“It’s invaluable to actually get out and have some relationships, to learn how other people live” With Actress Hilary Ward

Be of service. Volunteer to serve meals; pick up trash in your neighborhood; read to seniors. Betty Gilpin just wrote that great essay on…

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Be of service. Volunteer to serve meals; pick up trash in your neighborhood; read to seniors. Betty Gilpin just wrote that great essay on how acting can take your ego to such bizarre highs and lows. It’s easy to get completely self-focused but there are people all around us that we are missing because we can’t get out of our own heads. Acting is about recreating human relationships truthfully. It’s invaluable to actually get out and have some relationships, to learn how other people live.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilary Ward, an actor based in Los Angeles who has cultivated a career that spans television, stage and film. She is currently recurring as “Becca” on HBO’s limited series Sharp Objects and starring as “Elinor” in Tony-Award winning South Coast Repertory’s production of Sense and Sensibility.

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

I was lucky to be born into a family that exposed me to the arts at a very young age, but I grew up in the Midwest. Performing was something that people did for fun, as a hobby, but I never knew anybody who actually made a living as an actor. So although, I had this urge to be on the stage, I didn’t have any models to show me how to do it. I went to school and always auditioned for plays and spent a lot of time around the music school and theatre department but I majored in Education. That was the only viable career path that had been presented to me. When one of my friends made the leap and decided to go to New York, I figured I could go too and just figure it out. I spent a lot of time bouncing around off-off Broadway theatre gigs, until I was lucky enough to start working regularly with Classical Theatre of Harlem. There, I met a lot of young actors of color who were coming out of top training programs and I realized I wanted to know how to do what they were doing. So I applied to MFA programs and was fortunate to get into my top choice, UCSD/La Jolla Playhouse. I spent three years there studying voice, speech, classical text, movement, yoga, dance. It gave me the chance to learn how to do the craft of acting.

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

The most interesting thing for me has been the removal of all the smoke and mirrors about the business. It’s portrayed as very glamorous and it certainly can be. But most of the time, it is just a group of talented people doing their level best to make something that rings with truth. It’s a simple goal but it takes so many creative minds to make it a reality. It’s been a privilege to peek behind the scenes at people in process.

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 had gotten my first call back for a major recurring role that first year in LA and I was so excited. In the scene, the character used a cell phone, so I brought mine in to use it as a prop. I was nervous and the audition ended up not going so well. So I skidaddled out of the room, got all the way downstairs and realized I had left my cell phone in the audition room. I had to go back up and grab it when another actress came out. When I got it, the assistant told me that it rang during the other actor’s audition. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I had made this job so important that I had basically lost all ability to function like a normal human being! 🙂 It taught me to calm down. There would be lots of auditions. I had to learn how to treat the auditions like opportunities to develop relationships over time instead of the last chance I’d ever have to be on television.

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

I had the great pleasure of working opposite Amy Adams on Sharp Objects and honestly can’t say enough good things about her. She is creative, present, generous, prepared and kind. She sets up you up to do your best work. The character I played was only mentioned in the book, but I was fortunate that the writers expanded it for the series. I’m also fortunate to be returning to my stage roots at South Coast Repertory. I really identify with “Elinor” as an oldest child with a firm head on her shoulders. Sometimes people mistake my ability to handle crises as a lack of feeling but I’m very sensitive. I just hold my cards close to the vest. So she’s a perfect role for me to work on. Plus, I get to use my dialect and stage training and play dress-up in fun clothes and wigs. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to be an actor.

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

Watching Jean-Marc Vallee work up close was fascinating. I’ve never been on a set with a director who shoots like him. Since he doesn’t light any scenes, he never has to shoot around instruments so each take is improvisational in nature. It’s extremely creative but can also be taxing for the actor. Generally, on set, you know where the camera is because it has to take a certain path to avoid the lighting instruments. You develop an awareness about where you are in the frame. With Vallee you can’t anticipate where you are the same way because he’s able to be so fluid in each shot. The closest thing I can compare it to is being in a play. You have to fill the character because you never know what he’s filming.

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

Be of service. Volunteer to serve meals; pick up trash in your neighborhood; read to seniors. Betty Gilpin just wrote that great essay on how acting can take your ego to such bizarre highs and lows. It’s easy to get completely self-focused but there are people all around us that we are missing because we can’t get out of our own heads. Acting is about recreating human relationships truthfully. It’s invaluable to actually get out and have some relationships, to learn how other people live.

