…Seriously. Don’t buy the hype that it’s too late. There’s ALWAYS room to grow and ways to improve. It’s ALWAYS possible to make a difference, and a difference at the micro level, compounded, must ultimately lead to change at the macro level. But, it can’t happen unless we have the courage and conviction to believe it can. Start small, work with others who care and want to make a positive impact, and then do it… but certainly not for the glory. That will come if it’s meant to, but do it because it’s the right thing to do and from the best possible motivation. Then watch your life transform for the better, and quite possibly do the same for others.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurel Harris.
Laurel Harris is an American Actress, voice over artist and award-winning producer with over two decades of experience working alongside some of the top names in the business. On screen, Laurel is probably best known as Willem Dafoe’s wife in the film adaptation of Dean Koontz’s best selling novel, “Odd Thomas,” or loved by young girls worldwide for the American Girl film, “Saige Paints the Sky,” opposite Jane Seymour, and her extensive TV Credits include ABC, NBC, CW and Disney, with feature films through STARZ, Paramount and Fusion. As an award-winning writer/producer, Laurel has garnered an EMMY from the Heartland Chapter as well as multiple NATOA and TELLY Awards, worked with many notable figures and Nobel Peace Laureates such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and traveled internationally creating alongside teams from the BBC and PBS. Laurel developed a passion for content that highlights underserved populations and aims to create conscious, transformational entertainment through her work as a performer, and under her Laurel Leaf Productions banner.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us Laurel! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Absolutely! I think as an actor I became initially intrigued with what was happening across from me, on the other side of the camera. I wondered what exactly those people were doing running around behind the scenes, and developed this insatiable curiosity with what drives people creatively. What was their creative process like? What were their muses and where does their passion come from? I felt compelled then to explore all facets of filmmaking and dip my toe in as many production roles as possible. It was, and still is, terrific training for anyone interested in a film career, and I’m really grateful to the industry pros that answered my endless litany of questions and kindly stepped around me on occasion as I shadowed everything and everyone I could.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
It may have all started for me when I was stalked by an ice cream cone who eventually got schooled by a talking rice cake right before my eyes. Yeaaaah…. You heard that right.
I was itching to create something in the medium I love, and probably more than a little fatigued with the diet I was on at the time, so I wrote a short film about how these two ‘characters,’ and their relentless battles in my mind, would banter it out in reality. Luckily, I had a filmmaking partner who was willing to indulge me, and we created a short film that went on to earn a modicum of success. Trust me, the end result wasn’t nearly as hilarious as it was in my mind’s eye, but it did boost my confidence to think I might be able to create “on the other side of the camera.” Fast forward years later to me gripping onto video equipment while bouncing around the bed of a small pickup truck as our tiny documentary team wound through dirt roads in remote villages of East Timor to create a story on the then President of the country, Jose Ramos-Horta, and you could say I saw it joyfully come full circle.
That memory in East Timor also stands out for me because of the equal admiration and wonder I felt with the children who ran out of their humble homes to wave and gleefully greet us as we breezed by them like some sort of false celebrities. Being a blond haired, blue-eyed American woman, the younger kids just wanted to touch my hair and compare it to theirs. It was surreal, staring into each other’s eyes with equal admiration and curiosity, and left me wanting more; from all of it.
My cousin later begged me to write about our adventures as we “chased” Nobel laureates around the world for that series. She eagerly announced to me one day, “I have a title for your book, ‘Chasing Peace!’” While I thought it was a good idea and title, I didn’t think anyone would really want to read my ramblings and dismissed her repeated requests. I regret that to this day. If nothing else, I would have loved to revisit those memories myself since they’ve naturally faded over the years.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I definitely feel fortunate to have worked with so many Nobel Peace Laureates and learned immensely from each one. Some of my experiences with them were nothing short of life-changing and helped shape who I am today, as trite as that may sound. They inspired me with every encounter and their passions to uplift the planet with their unique talents and gifts were always infectious. I found they each had one thing in common, too; endless grit and compassion.
