The Longer I Live in Los Angeles, the Less I Believe in Getting ‘Discovered’
by Elizabeth Sandy
FC: Where did you grow up?
ES: Melbourne, Australia – more specifically a little suburb called Viewbank.
FC: How were you discovered?
ES: I grew up dancing and I always knew I wanted to perform, but it wasn’t until I was about thirteen that I realized acting was the outlet I wanted to pursue. I was playing Scarlett in a musical theatre production of ‘Li’l Abner’ with a local theatre company called ‘The Catchment Players of Preston.’ One of the older actors was friends with an agent and invited her to the show. I guess you could say she ‘spotted’ me and subsequently signed me. The agency was called ‘Linda’s Rising Stars’ and I still consider them one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with.
FC: What was it like being a dancer in musical theater?
ES: Dancing certainly is a culture all of its own. Lots of giggling girls and cliques – but probably not unlike what goes on at school. I danced competitively from about age eleven but began classes at the age of three. I loved to dance and wanted to be a ballerina. Alas, my technique was not as good as some of the other dancers. I would often get notes like – ‘really knows how to tell a story through dance, but needs to work on her technique.’ At that age, I hadn’t ever committed to any other art form, so I pushed on and would get very upset when I would place second or third or miss out on that scholarship. I would train/rehearse almost every night after school.
Becoming involved with musical theatre at such a young age was great in that I learned the discipline of the theatre and adopted a certain professionalism that I still carry to this day, however at the same time working with so many adults and keeping such a strict schedule was a lot for such a young person to have to abide to.
Film Courage: Can you share how/why your interest in dance began to falter?
ES: Probably at sixteen when I got a boyfriend! Well not entirely…if by sixteen you’re not at a level to start training with a ballet company or at least move towards that goal, then you probably aren’t going to make it. I had also by that time started working professionally as an actress and frankly I was a better actress than I was dancer. I do wish I’d kept it up as a hobby though. I can barely touch my toes now.
FC: In your (Vimeo) bio you mentioned “…Visions of becoming a dancer fell away as she found where her true passion lay. After taking a three-year hiatus from the work to study her craft at the National Drama School in Melbourne, Elizabeth solidified her calling to act and create.” How did you come to the conclusion that you needed a hiatus? Was there a specific moment that promoted this?
ES: After working as a teenager in the industry as Libby Sandy, I wanted to take a break to focus on my acting studies. Acting school was incredibly intensive and even though it was a part-time course it was a full-time commitment. I also wanted to re-emerge into the industry as an ‘adult.’ Often if you have worked as a teenager, casting directors/producers feel they ‘know’ you and they do, they just remember you as still sixteen when actually you are now twenty. So to break that assumption, I left auditions for a few years to study and returned as an adult using my full name, Elizabeth Sandy.
FC: What were some of the strongest takeaways from studying at the National Drama School in Melbourne? (Was there an amazing teacher who opened your eyes to new ways of thinking, collaborate fellow students?)
ES: The National Theatre was like a cocoon where I got to play amazing roles in everything from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Greek Tragedy. I was able to play roles I probably would never get cast in outside of drama school. For instance I played the male role Dromio of Syracuse in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ – largely because our class was made up of nine females and one male. I was inspired and challenged every day by my fellow students and teachers and learned so much. It was also very humbling. Each year, we would have interviews where we were either asked to leave or were invited back the next year. This culling process and some natural attrition whittled our class down from about forty students to ten. At the end of the third year (thankfully each year I was invited back,) we had an agent’s day where we performed monologues for industry folk. We would only know if we had an invitation to meet with an agent if we had an envelope with our name on the bulletin board. Some students had four or five envelopes, others none. It was certainly a stressful time, but a good training ground for the amount of rejection you must face in this industry.
ES: I love that we have a great reputation as talented actors. I think this is true because unless you’re incredibly dedicated to your craft, it’s very difficult to make it as an actor in Australia. In Hollywood there’s a chance you’ll strike it lucky if you have charisma and a great headshot but no experience, in Australia you’re kinda crazy to pursue it unless you really want it – because there’s just not enough work to go around. Ironically, at this point in my career, I’m auditioning more as an American. While the British accent is beginning to be heard a lot more in film and television, the Australian accent isn’t quite there yet. Most of the roles I audition for are one-day guest stars where my job is to aid the story along – if the story is set somewhere in America, an accent like mine sticks out and without a character backstory to explain it, it may take the audience out of the scene. I would like the industry to get to the point where accents don’t matter so much and don’t necessarily need to be explained, especially because the world is now so transient. But I’ve grown used to the challenge to add another layer of accent to the characters I play.
