and we were both going from Montreal to Toronto – we both worked that day. I’m like, “I wonder what she was working on.” I expected her to post on her Instagram so I go on her Instagram and she posted a picture from an airplane, of the wing of the airplane, being like, “Going back to Toronto!” I was like, “I can see you! You’re on a train.”

TrunkSpace: Has acting opened up your life in a way that you couldn’t have anticipated when you started to dream about it as a career?
Hudon: Yeah. I got to go to South Africa, which was amazing, and the first movie I shot was in Paris, which was awesome. I remember driving and my agent was like, “Can you pull over to the side of the road?” On the phone, I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “You’re going to Paris tomorrow to film a movie.” I was like, “Oh.”

Travel is amazing. Meeting people is amazing. Getting put in crazy scenarios with method actors and you’re just like, okay, go learn how to adapt and become a more well-rounded human being. For acting, I feel like it’s made me more sensitive because I wasn’t the most sensitive person growing up. I’m the oldest child so I’m tough and hard. It’s made me become more vulnerable and sensitive and empathetic when you’re in scenes where you have to listen and care. It really pushed me that way.

TrunkSpace: So in the process of discovering who a character is and what they’re all about, you end up learning more about yourself as well?
Hudon: Yeah. It’s also, you can show parts of yourself that… in real life I try not to be angry or I try to be as calm and as nice as possible, but then there’s some roles where you get to scream and yell and be crazy. It’s very cathartic. You get to show that side of you that you try to repress from the world.

TrunkSpace: It also has to be one of the only jobs that changes daily, which must be a nice perk as well.
Hudon: Yep. I need change all the time. My worst nightmare is working, getting to work at 9:00, leaving at 5:00 – just being trapped in an office. I did it for an internship for my post-grad degree. I had to work in an office and this woman would come yell at me all day and I wasn’t allowed to leave and I wasn’t allowed to do anything and I just had to sit at this computer and work for this giant corporation. I was like, “Fuck no!”

I really value freedom. I think you’re alive once and if you’re not doing exactly what you want to do with the time you have on the earth, then you’re just wasting your time.

TrunkSpace: If you were to sit down with the young girl – the younger version of yourself who first dreamed of becoming an actress – do you think she would be surprised by how your path has gone thus far?
Hudon: Yep. I was thinking about that today. I always wanted to be an actress but I didn’t vocalize it. My parents are very academic so it was like, “Go to university. Do a master’s. Become a lawyer.” The whole time I was like, “I think there’s something else. This doesn’t really feel right.” The fact that I’m Canadian and I live in LA – I have my apartment in LA, I have a manager and an agent and have been on TV – that sometimes blows my mind. If I didn’t stick up for myself or claim what I really wanted to do and become, I could have easily not. I could have just let this pass by. I’m really glad I had the balls to come out and say what I wanted to do and actually pursue it, so I think I would be really shocked.

Season 2 of “Ice” is now available on AT&T Audience Network.

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Musical Mondaze


Photo By: Mert Gafuroglu

With their debut album “Endless Scroll” (out now on What’s Your Rupture), the Brooklyn-based art rock group Bodega isn’t peeling back the layers of music to see what’s beneath, but instead, adding layers so that there is substance at every level of its creation.

We recently sat down with guitarist/vocalist Ben Hozie and vocalist Nikki Belfiglio to discuss the experience they were trying to establish when creating the album, the reason they also view themselves as critics, and why the greatest function a band may perform is having no function at all.

TrunkSpace: Did the band set out to accomplish something on a macro level with the album?
Hozie: Yeah, “Endless Scroll,” it’s not necessarily a concept record in the way maybe you’re talking about, but we did wanna make a… the Bodega mantra is the best critique is self critique, so we went into it looking specifically at me and Nikki’s day-to-day existence, and I guess this was 2016, and flipping this, the critical lands on ourselves. Obviously, Web 2.0, social media, the Internet and just screens in general… we’re both filmmakers, and people say, “How is,” for example, “‘I Am Not A Cinephile’ related to staring at a computer?” To me, they’re the same thing. It’s a life lived through the screen, which isn’t even necessarily a good or a bad thing. It’s just how people live their lives. It’s how we live our lives right now.

TrunkSpace: We get that. The music itself is not always the hook anymore. It could be the visual. It could be the packaging. Not many people, at least in the younger generations, are just sitting around experiencing JUST the music.
Belfiglio: That’s why with the album we created a lyrical zine to go with it – the vinyl – with the intention to put on your headphones or put on the record and read along to the lyrics to get a full immersion into the album.
Hozie: Away from a computer screen.

TrunkSpace: So what the band set out to do was create something beyond just the music itself? You were creating an experience?
Hozie: Yeah, to me, that’s why rock and roll is still a valid art form, or a vital art form, because an electric live rock and roll moment can’t be duplicated. There’s so many different elements that go into it, whether it’s the five players of the group, or the room, or the people there, or the idiosyncrasies of the moment. No matter how sophisticated sample-based music gets, there’s nothing like the spontaneity of the electric rock and roll experience.

TrunkSpace: And seeing a live show, especially now when we seem so divided as a society, it’s one of the last communities. You go and you can all have a sort of common focus.
Hozie: Yeah, or not. I often wonder, no two people experience the same event in the same way at all. That’s pretty apparent when you read reviews of records or books or whatever. It’s like, “Are they hearing the same thing I’m hearing?” And they’re not. That’s why a good friend of mine says, “You should never feel bad about criticism from someone who’s dull.” That says more about them than it does about you.

TrunkSpace: Well, an in the social media age, everyone is a critic.
Hozie: I feel the way people most listen to music is, they’re 20 seconds in and they’ve already decided whether they like it or not, just on whether the vibe of it is what their brain wants to hear. Or, whether the color of the record sleeve is… is the palette pleasing to them? So, in 20 seconds they’ve already made up their mind. In fact, they’ve probably already made up their mind before they clicked on it.
Belfiglio: ‘Cause of the name.
Hozie: Yeah. I think you could only really enjoy music if you go into it wanting to like it. You have to have that openness, and even the way I listen to music, I don’t want to do this, but I find my brain doing it – I’m making critical judgments before a song is even over. That’s just the way the world works now, which is for better or worse.

TrunkSpace: So as artists, is that daunting to you both as musicians but also as filmmakers knowing that the way people are absorbing things is different than it once was?
Hozie: I think we’re trying to adapt with the times, and part of what I see Bodega doing is functioning as a critical apparatus as well. I mean, all inherent art making is sort of critical in the sense that by choosing to play a certain type of music, you’re critiquing, inherently, the other kinds of music that you’re not playing. I see a lot of our best songs as little pocket essays. They’re not critical in the sense of thumbs up or thumbs down, but they’re critical in the sense of… I relate to, for example – this is a film analogy – but the French new wave guys all started out as critics before they were making films. I feel like there’s an element of that in our band.

