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Rachel Noll James: “Remember that the process is the prize”

Remember that the process is the prize. It’s amazing how easy it is to start dreaming someone else’s dream if you aren’t paying attention. Hollywood is an industry of glamour, product and reverence. All that dazzle can be a distraction that has you so focused on comparing yourself to others or focusing on those external […]

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Remember that the process is the prize. It’s amazing how easy it is to start dreaming someone else’s dream if you aren’t paying attention. Hollywood is an industry of glamour, product and reverence. All that dazzle can be a distraction that has you so focused on comparing yourself to others or focusing on those external validations that you forget why you used to love this. Don’t let that happen. If you are in this for the long haul, find your love of the process. The process is what comprises 90% of your life.


As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rachel Noll James, an award-winning screenwriter, producer and director. She is also a classically trained actor with a background in both theater and film. Notable credits include feature films ‘The Storyteller,’ ‘Malibu Road’ and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, and short films ‘Follow the River,’ ‘Paramnesia’ and ‘Half Light’. She was the recipient of the Silver Prize in the Page Screenwriting Awards 2015 and Best Feature Writer at LA Femme Festival in 2014.


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 grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a suburb called El Dorado about 20 minutes outside of town. Santa Fe is a very unique place to grow up. The landscape has drawn many artists to live and work there, and growing up in that environment had a lasting impact on me. Both of my parents are musicians and I was fortunate enough to attend schools that gave focus and priority to art and creativity which set the stage for me to discover all the ways I love to create.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

From a young age, I decided that I wanted to be an actor. That’s where it started for me. The acting focus brought me out to LA to Occidental College where I spent 4 years in the theater department before graduating with a BA. I spent years after I graduated involved with local theater companies, going through acting classes and workshops, and trying to get booked as an actor in a meaningful way that would support me both financially and creatively.

It was a frustrating launch into the industry. I was not a patient person in my early 20s, and the lack of opportunities to audition for interesting roles, meet with agents who could actually move the needle, or get past the callback stage started to really weigh on me. I was used to working hard and achieving my goals, but when it comes to a career in acting, the metrics totally change. It was out of my control and that was hard for me to deal with.

It was this frustration that turned me toward writing and directing and completely reimagining what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Just as I was really hitting a burnout point with the actor hustle, I stumbled across an opportunity to write a script with a friend of mine. It was part of a class we were taking with an indie producer that included 12 actors who would help with the story and act in the film.

This experience turned out to be an incredibly formative one for me. I ended up writing, producing and acting in this film and taking it all the way through production, post production and distribution. On the positive side, this fueled me with a sense of empowerment. I could create the art I wanted to be a part of! I didn’t have to wait for other people to give me permission! And that was an amazing feeling.

This experience also stripped me bare and challenged me more than anything else I had experienced at that point in my life. Everything that could go wrong did. We ran out of money, we had clashes between producers that lead to a lot of anger and resentment that I had to wade through, and I was forced to take on responsibilities I was not equipped to handle. This experience showed me the underbelly of the industry I was so desperate to be a part of and that was important. It also showed me the depths of my own strength and resilience, which was even more important.

This experience was formative for me. It was my film school, I like to say, because it threw me into the deep end and taught me all the ins and outs of production from a writing, producing and acting standpoint. It helped toughen my skin and gave me a compass for the kind of people and environments I wanted to cultivate, and which ones I wanted to stay away from. It also gave me profound respect for indie producers, and ignited a spark in me to create me own work.

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 cast in a small supporting role in a feature film called ‘The Jesuit.’ My scene involved me walking out of a building to my car, unlocking the door, and getting in, while I spoke with the lead actress who was quite famous and someone I admired.

The car they were using for the production had a lock that turned the opposite way from the lock on my own car door, and it broke my brain. I kept accidentally locking the door instead of unlocking it, and then fumbling around and completely ruining the illusion that this was my car. It required several takes before the director finally told me to just forget unlocking the door and just leave it unlocked. I was mortified. What a dumb thing to be messing up! I figured they must think I was a total moron.