People are really interested in Australia and ask many questions which I think is great (people are generally very positive about my homeland which makes me happy) but I do find it humorous when Americans ask me what it’s like to have an accent.
ES: I met some great people during a course at TVI Actors studio that were able to help me with the ins and outs of the LA industry. I worked very hard to develop strong support materials – good headshots, a professional actor’s reel – and paid close attention to the differences between the LA industry and the Aussie industry. In Australia we were still working with black and white shots and didn’t staple our resumes to the back of our photo, there weren’t really online sites to submit yourself through or upload your reel to and we didn’t have tools like casting director workshops (that of course has all changed now.) I was fortunate enough to be referred to a manager by a fellow actor and it helped that I had a body of work from Australia. However, it still took a good year or so to secure management in the States, which was fine because it took that long to get my work visa in order. Once the visa was secured, I still faced many challenges as I learned most major studios would not accept it. I built up a body of work in indie films and commercials and earned my first LA network credit a month after my Greencard was approved.
FC: What was one of the strangest pieces of advice you received on acting which turned out to be true?
ES: Pay attention to relaxing your forehead for film and television work. It’s magnified ten-fold on camera.
ES: Apparently we physically bumped into each other while at a commercial audition. I don’t remember this so well as I was running incredibly late for my audition and was very flustered. Interestingly, I had submitted myself for one of his projects via a site called Actors Access and my photo had been sitting on his desk for a few weeks as one of the shortlisted actresses. He contacted me via email. I initially thought – ‘who is this guy?’ I contacted my agent asking if he’d submitted me to a guy called James Huang, he said ‘No be careful’ and then I looked back through my own submission history and saw that I had in fact submitted myself and perhaps he wasn’t a weirdo after all. We met for coffee. I actually have a degree in Professional Writing and he asked to meet me under the guise of – ‘I’d love you to read my script and tell me what you think.’ The script was a very early incarnation of ‘Starting from Scratch’ under a different title. I arrived very professional, critique in hand and we developed a professional relationship and friendship from there (although James says his goal was never friendship.) We both kept coming up with excuses to meet.
FC: What happened when James presented you with the idea for STARTING FROM SCRATCH?
ES: I had read an earlier version of the script, so was familiar with the project even before we started dating, but I guess life got in the way for a while and James shelved it. We were probably a year into our relationship when James came to me and said – ‘I think I want to try and rewrite the script, but I kinda want to start from scratch.’ He literally gave it the working title of ‘Starting from Scratch’ and it stuck. The interesting thing with the rewrite was the female voice in the story was so much stronger and the character of Ally so much more fleshed out. I like to think that was my influence.
FC: How soon after your honeymoon did you begin shooting STARTING FROM SCRATCH?
ES: We started pre-production the week after we got back from our honeymoon. James and I worked full time on that and two months later we began production.
FC: The early feedback on the script was that it lacked a strong female voice, what adjustments did you make to address those notes?
ES: It was very important for both James and I that Ally didn’t come across as bitchy, a nag or someone to blame. Growing up with five sisters, James has been surrounded by strong women all his life. Additionally, he had moved in with me so he witnessed my interactions with girlfriends and heard my conversations with my sister. James is a very astute observer. Once he realized he needed to find a stronger voice for Ally, he drew from the women around him (myself included.)
FC: How close and emotionally tied are you to STARTING FROM SCRATCH? its subject matter and having to explore the themes presented?
ES: This was absolutely a passion project for me. As an actress, it was an honor to play Ally and a role of a lifetime. Having invested so much in every aspect – from production to wardrobe to casting to production design, this project is incredibly dear to me. The story is still very much a piece of fiction but the themes presented are universal – relationships, break-ups, the human struggle of finding a place in the world. While these issues certainly aren’t new or even groundbreaking, ‘Starting from Scratch’ tackles them in a unique way. This may be a romantic comedy but unlike many films of its genre, it’s real. The characters are less than perfect, fallible and even have their hair out of place at times. You wont find the grandiose airport chase or the make-up kiss in the rain. And there’s no neat little bow tying everything together.
FC: How long was the shoot/What types of stressful situations did you encounter while filming?
ES: The shoot itself was around seventeen days over a three-week period. We were mindful of keeping days to around eight hours, so we really had to move fast. That in itself was a bit stressful, not to mention we had an incredibly small crew of about seven, including James and myself. Luckily James and I had been really diligent with planning the production and we were very fortunate to have crew members like Chad Peter and Todd Kruger who were willing to pitch in even if it wasn’t part of their job description. It would’ve been nice to have a bigger crew, but given our limited time and small locations it was almost better to travel in a smaller group.
