It was August of 2015 when I last laid eyes on actor Lisa Ermel, a former Indy resident. We met at the Starbucks on Mass Ave, where I conducted an “exit interview” with her the day before she left for Los Angeles to enter the MFA program in acting at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Dramatic Arts.
During her time in Indy, I reviewed various shows Ermel appeared in at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Actors Theatre of Indiana, Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre, and Cardinal Stage Company. Eventually, she and I met and became friends after working together in a commercial we booked through Helen Wells Agency, which represented us both.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Ermel grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Starting at the age of nine, she has performed in over fifty plays and musicals. According to her bio, she is politically active, an LGTBQ+ community advocate, loves horseback riding, skydiving and enjoys a good rye Manhattan.
All the while Ermel attended USC, I followed her on Facebook, which allowed me to stay in touch as she worked to obtain her MFA, which she finally did in May. By the time she and I spoke by phone from her L.A. home last week, we had plenty to catch up on.
Following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation, as well as excerpts from email messages.
How was the USC MFA program?
It was really incredible. I am still reeling at the fact that it’s done because it is so much work and so much effort and time being put into it. So, it is really incredible to call it accomplished.
Are you proud of yourself?
I am incredibly proud of myself. It was a big risk to move out here, away from a community I felt so inspired by and comfortable in. And where there is more risk, there is more possibility for failure. For me, it was a perfect springboard to go into grad school and to move to this big city at the same time. My plan was to spend three years honing my craft and discovering what my artistic voice is so that when I graduated in this bigger city, I would know what foundation I’m standing on.
I recall that when we last spoke you said you needed to discover yourself as an artist.
I had noticed I wasn’t challenging myself for some reason. I don’t know if it had anything to do with Indianapolis, per se. For me, I just noticed that I really needed to be in an uncomfortable new environment to figure out what that artistic voice was.
Would you say you faced your fears?
I did. I was taught by some incredible faculty. They really pushed me to face the fear. When you apply you have to write an essay that is your statement of purpose for receiving training, I wrote about my fear and how I was afraid of making choices in my acting and being more present. And my fear of even the basics of acting. I was having a lot of fears surrounding it, for some reason. That was what my purpose was. I don’t want to live in fear, insecurity, anger and all these negative things.
Did you suffer from fear of failure or fear of success or both?
What I have learned is that it’s a little bit of both. I think what we are afraid of as humans is shining really brightly because the more we shine, the more space we take up. As artists, we have a tremendous opportunity to tell stories that take up space and really affect communities and citizens, especially social issues. So, I think it is scary to know the tremendous power we have. I think for my first year of training, I definitely learned that I have a tremendous fear of failing, but once I got past that, it was like “How do I get over my fear of greatness?” because everyone has the potential to be great.
Were you affected by the way you were raised? Sometimes people are raised to be humble and to hide their light under a bushel.
You know, that’s a great question. I grew up in a very conservative, Christian household and in the church. I used to lead worship in my church and I was very active. This was growing up in Wisconsin. I was very active in the youth group and bible study and mission trips and I felt like my life was shining for someone else the whole time; like, it was for a god or a congregation. I always performed and was in service for someone else, so I think that may have been part of it.
Did the program exceed your expectations?
It exceeded my expectations. I honestly thought that getting my MFA would be like learning dialects. It is just a place to explore…I had no idea the deep exploration that was involved. The way the program is set up, the first year is personal work, so you are learning imagery and your body and who you are as a unique individual. The second year is character work and you learn, “How do I serve this story?” “How do I build a character?” Not make it about myself because that is not what our work is. The third year is focused more on performance and putting it into action and then they have a professional seminar. They had a casting director workshop. Incredible casting directors came in and we started building relationships with them in our third year
What was the concentration, theatre or film?
Mostly theatre, but the first half of the training is theatre and the second half really goes into acting for film. One thing that is unique about USC is that they are developing a new media program within the MFA in which you learn how to create your own content. That has really aided me in finding what my artistic voice is because I have started writing. I am writing a web series and a short which is really cool.
