Acting is a collaborative art form. You can’t make it on your own, alone. You need other people. Find your team, your crew, find like-minded people, find your fans and supporters, find your tribe. It’s easier together. Alone you can go fast, together you can go far.
As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristel Elling. Kristel is a two-time National Theatre Award Winning actress from Estonia. She’s classically trained with a Bachelor’s Degree (with honors) in Acting from Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and a Masters Degree from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Kristel has starred in numerous films, TV series, major theatre productions and TV Commercials. She has also written, produced and starred in a short film From Me, which was co-directed by an Academy Award Nominated Director, Tanel Toom.
Thank you so much for joining us Kristel! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was literally raised at the theatre as my mother was working as an opera singer at one of the biggest repertoire theatres in Estonia. I didn’t know anything else existed outside the theatre. That was my world. So, I guess that’s a huge factor.
My first appearance was on my mother’s lap at eleven months old. By the age of four I was auditioning and cast as Jake’s child on the same stage in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
My mother has told me that at the age of five I organized a concert on our living room table singing my favorite songs. A few years later I wrote a play and put it up at home and choreographed dance shows involving my best friends. I loved performing. I loved the audience. So I must have received the performing gene from my mother.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
Many years ago, I played the lead role of Molly in Brian Friel’s play called Molly Sweeney. The character I played is blind. I met up with blind people, talked to them and tried to comprehend how it is to live without sight. I met a guy who was born blind. How does he imagine the sky, a flower, the trees, the Sun, a human being? This was a subject I had never really thought about before. While preparing for the role, I tried to amplify all my other senses and perceive the world around me mainly through hearing, touch, taste and smell. So, one day while performing I realized that I did not see. I didn’t play blind, but I was blind. Somehow, I had switched the sight off. I was somehow able to do it every time while on stage. This experience was mind blowing and scary all at once.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My main focus right now is producing my first feature film which I also wrote.
For me it’s very exciting as it’s one of my passion projects and I have bee writing this script for five years. It’s a psychological thriller, similar to 80-s style erotic thrillers like “Basic Instinct,” “Body Heat” and others. I was at Cannes film festival this year and found a few producers who showed interest but it’s still in the negotiation phase. It’s a long journey as we all know.
I’ve also started teaching acting and working on making this little side business of mine more professional and available for people.
And I’m about to finish writing a book on acting and my experiences as an actor in Hollywood. The book is in Estonian. Hoping to get it published by the beginning of next year. That’s very exciting for me as I’ve always loved writing and wanted to write a book.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Many years ago I worked with one of the most legendary Estonian theatre directors, called Jaan Tooming. Throughout the rehearsal period, he never watched the rehearsals. He was only listening, his eyes closed. That’s his method of directing.
When I lived in London, I attended a small screening of “The Wrestler.” My producer friend was invited but she couldn’t make it, so she asked me if I’d be interested. She didn’t have to ask me twice. That’s how I had a chance to attend this special event which was only for a very small group of top industry people. Both Micky Rourke, the lead, and Darren Aranovsky, the director of the movie, were there.
I couldn’t believe my luck when after the screening I had a chance to shake Darren Aranovsky’s hand, who is one of my favorite directors, and compliment him on the film which I genuinely loved. He might have even still seen the tears in my eyes. After thanking him and changing a few words, I was ready to walk away, when he started asking me questions like where I’m from, what do I do and how’s my acting career going. He was interested in how I was doing and how was my acting going?! In that moment it felt like the highest recognition I had ever received. A world-renowned director whom I happened to admire, talks to me as an equal. He was warm, friendly and genuine. I realized that we are all in this together. It’s like a family. I belonged somewhere, the world of entertainment and movies. If he only knew how much this little conversation with him meant to me. I very much would love to work with him one day.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Beside your acting career, you should also live your own life, have hobbies, enjoy time with friends and family. You as an actor have nothing to give to the roles if you have not lived and fully experienced the world around you. Meeting different people, learning the nature of human beings, learning about yourself, that’s all food for your acting work. Learn. Study! Travel! Grow! Live life! I’m giving this advice from my own experience. For many years, I was single mindedly focused only on my acting career. I lost friends; I didn’t enjoy life. Life outside my acting career didn’t exist. That’s a trap. You end up being miserable and you will lose the joy to act as everything becomes a struggle.
You need to be happy in your life, as happy as you can be. Do things you love, gather yourself with like-minded people, people who care about you and who you care about.
I used to believe that all real artists are poor, suffering and in pain and that’s how real art is born. I truly believed it. Now I believe that you can live a happy life and still create profound, in-depth work. You can still dig deep and you won’t lose your imagination and sensitivity when being happy. It will always be there.
Another thing which I find very important is that as an actor, you can’t do it on your own. Entertainment is a collaborative business; you will always need people.
