FilmCourage: Where did you grow up?
McKenzie Chinn: I grew up in in a town called Fort Washington, Maryland, just outside Washington DC. Very, very suburban, but it was great to grow up in proximity to a big city and be only a day trip away from places like New York, Philly, or the beaches in Ocean City.
FilmCourage: Which parent do you resemble most?
McKenzie: I resemble my mother most, in both physical features and in personality – we can both be pretty feisty and strong-willed. I joke that I basically am my mother, just on a 33-year delay.
FilmCourage: Did your parents lend support toward creativity or encourage another type of career/focus?
McKenzie: I’m very lucky. I realized that I wanted to pursue acting seriously when I was 16, and my parents have been nothing but supportive and encouraging. I wouldn’t be able to be doing what I’m doing without them. Though I suppose they should be supportive; it’s kind of their fault that I pursued this path in the first place! Even when we were very young, they’d take my sister and I to museums and to see plays. They got us involved in community theatre, and took us to some auditions for commercial and on-camera work in the area because they thought it would help us gain confidence. Guess they didn’t realize that, for me, it would become a real passion!
When I was in high school, I had an amazing teacher – Andy Grenier – who really solidified my love of acting. He was the first person to ever call me an artist. We’re friends to this day.
“Five years ago I was finishing my second year of grad school, and had just ended a significant long-term relationship. Between the intensity of graduate school and the trauma of the relationship ending, it was one of the most difficult times of my life…. like the saying goes, [it] left me stronger and with a clearer sense of who I want to be and what I want to achieve. I wouldn’t have the courage I need to undertake this project without the struggle I went through back then.” McKenzie Chinn
FilmCourage: What were your plans after high school?
McKenzie: I’d been encouraged from a young age to go to college, so for me it seemed like the only logical next step. I decided to study acting at The University of Maryland Baltimore County. I learned from some amazing and dedicated teachers, and that’s where the foundation for my “craft” – as us actors often call it – was laid.
FilmCourage: Have you ever tried to put yourself in a linear, left brain world? If so, what happened?
McKenzie: Very briefly, I considered going to law school and to pursue a career in environmental law, but I as I began to research schools, I realized that there’s no time that I ever feel as alive or purposeful as when I’m performing or writing. So I knew that’s what I had to keep doing.
FilmCourage: As a right brain, intuitive type, what’s the most difficult left brain activity and how do you work around it?
McKenzie: I experience mild panic anytime I have to do anything pertaining to numbers 🙂 No, but seriously, mathematics has never come easily to me. I have a great respect for numbers, and recognize a beauty and elegance in them, but will never have an intuitive understanding of them they way I do with words or human behavior. Watching movie Proof (a story about a brilliant mathematician and his troubled daughter), or seeing the play it’s based on, is the closest I’ll ever come to left brain/right brain harmony!
FilmCourage: A current or old song that best describes you?
McKenzie: Depends on my mood. When I’m walking into an audition, in the back of my mind I hear the refrain “You’re Gonna Love Meeee!” from the song “And I am telling you” from Dream Girls (as sung by Jennifer Hudson, of course).
When I’m feeling confident, Beyonce’s “Bow Down” plays on a loop in my brain.
But what’s resonating the most right now is (ironically) “Right Now” on TV on the Radio’s album Seeds. It’s all about living in the moment that you’re in and appreciating what you have. Google those lyrics. They’re the real deal.
FilmCourage: You are getting ready to film your first feature film Olympia, how did you get involved’ When do you plan to shoot it?
McKenzie: Well, in addition to performing in Olympia, I also wrote the screenplay. I began writing it last year as I began to recognize they ways in which my generation has responded to the huge social shifts of the recent past.
After working through two drafts, I sent it to several trusted friends to get feedback, and began working on new drafts. One of the people who I asked to read an early version is Olympia’s director Gregory Dixon. We met in graduate school at DePaul, and I’ve wanted to work with him professionally ever since. He gave me amazing feedback, and really helped me shape the screenplay in a way that has made the story truly come alive.
