Rising Star Sarah J. Eagen: “Build and nurture community; You need people to share the struggles and triumphs with.”

Build and nurture community. This is essential. An acting and writing career takes many years to really get going, and you need people to share the struggles and triumphs with. I’ve also found that it is equally important to nurture friendships with people who don’t work in the entertainment industry, otherwise all of your ‘friend […]

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Build and nurture community. This is essential. An acting and writing career takes many years to really get going, and you need people to share the struggles and triumphs with. I’ve also found that it is equally important to nurture friendships with people who don’t work in the entertainment industry, otherwise all of your ‘friend time’ may turn into talking about the industry. Getting together with people to go hiking, play games, or have dinner parties helps to balance everything else.

I had the pleasure to interview Actress Sarah J. Eagen. Sarah is becoming a familiar face on television. She has been seen as the helpful paralegal ‘Carol’ in the action/comedy CBS show “Rush Hour.” She was also seen in a guest star role on Lifetime’s scripted series “My Crazy Ex.” Recently, Eagen had a co-starring role on one of the very last episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” Her episode, ‘The Inspiration Deprivation,’ guest starred Academy Award winner Regina King who points out how big of a deal it would be for women everywhere if Amy were to win a Nobel Prize. Eagen’s additional credits include the short film Soledad (starring Frankie Loyal) which recently won “Most Terrifying” at the 2019 Top Indie Film Awards. Her other film credits include the dark comedy short What if My Wife Died in Yoga Class, which premiered at Dances with Films in 2015, and feature film Austin Found (starring Linda Cardellini, Skeet Ulrich), which premiered at Dances with Films in 2017. Additionally, she wrote four and acted in two episodes of the sci-fi audio drama, The Veil from Voxx Studios. Sarah is a member of the Junior Leadership Board of Hollywood Heart, an LA-based organization that provides arts education to underserved youth and those affected by HIV/AIDS. Last year she co-taught the week-long writing workshop at Camp Hollywood Heart with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Gatins. Eagen has been an HIV/AIDS educator and activist since she was 10, when she learned that her cousin Christopher was fighting a long and public battle with the disease as a result of an affected blood transfusion in his childhood. He spent several summers attending a camp like Hollywood Heart before he died at the age of 18. Eagen grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. She double majored in Neuroscience (perfect for her “Big Bang” role) and Theatre at Knox College in Illinois. She spent a semester studying at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland. Eagen went to graduate school for Genetics where she was awarded two prestigious fellowships (including the NSF IGERT fellowship). She is also an avid rock climber, having climbed in Zion, Yosemite, Arches, Joshua Tree and Devil’s Tower.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sarah! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in southeastern Minnesota, with a few years in Pennsylvania early on. I had a pretty idyllic childhood — my parents worked to keep their relationship strong and made changes in their professional lives when it was no longer making them happy, so I had great role models for pursuing a passionate life. I was a very type-A child — I took all honors classes, was involved in multiple clubs, did theatre, was the varsity pitcher for fastpitch softball, I danced, I rock climbed, and I generally kept busy with my various interests.

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

I’ve always been a performer, despite the fact that I’m naturally introverted — or I suppose the term ambivert would be more accurate. I started dancing when I was a toddler and theatre followed soon after. For most of my life, I knew I was going to be a professional actor. I got a theatre degree and studied at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland. So that part of my life has always felt like inevitability. I lived in Seattle and did various stage productions before I started auditioning for film and commercial work, which were foreign mediums for me. I immediately fell in love with the intimacy and subtleties that could be captured on camera, and once it became clear in my mind that I wanted to shift to on camera work, I knew I was going to move to Los Angeles permanently.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started pursuing TV writing with equal fervor. I was feeling like Los Angeles didn’t know what to do with me — this dancing, rock-climbing, neuroscientist actor. So I decided to start writing roles that I would love to play, and something just clicked. I began reading more scripts, which helped both my writing and my acting. I had some pretty immediate successes, and the control of being able to sit down and write every day, to create worlds and characters while I wait for my next acting role — it has been a very natural fit. And seeing people like Mindy Kaling and Rachel Bloom — they’re modeling that it is possible to both act in and write for TV. That is exactly what I want to do.

