Alyssa May Gold: Start Making Things Happen
Alyssa May Gold is an NYC based actor who works in theatre, film, TV, and voiceover. She was born and raised in Manhattan and plays late teens to early twenties. Alyssa, thanks so much for taking the time to share some of your story and thoughts with me! I know that you started acting at a young age. Could you share how you got started as a child?
I decided when I was four years old that I wanted to be Little Orphan Annie. It took me until I was six to figure out that the closest I could get was being an actor. And unfortunately for my long suffering parents, I put it together pretty quickly that girls my age were playing these roles on Broadway, just three subway stops away, so there was really no reason I shouldn’t, too. It took me three more years to convince aforementioned parents to go against all of their better judgment and let me start auditioning.
Haha, how magical! It sounds like you must have had some very convincing arguments. As you grew older, what made you want to stick with it? My reasons have evolved, (unless you are looking to do an all grown-up version of Annie in which case that is the only reason I’m still an actor please contact me immediately). At a certain point in my career I had a great opportunity to quit and make a clean break so I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not this was something I wanted to keep doing or if it was something I was just doing because I always had. I realized in that month (jk it wasn’t a month it was maybe 20 minutes but that sounds too short for a serious soul search. I promise it was.) that whatever my original reasons, over the then decade and a half I had been working I had developed the ability to empathize and access emotions people who aren’t actors don’t often have the space or opportunity to. I want to hold that space for people who have to live more practically to make sure the world runs smoothly. Since you had a pretty full career before even finishing high school, do you think college is even necessary for people pursuing acting?
YES. A THOUSAND TIMES YES. If you have the means and opportunity, you should absolutely go to college and in my opinion not for acting. I feel like high school is where you learn the fundamentals of the world and college is where you get to use those building blocks to start exploring the world in a more nuanced way and make new discoveries. I think a liberal arts education is invaluable for anyone who wants to be an actor because in order to truthfully embody a character, you have to understand how humans work, where their wants and needs come from, and how they make decisions. As an artist you need to understand the context of how and why effective art captures what’s happening in the world and helps people understand themselves and their place in it.
I do think [acting] training is extremely important, too. Once you understand (to whatever extent anyone ever can) how people’s minds and hearts sort of work, you have to find where those experiences live in you so you can access them.
IT’S A PROCESS, OK? Keep in mind though that I started working when I was in elementary school when I knew nothing aside from the lyrics from Annie and The Sound of Music so I also don’t think you need to wait until you’re fully formed to get out there and start making things happen.
Ok, so success is based on knowing the lyrics to Annie and The Sound of Music. Got it. Haha, so I actually don’t know much about your undergrad experience. Can you tell me where you went to school and what it was like for you?
I went to NYU Gallatin and while I didn’t study acting, I met some of my current favorite collaborators, worked on some great shows and got an excellently well-rounded liberal arts education that focused on the intersection between science, philosophy and art to create stories that help people transform. Gallatin was full of people who had already begun their careers as actors, directors, stage managers, etc. so while all the theater we did was extra curricular, the production value was high because of the experience people brought in with them. It was excellent training on how to work with your friends and also a great litmus test for how passionate we all were. Even though it was a relatively low stakes environment, everyone felt very strongly about the work we were doing and brought their professional A-game to the table every time. That’s wonderful! I know you also attended LAMDA in London for Graduate School, which from what I’ve heard is more acting-based, but still provides a well-rounded education. Now that you are out of school, how do you keep learning? I think that’s such an important element of continuing to grow.
I learn new things by seeing the work other people are making. That’s my way of trying to avoid saying, “I watch a lot of movies and TV shows and call it research.” AW man I said it. OK well since the cat is out of the bag I might as well just come clean. I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. And I go to the theater a lot. Part of keeping myself inspired to do this comes from being moved and changed by the kinds of movies/TV shows/theater that I want to be in. They solidify for me how important the time you spend watching a story can be and help me get a sense of what works and what doesn’t and what kinds of stories I want to tell.
I also find reading non-fiction, self-help, and survival skill books/articles/essays can be informative because those get down to the primitive defaults that we all have. The more you understand the habits and defense mechanisms we build individually over our lives and get down to what we all have that is fundamentally human, the more truthful I think you can make your characters.
Finally, just getting out of bed and going out into the world every day I learn something new that helps me almost every day. Marinating time is just as important as active work time. Yes, I’ve heard so many people sat that in order to act, you have to experience life fully so you have something to pull from. It’s a constant study of humanity. I love to people watch in places like the DMV or the Social Security office, where there are all types of people. So, obviously you watch TV and theatre, read, and go out into the world, but what does a typical day look like for you more specifically?