If you hate people and hate working with other people, it’s going to be very tough for you. Also, be a good person! Arrogant people and big egos won’t last in this business. Nobody will want to work with you. How often we’ve all heard that this or that actor got fired from set because of the bad behavior and conflicts. Big names have been fired from franchise movies! I remember when I auditioned for the Estonian Academy of Theatre and Music to study acting and I remember a beautiful girl, just gorgeous, who was auditioning with me. I saw her act and I thought she was extremely talented. But when the acting teacher started re-directing her, she became self-righteous, aggressive and very unpleasant. This girl was not accepted at the drama school and her talent had nothing to do with it.
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. 🙂
So often I feel traumatized by human’s behavior. Arrogance, violence, stupidity, cruelty and greed spreading like a weed. Got a little rhyme here. Anyway, I’m talking about shootings, crime, shocking violence on streets, at homes; I’m talking about people who would sell the world for power, who would sell the whole Earth’s nature for money. What could I do? Spread kindness and love. It all starts with me and you. My grandmother always used to say that with kindness you always win. I know it sounds so simple, perhaps even banal but when you smile, people do smile back. When you are kind, people are more likely be kind to you and eventually to others.
So, I’d start a movement of love and kindness. I’ll start with myself. Take a look at yourself and then make the change, right?! I believe that violence creates violence, so violence is definitely not a solution to any problems. Violence can be conquered by kindness. Would that help with greed and arrogance?! I’d hope so. A kinder and more loving world, that’s what I vote for.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
As I already mentioned, I was literally raised in the theatre. So early on I had a pretty good idea of what it means to be an actor. When I had just started working professionally, I believed that if you’re talented and a hard worker, you’ll get noticed and you will work. The thing I didn’t know is that you can love acting to bits, be trained and talented but that does not guarantee work. There is a very important aspect of acting, I’d say the most important aspect I didn’t know about. This is people skills and networking skills. People who are great at connecting with people and are team-players, do very well. This business is so much about who you know. Being social, constantly connecting with industry people and networking is a HUGE factor of getting work and succeeding in this business.
In bullet points I came up with something like this:
- Acting is a collaborative art form. You can’t make it on your own, alone. You need other people. Find your team, your crew, find like-minded people, find your fans and supporters, find your tribe. It’s easier together. Alone you can go fast, together you can go far.
- Be a good person. Nobody wants to work with selfish, arrogant people, no matter how talented you are.
- I used to think that when you’re a true actor, you live fully for your art. In today’s world that wouldn’t work. You would most probably sit at home without receiving any offers. Today being an actor means that you’re also a business owner and that business is you. Work on your business, promote your business, look after your business. Whether we want it or not, the entertainment industry is a business.
- Have a life, travel, read, have hobbies, try new things. Don’t forget to live. There’s a whole world outside acting, outside the entertainment industry.
- Confidence is everything. Be confident in your life, be confident in your work. It’s all connected. When you’re lacking self-belief then figure out the ways which give you more confidence. Self-doubt will sabotage you. Don’t listen to the others. Only listen to your heart and your guts. It’s YOUR life. Nobody else can live your life. Do what makes you happy. Be confident in your choices. Confidence! Confidence! Confidence!
I wouldn’t change my life for any other life. Pursuing an acting career is what has given meaning to my life, what makes me passionate, what makes me happy. Being creative is my food. Booking a role is the biggest joy and award. And the older I get the more I realize how much responsibility I have. I matter. My work matters. My art matters. Films, theatre performances have changed lives, have inspired people, have given people hope and strength. IT MATTERS. It is also a way to spread love and kindness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Walt Disney has said many great quotes which just makes you believe that chasing and fulfilling you dreams is the only way of living. One of my favorite quotes of his is: If you can dream it, you 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?
There have been many people along the way who’ve helped me and supported me both mentally and emotionally. I feel that my biggest fans have been the most substantial help along the way. I have some friends who fully believe in me and their constant encouragement has been lifting my spirits, has given me confidence and given me belief that what I do matters; I do have something to share and give. My biggest fan of all, is my dear mom. She has been my most passionate and the most enthusiastic fan. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m forever grateful for her. Thank you, dear mom!
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. 🙂
So many! Most of them are actors. If I have to pick just one, then I’d pick Jim Carrey. He’s a genius. Period. I adore him. He represents the Cinderella story. When he was younger, he and his family lived in a van, they had very little money. Jim Carrey worked himself up. He made himself one of the greatest and most renowned actors of all time. He’s not only an incredible actor; he’s a fantastic and genuine human being. His beliefs and views on the world resonate strongly with mine. He’s unapologetically himself and that what makes him so unique. He’s generous and kind and one of the bravest and the most authentic human beings I know. He is also underrated. I can go on. I genuinely feel that he’s my soulmate. Can’t wait to meet him.
Just recently I had an audition for the series called “Kidding” where Jim Carrey plays the lead. In the scene I would have played against the genius himself. I didn’t get the part but I’ve never been closer to meeting and working with him.
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More info about Kristel’s work can be found on her website: www.kristelelling.com