He signed on to direct, and brought on our amazing producer Lucy Manda. We’ll also be working Matt Miller, co-creator of TV Land’s upcoming comedy Teachers, as executive producer.
We’ll be shooting in Chicago in September and October of this year.
FilmCourage: In a trailer for Olympia, you and other cast/crew speak on the day all realized they were adults? How are today’s adults different or similar to your parents’ generation?
McKenzie: I think the recession changed everything. My generation – a generation that was encouraged strongly to go to college – have paid more to do so than any other generation, and when we graduated we did so with massive amounts of debt. But because of the nosedive that they economy took in 2008, we had few strong job prospects to make up for it. As a result, things like home ownership, marriage, children, and a steady career – things that I think helped define adulthood for my parents generation – were suddenly out of reach.
I get frustrated when people call my generation lazy or entitled, because we’re actually amazing. We’ve taken the horrible social and economic circumstances that we were handed and have shaped them into something new, and useful, and unique to us. And that’s pretty damn cool.
All of these new circumstance have fundamentally changed the ways in which we enter adulthood. Through the struggles of our central character Olympia Welles, our film explores what it means to become an adult in today’s world.
FilmCourage: Do you have locations and actors lined up?
McKenzie: These details are in progress, so you’ll have to stay tuned! But we will be shooting in downtown Chicago and it’s surrounding neighborhoods, and we’re excited to make use of downtown’s stunning architecture, and the charming idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods.
FilmCourage: Who wrote the script?
McKenzie: Yours truly.
FilmCourage: What camera will you shoot with?
McKenzie: We’ll shoot with either an Arri Alexa or RED Epic.
FilmCourage: How did you discover HATCHFUND and what attracted the team to the platform?
McKenzie: I was having a couple of beers with an artist friend here in Chicago. I already knew that we would crowdfund a portion of our budget, and we were discussing various platforms (there are a LOT)! She let me know about Hatchfund, and when I researched them, I was attracted to its exclusive dedication to artists. Hatchfund also vets its artists to make sure the projects they represent are viable and well-thought out, so I knew if I was able to use Hatchfund, I’d be in good company.
Hatchfund also provides its campaigns with a project manager, so we have a dedicated support person to help coach us through our campaign. Super helpful. Hatchfund also has a 75% success rate, which is higher than a lot of other platforms. I know I sounds like a rep from Hatchfund right now, but we’re having a great experience so far.
And Hatchfund is all-or-nothing; if we don’t reach our minimum goal, we get nothing. That element made my team and I nervous at first, but then we remembered that we’re telling a great story that a lot of people can relate to, and that we have a strong, clear vision. That have us the confidence to move forward (film courage right?!). Plus I’ve always been an all-in kinda gal.
“All-or-nothing” will also really light a fire under our butts to reach our goal, and will hopefully do the same for supporters who want to see this film get made.
FilmCourage: Who is your character in OLYMPIA?
McKenzie: In the film, I play Olympia Welles. She’s a young Chicago artist trying to figure out how to move forward in her career and her life. She’s about to turn 30 and everything in flux. Her mother is sick in the hospital, her best friend, and now her boyfriend too, are starting new careers that threaten to take them far away. She lives in the shadow of her very accomplished sister. She’s at a critical juncture in her life, and has to decide if she’s going to change with the world around her, or get left behind.
Olympia is like a lot of people I know. Because of my career, I’m surrounded by a lot of very talented and very ambitious artists, all striving to build meaningful personal lives and define themselves in their careers. Sometimes, those two things can be at odds, and two of the biggest challenges for me and my peers are finding where those things connect, and finding the courage to step up to the plate when life says, “Hey. It’s your turn.”
FilmCourage: How is the film Olympia challenging character stereotypes?
McKenzie: For the longest time, most of the notable black characters you’d see in film would be maids, slaves, magical negroes, sassy best friends, or thugs. And even though some powerhouse performances have come from roles like these, I and many others find these limitations frustrating.