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

A major reason I’m drawn to working as a TV actor and writer is that no two days are the same. Every job allows me to work with new groups of people, explore new characters, and even work in different physical locations. I’ve worked with Tony Award nominees, Academy Award winners, and Emmy winners. Before you get to Los Angeles, it feels like there are these huge gaps between where you are and where you want to be. But soon after you arrive, you learn that everyone in this town is hustling, regardless of their past successes — everyone just wants to do good work and collaborate on interesting projects.

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 feel like one of the silliest things I did early on was feeling like I couldn’t speak up for myself. When I was brand new in LA, I had the feeling that if I asked too many questions or made a little mistake, I’d somehow blow it. I remember one of my first jobs, the hair stylist just started cutting my hair without asking or talking to me about it. It wasn’t anything major, but it was an inappropriate thing to do without discussing it first — especially because as an actor, any change to my look means I had to get new headshots. I should have spoken up right then and there, but I was afraid of losing the job. I think that feeling is very common when you’re young and getting started, and while there are a lot of circumstances where you can learn by observing, anything that happens to your person should be discussed and agreed upon and if it isn’t, stand up for yourself!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I just appeared on one of the final episodes of The Big Bang Theory, which was an incredible experience. To work with someone who directed 244 of the show’s episodes, to spend time on that iconic sound stage with the phenomenal cast and crew, and to have the opportunity to be a small part of that legacy show — it was the coolest project to book, especially as someone who has a Neuroscience degree.

I also just wrapped up working on season one of the scifi anthology audio drama The Veil with Voxx Studios. It’s a Black Mirror or Twilight Zone-esque podcast where each episode is standalone. I had a blast writing four totally different stories and acting in several episodes.

I’ve been selected as a semifinalist for the prestigious Humanitas NEW VOICES program for emerging TV writers because of one of my pilot scripts, which I am really thrilled about. If I’m selected for the program, I’ll have the opportunity to be mentored by some of TV’s most influential showrunners, like Bill Lawrence, Jenny Bicks, David Shore, and Sarah Fain & Liz Craft.

I’m also very involved with the non-profit organization Hollywood Heart, which is having a big fundraising event next week (June 13th in Los Angeles) with the popular screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes. I’ve been volunteering with Hollywood Heart for several years now, and they provide arts education to underserved youth as well as a yearly arts camp for youth affected by HIV/AIDS. This is their 25th year of camp, which I think is incredible. So John August and Craig Mazin, the hosts of Scriptnotes, have generously offered to have a live taping of one of their biggest shows yet, with special guests TV writers Alec Berg (Barry, Silicon Valley), Kourtney Kang (Fresh Off the Boat, How I Met Your Mother), and Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as well as comedians Ben Falcone and — I’m SUPER excited about this one — the brilliant Melissa McCarthy. So I’ve been helping out getting ready for that, and I’ll be attending the event as well.

I am always working on several projects, but those are top of mind for me at the moment.

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?

Oh my gosh I’m so glad you asked this question, because I believe representation in TV and film can have a tremendous impact on our culture! I think it is so much easier to imagine possibilities for yourself if you’ve seen others do them. For example, I love all of the accounts of the movie Hidden Figures inspiring girls to get involved in STEM. Society is beautifully diverse in a myriad of ways, and it does everyone a disservice by presenting it as otherwise. And it is often easier to digest a new idea or perspective when it is presented in an entertaining narrative. I love stories that subvert expectations and force the audience to examine their expectations — I believe they can help open minds and increase compassion.

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?

Thankfully, I feel that things have been moving forward in that regard in the last few years. Things like inclusion riders, the #ShowUsYourRoom challenge, and people being more open about their experiences, rates, etc are all moving the needle in a positive direction.

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

This industry is not a meritocracy. There are SO many factors that go into booking an acting gig, and oftentimes they have nothing to do with your abilities. That doesn’t mean that you should stop working on your craft, but understanding this can help keep you from feeling bitter about the jobs you don’t book.

Stay open to possibilities. I had no idea when I moved to LA that I would become interested in writing. But I kept having these little inklings that it might be something I wanted to try, so I listened to that. Only a few short years later, writing has helped moved my acting career forward in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. It has opened doors that seemed nailed shut, and it has helped create more balance in a career that is very unpredictable. If I had refused to explore anything that wasn’t acting, I would have missed out on this whole untapped part of my creativity.