TrunkSpace: In creating art you kind of have to be a critic in a way, because if you can’t judge your own work and fall in love with it in some way, the end user can always sense that.
Hozie: Yeah.
Belfiglio: You recognize it’s real.
Hozie: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

Photo By: Mert Gafuroglu

TrunkSpace: So when you look at the messaging within the songs, were you looking to say something that people could not only enjoy in the moment, but also walk away from – leave the show, put down the album – and kind of think or find a different point of view within (or because of) something that you were saying?
Hozie: Absolutely. I think the goal of any artist’s work is to simply… well, I said this before, but I think the first goal that you need to do is you need to tell the truth. The secondary goal is to sort of de-program. I say it a lot in Bodega. What we’re trying to do is point out the sort of hidden things that are holding up the pillars of not only rock music, but just the inherent cultural underpinnings. Like for example, in our track “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” it might be kind of obvious, but the cultural logic behind late capitalism is expressed in almost all pop music – the idea that you can’t knock the hustle. So that song is kind of meant to poke at that, and it kind of becomes a dumb arena sports anthem. But obviously the message is that you can knock hustle. It’s more complicated than that because it’s referring to the Jay-Z song. I think Jay-Z’s message of not being able to knock the cocaine hustle when you come from an underprivileged background, and you’re slinging coke in Brooklyn or whatever… you can knock his hustle. That’s his point. The song playfully extends his logic outside of the context where his logic doesn’t make sense anymore, which is the ice cream parlor. 
I heard one of the bosses there in that ice cream parlor… so it was all African Americans, mostly Jamaican guys, who worked in this ice cream shop, and it was all white people from the Hamptons who were the managers. These guys, who are listening to Jay-Z would kind of say, “Well, you know, our bosses are clearly racist in some way, and they’re exploiting us, but you can’t knock the hustle ’cause they’re just doing what they can to feed their families and get bigger houses out in the Hamptons.” And you wanna be like, “No, you can knock the hustle!” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: It seems like nowadays, in the climate that we’re in, people are scared to knock the hustle. They’re worried what’s going to come back on them.
Hozie: Right. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. One of the great premises of DIY culture is based on functionality. I’m thinking about, like, Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.” Function. Function is the key. Or the promise of the Minutemen. We jam econo, and we’re going to hop in the minivan, drive to the next town with the most limited means possible, and we’re gonna increase our functionality as much as possible. Sort of like a Utopian capitalist fantasy in a way. That’s what a band has to do too. It has to create as much content as possible. It has to function. But I’m wondering if maybe the most radical thing you can do is to not have any function at all. To be completely useless.

Endless Scroll” is available now on What’s Your Rupture.

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Wingman Wednesday

Madison Smith

Photo By: Courtney Paige

Had Madison Smith stayed the course he set for himself early in life, we would have needed a different list of questions  for this interview. In an alternative universe, he’d be playing baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays after working his way up through the minor leagues – a dream he had since he was a kid – but after purposefully setting himself on a more creative career path in college, he’s now staring down the end of planet Earth as we know it.

Well, sort of.

As the star of the CBS series “Salvation,” the Canadian-born actor is not only wrestling with the fate of humanity, but also enjoying his biggest television role to date.

We recently sat down with Smith to discuss his recent roller coaster ride, discovering patience, and his new web series “NarcoLeap.”

TrunkSpace: This is shaping up to be a pretty exciting summer for you. Not only are you recurring on CBS’ “Salvation,” but you have a new web series from KGP Films that launched on July 15th called “NarcoLeap.” Do you feel like the road that you’ve traveled is leading its way to you seeing your dreams fulfilled? Is this the path you were meant to travel?
Smith: Oh wow. So far 2018 has been a fantastic year and it’s only halfway gone. It’s been a long, hard road so far, but I always stayed positive and hoped that things would someday look up. I definitely think my journey has still just begun, but like a roller coaster getting to the top of an apex, I’m picking up momentum!

TrunkSpace: You attended college on a baseball scholarship. Was a career in the MLB, working your way up through the minors, one that you actually saw yourself pursuing as well?
Smith: Absolutely. I had my early 20s all mapped out. I would play two years of college baseball at Okanagan College, which I found out would only count as one year at an NCAA school in the U.S. Then after I got my degree in business and had played five years of college ball, I would start to make my way through the minors with a hope to get to the MLB. After my first year of college ball though something made me feel that I wasn’t on the right path. I discussed this with my parents, who have always been supportive of my life goals, and they were the ones who suggested that maybe I give acting a try. Immediately, I felt that was what I should be doing with my life and within six months I had uprooted my life to Vancouver, B.C. to pursue acting.

TrunkSpace: In the world of acting, is there an equivalent to the minors of baseball? Is there a place where you felt like you had to pay your dues until you got the call to the big show?
Smith: The first five to maybe 10 years in the acting business is all about paying your dues, very much like a minor league baseball player. Every audition you go to isn’t about booking that job, because there are tons of factors outside your control that go into that, but booking your next audition. Hopefully that casting director sees something in you and wants to bring you in again. And at the start, those auditions may be very small. I remember an early audition of mine was for “flower delivery guy.” I had one line and still didn’t book the role. But I got my next audition. Cut to six years later, I booked “Salvation” with that exact casting director. So patience and hard work is key.

TrunkSpace: As far as opportunities go, does it feel like “Salvation” is your biggest foot in the door yet? What did you take from the experience that you’ll carry with you through the rest of your career?
Smith: “Salvation” is definitely my biggest foot in the door and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. Through “Salvation” I’ve learned the joy and camaraderie that comes from being a part of a TV show. It’s my first experience with something like that and I always hoped it would be this great. They say the grass is always greener on the other side. Well, the grass is pretty damn green over here.

TrunkSpace: In the series you play Nate Ryland, a guy who is trying to get a handle on not only his own fate, but the rest of the planet’s as well. When you’re playing a character who has no future, at least not in his own point of view, is it even more important to play him in the moment?
Smith: Nate is a pretty interesting guy. He is fully aware of his circumstances but he is, for some reason, keeping a very level head about everything. He still lives life to the fullest knowing that there are things outside his control. He doesn’t let that get him down. So in terms of playing a character like that, it’s been a blast. I wish I was as positive as Nate is. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: People tend to take more risks – find new versions of themselves – when they’re living like they’re dying. Does Nate have that quality? Do you think he has changed dramatically from who he was before discovering that an asteroid was headed for the planet?
Smith: I think Nate had a bit of a spiral downwards when he learned the news of the impending doom. But he looked for outside help to change his perspective. We may learn more about this in upcoming episodes…

Photo By: Courtney Paige

TrunkSpace: If you woke up tomorrow to discover an asteroid was headed for earth, do you think you’d approach your last days differently? Would the world see a different side of Madison Smith than you share with people now?
Smith: Actually I think the world might not see much of me because I’d grab my girlfriend and head up to my parents’ cabin. I’d enjoy my last bit of time in this world surrounded by the people I love in one of my favorite places. Oh, I’d also try and go see one last MLB game, but it would all depend on how much time I had.

