Don’t be afraid of change. If you decide your career choice needs to shift or alter, that’s ok. As long as you do what makes you feel happy deep in your soul. Don’t change just because others tell you to. Stick to your heart.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Blake-Thomas.
Elizabeth is a British award-winning storyteller and philanthropist based in Los Angeles, having recently directed her latest feature film during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will You Be My Quarantine? is a romcom starring Full House/Fuller House star Jodie Sweetin and is set to release in 2021. Elizabeth’s recent film Evie Rose, starring Oscar-nominated actress Terry Moore, is also premiering early 2021. Elizabeth is the founder and resident director of entertainment company Mother & Daughter Entertainment, whose motto is “Making Content That Matters”, putting focus on each project starting a conversation amongst viewers. Through MDE, Elizabeth established the MD Foundation Initiative, a campaign to mentor and employ undiscovered filmmakers through fellow philanthropic pledges. An Official Ambassador of Awareness Ties for Human Trafficking, Elizabeth hopes to raise more awareness to the horrific nature of human trafficking and help put a stop to it. Her award-winning short film UNSEEN, which addresses the role technology plays in the facilitation of child trafficking, is being used to educate children on the dangers of lure tactics. A regular on panels at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto International Film Festival, Elizabeth mentors wherever possible, ensuring she sends the elevator back down to all other female storytellers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
First off, I want to define what my career is. I used to call myself a director, a producer, a writer, but nowadays I call myself a storyteller. The journey that led me to this identity is an interesting one. When you’re a creative, you typically enjoy everything artistic, no boundaries nor boxes. However, Hollywood prefers you be more specific. You can’t do everything. You have to choose a genre you wish to work in, define yourself specifically. I have chosen not to do this. Instead, I have found a word that describes my love for everything I do. I tell stories. I don’t just stick to one genre or medium. Mostly I have done this through directing films so far, however I also tell stories in many other ways. I am a Professor at Pepperdine University and run a course called Storytelling and the Power of Our Words. I paint, I write, I take photographs. I also created an entire methodology through storytelling and healing called “Medicine with Words”. This journey has culminated through all of my experiences in life, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve travelled, and I am forever growing and evolving with the times. That in itself is the most interesting element. It’s not about where we are heading, it’s about how we get there that counts.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have had so many wonderful experiences, and met so many incredible people. I think the most interesting aspect of this is how they all led to where I am now without me even knowing. Here is a specific example of this. 25 years ago, I met a family who had a boy that I taught drama to. I had no idea they would reconnect with me 15 years later and ask for advice about how they could help their son in the entertainment industry. Of course, I offered as much advice as I could at the time. 8 years later they contacted me again and decided to fund 4 of my feature films! Now if I had known this was going to be the outcome 20 years previously, would I have done things differently that very first drama class? Maybe, and then possibly the path of events would have been changed. I have so many scenarios like that where a relationship I fostered years prior, simply out of a kind favor or random meeting, turns into a huge turning point on my journey years later. I believe if you’re true to yourself, kind, honest and hardworking, then the path you’re on is the right one.
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 will tell you something really embarrassing. I was 25 years old and running a drama class back in the UK. Jane Horrocks had her child in the class and I wanted to impress her. So instead of running a class appropriate for twenty 5-year-olds, I gave them a rundown of my resume. To this day I am mortified. I’ve learned that it’s much better to say less, focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and not let the ego get involved. I cringe whenever I think about that story.
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I’m not going to pretend to be the director that gets it right every time. I’m not going to try and make you all believe that I’ve done this my whole career, and I’m definitely not going to try and convince you I’m a saint. BUT, I can explain what I strive to do and how the current world is teaching me every day to be more diverse in my storytelling. To learn the right way of doing things, to be equal and fair and represent as many people as I can. I believe I have a huge responsibility to do this as a director. I am always heavily involved in the casting of my own projects, so therefore have a large say in who I cast. I have a responsibility to learn from my previous choices and learn how to move forward, to act in a way that the next generation sees as the “normal” way of doing things. As creatives, it shouldn’t be a question of including diversity in all storytelling mediums, it should be the natural way. It has been far too long that proper representation has been lacking from large scale projects. All children should be able to see themselves on screen, read their own stories in books, and much more. My latest feature film, Will You Be My Quarantine?, was not only such fun to shoot, but also an important learning curve for me in including proper representation in my projects.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
I can tell you an exact moment that happened just recently. I cast an incredible actor Alec Mapa to play a lead role in Will You Be My Quarantine?. I was a huge fan, so I was thrilled when he accepted the role. After I said “Cut” while we were filming a scene of his, one of my team came over and showed me a photo they had taken. It was of two PAs watching and giggling at Alec’s scene on the monitor. It was an emotional moment for me, where I saw in real life what an impact proper representation has on people, seeing a true reflection of themselves on screen.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
I personally feel embarrassed that I was so naive before I made a conscious decision to work this way. I learned so much on my last film about the importance of diversity. One aspect was how much I learned when I employed 2 deaf actors on the film. This was a steep learning curve for me in understanding how little I knew and understood about what was needed on set. My “normal” way of doing things was not going to work and I had to take the time and energy and cost into understanding what the needs would be of these two amazing actors. Accessibility is key on set, and just because it may cost a little more here or there for an interpreter or ASL consultant, does not mean one should write off employing deaf actors. The two actresses in my film brought such joy and laughter to their scene, and once learning of what was needed on set, it was easy for the filming to run smoothly. Rather than ignore diving into the unknown and staying where you are comfortable, educate yourself. I asked so many questions, which is okay! We will never learn to grow if we don’t open ourselves up. I now understand and am able to support and help other deaf actors, as well as directors wanting to employ actors who are deaf.
