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Rising Star Sheila Houlahan: “In addition to acting, my dream has been to help facilitate better structuralized mental health care in this country”

In addition to acting, my dream has been to help facilitate better structuralized mental health care in this country. Specifically, I’m currently studying a way to open urgent care-style clinics specific to mental health crisis. It is high time we end the stigma surrounding mental health. It is just as deadly as poor physical health […]

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In addition to acting, my dream has been to help facilitate better structuralized mental health care in this country. Specifically, I’m currently studying a way to open urgent care-style clinics specific to mental health crisis. It is high time we end the stigma surrounding mental health. It is just as deadly as poor physical health when left untreated; you don’t see people telling patients with cancer to “cheer up and get over it”, so why would we say the same to people with depressive, suicidal ideation? In light of the gun violence in this country in recent years, it is even more important than ever before that we provide mental health care to all who need it. We need to evolve with the times and care for the millions of people in this country who live with mental health problems.


I had the pleasure to interview Sheila Houlahan. Sheila is an actress and singer with a growing resume. From television and film, to music and modeling, her talent and beauty make her stand out in all her performances. Houlahan is well on her way to building a successful career, with many industry types taking notice of her diverse abilities and skill set. Her acting credits include a recurring co-star role on SyFy’s “Z-Nation,” a recurring guest star role on HD Discovery Channel’s “The Wonderland Murders,” many videos for Funny or Die and others. Upcoming for Houlahan is a leading role in the feature horror film Beloved Beast, which was picked up by Lionsgate and is set to release nationally in theatres this year. She plays the role of ‘Nina,’ a troubled teen with supernatural powers. When ‘Nina’ loses her parents in a car accident and she is forced to live with her unstable aunt. Then, she meets a stranger in the woods, and instead of running, she brings him home, not realizing that the man she has brought home is an escaped mental patient with a penchant for murder. You can also see her playing the role ‘Optima Prime’ in Paradigm Studios’ new feature film Wallflower, hailed by Variety as “one of the most haunting films of 2019.” Based on a true event, the film tells the story of a man planning to commit a mass shooting and finds himself conflicted about his intentions when he is befriended by an eccentric group of ravers. The film has a national theatrical run for the month of October 2019. Lastly, on the heels of the two film projects comes a series regular role as ‘Jennifer’ in “The Scottish Play” from Amazon Prime. She will be shooting in the PNW in October 2019 and in Scotland in 2020. Born in Seattle, and raised in Bellevue, Houlahan started singing at the age of six. She attended the prestigious Manhattan School of Music where she honed her music and singing skills. While in New York, she also studied with renowned acting coach Penny Templeton. Houlahan has won multiple awards including the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Competition District Award. She went on to collaborate with Slumdog Millionaire’s composer A.R. Rahman with performances including “”Jai Ho at The Venetian in Las Vegas,” a feature in his 20th anniversary music video of his hit classic “Maa Tujhe Salaam,” “The Rahman Song Cycle” and “Lord of the Rings The Musical” with the Seattle Symphony.” She can also be heard on the Cirque du Soleil soundtrack for “Volta” and on the soundtrack for the hit video game “Destiny 2.” In addition to acting and singing, she has modeled for Bustle, T-Mobile, Amazon and a host of other national brands. Houlahan is skilled in hand-to-hand combat and Krav Maga, and speaks Italian and Hindi. She uses her strong following on Instagram as a platform to spread awareness and to help end the stigma surrounding mental health.


Thank you so much for joining us Sheila! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up as an only child to two older parents in a suburb of Seattle. My parents met quite late in life, so most of my cousins were at least a generation older than me. My mother moved to Seattle in 1980 from Mumbai, India, so I had the privilege of growing up in a multi-cultural household. Since my mother and father both worked, I started daycare and school early, as both an outlet to meet other children my age and as childcare. Starting school early fostered my passion for continued life-long learning, which helped me step into this career path with confidence as late as I did!

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

· I’d been in the performing arts since I was six years old, but primarily only as a singer; I didn’t really start acting until almost the end of college. I was studying singing at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City and remembered talking to a classmate about a Film/TV acting class he was taking outside of school. My best friend/roommate at the time and I decided it would be fun to take the class since it was so different from what we were pursuing in college, so we signed up! That was at the Penny Templeton Studio, and somewhere along my year there I realized how deeply the art of screen acting resonated with me. Getting to tell a story that’s never been told before and will most likely never be told again in a very intimate space felt like the calling I’d been waiting for. I was hooked.

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

· This isn’t necessarily a specific story, but rather my experience with studying the craft of acting over the years. Acting is absolutely fascinating because it is entwined so deeply with learning about yourself. I remember taking my first Meisner class in Portland, Oregon with Jana Lee Hamlin and seeing the repetition exercise for the first time. I saw that it generated a deeply emotional response in the participating actors despite being seemingly simple, so I couldn’t wait to give it a try. I was floored at the wellspring of emotion that I discovered inside of me and inside my scene partner’s eyes. It was in that instant that I realized that acting is really just the art of being oneself and connecting fully to the world around you. Once again, I was hooked. It is such a privilege to dedicate one’s life to the study of oneself. And you’ll never stop learning! That’s the beautiful thing about art: you are never, ever “done”. There’s always more to learn and discover and experience.