TrunkSpace: “NarcoLeap” sounds really interesting. From a concept standpoint, there’s nothing else like it out there. How exciting is it right now to be an actor, not only due to how innovative the content is that’s being created, but because of the quality as well?
Smith: It’s such a great place to be in as an actor when the content is, for lack of a better word, cool! We are in a platinum age of television where shows are being made that pull you into a world almost like our own, but way more fantastical. To be a storyteller in one of those worlds is a dream come true.

TrunkSpace: Do you think you would have enjoyed being a professional actor as much as you do now if you were coming up in the 70’s and 80’s when everything in television was episodic and wasn’t necessarily character-driven? Storytelling is so different now, do you think it has altered the experience for actors?
Smith: No, I don’t think I would have. I think this day and age is the greatest to be an actor. The stories we get to tell now are so dynamic and have so many levels it makes reading a script or watching a show such a pleasure. Those in the ‘70s and ‘80s were pioneers for us now, but I’m much happier enjoying the fruits of their labor.

TrunkSpace: Finally, Madison, we know you ultimately chose a different path, but if you did continue to play baseball, what team would have been your dream team to play for? (Full disclosure, we’re Red Sox fans!)
Smith: Ah, part of the Red Sox Nation I see. Well, there’s a lot to love with a team like the Red Sox but my heart will always stay north of the boarder with the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, I drive down to Seattle every year to watch them play the Mariners. So if I could choose a team to play for it would be my Jays!

Salvation” airs Mondays on CBS.

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Laugh It Up

Erica Lies

Photo By: Vu Gandin Le of Gandin Le Studios

Name: Erica Lies

Socials: Twitter/Instagram

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Lies: Definitely not. I was really quiet and all my friends were hilarious cut ups, which intimidated the hell out of me. But with my closest couple of friends (usually other girls) that I could relax around we would do dumb bits to entertain each other. My friend Helen and I had a long-running bit about becoming auteurs of “dork porn.” It wasn’t porn for nerds; it was trying to do really dumb shit in a sexy way, like blowing your nose with a suggestive look on your face. Try it. It’s not possible to do both at the same time. And since I was little, I always did impressions of people to make my mom laugh. She used to tell me I was funny, but I thought she was just being nice. So, I was funny, but I had no confidence in it and I kept those cards very close to the chest.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Lies: Ooof. I guess it slowly switched from being a Very Serious Shakespeare Actress who was only getting callbacks for comedy stuff, onward to doing comedy and later viewing myself as more of a writer than a performer. And I had no plan. But I knew people who worked in the industry, so even if it seemed distant, it didn’t seem completely impossible.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that I think my voice was always there. I just needed to learn to trust it and to learn the craft well enough to actually execute it. But looking back, I don’t think my overall voice has changed all that much. I just have more skill than I used to.

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now with your bits different from the approach you took when you first started out?
Lies: I can’t even really remember how I used to approach it, but I guess now I’m just way less precious with my stuff. I used to really stress over getting the perfect joke on the first try. But I heard all that advice about how you have to write tons and tons of jokes because most of them will be terrible, and that made me way more productive and write down more of the dumb idiocy I think of. So now instead of taking 20 minutes to write one perfect joke, I take 15 to write 10 mediocre ones and one that can be edited and tweaked to be great.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Lies: Yes and no. Most of the time I’m just trying to be present with the people in my life and be a human being, because that’s better material than anything else I could mentally record. But I’m also still that quiet kid that just really loved to people watch and observe. And, I have to admit, when I encounter people who are ridiculously, egregiously irritating yet somehow totally unaware, it hits a certain light in my brain that just says, “KEEP GOING.” I’ll egg on the people that everyone else wants to avoid and it drives my friends insane. It’s like the improv maxim “make it worse,” only I truly make it worse by encouraging pretentious dudes to keep talking about how “Proust ruined [them] on short fiction.”

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a skit before it’s ready to be tested out in front of an audience?
Lies: To give you the most frustrating of answers: it depends. I don’t ever like to take a first draft into the public realm, but once I’ve done one revision, I need a crowd to know if something’s working or not. On the other hand, putting a sketch up without rehearsal is a guaranteed way to fall flat on your face in front of an audience. So. It depends!

TrunkSpace: Are you more comfortable in a pre-written piece or in the freedom of flying by the seat of your comedic pants with improv?
Lies: I can’t really say either way. But looking at it from worst-case-scenario territory, I’d rather bomb an improv show than something I spent hours and hours obsessing over and crafting. If an improv scene isn’t working, you can just edit it and start a new one. But with a sketch or script, you’re stuck with it ’til the bitter end of the show.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of an improv performance?
Lies: I guess sometimes, but most of the time no. An audience will at least let you know instantly when something is working, which is helpful feedback, but most of the time, I tune them out. Some part of my brain still hears the laughs as technical information, like, “ah, this is the funny part of this scene. Keep playing this dynamic/game/character trait.” But the vast majority of the time paying attention to laughs just puts me in a nervous mental headspace where everything I do utterly tanks. So, I tune them out. It’s easier for the audience to love you if you don’t give a shit about them loving you.

Photo By: Jansen Hawkins

TrunkSpace: Comedy can be so subjective, but is it even more so in a written piece? How do you establish tone and delivery in a piece of work where the reader is establishing the voice?
Lies: I hear it in my head a certain way. I don’t know that I can really describe it beyond that. Making the joke clear early on is important — especially in a humor piece. But aside from that, I just focus on heightening. And the rhythm is really important. One extra syllable can throw it off and kill a joke.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Lies: Most of them have blended together at this point but I can remember snippets here and there where it felt like flying. Probably my worst personal moment was when I was performing at a new theater with my old sketch team and didn’t check out the backstage area first. My friend and I had written this really *stupid* rap duo and I was getting hyped as I was entering and then BAM, I slammed my face — full force — into a concrete wall. There were no lights in the back and I hadn’t seen that a pillar jutted out. So what I thought was a clear path… was not. My friend checked on me and I was like, “I’m fine. Am I bleeding? My face is wet.” Then I tilted my head down and blood just ran down my face. One of my teammates had to stop the show while I got first aid and he had to repeatedly explain that it wasn’t a bit. And to top it all off, I was in a costume best described as “fancy jugglette.”

