Find your tribe. Align yourself with the right people. There’s a synergy that happens when you are surrounded with like minds, and those who want to help each other. It allows everyone to move up. Early in my career I was fortunate to have a learning experience with someone I had placed a lot of trust in. This person had not been honest with me and it felt like a betrayal. Once you get rid of the dead weight, things start to fall in place.
As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sangeeta Wylie. Wylie is an emerging actress and playwright from Vancouver, Canada. She has worked with director Deepa Mehta who called her “exceptionally talented, genuine and fearless.” Wylie has transitioned from a career in dentistry to film, television and theatre, with several credits to her name. She believes in the power of art to make positive change in the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I came to this career a little later than most. When I was young, I loved every aspect of performance- I did drama camps in the summer, played flute in the school bands, was part of a dance performance group; I lived for the stage. However I have a bit of a tragic family story, which affected my career path. My parents divorced when I was 15, and I didn’t see my father for almost 3 decades. Times were tough financially and emotionally. Music and performance were the things that gave me stability during those turbulent teenage years. In the end, I knew there was no ‘back-up plan’, and I did not want to be a starving artist or worse, lose my love for performing. So I chose the safe route. I completed a degree in chemistry, adding a music minor in classical piano. I followed this with a dental degree, but always maintained that I would practice dentistry for ten years, and then go ‘part-time’, and return to my passion in the performing arts.
It was a bit of serendipity mixed with a life-long dream to perform, that brought me back to my roots. One day I had a patient who told me of an ‘Intro to Acting’ course she had just taken. It reminded me of my love of theatre. I had been thinking of signing up for a creative writing course at the time. I thought, if not now, then when? And signed up for that acting course. As an adult, my life was going well- good career, great boyfriend and social life, and living in a beautiful city- nothing appeared to be missing. But the day I entered that class I was bit once again like I had been in my youth. Here was the outlet that I had used as a shy child, to pour my expressions and feelings into. And here, as an adult, my soul was yearning for this nutrition- this place to thrive and blossom. I felt like I had been woken after many years of sleep.
I have not looked back ever since. This is a career in which growth appears to be limitless. That excites me. I’m finding that there are many avenues for my creativity.
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 auditioned for Robin Givens, who was in Toronto to workshop a musical that her mother had written. She was beautiful in person, and very approachable- she made the room safe. She liked my audition. When we chatted, I told her I sang in choirs, but was not comfortable singing solo. I suppose I didn’t realize she was looking for someone who could sing, afterall, it was a musical. I had left the building, when her assistant ran out after me, saying “Ms Givens wants to see you.” So I went back, thinking maybe this is a callback, or audition for another part. When I came back, she said, “I know you said you don’t sing solo, but can you sing something, anything for me, please?” I very meekly sang something from Les Miserables, “On my own”, something I had not sung since high school, when I sang alto in the choir. Except now I sang the soprano part- which I am not. Needless to say, I crashed and burned under the pressure of it all. It was a learning moment, and I did laugh afterwards. It felt like one of those awful “American Idol” auditions that gets played because of how bad it is. When auditioning for a musical, make sure you have a song prepared at the very least, and make sure you can sing!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am writing a play inspired by a true story of a refugee family. It’s a journey story, but also a journey between a mother and her daughter. Is reconciliation possible after four decades of secrets? This is a universal story, and it being a refugee story, is still quite relevant today.
It’s for anyone who has ever felt alienated, isolated persecuted. In short, everyone can relate or at least imagine the personal significance of this story. We’ve had some workshops and readings over the last couple of years. Some audience members have emailed and spoken to us about how the reading has changed their lives. They felt connected to the characters and their relationships. In one case in particular, a woman told us how, because of the reading, she was going to finally speak to her own daughter, and tell her about her refugee story, in order to bring them closer. If this play has affected even one life for the better, than it has already been an achievement.
