Diary of an actress #18: Renaissance woman, Anna Van Valin

Candy Washington: Hi Anna, amazing job on Take It Off! I understand that you wrote, produced, and starred in the film - do you want to tell us about that process and how the film came about?
Anna Van Valin: Thank you! In January I was in a bit of a slump and had nothing lined up for the year; 2012 was a big scary wasteland. One thing about actors that’s different from every other kind of artist is that we actually need other people to do our work. If you are a painter, you can get a canvas and some brushes and paint. But if you’re an actor, you need a director, a script, and most importantly, an audience. So we tend to really depend on other people creating opportunities for us, which can lead to us giving our power away and feeling like we need someone else’s permission to do our work. I was really in that place. Finally I said, I can make something that’s just as good or better than any of this stuff I’m going in for, and I can really showcase what I do best. I had written the script for a short film called “Take it Off” a few months earlier, so I dusted it off and showed it to my friend Paige Jennifer Barr. She loved it and offered to direct it. Once we decided to do it, the most challenging and crucial part was building the team - and I was incredibly lucky to get everyone I did. Wearing as many hats as I did (as producer, writer and actor) was a bit maddening but also so rewarding. The challenge was to keep a balance and make sure none of my roles got more love than the other. The morning of the shoot I was setting up the coffee and donuts and thought, “Oh crap, I have to ACT in this thing, too?!!” But it turned out so well; I’m really proud of it.

CW: The film had a private industry screening here in New York, what was that experience like? What was the most memorable moment that evening?

AVV: I always thought it was so cheesy when people said “It was a night I’ll always remember,” but this really WAS! We had almost 70 people there, including my family from all over the country, the cast and crew, lots of friends and some great industry people, and the support was overwhelming. Since the film centers around a piece of lingerie, I wanted to decorate the whole venue with underwear. So while I was getting ready for the night I made my poor family go around the City and buy 100 pairs of underwear! Watching my mom and step-dad hang little thongs that said things like “Not tonight” off the fire extinguishers was pretty amazing. My favorite moment was definitely watching the audience watch the film - hearing them laugh, and realizing that they really connected to it. As artists, we go to see our friends’ projects all the time. We are really there to support our friends, and if the project is good it’s a bonus. So the moment that I realized that they were enjoying the film as well as supporting it, that was really special.

Candy Washington: What was the biggest obstacle you faced while producing the film and how did you overcome it?
AVV: Probably that I had no idea what I was doing!! My background is solidly in theater, so making a movie was WAY out of my comfort zone. Luckily, Paige is a pro and the Universe blessed me with dropping Marian Dealy into my lap. Marian was our DP and editor and really guided me through the technical process of setting up, shooting and piecing together the film. She also saved me from making some serious rookie mistakes. I had no idea about music rights and had written Madonna’s “Justify my Love” into the script. At a production meeting Marian said, “Do you have $60K to cover the license fees for a Madonna song? I don’t think so.” If I had put the song in it could have been REALLY messy and even kept me out of festivals! But the biggest challenge always in making something is just putting yourself out there, trusting that your work is good, being proud of yourself for making it, and letting go of expectations. 

CW: So you’re originally from Australia, what are some the major differences and similarities of being in the entertainment industry over there versus The States?
AVV: I left Australia before I was a year old (my parents were doing post-doctorate research there), so I don’t about the differences firsthand. But I have “Australian and American Citizenship” on my resume and I get asked about that all the time. For some reason, people think dual citizenship is really cool, and it’s a great conversation starter! 

CW: I love that you have being a ‘cat mom’ as a special skill on your resume! Has that ever come in handy during your career?
AVV: I wish! I have yet to act opposite a cat, though when I’m creating a character I tend to make them animal lovers because it’s something I relate to so strongly. More than anything, it’s a way to give people a little insight into me as a person. The people who look at resumes, look at SO MANY resumes. If you can put something on there that gives them a context or a reason to remember you, it’s always great. Also, people love to talk about their pets, so if in an audition sees it and says to me, “You have cats! How many? What are their names? Let me show you a picture of my cat!” you get to have an authentic conversation. I always like it when the auditors and I can have a moment to see each other outside of “audition mode,” especially if I’m nervous and they’ve seen the sides I just did seventeen hundred times already that day. I also started mentioning my cats a lot when I’m doing my marketing, so people now know them as these characters in my life. My monthly newsletter usually has pictures of them in it, so that it’s not just “Come to my show!” which can get boring and feel too salesy, but “Come to my show! And here’s a picture of my cats watching pigeons!” (they make crazy, wide-eyed pigeon watching faces). Once I sent out my newsletter without cat pictures, and immediately got a bunch of replies asking why there were no cat pictures and if my cats were ok!! 

CW: What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you were first starting out that you know now?
AVV: That acting is the smallest part of an actor’s job. When you get to act, you need to be good and you need to love it, but the VAST majority of your time is spent making sure people know you exist. That means telling people what you’re working on, staying in touch with people you’ve worked with, seeing shows, meeting new people, building up your relationships, creating your own work and promoting it, etc. That’s why people quit acting, not because they stop loving acting, but because they either get tired of or don’t know how to do the business side of it. Luckily, I love that stuff and I don’t think that “marketing” is a dirty word, I just had no idea how to do it for so long and was given a lot of bad advice. It’s sad that training programs don’t teach this stuff, because we lose a lot of great actors that way.

CW: If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be and why?
AVV: I want to see more women and people of color creating their own projects and telling their stories. We need to stop waiting to be included by the people who are in charge. Last year there was only ONE film about women and ONE film about people of color nominated for the Best Picture Oscar - and they were the same film! No one can tell your story better than you can. When we wait to be included we run the risk of being misrepresented or oversimplified. I’m so sick of auditioning to play hookers and exasperated girlfriends. Because of the internet and HD cameras on every phone we can create vehicles for ourselves and easily get them out there, we can do play readings and write blogs and throw our own stand-up nights. I am so inspired by people like Lena Dunham and Mindy Khaling, who are showing us it can be done, and that it can translate into the mainstream which makes broader change possible. 

CW: Do you want to tell us about the inspiration behind Van Jaeger Productions?
AVV: My father’s last name is Van Valin and my mother’s is Jaeger, so I put them together. To me it means both sides of me, all of me, because when I make things I want to be able to give all of myself. I fell so in love with the process of producing while working on “Take it Off” that I wanted to actually form an entity. My vision is to add female voices to our cultural narrative through filmmaking. This means making films that both men and women can relate to, but have been written and/or directed by women, and by showing female characters that are as interesting, complex, flawed, and gifted as women actually are. I think my biggest job as an artist is to help create a little more empathy, so that that empathy can translate into how we function in real life.

CW: You’re a member of New York Women in Film and Television, what are some of the benefits of being a part of the organization? 

AVV: The biggest thing is meeting other women from all over the industry. I’ve met documentarians, entertainment lawyers, journalists, you name it. There’s also fiscal sponsorship for films, mentorship programs, grants and they really support and help publicize their members. Plus, it makes you feel fancy to be a member :) 

CW: How can my readers connect and keep up with you?
AVV: The best way is to join my mailing list, I send out quick newsletters once a month with all the details of what I’m up to, where you can watch the film - and cat pictures, of course. I’m also very active on Facebook and Twitter. This magic link will connect you to all three! (link to: http://www.facebook.com/AnnaVanValinActor/app_102068836552678).


Mailing list: http://eepurl.com/oP7xv

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