This is going to sound insane. But it is so true. I am grateful for every NO I have ever heard. I am grateful for having my heart broken time and again. I am grateful for every time I have fallen to the floor in despair. For every time I have gone through serious muck, I have had to re-connect with my spirit and I have leaned on my amazing friends and my family. The circle I have in my life is stronger now than it has ever been. For me to share a story of only one person would be a disservice to the many others who have equally contributed to my life and love of this industry and the successes I have earned within it.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michelle Tomlinson. An overcomer of papillary thyroid cancer and single mama of a rockin’ toddler, Michelle Tomlinson uses her life to spread light, have fun, work hard and taste every moment to its fullest. An accomplished Actor, Tomlinson also professionally teaches & coaches Actors who regularly book roles in Television, Feature Films, Commercials, and Plays. Tomlinson is the Casting Director for the groundbreaking Narrative Podcast “FRIJOLES y ARROZ” for creator James Charleston. She recently Directed the comedy pilot “DEEPLY SUPERFICIAL” for creator Keith Allen West and is also currently Directing two documentaries: “EDGE”, with partner Lori Bowen and “RISE OF THE MILLENNIAL”, with partner Kimberly Amato. Tomlinson’s children’s book, “GROWING UP MAY”, will be released in the fall/winter of 2019 through Amazon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Michelle! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
My parents were amazing and I was blessed with a childhood that kept us the “three amigos.” My Mom is an AMAZING Artist who works in just about every fine art medium and has sold her artwork all over the nation. My Dad was a Vietnam Vet and a former Marine who had a genius level IQ and worked in the Public Works Department in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
We spent a lot of weekends hiking, camping and riding my Dad’s Harley.
I was raised around every walk of life — from those with no shoes to multi-millionaires and all walks in between. I learned to love everyone as equally as possible and not to treat others differently, based on their income status or race or belief.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a little kid, I loved doing summer theatre. I think my first role was a dancing tree in something like Snow White.
When I reached High School, I found the new passion of Video Productions and learned how to write, shoot and edit my own content. I worked at the local Public Access Channel. I was aiming to become a journalist until I hit College.
In College, at Eastern New Mexico University, I took a Beginning Acting Class and a Theatrical Make-Up Class — just for kicks. And I fell in a deep, deep, never ending love. With Acting. I changed my major about five million times, until I settled on getting a BFA in Theatre Performance from ENMU and the next logical step was Los Angeles!
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Well, there was this one time I almost got shot by the L.A.P.D…. When one runs outside with a fake gun in their hand while acting in an Indie film, one must first look to see if there are any police lingering outside. To this day, I’m not sure if I startled them more or if they startled me more! Thankfully, we were able to eventually laugh it off and nobody got arrested. Or shot…
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?
When I first moved to L.A., I worked at the Starbucks on Hollywood and Highland. There was this actress who was a regular, every morning. I had honestly thought I knew her from somewhere — you know, did she work at a place I had gone out, etc.?? I made a pretty big deal out of I SWEAR I KNOW YOU FROM SOMEWHERE. She was incredibly kind and played it off like it was no biggie. Then it hit me. I had just seen her in a film a couple weeks prior. She was none other than Clea Duvall and I had just made a sweet ass of myself, trying to figure out how I knew her.
I learned: Unless you’re dead on about who you’re meeting or seeing in L.A., keep your mouth shut! Ha! If someone you see looks like someone famous, chances are that’s exactly who you are seeing.
Which prepped me for when Ben Affleck came in to that same Starbucks a week later. My knees got so weak, I was pretty sure I was going to die. Needless to say, I only lasted at Starbucks a few months.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Everything I am working on right now interests and excites me. I am very lucky, very happy and creatively fulfilled. The biggest note I want to share about all of the following projects: EVERY single human I have had or am having the honor of working with right now is utterly amazing. Each team is strong and there are zero weak links. It’s incredible.
I just wrapped Directing a half hour filmed Comedy Spec Pilot for Creator Keith Allen West called Deeply Superficial. We shot it in New Mexico and worked with the best local cast and crew I could have ever imagined. Every single person brought their A-Game and rocked it! I nearly laughed myself to tears in several of the takes, it’s insanely funny.