I don’t have a typical day. Which can sometimes be scary and stressful because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But it’s also great because on any given day, I don’t know what’s going to happen! I feel like my unstructured time (i.e., not working or in rehearsal or doing a show) is most often spent writing e-mails, submitting myself for projects, reaching out to people I want to work with, meeting up with those people, working on monologues for auditions, and then going back and rewriting all the e-mails I wrote originally. Writing e-mails is my least favorite, most time-consuming job. That said, I’m pretty good at it and would like to start hiring myself out to write other people’s self-promotional emails, so if you need help, gimme a call!
Haha, I feel like we could start a co-venture writing e-mails for people. It is such a tricky part of promoting yourself and further proof that writing skills are extremely important. Since you do have lovely writing skills and mentioned that you enjoy the liberal arts, do you have any favorite books, related or non-related to acting?
Other People’s Shoes by Harriet Walter is the best acting guide-book I’ve ever read. She talks you through her career path and process of coming into her own as an actor in the rehearsal room and then distills what she learned from that into more specific tools for approaching roles.
Presence by Amy Cuddy is not about acting specifically but it’s about the mind/body connection and how to make them sync so you can be fully present. It also sort of addresses the social science behind how actors act which is cool.
These haven’t informed my acting so much as my ability to handle the ups and downs of the industry but I think they’re worthwhile for everyone:
“14 Ways to Survive Almost Anything” by Laurence Gonzales (http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/print/2008/08/everyday-survival/laurence-gonzales-text)
– He distilled this guide from actual survivors and it’s all directly applicable to getting through life.
Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson
This was a really helpful book when things weren’t going well. The idea is that people who make it in the long run move with the cheese, they don’t just sit there wondering where it went.
Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parado Basic Idea: Peruvian Rugby team’s plane crashes in the Andes mountains. Everything they do to survive is applicable to your life. Everyone has their own Andes.
Wonderful reccomendations! I’ll have to add those to my reading list. I think I’ll start with the cheese book because I literally go where there is cheese in real life. I can see myself relating to that metaphor, haha. Other than books, are there any films or plays that have really touched or inspired you along the way?
SO MANY. So many. The ones that come to the top of my head are Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV set in a prison which inadvertently hit home for me how powerful theater can be, that these prisoners (even though they were played by actors) were so passionate about putting on this production. Jon Favreau’s movie Chef was a great story about redemption in a subjective field that helped me to take the words of naysayers around me and do something useful with them. The West Wing is what I watched when I came the closest to quitting acting and by the end I just thought wow if this is how powerful storytelling can be, I need to keep going. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a beautiful reminder to keep your brain and your heart working together, and not deny either one.
Ah, Arcadia is truly one of my favorite texts. Stoppard is a genius. It’s funny how some works are just so inspiring that they will keep you motivated for a long time. Arcadia was a work that did that for me. It is easy though, in this industry to kind of hit a wall, like you mentioned a point where you almost quit acting. I would love to pick your brain about what advice you would give other actors who are hitting that wall or people who might be considering acting as a career but don’t know all that goes into it.
Oh man. Where do I start? Oh ok. I’ll start with all the things I tell myself so I can sleep at night:
Do some soul searching while you’re considering and figure out exactly why you want to be an actor. There is no good or bad or right or wrong reason to want to do it but the clearer you are on why you are pursuing it, the easier it will be to make sure you are fulfilled and happy. I like using stories to show people their options and opening up emotional spaces for people to come feel their feelings. Those are my big reasons. Those are most easily accomplished through being an actor but there are a million other ways to do those things. It takes so much pressure off when I go into meetings or auditions or am slogging through a day where nothing is working out to know that the things I love about acting are not exclusive to this industry. So, the second this is no longer the best place for me to do it, I’ll leave.
Also make sure you’re living a full life outside of acting and auditioning. It’s like the coach says in Cool Runnings, “If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” Don’t only live your life to the fullest when you have an acting job. The time between jobs is not empty dead time. It’s time to work a job that utilizes one of your many other skills or fulfills part of your mission as an actor in a different way or just pays your bills so you can keep pursuing what you want. Which brings me to: don’t get sucked into clichés about actors. Don’t get bogged down in shame that you’re another actor working in a restaurant. Yeah? And? Are you paying your bills while pursuing your dreams? Does not relying solely on performing to keep you financially stable allow you more freedom in your art? Yes? Great. That’s the end of the conversation as far as I’m concerned. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about what your path looks like. It looks different for everybody.
