I have resisted doing a Royal Tour interview in Los Angeles. After all, it is my home, and I feel that I know the place well. However, the world of Hollywood is mysterious to me, and the chance to speak to someone intimately involved in that, not as a superstar, but as someone who moved to my city chasing her dream, was a lure I couldn’t resist. When Emma Lieberman walks into the cafe in North Hollywood where we are meeting, heads turn. She is beautiful. More importantly, she has flashing eyes that sparkle with intellect, a New York confidence, and a smile that puts people at ease. This is the ultimate “girl next door” and, in spite of myself, I feel just a bit prouder that she walks to my table.
The Royal Tour: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me! How long have you known that you wanted to be an actor?
Emma Lieberman: Always. When I was a kid, like five years old, my friend and I would put on shows during playdates, and make our parents come. We tried to make them pay for it.
TRT: Did that work?
EL: No. We would hold out our hands and tell them it was five dollars for the show, but they would just mime paying us. Totally not the same thing. So yeah, as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an actor. One summer I was considering being a lawyer. My parents got very excited. They sent me to this summer program at Georgetown where I got to take law classes, and it was really interesting. I took this mock trial class, keeping in mind that trial was the part of law that interested me the most, I got my ass handed to me on a silver platter by a guy whose native language wasn’t even English. So I figured if I suck so badly at this, and it’s the part that interests me, maybe I will just be on a legal drama instead.
TRT: Is there any particular role model who pushed you in this direction, or inspired the journey?
EL: I’ve had a variety of role models. I tend to skew toward comedy, so I have been a huge fan of Tina Fey for a very long time. 30 Rock is such a smart comedy, and she was so great on that, and on SNL. In a similar vein but with a different comedic style is Amy Poehler. They are so close and they did such great work together on SNL, but I would argue that 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation are, despite both being brilliant, two completely different shows with different mindsets about what people are. I’ve also really come to appreciate Julia Louis Dreyfus, and I also love anyone who can successfully pull off an Aaron Sorkin dialogue.
(Editor’s note. Here our conversation devolves into a discussion of Aaron Sorkin shows. The West Wing is the best show ever.)
TRT: So you moved to LA nine months ago. What made you ultimately decide to leave New York and come here?
EL: Well, New York and LA are both amazing, but it’s two different kinds of acting.
TRT: You want to do screen instead of stage?
EL: Yeeesss? (Editor’s note: not sure how to spell out the hesitance she spoke with here.) My background and training are in theatre, and theatre is my primary degree from Brandeis, and it’s a lot of my formative works. I’ve got a ton of Shakespeare experience. Theatre is where great performing artists are born. That being said, even when I was in New York, I was cast more in film and tv. Secondly, I feel there are so many interesting things happening in film and tv today, and thirdly, from a business perspective, it is much easier to get paid at an earlier level. You do a lot of non-union theatre in New York for a long time before you might even be considered for an off-off-Broadway production and are able to become equity (part of the stage actors’ union). I have a definition in my head of what defines success to me, and every decision I make, I ask myself if it is furthering me toward that goal. And I believe that the film work I can do here is better at obtaining that goal that doing more non-union work in New York.
TRT: That makes perfect sense. My next question is very open ended, but how is it going so far? For instance, coming here, integrating into the community, finding an agent, joining unions, finding auditions, and all of that. What should people know about what that looks like coming to town?
EL: There are a couple different components to what you’ve asked. I’m going to start with the first part, which is personal. How is it going? It’s going fairly well. I can see where I can improve in what I am doing, but I am part of a sketch comedy group that is releasing stuff every week, and I am in a Hollywood fringe show. I am in a production rehearsing in LA that will be performing in Dallas later this summer. And I have an agent now, which is great! So that is the personal side of the question “how is it going”. It seems the second part of your question is more “how does it go?”
TRT: Yeah. I guess those are two very different things.
EL: You need a couple tools as an actor in order to market yourself. This is a business, and you are trying to sell yourself and your brand to directors and producers who might cast you. So you have your resume, which shows you are a professional and have worked before, so you can be trusted to show up on set and do the things you need to do. Through that resume, you also show the sorts of roles you have played, so you can show that yes, I have done similar sorts of projects, and therefore I am right for this. Going into Shakespeare for a second, let’s say I want to play Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. I have a resume where I have played Perdita in A Winter’s Tale and Desdemona in Othello, so I can be reasonably assumed to be able to play this role as well, since all are fairly similar. Then you have your website, where you can talk about where you’ve been, and have clips of work you have previously done, which are combined to form a reel, which is one to two minutes of your work. And most importantly, you also have your headshot. Your headshot has to be everything at once: your type, you the way you look on your best day. This is not a picture from a friend who is a photographer; this has to be from a professional headshot photographer so it captures everything it needs to. So you have all these tools. So what do you do with them? There are a couple of websites you use to market yourself, places like Backstage, Actors’ Access, and LA Casting. You put your headshot, reel, and resume up on those sites, and then people who are casting for small projects will allow you to submit your stuff for roles they are looking for. The casting director will look at those, and choose some based on headshots, and those will be given auditions, and then hopefully you will land the role!
