You don’t have to be a hot mess to be talented. There are a lot of wonderfully sane people out there who have created huge careers with their talent. They lived their lives with respect and dignity. I really dislike those conversations that the only true artists are the broken ones. Heck we’re all crazy to be in this business. Have you looked at the rejection rates!? But some of us don’t need to tear ourselves down to create great art. Great art is inside, with or without the meltdowns. I prefer without.
I had the pleasure to interview actress Deb Snyder. Deb has had some wonderful opportunities in her seasoned career. She has worked with an impressive array of talent including Ang Lee, Sydney Pollack, George Clooney and Harrison Ford. Snyder knows how to deliver a comedic performance, while keeping her characters grounded in reality, making the result both laughable and relatable. It’s no wonder she will be making a guest appearance as ‘Marsha’ on the critically-acclaimed HBO show, “Big Little Lies.” Her episode titled “Kill Me” will air on Sunday, July 7th. Working with such a remarkable cast has been a shining moment in Snyder’s career. “Big Little Lies” isn’t the first time Snyder booked a role through Emmy award-winning casting director, David Rubin. He first met and cast Snyder in Random Hearts (directed by Sydney Pollack) where she played a clueless art gallery assistant opposite Harrison Ford. Since then he has called her in repeatedly to audition for projects. Her first starring feature role was in Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands. She challenged Frances Sternhagen’s sanity in the film Landfall; as a tough cop she mulled over the clues at a crime scene with Jose Zuniga in Sins of the City; and as an abusive executive, she caused Neil Hopkins some damage in William Dickerson’s film Detour. Snyder’s versatility as an actor shows in the variety of roles she plays. Snyder has appeared in numerous national television commercials and TV shows including “Life in Pieces,” “Boston Legal,” “Unscripted,” “Sins of the City,” “General Hospital,” “Miami Sands,” and several new web series including “Meet Me at the Barre” and “Eve & Edna.” On the stage, she made her Off-Broadway debut creating several characters for Nicky Silver in New York City, including originating the role of the uptight repressed ‘Vivian’ in Freewill and Wanton Lust (her name is listed in the Samuel French edition as the originator). Since then she has performed in countless plays and musicals in the Los Angeles area including Six Degrees of Separation, Atalanta, Clean House, and two Ovation-nominated musicals; Divorce the Musical and The Breakup Notebook: The Lesbian Musical. Recently, Snyder stepped in for the ‘Housekeeper’ in The Man of La Mancha at A Noise Within, captivating an entire audience in one singing scene. Snyder received her MFA from Brandeis University in Boston. She studied overseas at British European Theatre Studies Group in London with teachers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). She received her BA from Kalamazoo College. When she isn’t performing, Snyder enjoys riding her black Honda Shadow VLX along the roads of Angeles Crest Highway. She also spends time working with Urban Harvester, a nonprofit that connects fresh excess non-expired food to local vetted, non-profit agencies who are offering no-cost food assistance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Deb! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I’m originally a New Yorker. I spent the first part of my childhood in Yonkers. My father’s family is arabic. My grandfather (Jido) came over from Jordan to escape the Turks in his early teens. He became a wonderful chef. He also worked in the community helping people make the transition from the Middle East to America which was difficult for many. My grandmother (Sitti) was Lebanese. Her two sisters, my darling great aunts, lived with my parents, brother, and me in a beautiful house in Yonkers. I still dream of that house. On Sundays we would make the rounds of our extended family, and at every house we had to eat or it was an insult. I have this funny memory of my poor Sitti chasing after me saying, “Debbie, take a bite, just one bite!”
My mother’s family is the covered wagon crew. My Grandad was a sharecropper, someone who worked the land for his rent and to feed his family. They were farmers from start to finish. My grandmother traveled by covered wagon from Indiana to Illinois with chickens tied on the side. After my parents divorced, my Mom moved my brother and me from our palatial house in Yonkers to a trailer park in Pekin, Illinois. As sad a time as divorce is for a child… this is where I learned about independence. I was a wild child on the farm. There were acres and acres to explore barefoot. Grandma used to have to whistle me home for lunch. I am proud to say I learned to whistle just like my Grandma. Done properly it can damage ear-drums.