A Narrative Podcast that I cast just dropped it’s first episode on September 10th and it is AMAZING. Frijoles y Arroz, created by James Walter Charleston, is literally on the cutting edge of narrative podcasts, as it follows a bumbling sheriff’s office and how they handle the town’s politics in the fictional town of Porque, New Mexico. This podcast has all the layers of sound a studio feature film has, down to the Foley and sound mix. Every character is well defined and brought to life deftly and swiftly by the Actors.
I am in the midst of Directing two documentaries: Rise of the Millennial with partner Kimberly Amato (Stories of growing up in a time of terror from those who live it.) and Edge with partner Lori Bowen(Chronicling efforts to preserve the languages and cultures of North American Natives.). Both are in various stages of production and post production and inspire me more than I can define.
We are 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?
My head is exploding with SEVERAL reasons.
- Everyone, regardless of race or gender or abilities or beliefs, deserves a chance at creating their life in this industry.
- Our culture is not just ONE culture. It is thousands of cultures, trying to rise up, with individual voices, yearning to be heard. Imagine if we all stopped and learned something about another culture. Imagine the inspiring lessons we could teach our children. The entertainment industry helps give us that, with diversity in not only casting, but in show runners, directors, networks, etc.
- The more we are aware of what others believe in, the more we can respect our differences instead of letting them be the very thing that causes strife. Then we are able to rise up together. With compassion. And love.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t take anything personally.
As artists, we tend to take just about everything personally. When I was 28 years old and a size 4, I was signed with a manager who only wanted me to wear low cut shirts and tiny skirts and literally said: “You are too old, too fat and almost too ugly for this industry. But your boobs will get you in the door.”
To say I was mortified is an understatement. What about the ninety zillion dollars I spent in acting classes, let alone the cost of living in Los Angeles? I was on the floor of my apartment for DAYS. I half believed him and half hated him and half wanted to just pull out all my hair. It was really tough. I didn’t have anyone to really talk to about it, because it was just the norm. And I had to figure out how to fit the norm, be the norm, without eating another sandwich and think about plastic surgery on my face before I was even 30. (side note: I never did the surgery or botox or whatever and I have had more than one sandwich since…) After a few months of mourning and magnificent self pity, I was like: SCREW IT. This guys is a monster and I am ending our contract. And so I did. And then I booked a slew of films and did the things I set out to do.
2. Your life will fall to pieces, and you have to keep going.
While shooting one film, I found out my Dad had cancer. In the middle of the very next film I shot, I found out he had 3–6 months to live. Immediately after I shot another film and had my first audition with a new Agent, I got the call that things had made a turn for the worse with him. I dropped everything and went home to be with him for one last time and to stand tall for my mom.
Everything in my life went to hell in a blink of an eye.
My dad died, my agent dropped me, my boyfriend broke up with me and there I was… Trying to act like I was ok when I was dying inside. It was my most inauthentic time of my life and I had no idea how to navigate through the mess. I leaned on my work, and I had the joy of coaching and teaching Actors that helped me find my breath again. I took a breather from Acting for a minute.I broke. I broke really hard.
And even though I had discovered hell on earth, I woke up every morning and my feet hit the ground. And I figured as long as I kept doing that, I would get through each day.
It’s ok if your world crumbles. It’s ok if you have to hit pause. Just keep breathing.
3. You will book what you will book!
I used to get CRAZY if there was a role I really wanted but didn’t book it, for whatever reason.
My late and beloved friend and colleague, Carolyne Barry, finally told me to CHILL OUT.
I was in her on camera class and she had me in frame, next to another actress. She asked the class: Who would be the boss? Michelle or this other girl? Who would be the edgy girl who would take you out at 2am to get tattoos? Michelle or this other girl? What she was really asking the class was about my essence. And, by the by, they chose me to be the boss and be the one who got ink in the middle of the night. Once I learned more about my actual essence, I quit trying to hide my essence with what other people were wanting from me and was able to peel back my own layers of nonsense and get more authentic with my types of characters.