In my romcom, I also have a phenomenal actress named Danielle Perez. I cast her as soon as I met her because I knew she was perfect for this film. I loved her so much I had the writer change the initial character to fit Danielle more, as Danielle is in a wheelchair. However, there was a subject matter that Danielle didn’t like in the script. Nothing to do with movement or accessibility of her scenes. It was the character’s repetitive action of making banana bread while stuck at home. Simple you might think, but when I took the time to chat to Danielle about it, she explained that that wasn’t something she and others of black culture did during quarantine, that the quarantine activity of making banana bread is indeed very white. Instead, her and her friends made face masks and did other beauty things with the extra time on their hands. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know this and immediately made the script change to reflect the cultural difference. You may find yourself knowing less about other cultures at times, but the important thing is to educate yourself, be open to conversation and learning. With each step of incorporating more diversity and representation in my film, I began to see the vital importance of doing so. Audiences need to see reflections of themselves in leadership roles, lead roles. Not just a one-liner or stereotype. Real fleshed out characters that reflect true people in society. Giving not only audiences something to aspire to, but actors of all diverse backgrounds and stories as well.
I also pride myself on casting based on the actual role, looking at personality and character traits, not casting stereotypes. I want the right person for each role, so that means seeing and considering everyone. This in turn allows everyone to shine. When you open up audition opportunities to more actors, you in turn find talented individuals and can naturally create a more diverse cast. The actual world is quite diverse if you look around. If we all choose representation in our casts and crew, it will not be hard to make the screen replicate what the world already possesses.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
Allow more time, more money and more understanding.
More time, because if there are people less able bodied, things may take longer or need a different approach.
More money, to provide the necessary services required for accessibility for all performers.
More understanding, to see that things can be done differently. I had one scene that was originally written for two hearing actors, but by me seeing it in a different way and knowing a fantastic actress who is deaf, I rewrote the scene to work for her. It took some time to understand how to properly film this new scene, but I did it. We all just need to try our best and learn from others.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership to me means being a Mom, mentoring, directing on set, teaching by example, and expecting the best of myself if I’m to expect the best from others. Kindness above all. Living my life every day including all of these aspects. I consider myself to be a leader, someone who has the power to change an individual’s life, a group of people or even my whole audience around the world. I take this responsibility very seriously and strive to lead by example and through honesty.
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. Don’t worry about the little things. Life is really too short to worry about every mistake. No one really knows what they’re doing anyway, we are all just guessing. Move on from your mistakes and don’t let them haunt you.
2. Do your best, that’s all you can do. As long as you do your best, then what’s the worst that can happen. Don’t listen to others judge how well you did. Only you know if you did your best.
3. Do something that makes you happy and brings you joy. Then share this joy with the world. Work out what’s important to you and share that. Passion is contagious.
4. Find someone who believes in you. Listen to their advice and guidance whenever you can. I have several mentors, but there is one quite special who changed my life and continues to do so. Larry Schapiro. If it wasn’t for him, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today,
5. Don’t be afraid of change. If you decide your career choice needs to shift or alter, that’s ok. As long as you do what makes you feel happy deep in your soul. Don’t change just because others tell you to. Stick to your heart.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
It would be medicine with words. I believe we all need time out from technology and the everyday stresses to reground ourselves and find our true self. This isn’t some airy-fairy notion though that isn’t practical. This is a way of living. It’s a way to be creative, find our bliss and be happy in a practical world. Learn how to look inward and slow the world around you, refocus on what is actually important. Find your true purpose and share it with others. I have created an entire methodology for this practice based on my personal growth and experiences. Rather than squeezing my life into society’s designated boxes that didn’t properly describe myself as a whole, I made my own space. All I had to do was give the proper time to myself, instead of constantly running around with the rest of the world every second of every day. This is how I discovered who I truly am, a storyteller. www.medicinewithwords.com
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you don’t say anything then you can’t be quoted.” We all speak too much. Imagine if all we did was listen; we could learn so much. If you were given 1 dollar for every word you spoke, but 2 dollars for every word you didn’t, which would you choose? I’ve learned this the hard way and still now have to remind myself to shut my mouth every now and again. We learn so much more by tuning into others and the world around us and simply listening.
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 just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Monica Berg, Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, all at the same time. All powerhouse women!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!