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Rising Stars Polina Frantsena and Shelley Dennis: “If you are not doing something to fill up your own “reservoir”, your work will come out inauthentic”

Shelley: I think what Polina and I found was the fulfillment of creating content for ourselves. For me, this was an important reminder of why I left my family, drove halfway across the country to a city I had never been to, to work in the entertainment industry. Polina: I think it’s also important to […]


Shelley: I think what Polina and I found was the fulfillment of creating content for ourselves. For me, this was an important reminder of why I left my family, drove halfway across the country to a city I had never been to, to work in the entertainment industry.

Polina: I think it’s also important to have a life outside of what you do professionally. This industry is competitive and cutthroat, so I understand the pull to give it your all. And you should do that. But we as creatives draw our inspirations and our stories from our own lives. So if you are not doing something to fill up your own “reservoir”, the work will come out inauthentic. Family, friends, passions, hobbies, volunteering, keeping yourself healthy and strong — these are all a must, because not only will it make your work more interesting, it will also make you a better human.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Polina Frantsena and Shelley Dennis, writers and stars of a new VR comedy show “Sestra! Sestra!”, now streaming on Oculus Rift and Go, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and other VR headsets through AMAZE app.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Shelley: Thanks so much for having us! Looking back, I have to say a lot of it was boredom. I grew up on a cattle farm in Oklahoma and had a lot of alone time before my little sister was born. I remember singing and dancing and creating these ridiculous stories just to entertain myself.

Polina: For me, I believe it was slow and consistent brainwashing by television in my teenage years. In all seriousness though, I moved to the US from Russia at age of 14 and had an incredibly difficult time fitting in and integrating into American culture. I spent a lot of time alone at home watching television, and I swear most of my understanding of American life came from re-runs of “Full House”. Television was very important to me. In a way, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone during a very difficult time. As an adult, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I wanted to be a part of creating stories for people to watch, whether it is writing them or acting in them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

Polina: It’s funny and a little bit frightening how films like Zoolander capture the absurdities of this industry. I had an out of body experience at a high profile Cosmetics Commercial audition once. The director had me hold a gummy bear in my palm, and was asking me to look “interested in it”. Soon I heard him yell “No, not like that! Not like you want to eat the gummy bear! You are interested in the gummy bear, but you don’t want to eat the gummy bear. Now blow it a kiss”. Were these people for real? Yes, yes they were. I dutifully blew a kiss to a slimy, sweat covered gummy bear, because I desperately needed money and wanted to get that job. I didn’t end up booking it by the way. I wonder who was able to fake being interested in a gummy bear better than me?

Shelley: One of the most interesting realizations I had, when I was performing stand-up, was the importance of authenticity. Coming from a modeling and acting background, it was all about “performance”! When I finally settled into who I was (letting that guard of perfection down) and told stories about my actual life, that’s when I found my sweet spot. It was an important lesson for not only performing but life.

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?

Shelley: Oh wow. There are a lot, HA! HA! When I first moved to LA, I was up for a big national commercial. In the callback, the room was full — the director, marketing agency, investors… They had a big pole in the middle of the room and I was supposed to pick up a chain saw and pretend to saw the pole down.

First of all, I struggled and could barely lift it up, then, it fell forward and the pole tipped over toward where everyone was sitting. This whole group of important people was spilling their coffees and leaping up over the couch to avoid getting hit. I tried to laugh it off but they did NOT think it was funny. And shockingly, I didn’t book the job.

Polina: I don’t know if I would call it funny, but there have been multiple times when I had completely blanked in an audition and instead of taking a breath and looking at my lines I would try to muscle through it. It was an equivalent of a runaway train. One time I was at an audition for a family TV show I couldn’t remember what the lines were. I knew my character was mad at someone, but beyond that — nothing. I ended up improvising and saying “I’ll cut a b*tch” in front of a room full of Nickelodeon executives. The air going out of the room was enough to make me never ad lib in panic again. It was completely inappropriate but for some reason, the producers wanted to see me for a callback. I must have stood out, but probably not in a good way.

