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Actress Melissa Center: “The world need artists to survive, we are the truth-tellers, the “canaries in the coal mine,” the innovators, the boundary-pushers (need I go on?)”

The world need artists to survive. We are the truth-tellers, the “canaries in the coal mine,” the innovators, the boundary-pushers (need I go on?). Art in all forms has the capacity to connect all beings no matter race, gender, religion, class, etc. Artists need money to survive. I would start some sort of fully funded […]


The world need artists to survive. We are the truth-tellers, the “canaries in the coal mine,” the innovators, the boundary-pushers (need I go on?). Art in all forms has the capacity to connect all beings no matter race, gender, religion, class, etc. Artists need money to survive. I would start some sort of fully funded multi-disciplinary incubator that provided housing, resources, & on-going education to artists. This includes musicians, visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, actors, etc. Artists could choose to show &/or sell their work via platforms we’d set up. There would be a theatre on-site, a gallery, a music venue, studio space for visual artists, a recording studio, & a soundstage for filmmaking. As part of the ecosystem, artists who reside in this (now imaginary) incubator would be required to teach/mentor others. This aspect could be done online so individuals of any background / in any location could benefit. Once a year we’d host a massive gala where works & services would be auctioned to raise funds for a community or organization in need.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Center. Melissa is an actress, filmmaker & budding entrepreneur living in LA. Her multifaceted career began after graduating Summa Cum Laude from Northwestern University. From touring with A Chorus Line in Hawaii to originating a one-woman show in New York City to writing/co-directing/producing & starring in an award-winning film, her passion and tenacity permeate her daily life.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you so much for reaching out to me! Truthfully I wish I could understand why I chose this life. ANY other career-path would be a much easier road. I have always felt it was just in me to express & create. Additionally, I have always had an entrepreneurial bent. I am also VERY stubborn. My specific path combines all things! If I can pinpoint the origin, the spark was ignited quite young thanks to my parents who always valued the arts. Thankfully they exposed my siblings and I to the theater, film, music & more. My earliest memories include ET & The Nutcracker — At 2 years old I had an ET birthday party. He was my first best friend. I’ve shared this before, but I STILL have my original ET doll. ET to me is pure magic. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for igniting my imagination & planting the seeds for my moviemaking dreams! As for The Nutcracker, I have a distinct memory of an actual dream: I was on-stage alongside Clara. The stage is in the round and lights shine on us. If I look out into the audience I can only see darkness since the lights are so bright. I think this dream occurred as my mom pushed me in a stroller down a hallway at the theatre.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

Back when I lived in New York City I was performing in musicals. I had the good fortune of working on several productions of A Chorus Line, a show near & dear to my heart. One of my favorite productions was a mini-tour that we did in Hawaii directed by Mitzi Hamilton & musical directed by Fran Liebergall. For the theatre nerds out there, the character Val (“Dance 10, Looks 3”) is based on Mitzi’s life. Fran was the right-hand lady to composer Marvin Hamlisch during the development of the play in 1974. En route to the first leg of the tour my cast was coincidentally at Newark Airport at the exact time as Mr. Hamlisch (may he rest in peace)! What are the odds? We made sure to snap a picture before we went off to Hawaii. Several months after the tour, much of our cast was invited to perform the show at the Nemacolin Resort in Pennsylvania for the resort owner’s 84th birthday. Additional entertainers included Bette Midler, Robin Williams (RIP) and Christina Aguilera. A few months after that, we reunited with Mr. Hamlisch once again to perform “One Singular Sensation” at another fancy birthday party, this time at The Armory in NYC. Martin Short MC’d, Rod Stewart & his band performed, and guests included Colin Powell & Vera Wang among others. After we performed we drank champagne and danced with the guests. I remember thinking, “What planet am I on?!” It was an amazing time in my life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was called in to audition for a tiny role in a movie about Jeff Buckley that Avy Kaufman’s office was casting. For those who don’t know, she is a MAJOR casting director (Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, The Night Of, Maniac). At the time, I was used to acting on stage, so I didn’t quite know how to adjust for camera. The role I was auditioning for was an “adoring fan.” Since this took place in the 70’s I made sure to wear attire inspired by the era. I always obsessed over this — what’s too costumey and what’s the perfect suggestion? Do I wear a hair accessory? Stressing about attire was problem #1. Then, Instead of trusting the camera to read my thoughts/love for this great artist, I made some goofy face to show my “adoration.” I remember the casting director saying, “These small roles are the hardest” which was code for “better luck next time.” I left the room kicking myself because I’d wanted to make a good impression at this office. Wah wah. The lesson? Firstly, don’t suck. Secondly, if you are stressing about your clothes, you are already in trouble. Third, less is more, especially on-camera!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve spent the last year travelling with and promoting a short film I made called R.V which is a 10 minute narrative about the current threat to women’s reproductive rights. I’m so proud of this film. The response to R.V has been amazing. It is an ESSENTIAL time for this film to be seen — Roe vs Wade is in serious jeopardy. 7 states have only ONE abortion clinic in the ENTIRE state. The Ohio House just introduced a bill that would CRIMINALIZE abortion once a heartbeat is detected, which is as early as 6 weeks. Most women do not even know they are pregnant at this point! Additionally, there are no exceptions included for rape or incest. If this bill passes, a woman could be tried for life and even be subject to the death penalty for aborting a fetus. This is unacceptable. Period. R.V is a confronting fim that encourages empathy for women’s experiences. I like to call it a cautionary tale. You can watch it online at rvshortfilm.org. Facebook users can watch / share at bit.ly/RVshortfilm

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I met Kevin Bacon once. The rumors are true — He’s MAGNETIC! And very nice.