This play led me to healing a personal relationship in my life, which in turn, healed me. I didn’t know that I needed healing, as I had forgiven and moved on. However, all sides of a story deserve to be heard. We are often quick to judge people without having the benefit of hearing their story. Sometimes that story will surprise us, and turn the villain into a hero.
Besides the play, which I have plans to stage in the next couple of years, I’ve a couple other interesting projects I’m just getting started on, one for TV. I’d like to delve more into the personal, while incorporating an interesting framework around it. Sorry to be cryptic, but I’ve learned to keep my ideas under cover until they are ready to be birthed!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a certain number of celebrities over the years. I’ve had a wonderful relationship with Deepa Mehta, who remains an inspiration for me, not just in her work, but in her way of living. She is interesting because she is interested. That to me, is one of the keys in life. She’s able to dig deep, and pull things from you that feel real and in the moment. Within minutes of meeting her, you want to tell her your whole life story. One of the most fascinating people I’ve met recently is a journalist named Eddin Khoo, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This man comes from an diverse background- mixed heritage of Indian and Chinese, he plays piano and sings jazz with a local band, is a Kali Priest, and has pennedHis father, Khoo Kay Kim, was Malaysia’s national historian. He’s interviewed some amazing people like David Bowie, politicians, writers, artists. Eddin is very well-read, a true intellectual and a thinker. He recently introduced me to the room where he stores his books. It turns out to be his first apartment, which he no longer lives in because it is filled from floor to ceiling with towers of books! There is one small couch and a table with an ashtray. I’m not a smoker, but I am a romantic. Imagine sitting in this apartment, smoking Indonesian cigarettes with cloves that crackle as they burn, sipping green tea and reading passages of Jean Genet. The conversations we had were deep, meaningful and intimate, and made me feel like I had skipped back a century. In today’s world of texting and social media, there is something magical and inspiring about this kind of slow paced environment of pausing to read and exchange ideas without the fear of being ‘called out’ or getting into a heated argument. Or as Eddin would say, we can have an argument in its proper definition.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Life is not only about your career. We have such a short time on this earth, it’s important to notice the beauty around us. Whether it is in visiting an art gallery, listening to a live symphony, visiting an old friend, or the simplicity of hearing the leaves crunch under your feet as you walk. Take the time to listen, to see, to fully exist in this world. It’s that which brings us gratitude. And gratitude which brings us joy. If we can maintain our joy, how can we burn out? We are artists, however we are artists with emotional centres that need to be fed. If the art becomes work, we lose that emotional centre, that connection to why we do it in the first place. I’ve found that taking a break from one entity can often introduce another into my life. Life is a journey, and not the end result. Enjoy every aspect, and be present.
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. 🙂
Choose Kindness. We always have a choice to act with kindness and compassion. It isn’t always easy, and in the moments where one feels they must retaliate, I would suggest do not act. Wait. With time, often the solution will change. When we choose to act with kindness, we have a chance to undo the pain that may have caused the problem in the first place. Random acts of kindness can go a long way to making the world a better place.
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 give up. If you love, you will find the right place for you. I believe in the law of plenty, that there are more than enough opportunities for everyone in this industry. You have to believe in yourself and the love of your craft. That love can carry you forward when the business side of things starts to wear you down. Continue to do the work and it will pay off one day. There are many times when I’ve thought I should give up, worried about whether I had what it takes to ‘make it’. I remember meeting a well-known casting director from LA in my earlier days, when I was reading for auditions. He’s worked with all kinds of famous people. We talked about how tough the industry is, not knowing if you’ll ever make it. He told me “you can never give up”. Somehow, the way he said it, reverberates to this day. I guess also because he’s seen enough people make it, and plenty more give up. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about people about to give up, when they book that role that catapults their career. It happens on small levels as well, when you’re getting started.
- Find your tribe. Align yourself with the right people. There’s a synergy that happens when you are surrounded with like minds, and those who want to help each other. It allows everyone to move up. Early in my career I was fortunate to have a learning experience with someone I had placed a lot of trust in. This person had not been honest with me and it felt like a betrayal. Once you get rid of the dead weight, things start to fall in place.