And maybe most importantly—be your own final say in whether or not you can do this. Always be open to critiques and notes and suggestions but remember acting is an art, it comes from your heart and your soul and is therefore incredibly subjective. So do work you believe in and stand by it. Because you might not get the casting director or director or producer to agree. You might not get the reviewers, you might not get the awards voters, you might not get the whole audience. You might just get one person to be affected by any given performance. And that’s enough I think. That’s great. You could change that one person’s whole life and how cool is that? Don’t internalize rejection or business decisions made regarding your art.
Wow, wonderful! Yes, I love what you said about it being ok to have a day job. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for that. If you are paying your bills and doing what you love, that’s a pretty good place to be. Do you have any favorite actors that you look to for advice or inspiration?
I don’t have favorite actors as much as I have favorite performances. There are some people who are excellent and I will see in anything, but those people are not necessarily the same as people I watch and go “How. Did you. Do that.” Those people right now for me are:
Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. I saw it three times and was bowled over by how honestly and earnestly she turned a role that’s often a caricature into a real, appropriately larger than life person. When people ask what my time frame is to quit acting I say “I’ll quit the day I do one thing on a stage as perfect as Imelda Staunton’s Rose’s Turn” (that’s not true I never say that but I do MEAN IT.)
Essie Davis and Nathan Page in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It’s a great show for a lot of reasons but part of what makes it work so well is that it’s directed in a heightened 1920’s mystery style, but their performances are really grounded in nuance and truth. People tend to forgo honesty when doing something stylized so it’s a testament to their ability that they can do both at once. And Essie Davis gets to play a lady detective with all the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes but without the sociopathic tendencies—she’s that smart and also full of heart and care for the people around her. It’s a cool balancing act to watch.
Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl. She hit every crazy high and low of being a teenage girl without ever judging, apologizing for or commenting on her character. It was the best performance I saw on screen last year go watch it immediately if you haven’t already.
I really enjoy your approach in that you look to individual performances and not actors at a whole. That really separates the human from their craft in an interesting way. For me, seeing other people do incredible work inspires me to get out there and do more myself. Do you have something like that you are working on currently?
I had the idea to set Julius Caesar in the cafeteria of an all-girl high school and at the end of last year my friends and I did a reading of it that went very well. We are in the process of getting the money together and doing another workshop so my big goal is to have a full production of that up by the end of the year. We then plan to tour it to high school cafeterias. I’m currently looking for grants/school cafeterias. I’m also finishing up a run of Henry V with The Rogue and Peasant Players, a great new company in NY. And I’m desperately seeking a regional theater doing Mamma Mia! this summer that wants to cast me as Sophie so if that’s you, reader, gimme a call!
I would love to see you as Sophie! And I’m very excited for your Julius Caesar. Taking Shakespeare to high schools is such a wonderful project. Do you have another passion along with acting?
I’m a professional baker! I started getting really good at it when I would bake to relieve stress in college and then I went in worked in a few bakeries and loved it. I’m trying to get into cooking, too. There’s a creativity you can have in a kitchen that I really enjoy. I can’t eat gluten or dairy right now so I’m constantly baking and cooking to try to make versions of the foods I like without those ingredients. I also like being outside. Not like, in the woods outside, but out in the city. I love walking and biking up and down the Hudson River in Manhattan. I also have a ukulele on which I like to write silly songs about my feelings. I’m glad that you bake when you are stressed! You should move in with me. I eat when I’m stressed so we would get along really well. This is a stressful industry to be in, that’s for sure. Is there anything in particular that stresses you out or frustrates you?
What frustrates me the most right now about the industry and being an actor in it is that the movies, plays and TV shows people are making tend to perpetuate ideas and roles for women (and honestly often for men, too) that are no longer useful. I think it’s time for everyone to think really hard about what they’re saying with the stories they’re telling and whether or not it’s a worthwhile statement. We need to become more conscious of the difference between a strong female character and a female character played by a strong woman. Strong female characters are fully fleshed out and undergo a real change over the course of the script on paper, not just when they’re in the hands of a skilled actor who can make them three-dimensional. I want to see more women on stage and screen fighting for something other than a man. I want to see men on screen in conflict with women and not smash cut to them in bed. I want to see everyone interacting meaningfully with each other regardless of their sex because I think that’s what we need to start doing in real life but we have nothing in the media to look to for guidance.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you so much Alyssa! I can’t wait to share this interview with my blog readers and hopefully someone who is casting Mamma Mia! this summer, or maybe an adult version of Annie. For more information about Alyssa May Gold, see her website at www.alyssamaygold.com and follow her on twitter @heylyssamay.