There is such beautiful diversity in each of these cultures. They have both served me in my growth as an actor. The variety of roles I get to explore is expressly because of the diverse cultures I experienced in my youth.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When we were in Yonkers, we were an entertainment family. My father was the conductor of a famous choir who performed on the Kraft Music Hall TV show with Burt Bachrach and Angie Dickenson. I would often go with my father to the house where they rehearsed. One day an older gentleman handed me an autographed picture of the Penguin from “Batman,” and I realized I was hanging out at Burgess Meredith’s house.
My mother loved to throw holiday parties at our house. I remember one Christmas Eve when I was 3, my brother was at the piano playing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” I was singing to a punching bag that was dressed up as Santa. And then I saw my grandfather look at me, smile delightedly, clap, and I was hooked. I just didn’t know at that age that it would last a lifetime.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
During the late 80s in New York, if you didn’t have an agent you would have to go to a trade newspaper to find auditions. I applied to one and was called in by Nicky Silver to read for a new play. After performing one of my prepared monologues, Nicky asked me to read a role. When I finished he said, “Thank You,” and I left. The next day I received a call from Nicky and he asked If I could come to his apartment and meet with him. I said, “Yes!” It was a tiny New York apartment. For some reason I remember the stove that he didn’t use except as storage. He handed me a manilla folder that had a script in it and asked me to read again. He said, “I want to see if you can do what you did at the audition.” And I said, “Okay!” And I did. He looked at me and he told me to keep the script. I had won the part!
I loved working with Nicky Silver. He has such glorious dark humor. I am so proud to be listed as an original cast member in the Samuel French printing of Nicky’s play “Free Will and Wanton Lust”. I played the repressed girlfriend, Vivian. What a wild ride that was! Nicky loved physical choices. The cast was terrific. I was thrilled to see Nicky get such recognition for his work. He is a genius.
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?
In Florida, I worked on a new musical starring Shelley Berman. We had a scene where we waltzed together. He was a fantastic dancer! As I was walking offstage listening to the applause I ran directly into a beam. The assistant stage manager had to pick me up, dust me off, and send me back onstage pretty quickly. The show must go on! Spencer Tracy famously said, “The secret to being a good actor is to know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”. I would like to add and don’t run into the set pieces.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I write and produce my own web series entitled “Eve & Edna”. I started a production company, Wise Women Films, with a couple of my friends, Malinda Farrington and Julie Markowitz. We tell our stories! We started two years ago and now have five competed shorts. I’m in the process of writing and storyboarding a music video for Eve & Edna. It’s a girlfriend romp about the ways we get through life by encouraging and picking each other up.
We invite actors and crew to come and play in our creative ‘sandbox.’ One brilliant writer and actor, Cynthia Gravinese, emerged and started her own production company and a new web series entitled, “Meet Me At the Barre”. I get to play a delicious character!
I also write children’s music and have for over 20 years with Philip Bynoe, a world class musician who tours with artists such as Steve Vai. Our newest album is entitled, “A Dog’s Heart”.
I’m very interested in 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?
Thankfully diversity has started to appear in Film and TV, but it has a long way to go. So many creatives still make the safe decision.
Diversity is critical to recognition, understanding, and change.
Diversity in the entertainment industry will ignite recognition within and between communities. Communities will discover they are not alone and that they are relevant.
Diverse content will create understanding between communities. It will challenge stereotypes and build bridges of commonality. We will see we are similar but still celebrate the differences in our cultures. I remember as a teenager, watching a documentary about the discovery of an indigenous people who lived in the Amazon forest. I‘ll never forget the image of a native man in all his cultural glory wearing white knee socks and tennis shoes while smoking a cigar. He was smiling.
Diverse stories will create change in our social culture. It will reveal we are all just trying to live, work, and feed our families. My biggest hope is that putting out more diverse content will reduce the fear and hate that is all too easily shared on social media. We need more compassion in this world.
From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
The Industry should be brave. Cast outside of the box and not just the little roles. Tell the hard stories and break your darn formulas. Hire diversity into your studio system. Hire diverse people to read scripts and recommend they get made. Hire more diverse crew.