Celebrities aside, though, some of the most interesting people I’ve interacted with are regular working people! I love learning about people’s lives. That’s what makes me tick 🙂

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

A career in the arts is filled with uncertainty on all fronts and burnout is pretty inevitable. The path is not logical and “success” has so many definitions. My suggestion is to figure out a sustainable source of income that supports your artistic pursuits and doesn’t suck you dry. Do that first. I wish someone told me I didn’t have to wait tables in order to be an actress. I bought into that trope. Despite my recent successes I’m now rearranging my picture to have more agency over my life and time. It’s not easy. It’s ALL self-generated. A career as an artist is a MARATHON, and not a sprint. Prioritize self-care. You’ll need it. Godspeed!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The world need artists to survive. We are the truth-tellers, the “canaries in the coal mine,” the innovators, the boundary-pushers (need I go on?). Art in all forms has the capacity to connect all beings no matter race, gender, religion, class, etc. Artists need money to survive. I would start some sort of fully funded multi-disciplinary incubator that provided housing, resources, & on-going education to artists. This includes musicians, visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, actors, etc. Artists could choose to show &/or sell their work via platforms we’d set up. There would be a theatre on-site, a gallery, a music venue, studio space for visual artists, a recording studio, & a soundstage for filmmaking. As part of the ecosystem, artists who reside in this (now imaginary) incubator would be required to teach/mentor others. This aspect could be done online so individuals of any background / in any location could benefit. Once a year we’d host a massive gala where works & services would be auctioned to raise funds for a community or organization in need.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • If you want to be a theater / musical performer in NYC you will have to spend most of your time outside of NYC in shows you aren’t necessarily passionate about. I LOVED living in New York. It became apparent that if I wanted to earn my living doing musical theater, I’d need to always travel out of town to regional theaters. Doing regional theater was the stepping stone to Broadway. I wish my mind had been prepared for this reality. I resisted it and, as such, deprioritized Broadway dreams.
  • Save & invest as early as humanly possible. Though I was decent about setting aside savings when I could, I wish I’d been better & saved more. I’ve lived in 2 of the 3 most expensive cities in the US, & most of my earnings have gone straight into the high cost of living. I also wish I’d learned how to invest at a younger age. It is a weakness of mine.
  • Your path will be completely unique so comparing yourself to anyone else is useless. No one’s path is the same. I repeat. No one’s path is the same. Comparing yourself to others solely pulls you off your own path. A friend of mine equated our paths with school once and it made a lot of sense — Pretend you are a Political Science student. Why would you compare yourself to someone who is studying Biology, for example? You can’t! You are taking different classes, have different exams, different teachers, etc. As actors we are studying unique curriculum. Don’t try to take someone else’s Final — you’ll fail!
  • You are worth way more than you think or are often told. Unfortunately actors on the rise (and women in general) are insanely undervalued and often underappreciated. Because of how we are treated on the outside, we often internalize this on the inside. This is a slippery slope and can lead to low self-esteem and self-sabotage. It takes a VERY strong person to show up in the face of constant loss, “rejection,” and uncertainty. If you can learn to hone & own your sense of self, you will be unstoppable!
  • Measuring success quantitatively doesn’t serve everyone. Success in the arts can be measured in MANY different ways. I myself know I am successful even though I don’t yet have a million dollars in the bank. If I measured quantitatively I would have quit years ago, and my dream of starring in a feature film would have never come true! Not everyone will understand your personal choices. Forgive my language, but Fuck ’em. The only opinion that matters at the end of the day is YOURS! Are you proud of your accomplishments? If so, you’re a success!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I come back to this again and again:

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

― Agnes De Mille

Though I find this maddening (the human mind tries SO HARD to predict the future), I know it to be true. It’s scary AF, but such is life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would NOT be who I am without the unconditional love & support of my family. I am VERY lucky. I was nurtured as a child, encouraged, provided for, educated, championed, and more. In times of need my entire family has my back. I do not take this for granted.

I also want to acknowledge one of my mentors, Wynn Handman. For those who don’t know his name, he is a legendary acting teacher & director in New York City. He’s the Artistic Director of The American Place Theatre, which was instrumental in forming the Off-Broadway movement. Some of Wynn’s more recognizable former students include Alec Baldwin, Chris Cooper, Mira Sorvino, Frank Langella, Allison Janney, Mia Farrow, Richard Gere, Denzel Washington, & Lauren Graham to name a few. He also nurtured playwrights such as Sam Shepard, Eric Bogosian, and Maria Irene Fornes.

Wynn helped shape me into the artist & human I am today. He believed in me & validated me as a “serious actress.” He challenged me to dig deep & dedicate myself to work that had and has meaning. He showed me what I was capable of and paved the way for my journey as a creator. I’m forever grateful.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

This is a hard one because there are MANY amazing people I want to meet! Right now I’d be interested in sitting down with Lady Gaga. I find her impressive in so many ways. She is an extremely talented, honest & brave artist, brilliant marketer, and generous human. In small world fashion, her parents used to come into a wine bar in New York where I used to work — Barcibo Enoteca! I’d love to learn about her journey, creative process, business savvy, how she manages depression, copes with the pressures & demands of celebrity, and what’s next now that A Star is Born has been such a success. It’d be incredible to collaborate with her on a project. Strong, creative women unite!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram — @melissacenter

Twitter — @melissacenter

Facebook — @themelissacenter

Website — www.melissacenter.com

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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