There was one particular day of filming that was incredibly challenging. We were shooting in a canyon on an incredibly hot day. We set everything up and got ready for the first shot, then a police car pulled up, then three more pulled up, then the unmarked detective car, then the helicopters started circling. We concluded they weren’t all there to ask for our permit and found out they were there because a wanted murderer was spotted nearby. So there we were battling sunburn and dusty winds just waiting until the police found their guy so we could shoot our little movie sans helicopters and sirens. Needless to say, we were all pretty cranky by the end of the day and had to reschedule some other shots. The great thing about James and Chad is that they could have been precious about getting the shots just right, but they were very realistic about what we could achieve in our timeframe and with our budget. If it meant sacrificing that amazing shot, so be it! In the end, that made for a much happier crew and still a great looking film (with some amazing shots) we can all be proud of.
FC: Before securing the distribution deal with Film Festival Flix, how much background research did you do on other filmmakers who’d had distribution, etc.?
ES: We did enlist the help of a sales agent, Circus Road Films, to reach out to distributors on our behalf, but James is very good about keeping informed about what trends are out there with distribution. He even took a two-day seminar about self-distribution, just in case we didn’t get a deal and had to take that route. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. A romantic comedy with no stars, no vampires, no boobs is not the easiest sell, but we knew we had something unique and worthy of an audience. Thankfully MouseTrap Films/Film Festival Flix agreed with us.
FC: How did you secure distribution? Was it something that fell into place or was it something that required a lot more effort than you planned?
ES: Securing distribution was a lot more effort than planned. We heard ‘no’ many times despite the positive feedback we received about the film. There were times James and I were both fearful that we’d poured our heart into this project and no one was going to see it. Just as we were gearing up to self-distribute, we got a call from our sales agent with the offer from MouseTrap Films. Then we began working on the deliverables to get it ready for distribution. That is a huge amount of work and something I’d suggest filmmakers research and budget for before they start production.
FC: When did you screen STARTING FROM SCRATCH theatrically?
ES: MouseTrap Films has it’s own theatrical and on-line distribution platform called Film Festival Flix. Throughout April, they organized screenings in Los Angeles, Oregon, Denver and Iowa (with further screenings TBA.) This was possible because of their relationship with Regal, Landmark and Laemmle Cinemas, operating on a ticket split.
FC: How much planning went into these theatrical screenings? What did you learn that you can share with other filmmakers looking to have a theatrical screening?
ES: Thankfully with our Film Festival Flix tour, the screenings were planned for us. However, we did need to focus heavily on marketing in order to get bottoms in the seats. This was most challenging in Los Angeles because independent films screen all the time, and we’d previously invited people to numerous film festival screenings. The audiences in the smaller cities seemed much more excited to attend and meet the filmmakers.
Our first ever screening of the film we organized. It was for cast, crew and industry. A lot of planning went into that. We hired out the theatre at the Barnsdall Gallery in Hollywood, stocked up on beer and wine, printed promotional postcards and invited selected guests for free. It was a lovely evening and the best (if not a little boozy) audience we’ve ever experienced. However, in hindsight, holding our own screening meant it was harder to get cast, crew and their friends to film festival screenings and then our official Los Angeles screenings further down the track.
I learned that holding a screening (four-walling or buying out a venue) is a great way to share your work with others, but not advisable if you plan to screen at numerous festivals. If anything, it should be done after all other screening opportunities have been exhausted.
FC: Have you ever been guilty of (or witnessed in other filmmakers) a first or second time film project that is too ambitious to pull off, only never to be fully executed for lack of funds or red tape?
ES: I hear stories of that all the time. I think James and I have so far been pretty good with keeping our goals realistic and within any budgeting, technical or time constraints we might have. For instance, in one version of the ‘Starting from Scratch’ script, there was a scene set in a supermarket. Given the scene really could have been staged anywhere, we dropped that headache which probably would have involved a large fee, an overnight shoot, and lots of extras. Our next project is much more ambitious and we know it will require seeking out investors and a much bigger crew to pull it off.
FC: What was one of the lowest points for you in L.A. and how did you turn it around? What was one of the best moments for you here in L.A.?
ES: As an actor, I have signed myself up for many highs and many lows. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s difficult to not take the rejection personally and when the phone doesn’t ring, and the auditions don’t come, it can be crippling. That is why creating your own work (whether it be a funny little You Tube short, a piece of theatre, or just getting together with fellow actors to read aloud a script) is very important mentally and creatively.