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. 🙂

I suppose I’d echo my previous answer: be of service. My husband is a reservist in the Navy. Before I met him, I had a stereotype in my head of what “Military Guys” were like: macho, bloodthirsty, hawkish. What I’ve realized by being married to him and getting to know his colleagues is that the military is full of idealists. They are people who have decided to put their lives in harm’s way to give back to a society that they feel like they have gotten so much from. It’s actually really beautiful and completely tied to the idea that being of service is the honorable way to live your life. So I try to live my life with that intention, to be of service. Even with my acting…I’m a black woman who has been given a platform. Can I bring some humanity to this character? Can I create empathy for people living in similar circumstances? Can I honor the truth of someone else’s circumstances? Can I create space for someone who is not familiar with community to open her mind?

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. Get your life together so you can actually commit to an acting career. So many actors burn bridges by seeming unreliable when they are starting out. It’s not that young actors are flaky. They are overextended. They need to make rent, maintain their cars, get a flexible job, learn how to get around LA and be available for last minute auditions. It’s too much. I think part of the reason I worked so quickly is all the logistics of my life supported my auditioning instead of being stressed every time an appointment came in. I had a stable job and could control my schedule. It made a huge difference in that first year.
  2. Don’t take anything personally — ever. It’s just usually not about you. Everyone is doing their best in what can be a very uncertain business. That stress doesn’t always bring out the best in people but I really try to give people a break because that benefit of the doubt is what I’d want in return. I’ve been in a waiting room and heard an assistant on the phone offering a star the role that I’m about to audition for. It’s uncomfortable but it’s not personal. That poor assistant is just as mortified about making that call in front of a room of actors as we are to hear it, but at the end of the day, it’s her job and she’s got rent like everybody else.
  3. Say please and thank you. Real Talk: if you get an audition you’re already winning. The typical co-star breakdown receives over a thousand submissions from agents and managers. Typically, casting directors schedule time to see 7–8 actors. That ratio is mind-boggling. So when the opportunity to audition comes in, recognize it with gratitude. You’re already ahead of the curve. And I, for one, tend to do my best work when I’m not so damn focused on myself.
  4. When it’s appropriate, say no. Actors walk around in so much fear of losing a job or getting the reputation as difficult, that they will put up with conditions and treatment that would never be tolerated in any other profession. I can honestly say that I have never regretted standing up for myself when the situation demanded it. Several years ago, I was on set for a car commercial. The AD loaded all of us up in this SUV and introduced us to the precision driver. Then over the walkie, I heard the director instruct the driver to take a pass in front of the camera at 60mph and then do a sharp turn to cut the vehicle’s path at a right angle. No safety briefing. Nobody even said that we should put on our seatbelts. As soon as I heard “cut,” I got out of the car, asked the AD if we were contracted to do stunts and called my agents. Within an hour, we’d had a safety briefing and a pay bump. I even worked with that same director and agency on another spot a few months later. Speaking up didn’t cost me a job and very well may have made the set much safer for everyone that day.
  5. Keep your side of the street clean. Show up on time. Be prepared. Communicate responsibly. Be honest. Even when things don’t work out how you want, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you behaved with integrity. A few years ago, I left an agent. I realized that he just didn’t have the same vision of what was possible for me and my career. So I wrote him a letter, said thank you for his services and let him go. I didn’t skulk around and have another agent lined up before I left. In fact, it took over a year of meetings for me to finally sign with an agent I really love. But it was worth it to me to be honest about how I felt and not have any fear looming over my meetings with new representatives.

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

“Don’t try to win over the haters. You’re not a jackass whisperer.” -Brene Brown

I’ve always loved this quote. So many of us run around concerned if we are pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, rich enough…It’s exhausting. The moment that I realized some people just weren’t my people was such a relief. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily jackasses, of course, but understanding my inherit worth as a human being helped me release the desire to conform to some elusive standard.

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?

There are so many. I was certainly mentored by actors who were further along in their careers: Owiso Odera and April Yvette Thompson, particular. They encouraged, counseled, celebrated my successes, picked me up after my disappointments. I’ve done my best to do the same for young actors right out of school. I also often think of veteran casting director, Mark Saks. He gave me my first job on television and helped me get into the union. He literally coached me through every single line of those sides and once I had gotten it down, invited me back for a producer session that afternoon. I could have floundered around much longer trying to get that first TV job, but he went out of his way to help me and I’ll always be grateful for it.

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. 🙂

I would love to sit down with Serena Williams. I’ve always admired her but the way she is using her return to tennis to spark conversations about motherhood, identity, work-life balance, body image…I am blown away by her. Her willingness to expose her vulnerability has made her even more powerful in my eyes.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

IG: @hilarywardofficial, Website:

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

Originally published at

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