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?

· Prepare, prepare prepare! You never know what will happen in the audition room. I had an absolutely ghastly audition a few years ago that still makes me laugh when I think about it. It was for a 90s themed musical, and since the music was still being written we were allowed to prepare any two 90s songs we wanted for the audition. I picked Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” for my audition and assumed I wouldn’t need to practice (this was my go-to Karaoke song, after all). I remember entering the audition room and immediately being confronted by a tall, thick, carpeted pillar that dominated the center of the audition room. I was so thrown by the pillar and where I should stand in relation to it that I forgot to give the pianist the right key for the song; the key for the music I found online was quite lower than what I could sing comfortably. What followed was a super awkward audition of me quasi-circling this behemoth of a pillar while croaking out a song that was so low it was barely audible. Bless those auditioners for sitting through it!

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

I’ve got two premiers coming up this fall for two fantastic films that will be screened nationally in theaters! One is for a haunting, compelling thriller about a real mass shooting that happened back in 2003. The film is called Wallflower, and will screen at AMC theaters through the month of October. The other is a horror film called Beloved Beast, in which I play a girl with supernatural powers in the foster care system. I also just booked a series regular role in the show The Scottish Play on Amazon Prime! Shooting begins in October. There’s another project I’m can’t say anything about yet, but stay tuned! I cannot wait to share all about it.

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?

Representation and diversity are what drives me forward during the slower times in this career. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of other people like me on screen. I’m mixed race, bisexual and have an autoimmune disorder. I struggled with self-esteem issues and an eating disorder for many years because I didn’t look like the people I saw in movies and on TV. I thought there was something wrong with me. As I got older, I realized how very incorrect I was. Diversity is nothing new. Our choice to tell stories that accurately reflect the spectrum of people out in the world is. And we need to keep making that choice. I love seeing how social media has bridged access for people; now, it’s easy to find a role model living your dreams who looks just like you. We’ve got a long way to go until representation is truly equal; having a term like “diversity” implies that there is still an “otherness” in this representation. I argue that we are simply pulling back the curtain and shining a light on people who have lived in the dark for too long. Let’s turn the lights up, there’s plenty of room for everyone.

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

· I wish someone had told me I was enough as I am. That I didn’t need to cross some threshold of “normal” before being worthy enough to have my dream career. Indeed, as soon as I fully accepted myself as I am my career really started to take off. That’s the only “shortcut” that I know of in this business: radical, genuine self-acceptance.

· I wish someone had told me earlier that there is no set way your life will look in this business. You grow up hearing often from people (many who aren’t in the industry whatsoever) that there will be sacrifices, that you’ll miss out on “normal” life milestones if you choose to work in the performing arts. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are sacrifices a plenty, but those exist in every career path. You have more freedom than you think to define the way you want your life to ultimately look. At the end of the day, the only person who makes that choice is you.

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

· Self-care is essential! I recently booked a job that is a major skip up, and it required a tremendous amount of focus over the weeks of auditions and callbacks and final screen testing. I cancelled plans, went to bed early, ate well, rested, and relaxed as much as I could outside of work to stay mentally prepared for the big day. And when it’s a slow time of year and I’m able to take time off, I do. I visit family. I travel. I do whatever I can to put geographical distance between myself and Hollywood so I can fully unplug and recharge. Hide your phone from yourself as often as you can. Take breaks. You aren’t a machine.

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 addition to acting, my dream has been to help facilitate better structuralized mental health care in this country. Specifically, I’m currently studying a way to open urgent care-style clinics specific to mental health crisis. It is high time we end the stigma surrounding mental health. It is just as deadly as poor physical health when left untreated; you don’t see people telling patients with cancer to “cheer up and get over it”, so why would we say the same to people with depressive, suicidal ideation? In light of the gun violence in this country in recent years, it is even more important than ever before that we provide mental health care to all who need it. We need to evolve with the times and care for the millions of people in this country who live with mental health problems.

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?

· I have too many people to thank for helping me get to where I’m at today. I’m blessed to have many mentors in my life who I continue to turn to when I need guidance. I’m particularly grateful to Bonnie Gillespie, Keith Johnson and Brian Patacca. They believed in me when I was ready to give up on everything, and they helped me push through the hardest moments in my career thus far. I wouldn’t be here without them, and certainly not without the continued support of my close friends and family. Every successful artist has a tribe of people behind them, supporting them every step of the way. I’m eternally grateful to my tribe.

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

· “Wherever you go, that’s where you are.” It seems like an obvious statement, but this has continued to resonate deeper and deeper the further along I get in my career. Success doesn’t magically make all of your problem disappear. At the end of the day, you’re going to be the same core you before and after your first big booking. Deal with those demons and learn from them as early as you can. You’ll thank yourself for it later in life. Suppressing them won’t make them disappear, and nothing is more harmful to yourself than emotional procrastination.

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.

· I’d love to sit down with Melinda Gates to talk about the intersectionality of mental health advocacy and the incredible work she’s doing for gender equality in the workplace. I’d love to get her expert advice in ways to make my dream for better mental health care access a reality for all.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

· Feel free to follow my journey and more on my Instagram @sheilahoulahan ! It’s been a pleasure sharing my story with you!

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