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Lies: I don’t. Or at least, in improv you don’t really get them. But generally when people talk during a show and it’s more than just call-and-response commentary, when it’s disruptive, I mostly just address it directly and make it part of the scene. Most people are so freaked out that you addressed them that it shuts them up, and as long as you’re funny while you do it, it won’t alienate the rest of the audience.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the comedy landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of the medium?
Lies: I don’t really think about it, but yeah, I know there’s a lot of people out there that complain about having to be PC now, but I see it as improving comedy. It forces everyone to make smarter jokes and actually point the critique at the powerful instead of the powerless.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Lies: Richard Ayoade, always. Phoebe Waller-Bridge. All the characters on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” because they’re so crystal clear yet always still surprising. The show “Great News,” but sadly it just got canceled. And I’ll always have a soft spot for lovable loser characters.

Featured image with Katie Stone in “Menenists.” Photo by: Christopher Hwisu Kim.

Below you can view an episode of the web series “Uncomfortable” directed by Lies.

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Musical Mondaze

Mackenzie Nicole


Mackenzie Nicole’s debut album “The Edge” is representative of who she is as an artist today, but she is determined to not let it define who she will become as an artist tomorrow. At only 18, the pop singer with the classically-trained voice and a wide array of musical influences (including The Doors!) anticipates growing and adapting creatively as she does so in her own life, always focusing on the now, especially in the future.

It was me actually experiencing something in real time,” she says of the love songs on her debut album. “If I continue to do that, I think you’re right, I think that it will continue to be a small glimpse into my life at the time, and that’s how I kind of like it.”

We recently sat down with Nicole to discuss how the ‘80s and ‘90s impacted her music, what she would produce if left to her own creative devices, and why she’s on a mission to break the pop mold.

TrunkSpace: You said that your album was reflective of what you were experience in real time when making it. That’s what makes music so powerful, isn’t it, that people can relate to the honesty of what you’re experiencing as an artist?
Nicole: Exactly. That’s something that I want to strive for more, is being more honest and being more myself on these tracks, because something that was really hard about this album that was a great learning experience, but that definitely affected the outcome of the album, was that it was co-written. That’s something that I definitely had never done before. I’m so used to writing everything myself, and that’s something I can’t wait to get back to, because it was such an interesting learning curve. I think it was valuable. I think it’s valuable to learn to work with others on every level as an artist, but I can’t wait to get back to being 100 percent, completely me and what I’m thinking and the way I would say it, which is something that’s really important to me.

TrunkSpace: That’s pretty rare in the pop world. And especially from your particular perspective where you play instruments and have voice training in operatic singing, that would be a different approach than most take with the genre.
Nicole: I think that’s accurate. Thank you so much for knowing that and acknowledging that, because I always joke that my goal is to Trojan horse some substance into pop music, because right now, I know that for me, something that always wowed me is that I longed for, growing up, the music of the ’80s and ’90s and the pop music of that time, because it spoke to me more. That’s not to discount everyone. There’s amazing pop music of every era, but what spoke to me more was the pop music of the past more so than what I grew up around. It was always my goal to bring back some of that earlier influence into pop, packaged like the way I am which is, I look like a very typical pop artist, but I want to bring something else that you haven’t heard in a while or maybe you’ve never heard before, and that’s one of my goals.

We have a lot of really amazing artists doing that right now. We have artists like Halsey. We have artists who are in this more dark pop vein, which is what Dua Lipa calls her music. I think that pop is taking a really cool turn, especially the more urban influenced it is with hip hop and rap music, because that’s a huge part of what I grew up on, obviously, being a part of Strange Music.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned ’80s pop, and if you look at somebody like Cyndi Lauper, regardless of who wrote her songs or who was playing on them, they were clearly HER songs. They had her unique point of view, which seems to be a rarity these days.
Nicole: That’s what I want to get to. After co-writing an album, what I learned and something I developed an ear for, is developing an ear for when an artist has written the words they’re singing and when they haven’t. I can pretty well identify which parts of a song were co-written an artist wrote, and which parts weren’t. I think that’s something that, if I can do that, that means other artists can do that. That means they can do that with my album and they can do it with any other album. I want to get to a point where the album, or the project, or whatever it is – the song itself – is so entirely my message and what I’m going for and what I’m trying to say, that you can’t tell the difference between if I wrote it or if I did have a co-writer. I want to get that authenticity. I think we did a pretty good job on “The Edge,” but nothing is perfect and especially not your first try, so I really can’t wait to improve.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned having influences in pop, hip hop and rap, but in terms of your training, you were coming from a much different place. Did you have to relearn anything when you started your pop career?
Nicole: 100 percent. Yes! Nothing is harder than being an opera singer and deciding to do pop music, because nothing is more at odds than pop music and classical training, because you learn to do everything correct when you’re classically trained. You know the exact, accurate, perfect way to sing. Not to say that I’m perfect or that my voice is perfect, but I know the perfect technique because that’s how I was taught to sing, and that’s how anyone who is trained to sing opera or classical was taught to sing. You know how to do something. What you don’t know is how to break those rules in a way that’s experimental. That’s something I had to learn, because it was very hard for me to come out of my shell to be able to not sing everything proper, to not insist on having everything be correct. You have to learn the rules to break them is what I’ve said about it. I’m grateful for my training, but it definitely was something that got in my way the first several years of my career.

TrunkSpace: There’s something very mathematical about pop, in terms of the structure, which must be so different than singing classically?
Nicole: The way in which each one is technical is very different. Opera is technical in a way that is more fluid and more creative, but there is a formula to pop. It’s like a writing prompt. You are given the lines and you have to decide how you’re going to color them in. That’s something that was also hard to accept, because I like a weird concept album. Left to my own devices, I would’ve created some weird alternative, dark pop rock concept album that 86 people would’ve listened to. I know that unfortunately, that was not beneficial to the group at large, being my label and the division I’m starting on A Strange Main, so we had to go a little bit more pop on this record. Cast that wide net first. That’s fine. I’m fine with that. I’ll go ahead and do a pop album and I’ll try and grow my following through that, and then I’m going to come through later on with a more experimental work that will really blow the minds of hopefully, the people that are following me from that wider net that we cast with the pop album.

TrunkSpace: As an artist, is there ever a fear that you’ll be pigeon holed into a particular sound?
Nicole: Absolutely. Do we really need another blonde haired, blue eyed pop artist? That’s honestly something that bothers me a lot, every day, is that ultimately, I look and can sound just like 20 other artists I can think of off the top of my head, and that’s just the ones that are out right now. “How do you distinguish yourself?” That’s always the question I have to ask myself. “What are we going to do to keep from being pigeon holed, and how do we make sure that doesn’t become us?” Really, nothing is more true than the statement that the industry doesn’t need another blonde haired, blue eyed pop artist that sings love songs.