Only very recently have we started experiencing more faceted, complex characters of color with central story arcs. I wanted to meet black characters with a wider variety of experiences. For instance, I grew up in a suburb (a suburb that has a majority black population, my parents were professionals, I went to college. We tend to not associate those experiences with black people in film because we’re more comfortable with stereotypes.
Olympia will feature a meaningfully diverse cast with characters who reflect experiences beyond those to which current mainstream film often relegate them.
FilmCourage: What do you want viewers to take away from watching Olympia?
McKenzie: I’d like viewers, especially those in my generation, to walk away from Olympia feeling that much more confidence to chose the direction they want in life – even if it’s hard and scary – and go in it; to go through the door and see what’s on the other side.
FilmCourage: If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?
McKenzie: Can I choose two?
1. I’d be someone who lived in a very remote village somewhere and was part of a small tribe that had no technology and lived very close to the earth. I think it’s easy to forget about the nuts and bolt of living – having shelter, food, being capable, and being part of an interdependent community. It’d be nice to have a reminder.
2. I’d be an astronaut. I can’t imagine having a perspective more macro than leaving earth for awhile and looking back on it as a tiny speck. Watch the amazing documentary For All Mankind and you’ll see what I mean. Can you hear me, Major Tom?
FilmCourage: Have you ever had to make a choice similar to Olympia Wells where life is changing rapidly and how did you manage it?
McKenzie: Sure. Moving to Chicago from Maryland was a huge deal. I had never lived that far away from my family, and I was moving in order to go to grad school for acting, which is, let’s face it, a risky move. Leading up to the move, I felt very sure of myself, but once I was in the car heading west, I felt so much anxiety. I realized how big a choice I was making, and I felt overwhelmed. My mom basically drove the whole way while I tried not to panic.
FilmCourage: Most comforting way you spend your down time?
McKenzie: Haha, downtime, what’s that? On the rare occasion I get to relax a bit, I like to read or listen to This American Life, or take walks around my neighborhood with my husband. Love going to a good Chicago indie band concert. I see a lot of theatre, watch a lot of movies, I try to keep up with how awesome television is right now, and go to as many summer festivals in Chicago as I possibly can before the city goes into hibernation for the winter.
FilmCourage: Craziest character/role you’ve played and how you secretly wish you could become this in real life?
McKenzie: That would have to be the character I’m currently playing onstage in a play called The Belfast Girls. My character’s name is Judith, and she was born in Jamaica but raised in Ireland. It’s 1850, and she’s on a boat with two hundred other women who have set sail for Australia to escape the famine. She and her four friends are total badasses. They’re survivors is the realest sense of the word. They’ve been prostitutes, they swear like sailors, and are quick to fight. But as flawed as they are, they are just as courageous and charming and admirable for their fortitude
While I’m glad I’ve been spared the circumstances that Judith has endured – and that real women in that time in place actually endured – I greatly admire her strength and the very deep well of hope that draws from to survive.
FilmCourage: 7 Do’s and Don’ts for actresses on set or while rehearsing?
1. Do be on time. The crew is working their butts of to solve a million and a half different problems. Don’t be one of them.
2. Do make strong choices. Make sure you’ve done your homework, and are coming onto set or into the rehearsal room with a point of view about the scene, your character, and the nature of the relationship between your character and the other character(s) in the scene.
3. Do be flexible. If you do number two, you already have an idea of how you might play the scene. But you also have to be responsive to the choices your scene partner is making as well as the vision of your director. Be willing to try something different. Be willing to play.
4. Do be patient. Setting up the shot takes time. Everyone is working hard (or should be).
5. Do NOT stuff yourself at the craft services table. You will be sorry. I learned this the hard way.
6. Do be courteous and respectful to everyone, from the AD, to the makeup artist, to the PAs. Film and performance communities tend to be very small, and word of mouth travels quickly. Make sure the words said about you are good ones. But also, be courteous because it’s better than being a jerk.
7. Trust your director. If you trust your director, your are freer to do your job, which is to move through each moment of the scene with truth and abandon.
FilmCourage: Film Courage read that you were selected to receive Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Grant. When/how did you apply for it? How did you find out you were getting the fellowship?