What kinds of stories do you want to tell?
Those of redemption. Not in a religious way, in a self-exclamatory way. Those of women overcoming oppression. Of humans coming into their own skin. And in doing so, helping others do the same, or possibly discovering connection! This is all incredibly exciting, liberating, and sexy to me.
Tell me about your fellow students.
That was a class unto itself. We started with 12 and only lost one. They were from all parts of the world, all walks of life, an incredibly diverse group. There was a different nationality from one person to the next. It was so beautiful and challenging because it is was lot of different personalities, a lot of different strengths and weaknesses, like all put into a big pot. We learned how to work together as a team and how to communicate with each other. It really helped me learn how to be a collaborator, which is really huge in this industry, to learn how to really build upon each other’s ideas instead of tear each other down.
Did you bond and was it mostly professional or personal?
It was definitely a little bit of both. It varied from person to person, of course. Everyone was on a different path. Some were more familial. Then, there were people, like me, at the beginning who were like “Let’s keep this professional.” After the years went on, it really helped me to open up and understand how to bond with people.
Was it therapeutic?
In some ways, I could see that it was therapeutic for me, but it always came back to the work. I learned in movement class how tight my spine is and I learned how that is tied to some psychological issues. I learned how to break past that, so in the work, I am freer and more open to playing the characters that are expected of me. It’s not about “Oh, what are you feeling?” They are really strict about “Put it into the work.” and how does it affect you as an actor. Nine times out of ten, if you are having issues as a human, you are probably having it as an actor? That’s what I think, because we are our stories. We are the stories we tell, you know? I think that’s what makes an actor different than a painter or even a songwriter. It is our entire instrument. It’s our brain, it’s our heart, our soul, our body, everything. It is our life experience that makes us who we are.
When you left Indy, money was tight and you had to raise money to get out to California and enter school. How did that go?
Yes, I had an Indiegogo fundraising page. I was having a snafu with loan money for the first semester. It was overwhelming how much support I got. It really helped me with the transition. I not only got the financial backing to follow my dreams, but also emotional and mental support as well.
How did you finally manage to get through school financially?
Loan, loans, loans.(Laughs). It’s not the best route, but at school, we were doing 60-hour weeks most of the time, so there was no time to work. I wasn’t able to.
What are you doing now?
We had a showcase in New York and L.A., so I am in the process of picking meetings with agencies and managers. I am trying to find the right fit for me. In the meantime, I am finding some survival jobs. I am also writing. I am creating a web series.
Tell me about our L.A. Experience? Does it meet your expectations?
It has exceeded my expectations. I heard a lot of negative things about L.A. There is a stigma attached to everything, of course. The stigma to L.A. is that it’s fake and all people care about is being famous. People are like super hippie and vegan, free love all the time.(Laughs). It might be true, but I noticed that it is just as much about the work here as it is in Chicago or New York. You just have to find the right people.
Are you still close to the Indy people who moved to L.A. around the same time you did?
Oh, of course. I still have a strong friendship with them. Even though I don’t get to see them that much, they have always been there and I have endless text message communication with Ryan O’Shea, Arianne Villarreal and Peter Dorn (Lindblom).
Who else have you become friends with?
The entire USC School of Dramatic Arts is really close. I have really gotten close with students who graduated before me and right after me. We are a very tight community and so is the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, which is this incredible film school. I have been able to work with a lot of them on short films and projects and readings. Being able to be connected with them is really fantastic, knowing that I have those collaborators.
Do all the graduates in the alum network help you too?
Of course. We have had incredible Q&As with actors who come in. Even someone like Bryan Cranston. He is not a graduate, but his daughter is attending USC right now and he came and did an incredible Q&A with us. I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities like that, to experience these incredible artists who have come to talk to us.
Did you encounter any other talents?