But here’s what I learned from that. So what? I made such a big deal of it for myself feeling like I’d totally blown it and embarrassed myself. But it didn’t matter. Nothing bad happened. The day was finished. The film was released. It was never mentioned to anyone I worked with after that.

I would try to make myself so small in those days and not ruffle any feathers or be a problem for anyone. I know now what a losing position that is for me. Everyone makes mistakes. I did my best and that’s all I could do.

We should always acknowledge our own innate value, even if we are in the most menial position on a set.

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 college professors at Occidental College and my Meisner instructors at The Ruskin Group Theater showed me the work that was required to be not just a good artist but a great artist. One thing they taught me that continues to shape my process is that so much of the work required is inner work. This lesson extends to directing, writing, and all manner of storytelling. It requires stripping yourself bare, acknowledging your own fears, restrictions and limitations, and being willing to feel the profound discomfort that comes from laying bare your most well-guarded insecurities.

Vulnerability is your greatest super power. My work has become deeper and more personal the more I have been willing to honor myself and take the time to work through my stuff. Because our bodies, our imaginations and our feeling centers are our greatest tool kit when it comes to creative expression. The more access you have to yourself, the more honest and relatable your work will become.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

What’s so bad about failure? Let go of your fear of failure and instead understand that a career is a long game, and failures along the way are inevitable. For everyone. The greats in every industry will admit they failed more than anyone as they were finding their voice. To fail at something does not make YOU a failure, it means you failed to achieve your desired outcome. And each time that happens you get an opportunity to reset, make a list of lessons learned, and try again.

Each project I have made I look back on and I see the failures. I can either get down on myself and wish that I had done certain things better, or I can recognize that I did the best I could at the time, and I get a chance to take my lessons learned and bring those to my next project. I always get another opportunity to improve. It’s important to have compassion and respect for those early attempts. It helps build courage and resilience to keep going and keep trying things.

Also, art is subjective. So failure is also subjective. One person’s failure is another person’s masterpiece. One critic may pan your work while someone across the world had their life changed by it. Don’t be too quick to judge something a failure. And certainly don’t be quick to judge yourself a failure. You are starting out at something new. Fail, get up, try again. Learn something. If you want it, you’ve got a whole lifetime to do the thing you love to do. And only in looking back at the end of your life will you really understand the journey you took and why each set back or apparent failure was an important part of it.

What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?

What drives me now is a love of the work. I am no longer attached to timelines or outcomes like I once was. If I feel inspired to work on something, I carve out time and I work on it. I relish the experience of that work. And when it’s time to release the project into the world or into the hands of someone else, then I let it go and turn my attention to the next thing. I have no control over the outcome once the script or the film or the performance are complete. But I do have the ability to really be present for the experience and bring all of myself to the process.

I am hoping to see more movement toward diversity in the bigger studio systems. More risk taking. More championing of smaller projects and wild out of the box ideas. Less focus on big block buster money makers and sequels and remakes. More of a return to the art form for its own sake.

I am also excited to see more platforms and opportunities appearing that allow indie filmmakers from all backgrounds to get their stories out into the world. More of that!

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I have a few projects in the works currently that I am excited to get going on in 2021 as Covid restrictions lift and artistic collaboration becomes possible again. Currently, I am working on the pilot of a narrative podcast called ‘The Time Key.’ We are awaiting the final cut of the pilot and will then be submitting to various festivals and production companies. The goal is to record a full 10-episode season over the next year.

I am also prepping for a feature film I wrote and will be directing and starring in called ‘Ingress.’ We started shooting last year just before the Covid lockdowns, and I have now done some major rewrites to the script and hope to get back into production in the fall or winter of this year. It will be entirely shot on Bainbridge Island where I live.

Finally, I have been cast in a lead role in a scifi series titled ‘Uprising’ that will be going into production in the next few months.

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?

The only way to really experience someone’s story is for them to be the one telling it. A man writing and directing a film about a woman’s experience will have a very different approach than a woman tackling the same project. A white director will tell a story about the struggles of a minority character differently than a director of color who holds within them the personal experiences being explored. All perspectives have value, but without representation, we only get one perspective. And over time that limited and over utilized perspective shapes the world we live in.