- Trust your gut instinct. Your gut instinct is the best tool you have. When I’ve listened to that little voice inside of me, it has always been right. Whether it is in acting, or generally in life. I had a spiritual awakening of sorts when I was travelling through Asia, in which my gut instinct was leading me- in who to talk to, what to eat, where to go. Every time it felt like a bit of magic, opening the doors. I can’t explain in specifics right now, but I will say I believe that our gut instinct is somehow connected to consciousness, and that when we follow it, things seem to fall into place.
- Gratitude. This one is one of the most important. I know I’ve mentioned this before in relation to ‘burn out’. What ever our problems are, remember that there are people who have far worse problems. People who would love to be in our shoes. Appreciate the life you are living, and remember to be grateful for it. How many people get to say they went on an audition today? Now that I no longer practice dentistry, I remind myself that it’s five minutes in my day where I don’t have to put a needle in someone’s mouth.
- Be present. In every moment, in every conversation, in every relationship. Give people the generosity of yourself. Your attention is kindness. And this extends to the world around you- really see, really listen, and take in what is happening around you. Allow it to affect you, without feeling the need to hide your own reaction. Be present like a five year old is. Once you really listen with your heart, a connection is made.. and connection is what story telling- whether it be acting, music, dance, etc, is all about. Learn how to be present to connect.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father has always said, “If you understand someone, you do not judge them. If you judge them, you do not understand them.” This has been an important mantra in my life. We can solve a lot of problems between ourselves if we take the time to try and understand someone instead of judging them. We tend to do this with the people we love dearly. The life of an actor and a writer is to find some understanding in this world- of the character, of the story, of the times we live in. The more we dig, the more we find, and the more rewarding it can be to discover that essentially we are the same. We are human, part of the human race, despite our many celebrated differences. If we can be proud of our peoples, our cultures, our religions, we can find the love we so desperately need in this world. I’ve had my own quote, which is “Love breeds love. Hate breeds hate.” I choose love and understanding. This is what has led me to healing my own personal relationships in my life, to learning the truth, and to emerging as a fearless artist, ready to take on the world, much like my five-year-old self.
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 father is the person I am most grateful to. He always believed in me, and his pride in me goes beyond anything I’ve ever accomplished. I’m also inspired by him because of the tribulation he has gone through in his life. Despite the curveballs that life threw at him, he didn’t give up. His story is incredulous on many levels, and someday I will perhaps get to share it. But for now, he remains someone I look up to. His belief in me pushes me to want to achieve what is within my power to do.
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. 🙂
There are a great many people who I admire for their work, without idolizing them. I am a fan of Barack and Michelle Obama- I believe they are both leaders of merit, integrity and moral standing. I don’t have children, but if I did, I would want them to learn from these two people how it is to move through this world with that kind of grace and integrity. I have dreams of parlaying this career into a larger platform to do some good in this world. The Obama’s are role models for the inspiration they bring to the world.
I’d be humbled to meet Ang Lee, quite selfishly, because I think he is one of the great directors of our time. I also believe he would be the right fit for a certain film I’m developing. He impresses me with his wide range of films- from Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Lust:Caution, Life of Pi… He breaks down all the norms- never getting pigeon-holed. You never know what direction he will take next. I think it must be fascinating to be in his mind. I also appreciate that he has never denied his Taiwanese roots. He has his own aesthetic when it comes to film-making. One day I would like to further my career into directing, and I would love to have a conversation with Ang Lee about the pit-falls and highlights of his career. Pragmatic as well as inspiring advice.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I have limited social media presence: a public Instagram account: sangeeta.wylie, a Facebook fan page, and I recently signed up for twitter and have zero followers at the moment. I have a bit of apprehension when it comes to social media, as I prefer a real social life, instead of a virtual one. But I do understand the need for these things in this modern age. I think I was born in the wrong era!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!