Professionalism and preparation are everything- you may be the best actor in the world, but if you are a pain to work with or are never prepared, you will not get any work.
Know why you want to act- it can be deceivingly hard… so knowing where you want to go and what it does for you is key when times are rough. If you just want stardom and glamour, this business will chew you up. You have to actually love the process.
Be yourself- it is important to play to an audience sometimes, but it is also important to lean into what makes you unique. There are thousands upon thousands of actors, but your unique quirks will be what set you apart:)
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Calhoun Koenig.
Calhoun came to the US from Northern China at the age of 1 and has lived in New York, Delaware, and Michigan. She is passionate about telling great stories, loves dystopian literature, art, and neurosciences. She is a singer, dancer, scuba diver, writer, painter/multi-media artist, and accomplished pianist. Calhoun can be seen in the film Oz, The Great and Powerful, NBC’s Law and Order SVU, and currently in the new family Christmas film that celebrates adoption, diversity, and acceptance, “A Bennett Song Holiday,” available on all major cable and VOD streaming platforms and on DVD.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was found on the steps of a government building in Dingbian, Shaanxi, China as a newborn, and lived in an orphanage until I was 14 months old. My parents adopted me, and we lived in NY and DE until I was 7. Now I live in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, but I’m moving to LA in January. I was in public school until I was 15 but finished the last 2 years of high school as a homeschooler, doing on-line and college classes between acting gigs. I have one little brother. He was adopted from Guatemala. My dad is a finance guy in the automotive industry. My mom was in the music industry, but when my film career started taking off, she got involved in the film too and is now a screenwriter and producer.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 7, my school didn’t have a choir until 4th grade. My parents saw that I had a good voice and my dance studio had a show choir for kids starting. A few weeks later, the teacher was also starting an acting class right after show choir. I was painfully shy and my parents wanted to help bring me out of my shell and thought that might just help with that. But I quickly fell in love with the character-building process. I did 20 plays in the next 4 years. Oddly enough, the moment that drove me to film was the first time I lost a big stage lead I really wanted and someone else in the show talked to me about film. I tried it and found I loved it even more. I have always loved psychology and the behavioral sciences and acting is a perfect mixture of art and structure and understanding the human condition.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your entertainment career?
I remember on the set of Law and Order SVU there were actually stand-ins for every principal role, called A cast and B cast. I found it super crazy because the B cast would be on set in place of the A cast when the crew and everyone were blocking and setting lights, and then when it was actually time to shoot, they’d bring the A cast on. The girl who was my B cast stand-in looked a lot like me and we had the same wardrobe and everything! It was crazy.
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?
On the set of Oz The Great and Powerful, we had super long days, so the PAs would bring us water. One day, I accidentally left my water bottle on a hot set. Maybe if you look hard enough, you will find a random Kirkland brand water bottle in Quadling country, ha ha.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Who do you think that might help people?
Working on the Bennett Song films was very unique. Being adopted myself, it was amazing to tell a story of an Asian American with very similar experiences to me. There isn’t enough representation for adopted families in the film world, or shows often get it wrong, and these films do a beautiful job of normalizing it. But most importantly, A Bennett Song Holiday is a film that could also help the world today by celebrating diversity and unity. We are so divided, but this is a holiday film that shows the beauty of people of all races coming together and lifting up the entire community. And the songs, especially the big song at the end, Seasons of Love, is everything the holidays should be…regardless of how you celebrate or what your heritage is…it’s a Season of Love.
Most young people your age don’t have to balance work and school. Can you tell us how you manage to balance your schoolwork, auditions, and time on set?
It is hard. I can’t even lie, ha ha. But at the end of the day it is all about being in tune with yourself and knowing when you need to slow down. There is no shame in saying no to opportunities if you can’t bring them your all. I took a special test at 15…that basically showed I could pass all high school requirements, so then I could pursue my own studies on my own time. I finished high school this summer. Because the film industry is slower in summer, I’m now focusing on my career during the traditional school year and starting college courses just in summer and taking my time. I also am a big reader, so I’m always learning.
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?
My manager, Bennie, has been such a huge support. I have pretty notable anxiety and there have been numerous times when I was freaking out over an audition, but he has never failed to calm me down. Relationships with your team are so important and I am so grateful to have a manager that truly cares and loves all of his clients the way Bennie does. My mom has also made huge sacrifices to carve out a path for me, but she’s my mom, so that’s what they do!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. No one wants you to fail- I used to be so scared of auditioning because I thought I would mess up and they would never want to hire me for anything again. In reality, however, no one is out to get you and they truly do want you to do well.
2. Professionalism and preparation are everything- you may be the best actor in the world, but if you are a pain to work with or are never prepared, you will not get any work.
3. Know when to say no- know your boundaries content-wise and morally. Your brand is important but above all, your comfort and mental health are a top priority. You should never be ashamed of saying no to something if it doesn’t feel right. And communicate those to the team supporting you. It’s not fair if they put in lots of time and money pursuing something that you don’t want.
4. Know why you want to act- it can be deceivingly hard… so knowing where you want to go and what it does for you is key when times are rough. If you just want stardom and glamour, this business will chew you up. You have to actually love the process.
5. Be yourself- it is important to play to an audience sometimes, but it is also important to lean into what makes you unique. There are thousands upon thousands of actors, but your unique quirks will be what set you apart:)
You are a person of enormous influence. How do you think you can use social media as a platform to be a positive influence to your fans, and for society at large?
Social media gives the opportunity to truly connect with people. Actors are often put on a pedestal and seen as perfect when that is pretty much never the case. However, it also puts them in a position to be honest and raw in ways that build communities and make people feel less alone. Mental health is important. Sexuality, gender, identity are important. As an influencer on social media, actors have the power to empower and lift up others by being authentic and real with their audiences. This is what I try to do. I come from a family where leaving the world a better place than you found it was instilled from an early age. If I’m blessed to be in a position to influence a lot of young people, I view this as a privilege.
If you had the ability to choose to work on any TV show or film, or work alongside any co-star, or with any director, what or who would that be, and why? You never know who might see this article, especially if we tag them. 🙂
James Cameron would top my list of directors because of his marine biology background. I’m an advanced scuba diver and would love to do a film with underwater scenes. I also love Taika Waititi and got close on a project with him last year. For me it’s more about the role and the story and working with actors that are all in, regardless of what they’ve done before or how famous they are. There’s a character I’m dying to play from one of my favorite authors, Marie Lu, that has been optioned for a film. I had the privilege of meeting with her last year and hope they’ll consider me when that gets made.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@Calhounkoenig on insta, @koenigcalhoun on snap, plus follow @ABennettSongHoliday on insta & Facebook…lots of cool behind the scenes stuff there.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!