TRT: Do you find that having your headshot be that first impression is, in a way, objectifying you, especially in this era of “me too”?
EL: The headshot isn’t supposed to be a sexy picture. It should be a picture of me on my best day. But keep in mind that all actors, even those cast as specifically not perfect looking characters, have headshots, and those also show them on their best days. It should give casting directors a glimpse of who you are, so I don’t feel objectified at all. If someone is looking for the overweight kid, my headshot shows that isn’t me. Same with the punk kid with tattoos. If someone is looking for the cute, slightly nerdy college-age girl who is a bit shy but clearly has a mind of her own, that is me, and my headshot shows that.
TRT: Ok, so getting back to the process, you put your headshot up, get selected, and go in for an audition. Or your agent gets you one. But what does that look like? It has got to be like a job interview, but where you are being judged on everything about you, not just your skills and experience.
EL: Let’s assume this is for film and television because auditions for theatre, commercials, and the like are all completely different processes. While there are always exceptions, and people who have weird auditions, the basic process is like this. You get the sides 24-48 hours before you go in. The sides are a two, maybe three, page scene from their production with is usually two characters talking, and your character is one of the most important parts of that scene. Ideally, it is one of your character’s either funniest or most dramatic scenes, depending on if it is a comedy or drama. They want to see how you handle it. There’s really interesting video online of different actors auditioning for the role of Jim Halpert on The Office. You have a bunch of actors who are very similar, and these are known amazing actors. So why does John Krasinski get the part? All of the actors played the role in completely valid ways, and all have very similar looks, but all were very different in what they brought to the role, and his interpretation was the one that the director liked best. The most enlightened actors – that sounds so pretentious of me, but fuck it – understand that, that at the end of the day, a lot of auditioning has nothing to do with them, that at a certain level, everyone is great, so it just comes down to the way you interpret the role, and whether that is what the director and producer are looking for.
TRT: Is it hard knowing that more often than not, you are going to be told no?
EL: I think you just accept that. I go into auditions with the mindset that I assume I am going to be told no. If I think I am going to be told yes every time, that is heartbreaking rejection I just can’t take. I go in there, and without trying to sound too new age, I just try to be grateful to have the opportunity to play with this character in the first place. I go in there, assume this is the only time I will ever do these sides, and then I am done. Anything beyond that is a gift. And then I go get myself a little treat. It’s always good to have something to look forward to later in the day.
TRT: So what does an average week look like, in terms of number of auditions and such?
EL: Right now I am not auditioning as much, since I am in two plays and a sketch comedy group, but let’s say it’s a busy part of the season, I can go on two to three a week? And I get sent the sides, and I analyze the script – every actor has his or her method, and I apply mine. And then I put on makeup, go down to Hollywood, do my thing, and get my treat! And if I get the part, great! And if not, I wasn’t right for it.
TRT: That’s an amazing way to look at it! I am not sure I could do that, and I have a ton of respect for people who can live that way.
EL: It’s just about adjusting expectations.
TRT: That leads perfectly into my next question. There are thousands of people who come to LA in pursuit of this dream. Not all of them “make it.” Why will you?
EL: First off, make it is a really vague term. I’m going to answer with a short story that encapsulates what many actors who come to LA have in their mindset. When I first moved to LA, I was subletting in West Hollywood while I got my feet on the ground. I started chatting with one of my neighbors there, and he told me he wanted to be an actor, but he didn’t know how to go about starting. So I told him about all the things we talked about earlier. Someone helped me, and I always figure to pay it forward and help others who are starting out. Anyway, a few months later I ran into this guy on the Metro. And at that point, his method of getting roles was, as he told me, praying for them. He is a very sweet guy, but isn’t willing to put the work in. He also thinks fame is the goal, which is a mindset I cannot stand. I don’t want to be famous. That sounds horrific, the idea of being followed. Just unbearable. Once in a while for someone to say, “Hey, I loved your work in whatever,” that would be amazing. But not the fame that prevents you from walking the street in peace. But I digress. So, the reasons why I am going to make it. I recognize the work that it takes, and I do it. I recognize that my success is primarily on me. I have an agent now, but she gets paid 10% of what I make, so she should be doing 10% of the work. I know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I know how to stay in touch with people who can help me because at the end of the day it is also in large part about who you know. But for the most part, I just keep my head down, and am nice to people, and I do the work. And I love the work. And I truly believe that will lead to success at the end.