Do everything until you figure out what you want your focus to be. Early in my career, I didn’t know if I wanted to focus on theatre, film, commercial, or television work — so I did it all. And having those experiences helped me zero in on the fact that I was really drawn to working in television. With thousands of projects filming every day, it’s great to have a narrower scope to focus on.

Don’t put your life on hold. While your career is part of your life, it isn’t your whole life. Spend time with the people you love. Take the trip you’ve always wanted to take. And if there are things you want in life that seem incompatible, realize that you’re a unique person and perhaps you can find a way to live life in a way that works for you.

Build and nurture community. This is essential. An acting and writing career takes many years to really get going, and you need people to share the struggles and triumphs with. I’ve also found that it is equally important to nurture friendships with people who don’t work in the entertainment industry, otherwise all of your ‘friend time’ may turn into talking about the industry. Getting together with people to go hiking, play games, or have dinner parties helps to balance everything else.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take vacations. Step away from the industry. It’s a very difficult thing to do in the 10–20 years that it takes to “make it” in this town, because every time you leave Los Angeles it feels like you lose momentum. But it is so important to gain perspective and have life experiences outside of the entertainment industry. That could be anything from a long exploration of a foreign country to just bopping over to Joshua Tree for a weekend. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hustle of it all, and taking yourself out of it every so often is essential.

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. 🙂

Our healthcare system is really broken, and I wish we could get to the place where taking care of your health or having a major incident or illness didn’t cause extreme financial difficulties. The mental and physical stress that our healthcare system causes because of its confusing, random billing is horrible and unless you’re lucky enough to have excellent healthcare through your employer, it’s probably something you struggle with. I see accounts of people being in other countries and needing a major procedure, getting excellent care, and being charged something negligible like $20. Other countries are thriving with systems like that, so why hasn’t the US been able to implement similar systems?

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 are so many, honestly. First, I have to shout out director Jenn Page, who was selected by Take The Lead as “50 Women who Can Change The World in Media & Entertainment.” I met Jenn shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, and when I wrote my first short film script, I asked her to direct it. I didn’t know what I was doing — it was incredibly low budget, and definitely below her pay grade, but she offered to read my script. I heard back from her that day that the script was smart and well written, and that she’d love to direct it. Since that first collaboration, Jenn and I have worked on numerous projects. She’s hired me as a dance choreographer (which I did a lot of before moving to Los Angeles), an actor, and a writer. Most recently, we co-wrote the film Soledad and produced it together, throwing together a team and getting everything completed in four weeks before screening on the Disney lot (I also acted in the film). Jenn is one of those people who is so passionate about the kinds of stories she wants to tell, and she elevates everyone who works with her.

I also need to mention showrunner Erin Cardillo, who has become a mentor to me. Erin is modeling the kind of work I want to be doing — she had a successful acting career and then transitioned to creating and writing TV shows with interesting characters and a ton of heart. She has read some of my pilot scripts, given me recommendations for writing programs, and guided me through some sticky situations I’ve encountered as I’ve moved through this new (to me) world of writing. I’m so grateful for her willingness to share her experiences, because I’ve learned a lot just from seeing her go through her career.

My parents have also been incredibly supportive throughout my entire career. My mom attended every performance when I was growing up, and my dad is a musician and understands the nuances of pursuing a career as an artist. When I was unhappy in my Ph.D. program for genetics, my parents were actually the ones who talked me into leaving and finding something that made me happy. And if I decided to leave the entertainment industry tomorrow, they would be fully supportive of that move as well. I’m incredibly lucky to have their love, guidance, and confidence.

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

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic within it.” — Goethe

I love this quote because every time I’ve felt stuck or lost, the solution has always been to take action. I may not know exactly what I want or where I want to go in that moment, but taking action helps make it clear and creates a wonderful snowball effect that overcomes inertia. It is easy for me to get lost in the researching phase of things, so it’s a good reminder to be bold if I want to move forward.

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. 🙂

Michelle Obama. She is so poised and intelligent and caring. I’m currently reading her memoir, and I would just love to sit down with her and talk about anything and try to absorb some of her brilliance.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on both instagram and twitter @sarahjeagen!

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