McKenzie: I was nominated for the Leonore Anneberg Artist Fellowship through The Theatre School at DePaul where I attended grad school. After my nomination, I wrote an extensive proposal for the Leonore Annenberg committee detailing what I would do with the award if received. I decided to focus on using the fellowship to help make the feature I’d starting writing earlier that year. The committee liked my proposal, and emailed me a day or two before Christmas to let me know that I’d be one of this year fellows. (Best. Christmas. EVER). That was earlier than they usually notify recipients, as they wanted to give me ample time to lay the groundwork to start raising additional funds. I was at my day job when I got the email. I gasped and ran away from the computer in shock, then burst into tears. My coworker was very alarmed.
I’m incredibly grateful for the fellowship, the work of philanthropist Leonore Annenberg for whom the fellowship is named, and the vote of confidence given to me by all the people who helped be get the fellowship; it was definitely a team effort on DePaul’s part. I’d say I feel lucky, but I think luck is really just the intersection of preparation and opportunity. So if you’re prepared and persistent, “luck” is often just a matter of time.
FilmCourage: Funniest thing a casting director said to you?
McKenzie: A casting director was commenting on an early head shot and told me that I look Asian and asked me if I was Asian. That’s definitely not something I hear every day.
FilmCourage: How is your life different or the same from 5 years ago?
McKenzie: Five years ago I was finishing my second year of grad school, and had just ended a significant long-term relationship. Between the intensity of graduate school and the trauma of the relationship ending, it was one of the most difficult times of my life. It’s a time that has, however, informed where I am now. Back then, my life was in such turmoil that I could only take things one day at a time. But the pain of that experience, like the saying goes, left me stronger and with a clearer sense of who I want to be and what I want to achieve. I wouldn’t have the courage I need to undertake this project without the struggle I went through back then.
FilmCourage: Favorite quote or line from a song?
McKenzie: I am shameless in my appreciation of Coldplay and when I first heard the lyric “If you never try, then you’ll never know,” in their song “The Speed of Sound,” I was in college and simultaneously nervous and impatient to start my life as an actor. That lyric resonated very deeply and spurred me forward. In fact, the idea in that lyric has stayed with me and arises in the film between Olympia and her mother who’s sick in the hospital.
FilmCourage: Upcoming creative plans?
McKenzie: All of my creative energy is focused on Olympia right now. Once we wrap production, I plan to start writing a new project, but I’m a bit superstitious and think it’s bad luck to talk about a creative project too early. This idea is still in the oven, so you’ll have to stay tuned!
McKenzie Chinn – Executive Producer/Writer/Lead Actress
Originally from Washington, DC, McKenzie most recently appeared in the feature film Hogtown, which screened as part of Chicago’s Black Harvest Film Festival. She has performed on numerous Chicago stages, including The Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Victory Gardens, and with many small but mighty companies including Stage Left, Sideshow, Prologue, and Pavement Group. She has workshopped and performed an original story with Chicago’s 2nd Story, and hosted The 30×30 Project on her blog HydroCarbo, in which she wrote 30 original short essays for each of the 30 days before her thirtieth birthday, in collaboration with local illustrator Isabella Rotman. She is also the author of the solo performance piece Everything That Ever Was . She holds an MFA from The Theatre School at DePaul, and is a 2015/16 Leonore Annenberg Artist Fellow. She lives in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village with her husband Ramah, and step-daughter BellaSol.
For press inquiries: Olympiathemovie@gmail.com.
Olympia is an independent feature film that explores what it means to become an adult in the modern world, through the story of character Olympia Welles. Penned by McKenzie Chinn, and to be directed by Gregory Dixon, the film will feature a diverse cast led primarily by people of color and will illustrate the ways young adults have evolved to accommodate life after an economic recession. Olympia is slated for production in Chicago this fall in association with 30 Pictures.
Hatchfund’s mission is to provide resources and support to artists who advance culture and inspire brilliance. Projects on Hatchfund enjoy a 75% success rate. This crowdfunding service is free for artists with donors helping fund operations with small additional donations. For more information, visit Hatchfund.org.