Stories create empathy. When the vast majority of films are helmed by white men, it shapes history, current events and cultural expectations in a very particular way. This narrative has a profound impact on people who consume that entertainment. When we have stories told by all manner of diverse storytellers, of all races and genders and sexual preferences, and audiences start to see and relate to protagonists of all shapes and sizes, it creates empathy. It allows the audience to see themselves in the characters they watch on the screen, and open their hearts toward people they may have previously dismissed.

Young people learn about life from the art they consume. We need to give young people opportunities to see themselves reflected in the media they consume in a way that creates self-love and a sense of possibility. Women and people of color have lacked true representation for most of history. It’s far past time for that to change.

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

Be patient. I can say this because I was the most impatient person alive when I started. I thought if it didn’t happen for me in 6 months I was a failure. I thought if other people weren’t giving me their praise and validation I was a failure. The patience piece is as much about giving yourself time to create tenure for your work and your talents, but also to grow into yourself, get to know the industry, and really get clear on what you want and WHY you want it.

Find your want to. There are a million reasons people want to work in this industry. What is your reason? It wasn’t until I was into my early 30s that I had the shocking realization that I didn’t even know why I wanted the things I had been working so hard to achieve. It started out as a love of the creative process, but along the way I had lost that in pursuit of validation and acceptance. I lost the love of the process in pursuit of the end result. I had to do some serious soul searching to come back to my true want, and pivot my whole approach to put myself and my enjoyment of the process front and center again.

Remember that the process is the prize. It’s amazing how easy it is to start dreaming someone else’s dream if you aren’t paying attention. Hollywood is an industry of glamour, product and reverence. All that dazzle can be a distraction that has you so focused on comparing yourself to others or focusing on those external validations that you forget why you used to love this. Don’t let that happen. If you are in this for the long haul, find your love of the process. The process is what comprises 90% of your life.

Vulnerability is your greatest super power. If you are willing to be seen, truly seen, then you will give those people in the world who resonate on the same frequency a chance to find you and your work. There is no one like you. Infuse your work with your unique essence, and watch how those who are looking for you start to find you…

Never stop working on yourself. Each life phase, each new challenge we encounter, has the opportunity to inform our work and free us up to be more of who we are. Get conscious about why you are the way you are. What influenced you? What shut you down when you were young? What automatic patterns do you engage in when you stop paying attention? What makes you feel good? What makes you feel lousy?

I think therapy or counseling are wonderful tools to enhance your work as well as your life. It’s like this quote from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

I am a big fan of morning/evening pages. I have a journal by my bed and I start and end my day by opening it up and writing a page. It helps me process my day, get any thoughts out that need to get out, record my dreams and solidify new ideas that came to me during the day. It also settles me and gets me back in touch with myself.

I also try to limit my time on social media and technology, especially before bed. I have started leaving my phone in a different room so its not by my bed. If the phone is near me, I will reach for it, and I usually regret it. Instead of calming me down it winds me up. Find those breaks from technology to get back in touch with your own thoughts and feelings.

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

“And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” — Anais Nin

It wasn’t until I started to open up and let myself be seen that I started to really understand what this work was about.

You are a person of huge 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?

A movement to subvert the cultural imperative that focuses only on quantifiable achievement. I would love to create more concrete inroads for people to release themselves from the pressure of this driving model of output and success and turn the attention to pleasure, enjoyment, happiness.

So many of the goal posts we set for ourselves as artists are based around money or fame or recognition, but at the root of all of those desires, isn’t the core of them happiness? Fulfillment? Creative expression? I would love to spark a movement toward seeking happiness and creativity for its own sake, and letting the external manifestations of that be less important than the pleasure we each take in our experiences. Stripping away comparison and scarcity thinking and realizing there is plenty of happiness and creativity to go around. And each of us bring a unique flavor that no one else can.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

As I gear up for my feature film ‘Ingress,’ which will be the first feature film I will be both directing and acting in, I would love to sit down with Jodi Foster, who has made a successful and enduring career as a director and an actor to pick her brain about self directing, and straddling those lines.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Instagram at @ranojay10 and IMDB at imdb.me/rachelnolljames

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


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