TRT: Ok, so you’ve been in LA for nine months. This is my home, so keep that in mind. What is your honest opinion of LA as a place?
EL: I think there is an incredible patchwork quilt of neighborhoods here. Hollywood is so different from Beverly Hills is so different from Santa Monica is so different from Glendale, and so on. It’s kind of satisfying that there is a neighborhood for every feeling, for every mood, and it’s all relatively accessible. I don’t have to drive six hours to get a San Francisco vibe; I can just go to Silver Lake. I think LA is almost unrelentingly beautiful. People here have style. LA is known as being a city of beauty, and there is a reason.
TRT: People here put on nice clothes and makeup to go hiking.
EL: Exactly. That one is a bit weird to me because I feel makeup would melt, but maybe they are just better at makeup than I am. LA is also a place where people are very conscious of the environment around them, and making the environment better, and not torturing animals. People make fun of the LA vegan lifestyle, and I eat meat, but I love living in a place where I can be green all the time. My restaurant just said that we won’t automatically serve straws with drinks anymore, and that is such an LA thing. You would never find that in New York. And I love it! I sometimes wish people in LA would be a little more straightforward with me. I definitely miss that about New York. But this is totally unlike anywhere else I have ever lived.
TRT: That can be both a plus and a minus, I guess.
EL: Yep. I hope I wasn’t too insulting to your hometown.
TRT: Not at all. I have a love/hate relationship with LA. I think many people who grew up here do. I suppose there are those rare people who grew up in Santa Monica who believe that anywhere more than two blocks from the Southern California beach is irrelevant, but that’s not me. Do you have any favorite spots you’ve discovered in your time here?
EL: I really like being here in the NoHo (North Hollywood) Arts District, partially because it’s very theatre-y, but I feel it also has just a very young and hip vibe. West Hollywood is pretty cool. I really like Santa Monica. Obviously it is gorgeous, and rich people live there, but I think it also just has a really great vibe. The most “LA” party I ever went to was at a post house in Santa Monica. It was a Halloween party that was bondage themed. There were chains hanging from the ceilings, and the place was just decked out.
TRT: That would make me incredibly uncomfortable.
EL: Haha. Well, despite that, it was gorgeous. And everyone there was just complaining how bad the party was compared to the previous year, which was Persia themed, and they had fire eaters. Beyond that, I guess I feel like most neighborhoods have their cool areas. Koreatown has a very big city vibe to it.
TRT: K-Town is fun! My last question to you is again, pretty open-ended. Do you think that Hollywood, as an industry not as a place, is good for Los Angeles?
EL: That’s a good question!
TRT: Thanks. I try to find one good one in each interview just to throw people off.
EL: It’s hard to say. I don’t know how much a non-actor sees what I see, and has the point of view I have, but in my experience so far, absolutely everything around me caters to actors. Like actors like me, who are starting out their careers, maybe have a few credits, but still have day jobs. So for instance, every accountant I have met here caters to actors, and knows how to get you the best write-offs for that. Classes, even non-performance classes, talk to actors. So a yoga class, for example, will tell you to put everything out of your mind, that audition that didn’t go well, the role you didn’t get. So the industry is so much a fabric of the city. I don’t know that I could imagine LA without Hollywood.
TRT: The lack of people being straightforward with you, do you think that is something that has to do with the entertainment industry? Do you think Hollywood has created that “nice to your face, mean behind your back” vibe that people associate with LA?
EL: Yes, I do think it is because the industry is here, because at the end of the day, it’s all about who you know, and you never know who can help you. Is that a good or bad thing for everyone else? It probably depends on the person. One of the things about people who make it in LA, whether in Hollywood or even in general, is they are smart. They are driven. They know their stuff, they do what they need to do, and they will be successful, no matter the obstacles. They are so shrewd, they can read people, and they understand the steps it takes to ultimately make it. I think that Hollywood culture brings it out of people here. People here, and this is going to sound terrible, know how to manipulate people. That isn’t necessarily bad. Getting people to help you can be a great skill, and most people won’t manipulate people to do bad things. So I guess what I am saying is that the knowledge of human character is really strong here.
TRT: That’s a really amazing description, and a way I hadn’t thought about it before. A lot of native Angelenos hate that superficial vibe, but I guess we don’t see the positive in it. I am going to have to think on this more. Emma, thank you so much for your time and your perspective on this incredible city!