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

Shelley: Well, my partner in crime, Polina Frantsena, and I have created an 8-episode comedy called Sestra!Sestra! You can watch it on VR headsets like Oculus Rift and GO and Vive through the AMAZE app.

It’s about twin sisters who escape their Russian village and mail themselves to America (yes, they literally mail themselves in a box). In their village, when you are unmarried and turn 30, you are worthless and get these ridiculous single women’s assignments. It’s the goofiest comedy with some hilarious characters but there’s a lot of heart and it really touches on the theme of women’s value.

Polina and I also played the leads and used our comedy skills in ways that, especially for me, I would not otherwise get to do. I play this hideous-looking woman with a ‘Unibrow’, a character I developed when performing sketch comedy at Groundlings. Polina looks like her gorgeous self (with more fur) and has a very comedic innocence to her.

Polina: Shelley and I are also in the finishing stages of writing a book. It is a modern girl’s guide to getting over a breakup. We felt that there were books on the market about breakups, but it felt like we were being talked at when reading them. And then there were some funny books, but we didn’t get much actual emotional support from them. So we came up with a book that’s both funny and lighthearted and you feel that a best friend is talking to you. But it also gives real, rooted guidance of navigating a difficult time. I know it works because both of us have gone and read specific chapters that we ourselves had written just to talk some sense into ourselves during a moment of panic. And it’s called “Who Shat on my Chakras”, how can you not love that? It will available on Amazon for your delight and reading pleasure this summer.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Polina: I worked with Norman Lear and Rita Moreno on a Netflix show. Talking to them was very humbling. They have been in the business for such a long time and were both such pros, yet were so down to earth and kind.

Shelley: This city is full of interesting people, but if I had to choose one at this moment, it would be my time working with Wayne Brady. This man is truly the best at what he does. Watching him work actually made me realize that the improv path was NOT for me. Seeing him in action while we were on the road was like watching Russell Westbrook play basketball. It’s a gift to be around it *I’m also a huge Oklahoma City Thunder NBA fan.

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

Shelley: I think what Polina and I found was the fulfillment of creating content for ourselves. For me, this was an important reminder of why I left my family, drove halfway across the country to a city I had never been to, to work in the entertainment industry.

Polina: I think it’s also important to have a life outside of what you do professionally. This industry is competitive and cutthroat, so I understand the pull to give it your all. And you should do that. But we as creatives draw our inspirations and our stories from our own lives. So if you are not doing something to fill up your own “reservoir”, the work will come out inauthentic. Family, friends, passions, hobbies, volunteering, keeping yourself healthy and strong — these are all a must, because not only will it make your work more interesting, it will also make you a better human.

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. 🙂

Shelley: In my hometown, a very rural community, there aren’t a lot of artistic resources. I would love to see a program put into these kinds of communities that help people foster artistic growth. It doesn’t have to be for anything but self-expression, but I think a lot of people feel stuck because they don’t have ways or know how to bring their creativity to life. And we are all creative.

Polina: I am a big proponent of education. Education and exposure to different kinds of people, lives, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds are what makes people tolerant and kind. It’s so important to understand that we are all different but all deserve respect and love.

I believe education about food and access to good nutrition are also crucial. There are areas of America that are considered “food deserts”. In those areas, it is very hard to have access to fresh produce and foods that are not processed beyond recognition. I worked with an organization called “Urban Gardens” — they built and maintained a community garden in Compton, CA. The same block that the garden was in had the highest rate of human trafficking in the country. But the local community really got involved in the Urban Garden and took care of it. They had access to all the free fruit and vegetables from the garden, and the garden itself was very respected and taken care of by the locals, who benefited from it a lot. I’d like to see more community urban gardens pop up in areas where people need them.