Ultimately, my goal is to say, “Okay fine, if I can’t fit that mold, if I can’t be that pop artist because there’s already too many of them, then what am I going to do?” I’m going to have to be myself. I’m going to have to figure out how to make myself work.

TrunkSpace: There’s something to be said about growth as a human. You’re still so young. You’re growing. You’re going to learn different perspectives and ways of thinking about things within your own life that will then be reflected in your music.
Nicole: Thank you. I get very frustrated a lot of times, because I look at people like Stevie Nicks and I wonder why I’m not her yet, and then I realize that’s because I’m 18. I look at people like Jessie Reyez, who is a goddess, and I wonder, “Oh my God, how am I not her yet?” I realize she’s been doing this since she was my age and she’s 27. That’s why. It’s about time and experience. Have I had an interesting life experience so far being raised in a rap label, and then starting my music career when I was nine, starting my solo career when was 15? Yeah, I’ve had a lot of weird and interesting things happen, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to take time for me to learn how to bring that to my artistry.

The Edge” is available now.

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Wingman Wednesday

Evan Daigle

Photo By: Akeem Biggs

The hit TNT series “Claws” took audiences by surprise when it first aired in the summer of 2017, but those tuning in weren’t the only ones to have the Rashida Jones-produced dramedy exceed their expectations. Evan Daigle, then a college student in New Orleans, was cast in the pilot as Toby, only to discover months later that the character would become a recurring role, kick-starting his professional career in a most unexpected way.

We recently sat down with Daigle to discuss the slow burn of Toby’s birth as an ongoing character, the inspiring words that will stay with him throughout the course of his career, and why he has been spoiled with “Claws” being his first job.

TrunkSpace: Your “Claws” journey and how your professional career kicked off was sort of unorthodox and not how a lot of actors find their path. How has your life changed the most since it all began?
Daigle: I think that the biggest difference in my life was just having to leave school – being in school since the time that I was five years old and then leaving, not when I planned to leave, but when I was 23 and about to graduate. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. And I was going to school to be able to work professionally as an actor. So I think that that was probably the biggest difference in lifestyle. But now that I’ve settled in, after doing two seasons of the show, I feel really comfortable with all of the crew and all of the other actors and everything. I think that the biggest new thing that I am dealing with now is how to settle myself in Los Angeles and figure out how this city works ‘cause I come from a really small town in Louisiana.

TrunkSpace: You had no idea where things would end up when you first read for the part because the character wasn’t even considered to reoccur at that time, so in terms of your personal journey, it must have been interesting to see it all take these turns, turns that you never expected?
Daigle: It was a slow burn for sure. I got the pilot in October of 2016. The character was only going to be in one episode, and the series hadn’t been green lit yet. I was only going to be in that one scene. I auditioned for another co-star part, not recurring, nothing to do with that, but then whenever the series got green lit in January of the following year, my agent called me and said that they had me penned for the first three episodes of the season. So at that point we kind of had a feeling for sure that it was going to be a recurring part and after that it was just every week I would get a call from my agent, “They want you back. They want you back.” And I ended up doing nine episodes the first season and six episodes in this new season. So it’s been moving pretty fast. I can’t believe that it’s already been two years and two seasons since I started with the show.

TrunkSpace: Did you already move on emotionally from the job between that period of getting the pilot and when you ultimately heard back?
Daigle: Oh definitely. You sort of have to ‘cause if you really stress out or think about options or projects that you don’t really know they’re gonna go or not you’ll just live miserably as an actor, so you have to try to just let it go as much as possible. Obviously I was checking Variety every day, and when I saw the Variety article that the series got green lit, those two days between then and then whenever my agent called me were some of the most stressful days that I’ve had in my young career. But whenever I got the call to tell me that they had booked me for more episodes, we were both so excited.

TrunkSpace: As far as jobs go, because there were so few expectations out of the gates, it must be the gift that keeps on giving.
Daigle: Oh and this project has… that’s the perfect way to put it. It’s been the gift that keeps on giving. Not only has this project really given me the beginnings of a real career, it’s also just been such a blessing for this job to be what it is. I feel so incredibly, incredibly inspired by the themes of the show. I love how diverse and inclusive it is. It’s just been great that this show is my first job. I feel really spoiled for the set that I work on, ‘cause I hear it’s not necessarily the norm.

TrunkSpace: It feels like a lot about this job, at least how it relates to you, has not been the norm. You didn’t go to Los Angeles to start your career. In a way, the show kind of found you in New Orleans, right?
Daigle: Yes. There’s a small film industry in New Orleans ’cause a lot of films and TV shows will film down there and they’ll hire the co-stars and the one-liners out of New Orleans. And so I had a small agent there and that’s why I was able to even get in the room with the part because it started off so small. I had always saw myself moving to LA or New York to start my career, but I was going to try to stay in New Orleans and build up my resume with a couple of co-star roles to have a little something-something whenever I got out here. What has happened to me now is more than I ever could have asked for or even envisioned for myself, so it’s been amazing.

Photo By: Akeem Biggs

TrunkSpace: And it must be such a confidence boost to your abilities as an actor to know that they brought this character back after you gave him life?
Daigle: Yeah, and honestly, that’s been the most gratifying and most validating thing for me, is that it’s true what you say – if you’re not a regular, you’re not contracted into absolutely anything. And so they can kill you off or they can simply write you out. And so Jenn Lyon, who plays Jen in the show… and I will never forget, I think in the fifth or sixth episode of the first season, her and I were working together and she sat me down and told me that she was really proud of me and to recognize that I’m here and continuing to be here because I’ve impressed the producers at the network and studio level continuously. And she was like, “You’re a young actor, I know that you probably don’t understand the gravity of that, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you.” It’s just that kind of validation, from these seasoned actors that have been just working for years and years and years, it’s given me the confidence that I think I need to start really competing in LA.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned leaving college sooner than you expected, but in many ways, your education is continuing through your work on the series… just not in a classroom.
Daigle: Oh 100 percent. The first season for me was a complete, complete immersion into film acting. I was studying theater in school and I had a really good film acting teacher but there’s nothing like actually being on set and getting to work with people like Carrie Preston and Harold Perrineau who are these insanely talented, seasoned theater, film and TV actors. It’s what I was telling you, I feel so spoiled by this being my first job.

Claws” airs Sundays on TNT.

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Wingman Wednesday

Makenna James

Photo By: Jeff Forney

Big breaks in Hollywood are no easy thing to come by, even in this Golden Age of television where the quantity of the content being produced is matched only by the quality. Actress Makenna James, still in the early stages of her career, knows that big breaks are only what you make of them, and with her new series “American Woman,” she’s embracing the mantra that even those jobs that appear like game changers on the surface, they don’t actually change the game itself.