When I came to Los Angeles, I was sharing a room, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor unable to work until my visa came through and often wondering – ‘What on earth am I doing?’ An incompetent lawyer caused many problems with my visa application, so I couldn’t physically leave the country for fear of deportation. That was definitely a low point, but because I couldn’t legally work until my visa came through, I spent my time collaborating with fellow actors, creating my own projects and learning about the Los Angeles industry. Those were all high points and rewarding experiences that taught me skills that certainly helped me when it came to producing ‘Starting from Scratch.’
FC: What was your role on Parks & Recreation? How did you book it?
ES: I played Alexis Pratchett, a ‘little too perfect’ Eagleton citizen who helps Leslie uncover whether she was in fact born in Eagleton rather than her beloved Pawnee. My manager at the time secured me the audition. It was one of those auditions where there were women of all ages and ethnicities up for it, so I really didn’t know if I’d book it. The audition felt really good and the casting director was very nice – that definitely helps ease the nerves.
ES: Back in 2008 my roommate at the time, a British actress, and I would run around the local park and just talk to each other in strange voices. From that, these strange Russian-esque accents emerged which soon evolved into the characters of Svetlana and Ivanka. It started with the voice and from there mannerisms developed and we would act out scenarios. It almost became the main way we would communicate with each other, until finally we wrote a short based on the characters.
FC: What are some films that have a strong female voice that resonate with you?
ES: I think it’s important for films to show women as human. They can be weak, fallible, killers, mothers, addicts, heroes, etc. The strongest female characters that resonate with me are the ones that are shown in a multitude of lights (sometimes not the most positive of lights.) Films that achieve this include : ‘Blue Jasmine,’ ‘Kissing Jessica Stein,’ ‘Election,’ ‘Mulholland Drive,’ ‘The Impossible,’ ‘August: Osage County,’ ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ‘The Kids Are Alright’ (really most of the films actresses Cate Blanchett, Naomi Watts, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Meryl Streep choose.)
FC: If you could play two types of female roles, (one drama/one comedic), what would they be?
ES: I would love to play a strong dramatic role in a period piece (eg: Cate Blanchett in ‘Elizabeth’) and a kooky screw up in a female-driven comedy (eg: Kristen Wiig in ‘Bridesmaids.’)
FC: What are a few tips you can provide on when things get tense while working with someone you know and how to salvage the moment?
ES: When working with someone you also share a personal relationship with, I think it’s important to designate your professional tasks to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. For instance, on ‘Starting from Scratch,’ James took care of the technical side such as editing and selecting equipment as well as directing, I took care of the paperwork – contracts, payroll, location bookings and logistical things like time-keeping, scheduling breaks, getting actors ready.
It was difficult as an actor, having my husband direct me, especially because some of it was highly emotional work. It isn’t always successful, but trying to make a conscious choice to separate the work from the personal and keeping those roles as defined as possible lessens those tense moments. Through trial and error, we found our footing as a husband and wife team and we continue to work together all the time.
FC: Do you feel the longer someone lives in Los Angeles, the more likely they are to be discovered?
ES: The longer I live in Los Angeles, the less I believe in getting ‘discovered.’ Sure, you hear stories of the ingénue or as James would say ‘the hunk of the month,’ being plucked from their barista job for a major movie role, but more often than not it takes years to become an ‘overnight success.’ Certainly the longer you chip away at the small parts, endeavor to keep learning and create your own opportunities, the more likely you are to have more people ‘discover’ you. It’s such an unpredictable career goal and one that doesn’t have a clear path set for it. I think part of me expected to come out of drama school, classical training under my belt, and have the leading roles flood in. I had similar expectations when I first moved to Los Angeles. Truthfully, I’ve been working hard at this career ever since I signed with ‘Linda’s Rising Stars’ at age fourteen. I don’t know if it will ever get any easier but Los Angeles really is the center of the industry so for a career as an actor, I feel this is where I need to be.
Since graduating from the National Theatre Drama School in Melbourne, Australia, Elizabeth has worked extensively as an actress in film, television and theater in both her homeland and the US. Along with notable television and feature film credits, including popular television shows ‘Neighbours’ and ‘The Secret life Of Us,’ she has worked as a live theater and improvisational entertainer in Australia, Asia and the US. Now based in Los Angeles, she continues to expand her career, working on television shows such as, ‘Suburgatory,’ ‘Parks and Recreation,’ ‘and The Young and the Restless’ as well as award-winning feature films,‘Delivery’ and ‘Apocalypse CA.’ ‘Starting from Scratch,’ a feature film she both produced and starred in recently acquired a distribution deal and has won numerous film festival awards as well as critical appraise for her comedic performance. In contrast, Elizabeth shows her dark side in the upcoming feature film, ‘The Dark Side of Venus.’