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

Polina:

  1. Don’t take “NO” as a sign that you should stop. This business is filled with rejection. But don’t let someone else’s opinion of you become your reality. You choose what you are, and I implore you to believe in yourself and work harder after each “NO”. Did you hear Lady Gaga’s speech at this year’s Oscars? If you didn’t, ‘Google’ it — it’s worth it.
  2. I have a quote taped up in my house — “Successful people never worry about what others are doing”. This is important because everyone is on a different trajectory. It may feel unpleasant to find out that a girl you took acting classes with just a few years ago now has her own show, and you don’t. But so what?! Success is not like pizza, if someone has more, that does not mean you have less. I think if you are happy for others and don’t compare yourself to them or their path, you’ll be a saner and kinder person. We need more of those.
  3. Treat it like a job. When you are starting out in a creative career there is a lot of down time and it’s easy to get lost in the “waiting game”. Don’t do that. Treat it like a job, even if no one is paying you for it yet, even if you don’t have an office to go to in the morning. Set aside time every day to write, watch important performances, read plays, submit your stuff to writing competitions. Whatever it is, just do it every day.
  4. Take classes. The exposure to other people that are trying to do the same thing as you is enough just by itself! You will get inspired, and create relationships for future collaborations.
  5. Make your own stuff. Everything I’ve accomplished in my career came from me doing something myself first. No one thought that a blond former model could write or be funny. Fine. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do these things, I just did them. And then people started recognizing me and believing in me because I had the work to back it up. I still struggle with it sometimes. So maybe I’ll come back and re-read my own advice.

Shelley:

  1. Don’t try to do everything at once. When you move to a new city, there are “opportunities” everywhere. And they can often distract you from the thing you came to do.
  2. Every day, or at least on a monthly basis, ask yourself if you’re still in this. I know artists who have given up but haven’t admitted it to themselves, so they’re stuck.
  3. You do not have to hang out or “network” with nasty people. There are good people all over this industry.
  4. Create your own content. People aren’t going to just hand you jobs.
  5. Stay inspired. It’s easy to forget why you’re in this when things get tough. Find inspiration.

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

Shelley: Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

We are all creatures of habit, so it’s important to look at those habits when the results we want aren’t happening.

Polina: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” So many of our decisions are colored by fear of failure. We would all be so much more ballsy if we knew we would not fail. Sometimes you just have to brainwash yourself into thinking you will not fail and go forward!

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?

Shelley: Absolutely! It certainly takes a village. There were MANY people, from my parents who have never once asked me to quit this career path, even though they’re still on our cattle farm not exactly sure how things work in Hollywood. To a man named Chris Freihofer, a very talented actor and casting director in Oklahoma who introduced me to my first manager and friend in Los Angeles. To Tristen MacDonald, a sister for life, who got my spec script into the office at Disney, which led to being hired to write for Tangled.

Polina: I mentioned earlier that I learned most of what I know about American culture from ‘Full House”. I was in the writing class at UCLA Extension Writing Program and my teacher was Marc Warren who was the showrunner of “Full House” when it was still on the air. Just the fact that I was able to meet and learn from someone that back in my teenage years was so far removed from me was a huge inspiration. I took a photo of the two of us at the end of the semester, and he doesn’t know this, but I put it up above my desk as a reminder that anything is possible and dreams do come true. It was there for a long time. Also at the same writing program, I had a teacher named Barry Vigon. Barry looked at me as I was walking out of the last class of the semester and said: “Polina, you have to keep writing”. I shrugged it off with a “thanks” not absorbing the encouragement because I got encouragement so infrequently in my life up to that point. He looked at me sternly and said “no, listen to me, I’m serious. You have a talent and you have to keep writing”. That interaction means more to me than he will ever know.

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. 🙂

Shelley: Ah! Did I mention Russell Westbrook from the OKC Thunder? He’s a living Superhero and I would clean toilets for a week at your local gas station for quick “hey!” in passing.

Polina: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Handler. Was I only supposed to name one? Too bad, this is my fantasy and that’s who I’m having breakfast with!!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Polina: The only social media account I actually update is Instagram @PolinaFrantsena. Hope you like dinner recipes and pictures of dogs!

Shelley: I’m over at @shelleydennis on Instagram and the can reach out on Facebook under Shelley Dennis

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

Shelley: Thank you!

Polina: Thank you for having us! Can you also be present at my fantasy breakfast? I think you’ll like it.

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