I had the incredibly opportunity to work personally with Tony Kushner for a part of my master’s thesis. When casting was announced for “A Bright Room Called Day,” my teacher and mentor, David Warshofsky, informed us Tony would be rewriting my character, Zillah. Tony and David are pals from NYU, years ago. Tony and I spent months doing Skype sessions, getting emails with rewrites, working those, waiting, phone calls, and then more rewrites. Then, more waiting. Even into performances, with pages in hand. Doing this was possibly the biggest challenge for me as an actor, learning patience, learning process, and learning how to put my ego aside and just do the work. I was still changing costume pieces and building character on closing night. What a wonderful experience. Tony’s courage in his writing has greatly influenced me as an artist, and as a person, so to be able to get to know him as he builds within that was a gift I’ll always take with me. (Playwright Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” just won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.)
What kind of career do you hope to have?
Definitely one like Elizabeth Moss’. Or Maggie Siff’s. Or Janet McTeer’s. Oh gosh, I don’t know. I just want to get to a point where I’m financially independent, artistically able to choose the work that inspires me, and continuing a curiosity of spirit as I move along.
Where do you see yourself professionally in 25 years?
Starring in an HBO show I wrote. I have so many stories to tell.
Have you been discovered yet?
Not yet. (Laughs)
Have you been to any Hollywood parties? Are you a good networker?
Yes, I have gone to a few hot spots. It’s something I haven’t had much time to do because I have been in school and now I hope to find more time to do more. I was in a music video with the Cinematic School of Art that was in a film festival called “Dances With Films.” It’s a really respectable film festival out here. So, that was really cool to have a whole weekend networking. I am hoping to work with someone I met there.
How have you changed?
I have definitely changed. I feel like a completely different person. That is not to say that I don’t still struggle with fears and insecurities at all. Every day, I will have a thought come through my mind. My unhelpful ego has shrunk. I think there was no choice in that throughout training. To realize it is not about me. It is about the stories I can tell. I was really afraid of what people thought of me. I was focusing on the wrong thing.
I always admired that you wore your heart on your sleeve and were willing to show your vulnerability.
Well, thank you. I am learning how to put that more into my work and how to come to my characters with more heart and more compassion. As a human, I am practicing listening a lot more. My ex-boyfriend can attest that I am not a good listener (Laughs). Listening was not my strength before coming to training. Now, I feel I can listen better.
Why are you an actor?
Since I was eight years old, it was to escape the life I had. I wanted to hide in the limelight. It was about me and protecting myself in some way. Now, it’s to serve the stories of those who cannot share their own, to give voice to those written that might help those watching not feel so alone. Because we are never alone.
Who are your biggest influences as an artist?
Definitely Freddie Mercury and Bette Davis. And recently, I’m so inspired by Andrea Riseborough’s work in “Black Mirror” (Episode: Crocodile). Holy hell. What incredible storytelling.
Who are your biggest influences as a human being?
Currently, my four core USC instructors, David Bridel, David Warshofsky, Natsuko Ohama and Andy Robinson. They have provided me with a compass that always points to my true north, while leaving their indelible unique marks within. They are the reason I am who I am today, without a doubt. They’ve taught me how to be my biggest human.
Are you in a relationship now?
Yes, I met a man who graduated last year from the program. His name is Julián Juaquín. It’s a really happy situation. He is Colombian and grew up in New York. He is an actor, director and writer. He does everything. What was really helpful was that because he comes from the program, he really understood how much effort and time I had to put into my studies. There was always an understanding and he always gave me space to grow on my own instead of being defined by him.
Have you kept an eye on Indy?
Definitely. It sounds like Indy is just blossoming. Even more. Every year. I mean I am not surprised at all because it is filled with artists that are very devoted.
Any advice to actors about taking risks like you have?
I don’t feel I’m one to give advice. Just do what makes you happy. Then, you’ll shine like you’re meant to. And everyone is meant to, I believe.
Do you have a message for your Indy friends, fans and acquaintances?
Since my first role at the IRT, to my swan song at the Phoenix, Indianapolis became my home when I needed one most. It’s a professional community that welcomed me and I’m forever grateful. I look forward to coming back one day and sharing the work I’ve done over the last three years and seeing how it’s changed too. Please, keep fostering that community.