We recently sat down with James to discuss the “American Woman” learning curve, why the storytelling is so relevant even though it’s a period piece, and how acting is not the only path she plans on walking in life.

TrunkSpace: “American Woman” is your biggest role to date, in a series that has received a lot of attention. Do you view it as a career game changer? At the same time, is it important to also manage expectations because it seems like this is an industry where things always zig when you expect them to zag?
James: I wouldn’t say a game changer. A stepping stone, maybe. I try to never have lofty expectations. If this is a game changer, that’s fantastic. If not, I’ve dealt with that before and I’ll move on.

TrunkSpace: The talent involved in the series is phenomenal, as is the creative team behind it. Are you viewing your time on the series as just as much of an education as you are a job? We would imagine there’s a wealth of knowledge to absorb on a set like that.
James: Definitely. The learning curve was insane for me. I got to become less socially awkward, more acclimated to working in front of a camera, and exposed to the writing process over the course of numerous episodes. John Wells is a legend, but – more than that – such a kind person. It was incredible to be able to work with him so early in my career.

TrunkSpace: The series takes place in the 1970s, but the experiences that the characters are going through could just as easily be applied to what people are dealing with today. Do you think that is part of what makes the series work, that it’s relatable on a human, grounded level?
James: I do. Although the era impacts the storylines, a lot of what our characters are going through – self-doubt, discrimination, sexism, racism – continue to have a place in today’s society. I don’t think that the show could have arrived at a more relevant time.

TrunkSpace: In terms of your own personal experience, is it a gift to be able to play a character like Becca who has layers, but at the same time, is dropped into a world that is foreign to you (the ‘70s) and have an opportunity to play in a space that feels new?
James: Such a gift. A lot of Becca’s opinions are normalized in modern society, but – for the ‘70s – are radical. Everything about the era – from sexist teachers to passive racism – amplifies the passion that Becca feels. In the face of dismissiveness, Becca’s beliefs are fortified.

TrunkSpace: Is there a particular set piece/design or wardrobe selection that impacted you and helped to transport you back to the 1970s? Do those real time visuals help get you into character when you arrive on set?
James: There were so many brilliant pieces on our set – our crew was phenomenal. But, if I had to pick one, it would be Becca’s Angela Davis t-shirt. That particular shirt really helped me understand Becca as she related to the time – her activism, the unabashed nature of her personality, her understanding that she is privileged. A great debt is owed to Judy Gellman, our head costume designer, as she brings each character to life with their style, and each actor back to the era that we are living in.

TrunkSpace: What do you enjoy most about getting to slip into Becca’s skin and where has she allowed you to go with your performance that previous roles didn’t?
James: Her dynamism. Playing the rebellious character is always fun, but Becca poses a unique opportunity. Not only is she defiant and difficult, but she is also vulnerable and confused. A lot of her pessimism stems from the sense that she lacks control and the notion that her mother doesn’t make her a priority. Becca feels left behind and, for whatever reason, that manifests in anger. That complexity is rare to come by for a teenage character.

TrunkSpace: This is the longest time you’ve ever spent with one character. What has that extended character journey been like for you, and do you think you would be creatively fulfilled playing the same character – not necessarily Becca, but any character – for six or seven seasons?
James: I loved staying in character for an extended amount of time. But, when we talk about six or seven seasons, I think it depends on the character and the show. Like real people, characters evolve. The challenges they face, the developments in their lives – all of it changes who they are. In that sense, I don’t feel that it would be a hindrance, as long as the creative team behind the show is dedicated to authenticity. With Becca specifically, I feel that there is a lot we haven’t yet explored in her personality. She has a lot of pent-up, complicated emotions.

TrunkSpace: You’re headed off to Harvard University in the fall. First, as Boston peeps, welcome to the city! Secondly, have you given thought to how your two workloads – career and school – will intermingle and how they will impact each other? Will you be stepping back a bit from acting while attending classes?
James: Thank you for the welcome! I am still figuring out that balance if I’m being honest. For now, and this is subject to change, I am planning on taking my first year to get settled and clarify my field of study. After that, I might re-enter acting, but exclusively during breaks.

TrunkSpace: You’ve been acting since you were 12. Is Harvard the start of what you hope is a different long-term career path? Do you have your sights set on goals beyond the entertainment industry?
James: Yes. I am not going to college for the novelty. There are many fields I am interested in – criminal justice, environmental science – that I am equally passionate about. Even within the industry itself, I would want to direct or write, rather than just act. Acting alone has never been the plan.

TrunkSpace: If “American Woman” becomes the smash hit of the year and it ends up being the show that everyone is talking about, would that alter your long-term point of view at all? Would you have to reassess the various paths you’re walking?
James: For the most part, no. Multitasking might slow down the process, but other than perhaps delaying Harvard for a year to do a second season, the show’s success will not impact my other goals. I don’t want to dedicate my life to one profession.

American Woman” airs Thursdays on Paramount Network.

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Deep Focus

Daniel Zelik Berk

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Damascus Cover”

In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Daniel Zelik Berk, the director and writer of the new spy thriller “Damascus Cover” (starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, and the late John Hurt) about how the movie-making process differed from his previous directing work, why he broke all of the conventional rules in creating the movie, and the reason you may be familiar with some of the furniture in the film.

TrunkSpace: You didn’t only direct “Damascus Cover” but you wrote it as well. Did director Dan and writer Dan ever butt heads, and did you have to compromise creatively even with yourself at times?
Daniel Zelik Berk: Oh, good question. Okay. The genesis of this is that I purchased a book. I optioned a book called “The Damascus Cover” by Howard Kaplan, which was a spy thriller set in the late ’70s. I was looking for something to direct. I’d done one film before as a director, and that was an assignment. It was a low-budget film, which was made for under a million bucks. What I learned on that picture was how important the script was, because I wasn’t able to change the script on my first film. So I said that I needed to really find something that was personal and something that I wrote myself.

I found Howard’s book, which I liked very much because I liked that it was in the Middle East. I liked that it had an ending, which was very organic and wasn’t kind of a trick ending, which is pretty typical of the genre where you work really hard to get through a film and it’s very confusing. You get to the end, and you’re like, “Who’s the mole?” It’s like the guy in the blue shirt. You’re like, “What? Who’s that?” You don’t even know who that is. This ending has a very nice, organic ending. You find out who it is. Usually it’s a surprise, and it seems in retrospect that it was an inevitable kind of thing. I like that, so that’s why I got this.