Working with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu instilled in me the power of positivity. In the days leading up to our meetings with them things could get really stressful as we made sure all of the equipment and people were coordinated for complex international travel, or that we’d prepped appropriately for places where electricity could be an issue, for example. It definitely required some mental gymnastics at times. Therefore, on more than one occasion, we were so stressed by the time we met these dignitaries, our tension was palpable. However, so was the innate joy and enthusiasm of these laureates. Without exception, and almost immediately upon being in their presence, our negative energy was deflated and we were laughing with the child like bliss that I will forever associate with them. Not that they couldn’t be serious and commanding if needed, but their inherent nature always seemed to be one of immeasurable love and joy, and the way they embraced all human beings is completely inspiring to me.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Wrapping narration for the 7th film in the Nobel Legacy film series on Shirin Ebadi of Iran has definitely been an enthralling and inspiring experience. Shirin is the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and her story defines true courage, sacrifice and compassion. She’s inspired millions around the globe through her work as a human rights lawyer, defending women and children against a brutal regime in Iran, and she continues to fight for women’s rights worldwide today, despite a government that’s determined to take everything it can from her.
There were times in my voiceover studio when I had to stop and just breathe deeply, or lie down and stare at the ceiling for a while. Other times I’d let myself cry…for her and the countless others who’ve endured, and continue to endure, so much torture. I don’t mean this lightly when I say it’s an honor to contribute in sharing her story in some small way.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
My mother marched for the feminist movement in the ’60s and made sure one of the first books she gave me was about women who made history, so I was obviously pre-disposed to admire heroines. With that said, it wasn’t out of alignment for me. I felt so much respect and reverence for Gloria Steinem — my mother’s personal hero — when my mom and I eventually got to meet her. I’ll never forget the kindness with which we were treated by this icon, or the elated look on my mom’s face.
Amelia Earhart and Helga Estby also come to mind for sure. Helga was the first woman to walk across the United States, and I became enthralled with her story after one of my college professors wrote a book about her. I was so intrigued by Helga and Amelia that I co-created short films about each of them, as well.
Whether these films led to larger projects wasn’t so important to me. I was more compelled to explore and recreate a bit of their stories somehow. Maybe I needed to feel a part of what they may have gone through, and expressing it in the visual medium I know best was a bit cathartic? Either way, and to further answer your question of “why,” I think their lives were full of enormous risks and passion. They relentlessly moved towards their goals, regardless of the costs. Their drive and dedication to self-improvement, or to the betterment of that which they cared about, still leaves me a little speechless.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Laurel Leaf Productions is my newest venture where I look to create films, television shows and children’s books that inspire and spark more conscious conversations. I want to empower people to think with more tolerance and compassion, while creating content that offers better human connections for the world around us. Ultimately, I respect media that explores more bold and delicate topics with grace and speaks to people’s innate sense of wisdom. I think it’s possible and I think it’s time.
I also feel fortunate to continue working with the PeaceJam foundation and lending my gifts as a voice-over talent to their award-winning and impactful Nobel Legacy Film Series. I’ve narrated many short and long form projects for them, and it always feels rewarding to play a part in sharing the powerful global issues and people they speak to. Whether it’s about the 2012 Mayan prophecy, or kids making a social impact in their communities, or educating the world on the scientific calling of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, these projects continually inspire and educate humanity.
The latest film I narrated with them, “Shirin Ebadi — Until We Are Free,” is especially relevant today as we experience more unrest and public outcries over tyranny and systemic racism worldwide than ever before. People like Shirin have been at the forefront of these battlegrounds for years and we have much to learn from them. It’s our turn to listen, with more respect, and to join the change.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Thank you. Though, I would say I’m STILL manifesting in that sense. There’s so much more to create and do, so I just keep moving, and trusting, and doing, and being. It’s all any of us can do, right?
With that said, I experienced a huge turning point when we were filming a story about bringing fresh water to some of the poorest areas in India. People there were walking long distances daily to gather enough water for the simplest duties.