Society has to be willing to watch those stories and support them. Demand more of them by our views. The entertainment world is a business. They have to make money. I believe we are shifting. Maybe not as fast as we could. Take “Big Little Lies” whose storylines are driven by five powerful women of varying ages. They added Meryl Streep for season 2 and the show grew in popularity again after being away for a year! Andrea Arnold was hired to direct this season. She was amazing as was her crew. What a set I got to work on! I am grateful.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s a long distance run not a sprint. To borrow from a famous song… “But I’m here!” We go through so much change in life. But you can always come back to acting. It’s something you can do your entire life and at any age. I meet older actors all the time who retired from a full-time job to finally enjoy their passion, acting. I celebrate them!!!
- Start a show bible and write all your connections down. If I had put all my information early in my career in a notebook, I’d have access to interactions that have disappeared. It’s easier nowadays you can simply use an excel sheet or database to remember your meetings and auditions. Networking is very important in this industry. As my mentor, Bonnie, says, “Build your web of trust”!
- Have a life. Have fun. Laugh as often as possible. It’s important to not worry all the time. You need a life. You need friends and a career. And sometimes you need a job to support you. It’s okay to pay the bills. You’re still an actor with or without an acting job. Ignore the phrase, “You are only as good as your last job.” What garbage! You are enough.
- It’s a business. Don’t ignore the business portion of the entertainment world like I did at the start. In this day and age there are so many ways you can learn about it including, books, online courses, podcasts, and other actors. Networking is critical. Start early. Start small if you’re not comfortable doing it. Be kind to yourself. Take small steps. But do it.
- You don’t have to be a hot mess to be talented. There are a lot of wonderfully sane people out there who have created huge careers with their talent. They lived their lives with respect and dignity. I really dislike those conversations that the only true artists are the broken ones. Heck we’re all crazy to be in this business. Have you looked at the rejection rates!? But some of us don’t need to tear ourselves down to create great art. Great art is inside, with or without the meltdowns. I prefer without.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
See above, “Have a life!” Travel. See things. Grow. Try something new. Do something that scares you. I ride a motorcycle and am thrilled every time I jump on my bike. It feels like I belong there. I am not a good meditator. I tried but my mind swirls when I try to focus for anything longer than a minute. But a motorcycle demands my full attention or I could die. It’s awesome.
Go away. Learn something. Paint. Cry. I always recommend a good cry. Breathe.
Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
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. 🙂
I work with Urban Harvester. It’s a fantastic non-profit started by Linda Hess that connects fresh excess non-expired food to local vetted, non-profit agencies who are offering no-cost food assistance. There is so much food waste in this country it is shocking.
Let’s get people, especially our children, fed. We can do it.
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?
For Acting: I’ll never forget Nancy Donahue. I’ve studied a lot of different acting techniques. I have an MFA for crying out loud. But the glorious process of understanding how to break things down in a way that meant something to me happened when I started to work with Nancy. I have a raw beautiful talent and was able to begin to harness my power in a unique way with her. Nancy studied the Uta Hagen technique for years and shared it with me. What a gift! When I need it, I use it to this day.
For Business: I am extraordinarily grateful to Bonnie Gillespie who wrote, “Self-Management For Actors”. Go buy the book! I discovered her a couple of years ago. I hope younger actors discover her much earlier than I did. She has changed my mindset and business practices in so many helpful and empowering ways. Bonnie is the person who helped me understand the concept of “I am enough”. She even sent me a bracelet with the word “Enough” on it. I carry it in my bag to every audition. I have grown in ways that have allowed me to open my own production company and move forward as a creative leader. I can’t praise her enough.
For Life: my hubby Doug. We’ve been on this earthly journey together since college. We thrived and grew as individuals through rock n roll bands, helping start the internet by loading software in Singapore in the 90s, fishing in Miami, scuba diving in Australia, motorcycling in California, rescuing dogs and cats, filming Eve & Edna, living, and loving. We embrace our similarities and our differences. I wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s my pal and the love of my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Not if….when. It’s another Bonnie Gillespie concept and one that started building my foundation for I am enough. It’s not too late to make it. It’s about the work. It’s about creating. It’s about telling your story the best you can at auditions. There is so much rejection in this business. Actors are vulnerable, we have to be by the very definition of what we do. But we need a way to move forward when we don’t book the job. There is always hope. There is always a chance. There is… Not if…. When. This is a concept I can hang my hat on. Giddyup!
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. 🙂
James Corden — But I want to do Carpool Karaoke with him and use one of my children’s songs. Oh, man, that would be SO MUCH FUN!
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