Then, I added some themes that I liked about children and hope and moved it to the time of the Berlin Wall to reflect that. As the writer, I really enjoyed doing the adaptation. What I liked about Howard was he recognized the script would be something completely different. In fact, in the process that you make various movies, there’s the novel, which is one thing. There’s the script, which is one thing. Then ultimately, you have to deal with the reality of who the cast is and where the locations are, and that becomes the movie you shoot. Then, you go to the editing room, and that’s another whole movie because now you’re working with what you actually got. Each one of these things at each level is a different process, which is part of the fun of it. I guess you try and stay as open as you can in each section, realizing you don’t want to be limited by your imagination and what the change is.

As the director… the thing about this is is that because I was also the writer, I didn’t… this is a very interesting film. I wanted to do what basically is a classic spy thriller, almost from the ’60s. Unfortunately, we keep getting compared to James Bond, which is really… we can’t even attempt that. We had basically a few million dollars to do this, and by writing the script… obviously, it breaks all the rules.

TrunkSpace: Well, certainly, you get to a point where you can create your vision on the page, but then budget and time constraints change that vision.
Daniel Zelik Berk: Yeah, that’s right. The thing about this script, which was insane, which actually comes from the book, is that when you do a low-budget film, there are certain rules. There are certain things you just know that are conventional wisdom, and one is is that you do a limited number of locations, preferably one location. Like, you want to do it in house, and some people are trying to break in. Or, you’re in a car, and a guy’s talking on a speaker phone. We have, I forget the number of locations, but it’s like 40 or 50 locations. You can see it’s cutting all over the place. So, that’s rule number one you’ve broken. Then, the other rule is you have a limited number of people. There are two people in the house, and there’s one guy trying to break in, or, one guy sitting in the car on the speaker phone. We have a huge cast, so I kind of created my own nightmare here by writer Dan and director Dan. Those are some basic rules I broke, which is why you don’t see a lot of low-budget thrillers of this kind – spy thrillers. What you see are low-budget horror films, and low-budget films where it’s a guy in a room, and he’s talking to his mother about wanting to kill himself or something. That’s what a low-budget film is. They’re more like plays. So, that created a lot of problems for me.

TrunkSpace: Well, and a lot of times, you hear people refer to something as a low-budget film, but really it’s still a 20 million dollar movie.
Daniel Zelik Berk: You know, that’s a really funny comment because my daughter heard a lecture from a filmmaker that I won’t mention, complaining that they only had 20 million bucks. They were really pissed off because they wanted 50. My daughter’s like, “My dad, he only had a few million.” (Laughter)

I’ll tell you something, the truth is is that… and I understand this and I’m not complaining… the standard of the public is the same. I don’t think they know the difference.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Olivia Thirlby in “Damascus Cover”

TrunkSpace: That’s true.
Daniel Zelik Berk: I’m very proud of the look of the picture. I hired a first-time DP named 
Chloë Thomson, a female DP who had never done a feature before. We wanted to do this kind of classic look, and I think she completely accomplished it. I think that the picture looks really good, and that creates this expectation of it being a studio picture. I mean, the fact that she performed a miracle… it’s almost like somebody should make it look rougher, then you could kind of introduce a lower expectation. But I understand. We’re trying to run with the big boys even though we have much, much less money.

TrunkSpace: From a personal satisfaction standpoint, to be able to pull off what you did for only a couple million dollars… that has to be a feather in your cap?
Daniel Zelik Berk: Yeah. I’m telling you, I am extremely proud of what we pulled off. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone that worked on the film because people did it as a labor of love. I just was on a call where a guy said, “What would you have spent more money on?” I was like, “First day, what I would have done is given everyone better food.” (Laughter) Soup gets boring after a while, right?

Everything is on the screen, I can tell you that. And that becomes part of the fun of it is that you can’t solve your problems with money, so you solve them with ingenuity and hard work. You have to take risks.

TrunkSpace: We have had conversations with filmmakers who have said that having more money meant more problems for their production. You start to think bigger, outside your means, and you have more cooks in the kitchen.
Daniel Zelik Berk: Well, that was not an option for us. (Laughter) That was never an option. Literally there was a scene where we didn’t have money for the furniture for the next scene. The line producer said, “Look, we’re sitting at the Sheridan.” He says, “Do you like that furniture you’re sitting on?” And I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” Next thing you know, we carried that furniture over to the set and then brought it back the next day – literally just used the furniture of the hotel. In retrospect, that story’s fun. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: You mentioned how your first directorial project, which was back in 1998, was an assignment. Did the process of directing feel new again, or, was it a bit like riding a bike?
Daniel Zelik Berk: The thing that I had on the second film that I didn’t have on the first film, and this is related to your first question, is I really understood the script. One of the things I think a director does is he has the big picture. Everyone’s trying to help you. You have all these people trying to help you. There are people all over the place in different positions with different things and different focuses, but the director is the only one that really has the grand view in line. Even with the actors. The actors know their individual parts. It’s all compartmentalized. The only one that really has the biggest picture is the director, and by writing the script… it’s a complicated script… that was actually an advantage from the first time in that I really knew this character should be scared here because of what’s happened four scenes before, and people might forget that, but this happened. You really do have this kind of overview. Because when you shoot an individual shot, you’re very focused on just that shot.

Every film is different, every film is a miracle, and every film has massive problems, but they’re always different. So, I had different problems on this movie than I had on my first film. I felt good. I still remembered basically how to say, “Action,” and all that kind of stuff wasn’t as dramatic. I learned a ton on this, too. My first film was much simpler. Even though I had never directed before, and it was a big learning curve, it was much simpler. This film was very, very complex.

Dive into the complex storytelling of “Damascus Cover” today!

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Wingman Wednesday

Jake Stormoen

© NBCUniversal International Networks

Jake Stormoen grew up nose-deep in fantasy novels, daydreaming that he was a knight, sword in hand and impenetrable armor encasing his body. Now as an adult, that inner childhood narrative has become a fictional reality as he stars as the straight-laced Captain Garret Spears on the fantastical summer series “The Outpost,” airing Tuesdays on The CW.

We recently sat down with Stormoen to discuss vanquishing monsters, his D&D past, and how he learned to embrace the hustle of Hollywood, thanks in large part to the words of Dwayne Johnson.

TrunkSpace: When you’re playing in the fantasy sandbox like with “The Outpost,” does your inner child do a couple of fist pumps every time you get to put on your armor and take up a sword? It seems that a show like this would open up the door for living out some childhood dreams.
Stormoen: Either you’ve done your research, or you and I are very much alike. Maybe both? I definitely did a couple fist pumps every time I got to put the armor on and buckle up the sword belt… and then I did a couple more. My oldest childhood fantasy was to be a knight. I’d go out into the woods behind my house and vanquish monsters until the sun went down… so the role of Garret was quite literally a dream come true.