I was already emotionally invested in the project and felt impassioned to help the people there, but it took on a new level of awareness as I sat amongst those who literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs and the most modest of living conditions, and watched them go about living their lives. They laughed and talked while washing their clothes in dirty river water, or stared into an empty fire with a look of hunger I can’t describe, and I was transfixed. Yes, there was poverty I’d never experienced before, but there was still a natural beauty to these people, both as individuals and as a community. I walked their village looking for the next great camera shot or interview, and felt like a complete outsider. Then, in one instance, I became a voyeur. It was awful.
I came upon a shanty tent and heard the cries of a baby inside. The smoke rising out through the top of layered blankets and plastic “walls” of their home somehow made me feel more comfortable approaching them, naïvely thinking they might be cooking or something. As I rounded the front of the tent, I saw a woman with the most fretful, hopeless expression embedded in her frozen face. It was as if she had given up trying to soothe the crying infant in her arms and the two small children cuddled up on either side of her. They each had that hollow look of hunger, as well. We stared at each other briefly, not sure what to do, then the mother’s face transformed into a sense of pride, almost defiance, as I stood across from her. She seemed to stare me down, daring me not to intrude one more moment into their private home, and I got it. In that instant, with no words exchanged, her look said it all… that they too deserve the utmost dignity and respect. She was right. I’m forever grateful, and her face is still burned in my memory.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Sure. There was another day, in that same village, that a young girl ran up to me with admiration that positively beamed out of her toothy grin and happy eyes, before it spread across her beautiful, dirt-stained face. She was literally radiant through all of the grime around her. Soon after she approached me, a group of children joined her. Again, I felt as equally enthralled with them as they were with me.
We had been working long hours without breaks that day, and I was starving. Prepared for this, I’d packed a protein bar in my backpack. I quickly realized, though, it wasn’t only rude and awkward to eat it in front of these children, I didn’t have enough to share. Still, I broke up the bar into small pieces and gave them to as many as I could. You would have thought I had given them bits of gold, they were so elated, and we smiled and laughed as we shared our “lunch.” The girl who initially approached me proudly held out her hand for mine as if I was her new best friend. I looked down and saw this small hand covered in various sores I had never seen. I froze, and my mind raced with the possible infectious outcomes of accepting her offer. It felt like an hour for me to decide what to do. I looked up at her face and watched her beaming smile collapse to questioning, and then to hurt as she watched my hesitation play out. Then, the same expressions seemed to ripple across the faces of the others. I felt crushed and mortified at the same time. Here I was, this “enlightened Westerner” there to show and tell these lovely people how to live a better life, and they were showing me, and with much more unconditional love. I took her hand in mind and she proudly led — or pulled — me through the entire village to show me around her home. I held on tightly as long as I could, until we had to leave late that night. She changed my life in that moment.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Educate yourself, first and foremost. We can’t raise the level of discussions without truthful information being disseminated and expanded upon. Yes, I’m partial, but in today’s world where attention spans are shortened and visual learning more effective, I think documentaries are a great place to start. Of course, sharing our films and creating watch parties would be great, as well. Writing government officials to inform and increase awareness is always beneficial, and yes, financial contributions of any size really do go a long way in making impacts on what stories get told next.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Wow, that’s a great challenge to consolidate it into five! OK, I’ll do my best!
- Be Kind. A.k.a., we’re all in this together, so the sooner one invests in a “we” rather than “me” mentality, the sooner we all benefit. I had a filmmaker friend who told me early in my career that she wouldn’t hire anyone unless they understood the golden rule — that we all work for the benefit of the film. Period. Anyone that’s looking out for their own interests, or to make their own mark, need not apply. I really get that now and it goes beyond film making. It’s such a tried-and-true life lesson, right?
- What’s your “why?” It may change, and probably will, but a “North Star” in your work can keep you focused and save you heartache later on. And, if you don’t have it lasered in, take one step in the direction you feel called, and then another, and another until it starts to become more clear. And, it will. I didn’t have a clue where my little film about a rice cake talking to an ice cream cone would lead, but I’m so glad I followed that insatiable desire to “just make something.” It’s led to a treasure filled path beyond anything I could have imagined.