4. Know the difference between acting and booking!
I received my BFA in Theatre Performance from ENMU and I trained with the best Scene Study teachers in Los Angeles. I totally thought I knew what I was doing. And I was right! As long as I had a LOT of time to prepare my material, I could rock it. I was very safe in my “process.” And then Carolyne Barry and Amy Lyndon taught me how to streamline my process in a big way and get to the truth of what I was doing in a scene in a short amount of time and THAT changed me from an Actor who did ok in auditions to an Actor who started booking a lot more. Carolyne covered more the commercial and infomercial side of things and Amy the theatrical. You can literally be an amazing actor, but if you don’t know how to approach auditions, you are HOSED!
5. AUTHENTICITY IS WHERE IT IS AT.
The biggest misnomer about this industry is that we have to be fake and awful until we make it. Then we can be even “faker” and “awfuller” and be big stars.
I always tried to be ME, and I have usually been pretty good about it. For awhile there, especially when I first moved to L.A., I bought into the importance of going out to the Sunset Strip to try to network at Bar Marmont or whatever. All we wound up really doing was spending 15 bucks on a lame drink and running into other Actors who were basically doing the same thing.
I had much better luck going to the carwash, where I met one of the biggest and KINDEST producers in our industry. I was wearing sweats, a t-shirt and sunglasses. By the way. And we wound up being friends. I worked at a post-production sound facility that had Dwayne Johnson come in for ADR for a film he was in and he couldn’t have been more kind to me, as we talked trucks and engines and he tossed his keys at me and let me go check out his enormous truck. I met a huge CW star when I literally tripped over his foot when trying to get by him and all but landed on his whole group of friends and my friends and his friends wound up hanging out all night up at his house.
Authenticity books you the job. It books you the amazing crews when you start directing and producing. Kindness (without being a push over, of course!) brings you the people who want to create incredible art and worthy visions. You can be the REAL YOU and carve out a space for yourself in this industry.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
YOGA! YOGA. YOGA!
I also love the Insight Timer for guided meditations.
And, the truly best thing, is to get into nature. We spend a lot of time in front of screens, hunched over doing things and our bodies just need to feel some dirt and some sun and some sweat. I absolutely love hitting my yoga mat, outside, at the end of the day, while listening to a guided meditation. Helps me get centered FAST.
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. 🙂
In a perfect world, I would inspire a movement of compassion. A movement that would inspire strangers to look each other in the eye and speak to each other in the most human ways. None of this “I am fine, blah blah blah.” Real talk. Real stories. Life lessons would be spread. We would rise up together, stronger, hand in hand. We would plant trees together, as our compassion is not only for each other but our injured earth, and we would work harder, together, to push the initiatives on living more sustainably and create more jobs to attain that living.
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?
This is going to sound insane. But it is so true.
I am grateful for every NO I have ever heard. I am grateful for having my heart broken time and again. I am grateful for every time I have fallen to the floor in despair.
For every time I have gone through serious muck, I have had to re-connect with my spirit and I have leaned on my amazing friends and my family. The circle I have in my life is stronger now than it has ever been. For me to share a story of only one person would be a disservice to the many others who have equally contributed to my life and love of this industry and the successes I have earned within it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If I’m gonna go down I’m gonna do it with style. You won’t hear me surrender, you won’t hear me confess cause you’ve left me with nothing but I have worked with less.”
I have made a lot of wonderfully wrong decisions in my life and that’s ok. I own all of them. And in those decisions, I trusted some folks in ways that felt right at the time, but wound up leaving me in a lurch of a moment where I didn’t know what to do. This quote, and others of Ani DiFranco, have been my oxygen in many ways and many times.
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. 🙂
Without doubt, Ani DiFranco. Her music has gotten me through gallons of hell on earth for 20 years and I would love to meet her and tell her THANK YOU in person. She’s a strong woman. Side note: Somewhere that serves vegan food would be preferable. 😉
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Thank YOU so much! I love your in-depth questions, they made me really pause and think.