TrunkSpace: Fantasy is also a genre where anything is really possible in terms of the plot and character arcs. Does that help to keep things fresh from a performance standpoint where you never know what a day on set is going to become?
Stormoen: I would say yes and no. Once we got to set, we knew what had to be shot and how much time we had to do it, so it was fairly precise by necessity. But before the scripts for the new episodes would arrive, I think this was far more true. Though I certainly wasn’t in the writing room, I think that there were small changes made here and there when the producers and writers would come across something during filming that worked especially well, or would spark a new idea. You’re absolutely right though – fantasy is a genre where anything is, to an extent, possible so long as it abides by the rules you’ve created for your world. I’d love to think “The Outpost” does that well, and you’ll see many answers surface as to why things are the way they are in this universe.

TrunkSpace: Have you felt any pressure throughout the process, not only anchoring a new series, but doing so in one that is built to have international appeal?
Stormoen: Honestly? Yes. For sure. The audition process for me was… an adventure to say the least, and I ended up being the only American actor in the primary cast, so I felt a lot of pressure there. Garret is someone who’s very straight-laced. Someone whose word is his bond… but also someone who struggles with that sometimes. It meant that the writing would often be very straightforward for him, and it would be up to me to try and make sure the audience knows that just because he’s not necessarily saying something, that doesn’t mean his mind isn’t racing with questions, answers, emotion and struggle. These are things that we as humans battle in ourselves universally, and I do hope that our international audience can all find something to relate to in Garret. That was the goal, at least!

TrunkSpace: Not only does the show have that international appeal, but it also has Comic Con appeal, which as we understand it, you attended this year. What were you most looking forward to as you surrounded yourself with cosplayers and the biggest pop culture fans the world has to offer?
Stormoen: I’ve been a geek my entire life. My nose was always in a fantasy novel, my friends and I would always sword fight with sticks, or play D&D, or Magic: the Gathering, or one of any number of fantasy-themed board games. So I adore this stuff. I’ve attended cons my entire adult life, and have attended SDCC in the past… but this is the first time I got to go and sit on a panel there, sign character posters for (the absolute loveliest) fans, attend events, etc. It was a whirlwind, but so much fun. I absolutely love seeing the creativity that goes into people’s cosplays, their art, their passion. Attending more cons in the future is something I’ve wanted as a career milestone for years now, and I’m finally able to start making that happen. I can’t wait!

TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with your work thus far in “The Outpost” and your character Garret?
Stormoen: Garret is a bit of a Boy Scout, which is something I relate to a little more than I care to admit (Eagle Scout, here)! I think I understand his headspace pretty well, and he has some inner struggles that I think many of us have encountered in some form or another. My number one goal with Garret was to be just that: the guy who many of us can relate to as someone who tries to do the right thing, even when he doesn’t always have the answers in the moment. Talon is such a powerful force physically, Gwynn is such an intellectual aristocrat, and Janzo is, I think, so smart and clever he doesn’t always even realize it. That’s a lot for someone like Garret – someone who’s been on their own their entire life and has tried to completely re-write their stars – to be caught in the middle of. I’d like to think I did an alright job at portraying his character arc into the leader he’s needed as… so fingers crossed!

TrunkSpace: As far as performance is concerned, did Garret offer you something in playing him that you have yet to tackle in the past? Was there something about Garret that was fresh to you on a level that stretched beyond it being simply a new job?
Stormoen: That’s a tricky one. Garret is the necessary protagonist at the start. He doesn’t get to be as colorful or interesting as some of the other characters because he’s often an expositional driving force. This was something that presented its own unique challenges. (Which I think I alluded to above, but I have a tendency to ramble when we’re talking about Fantasy because I get so excited, so bear with me!) Sometimes I had to fight to allow him to stretch a little bit, and I think there’s definitely more of that during the second half of the season. The biggest thing about Garret to me was that the role was so personal. I really, really get this guy. I’ve been this guy. I’ve aspired to be this guy, and still do really. So he – as his own fictional character with his own history – really means a lot to me as a person. And that can be a scary thing to share with the world.

Photo By: Chad Keyes

TrunkSpace: For you personally, what was the most daunting aspect of beginning your professional career as an actor? Was there anything you had to overcome before you could focus 100 percent on pursuing your dreams?
Stormoen: Oh, absolutely. I finished University at USQ in Australia (life is funny) and waited tables for about six months before getting in my car with a couple suitcases and moving to LA. I worked two jobs, took acting class, and had about $20 to $40 in my bank account at the end of each month. This is a familiar tune for most actors, I think, but still carries its own valid set of challenges. There’s a need to be able to roll with the punches, and that’s hard to do when you’re barely getting by. I think the hardest thing for me was finding that day to day rhythm and not thinking with every audition, “I need this job. I have to book this or I can’t pay the bills.” It’s just not true. You find a way. It feels true, but it isn’t. Once I allowed myself to have fun and enjoy the journey, enjoy the hustle and enjoy the effort, there was a shift. I can remember feeling so overwhelmed, and I’d just started following Dwayne Johnson on social media. He’d posted something with his infamous slogan “Hardest Worker in the Room,” and something clicked for me. I know it sounds silly to bring up a story like this, but it was a huge turning point for me mentally. All of a sudden it was possible to see results: I didn’t have to go on more auditions than everyone else. I didn’t have to earn more money than them. I didn’t have to tackle all of LA, or California, or the world. All I had to do was be willing to put in more effort than whoever was in the room with me, and that’s something I try to do, to this day. (Sorry for the long answer!)

TrunkSpace: There are more networks and streaming platforms available to viewers now than there was when you started your career, which means, there’s more content. Is it an exciting time for an actor, knowing that there are more opportunities for you out there in this vast television landscape?
Stormoen: Ohhh, that’s a tough one. Its a double-edged sword, I think. There are many more outlets for content, and much more being made… but this can also often translate to people having to cut their costs of production because platforms don’t have to pay as much for the end result – there’s a million other options happy to take that slot. It’s a weird, counter-intuitive thing that I think the industry as a whole is still adjusting to, and I consider myself extremely fortunate for somehow making this all work. I definitely don’t take it for granted.

TrunkSpace: You’ve also written and produced projects in the past. Is that something that you see yourself continuing to pursue, especially in this day and age where it seems the ability to control your own destiny has gotten easier and more affordable… thanks in large part to what we discussed previously about there being more options for distribution and content consumption?
Stormoen: I would love to produce more. I grew up and was raised with an extremely strong work ethic and the notion that when the work is put in, the results show themselves. While this still holds water, it’s not as true in my industry because as an actor, someone has to take a chance on you at the end of the day. I think producing allows just a little more control at times, which is a nice and often rare commodity in this business. Acting will forever be my first passion – I just love the idea of being able to play out the stories I escaped into while growing up. But there’s definitely an interest in being able to produce more in the future.

The Outpost” airs Tuesdays on The CW.

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