- Work less and play more. This is another way of saying, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Let me be clear, I’m not being Pollyanna. Of course there’s work to be done. There always will be. But, I do think loving what you do and feeling passionate enough to keep doing it has fueled me through a lot of life’s challenges.
- The Universe is conspiring in your favor. This was written on the cover of a card from a friend that I kept on my fridge for years, (mostly because I didn’t really believe it at the time, but wanted desperately to.) One day I got it, big time. I was working on a project involving the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. I had lined up all of the shoot dates, travel plans, itineraries, interviews, etc. that we needed to cover the story, except for one interview that had completely eluded me. We wanted to talk with a prominent doctor there who was intricately involved in the AIDS crisis, however this was pre-cell phones, and she was incredibly hard to track down from the States. I did everything I could to connect with her and eventually ran out of time before we boarded a plane and were on our way across the world. As I reassured my filmmaking partner that it would work out, secretly I was concerned and felt like a failure since I knew her story was key to ours. As I nestled into my airplane seat for the long ride ahead, I greeted the friendly woman sitting next to me. Who did she just happen to be? You guessed it… the very Dr. I had been chasing, who was on her way back home to South Africa!! I gasped so loudly when I figured it out that I knew I startled her, and probably half the plane around us! Thankfully we became fast friends.
- Things aren’t always what they seem, and we really do live in an abundant Universe. With that said, the possibilities for help and abundance are endless. I lived my life until now with the “money doesn’t grow on trees” sort of mindset. I thought that resources and help could only look like the status quo I had grown up knowing. What a lesson it’s been to start FEELING AND BELIEVING that things can work out, even if they don’t look the way we might initially expect. A painful, yet great example of this was when I was bemoaning to a girlfriend that I just wanted a certain amount of money to complete a film I was developing. Within 24 hours my friend surprised me with an investor she had who was interested in funding my film entirely. I was so shocked and dumbfounded that I slipped into disbelief. Could it really be that easy?! Long story short, I think my fears laid forth the reality and eventually the investor opted out. One could blame any number of factors, but I know in my heart that I was operating out of a limited, or “lack” mindset. The good news is, I got that lesson in a really profound way, and if anybody’s interested, I won’t make that mistake again. I promise! 🙂
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Why wouldn’t you?? Seriously. Don’t buy the hype that it’s too late. There’s ALWAYS room to grow and ways to improve. It’s ALWAYS possible to make a difference, and a difference at the micro level, compounded, must ultimately lead to change at the macro level. But, it can’t happen unless we have the courage and conviction to believe it can. Start small, work with others who care and want to make a positive impact, and then do it… but certainly not for the glory. That will come if it’s meant to, but do it because it’s the right thing to do and from the best possible motivation. Then watch your life transform for the better, and quite possibly do the same for others.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
There are so many influencers in this sense that inspire me. Since I am a ‘multi-hyphenate,’ working on both sides of the camera, I am drawn to people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey. They truly inspire me with their commitments to their craft as well as their causes. I especially appreciate the way they’ve each used their superpowers, aka celebrity status and wealth, to raise awareness for the environment or social issues that affect us all. I dream of thanking them in person someday and also picking their brains for any suggestions they may have on how to balance it all and give effectively.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“How can I serve” is my newest mantra I’m training myself to ask multiple times a day, starting with first thing in the morning. It packs a punch, I gotta tell ya! It’s been profound to see shifts happening in my life as I consciously move into that more consistent state of “we” vs “me.” It’s a work in progress, but it’s also a bit addictive since it feels a little more exciting each time I try it on.
I also love surprising myself with what service can look like each day; whether that be simply holding the door for someone at the store, or texting a message of encouragement and support to a friend, or something potentially larger reaching like protesting or writing my book. Life is full of opportunities for us to support each other, and I’m enjoying the view of it through a more opportunistic lens, so to speak.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/laurelharrisactor
Instagram is: @laurelharrisactor
And Twitter is: https://twitter.com/laurelharrisact
For my newsletters and more, my website is: https://laurelharris.com/
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
The same to you and your readers! I love your publications and really appreciate this opportunity. My best to all of you!