Being an actor, I thought that the only thing you need is to focus on your art and craft and on being as good as you can be, and the rest will fall into place. Not true, unfortunately, especially in today’s world. It may have been in the past, but today, in order to thrive in this crazy and unpredictable industry, you need to be savvy about the business side of things. You need to understand how things work, how decisions are made, and what comes into play. When you do that, you start to take it less personally and begin to find new ways to adapt, so that you can make things work for you.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Stella Velon.
Stella Velon is an award-winning actress, writer, and director. Her directorial debut, the critically acclaimed and over twenty-time award-winning psychological drama “The Critic,” which she also wrote and starred in, was among the five winners of Amazon Studios’ inaugural All Voices Film Festival for US filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds. It also earned Stella a 2020 Webby nomination for Best Individual Performance. Velon is also developing a girl-powered comedy series inspired by her modeling years in New York City and Paris, among other projects in various stages of advancement. Currently based in Los Angeles, she likes to split her time between LA, New York, and Paris.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I hated having my picture taken as a kid, and what’s funny about that is that I went into a career that requires me to be in front of, and now behind the camera.
I was drawn to movies from a very young age. I grew up obsessively watching Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo + Juliet.” I must have seen those two over twenty times, but most likely a lot more — I wasn’t counting. I remember being obsessed to the point of having my parents a little worried. Other favorite films of mine that shaped my desire to go into acting were “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, and Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”
Coming from a family of engineers, however, a career in the arts was not something that was considered a serious profession, so I enrolled as a student in business/economics at the University of Paris X while modeling on the side. And it was a modeling gig that took me to my first film set and made me want to pursue acting more seriously after getting fantastic feedback from the director who gave me a line or two to say and told me I was “a natural.” I went on to train as an actor studying at various drama schools in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles while continuing to model to pay the bills.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Since I already touched on what made me go into acting, I will talk about what made me become first a writer and now a director. Both things happened naturally, without any specific intention of mine to pursue either or. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been in love with everything seventh art, and I have always been very curious about all aspects of the movie-making process. So my passion evolved into me wanting to write. I had come up with an idea for a comedy/dramedy series inspired loosely by my experiences as a fashion model in New York City. That idea literally came to me as a divine inspiration, because when it came to me (and I say came because that’s exactly how it happened), I couldn’t stop writing. . . It felt as if something had entered my body and mind, and I couldn’t help it. I had to write. It was a very strange but also an elated feeling.
I then took my project to Jean Gabriel Kauss, who was an established fashion agent (and the President of one of the top fashion and beauty photography agencies in the world, called JGK Inc.) He fell in love with the show, recognizing some of the characters in it as actual people he had met and worked with. We also produced “The Critic” together.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Besides the “flashbulb” moment that I described above, another very interesting moment is when we went into pre-production for “The Critic,” which I wasn’t planning on directing at first. As the writer and one of the leads in the film, I thought I needed a director. And so we found an established DP-turned-director, and most importantly, someone who seemed perfect for the project, and we were about to go ahead with it. And then things fell through because of scheduling conflicts due to last-minute emergencies. We then went on to look for someone else, and in the process, I had started to become more and more frustrated, as I couldn’t find the right person to match the one we lost. I needed someone who had the right sensibility.
During that time, I had been fine-tuning my script, and as I did, my vision had gotten clearer and sharper. I had created mood boards and had even found a cinematographer who was right for this film. And just like that, it became apparent that I was going to direct it.
In a way, that was an incredibly lucky accident that opened a whole new career path for me. As a first-time director without any prior training or experience as such (only observation and research), I couldn’t possibly imagine, even in my wildest dreams, that the short would have such incredible success! We went on to win so many awards, including Best Director for me at the 2018 UK Film Review Awards (in the company of some heavyweights such as Alfonso Cuarón and Bradley Cooper with “A Star Is Born”), and we had a very warm reception by film critics, even breaking some records along the way.
So, this is among the most interesting things that have happened to me in the recent past.
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 don’t know if I recall something that was funny. I don’t find mistakes funny . . . maybe, in hindsight, I have found some remotely amusing, but the fact that I cannot think of one right now proves that mistakes don’t make me laugh.
I have made many, many mistakes. And I used to get so frustrated with myself. Beating myself up for them. You know the usual stuff.
Then I started learning to not take them so seriously (still a work in progress). I learned, after reading it in a book or article, that mistakes are actually necessary and the only path to success, and that the more mistakes you make, the faster you will get where you want to go.
That was really transformational for me as it completely changed my thinking about making mistakes, and I used to be pretty obsessive about the subject. But when you look at it that way, your whole perspective changes. And you even start to look forward to making more and more mistakes. Not intentionally, obviously, but I realized that sometimes it’s the only way to learn and grow. So I guess that was the lesson that I learned and still am learning (because it’s aprocess), and hopefully, next time someone asks me that question, I will be able to think of many funny mistakes and stories to share.
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’s never only one person who helps you along the way. There are always those who believe in you and support you in everything you do.
In the most recent past, with my journey with “The Critic,” among others, I can say that this person was my producer Jean Gabriel Kauss who supported me in my vision one hundred percent, and I am incredibly grateful for that. It’s a rare thing, and I was very fortunate because, as you can imagine, as a first-time female director, it was far from easy. I faced challenges every step of the way, and when emotional exhaustion and self-doubt start to set in, you do need someone who keeps you grounded and is behind youin the face of naysayers, etc. All it takes is one person. It’s enough. I always say to people, especially in this business, where you hear more nos than in any other (or so I believe), all you need is one yes, and that one yes, can change your life and career. The trick is, I guess, to find that person, and in the process, hear many nos, but not get discouraged.
And then there are those who try to put spokes in your wheels. Often, those people end up helping you more than you realize at the moment. I am very grateful for them as well because, without them, my journey wouldn’t have been the same. Sometimes, those people are the ones who put you on the right path. When I look back at all the obstacles and challenges I overcame, they often turned out to be blessings in disguise, even at the risk of sounding like a cliché, this is so true!
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
That is a great question, thank you for asking it. It also brings me back to the mistakes topic, which is invariably related to the fear of failure, which can be so paralyzing for many. I know it was for me, but I am learning to face that fear and carry ahead anyway, and I guess this is my piece of advice. When you are faced with the prospect of failure, go ahead anyway. Try it. And you may fail, and chances are, you will fail at one point or another. And that’s okay, because success lies on the other side of failure. Knowing that you will fail more often than not gives you an incredible sense of freedom and detachment from the outcome, which, paradoxically, is what often makes you successful. I am learning that myself. Still. It’s so hard to be detached from the outcome, especially when it’s something you really want. And I know first-hand how much that affects your performance, and I am not speaking only about acting or film-related performance, I am talking in general. The way to do that is again to keep reminding yourself that the more mistakes you make, the faster you will get to where you want to go. That thought is what did it for me, and I hope it works for others. But if it doesn’t, find what triggers you to release that fear and that need to be attached to an outcome that quite often is not in our control anyway, and keep looking for new ways to face it head-on.
I read something that is a really good summary of the word “fear,” and you probably know it already, but I find it to be a very accurate and a wonderful reminder, so here it is: FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
What drives me to get up every day and keep going, even when the going gets hard, is my deep passion (that borders on obsession) for my work. I don’t think you can accomplish anything great if you don’t have a passion for what you do. Maybe you can if you’re lucky, but I don’t think that would last unless you’re really driven by love for the job, and that’s what keeps me going.
As far as the change I want to see in the industry going forward, I truly wish that people at the top, the decision-makers, gave more young people a chance. People who are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do and need to prove themselves will work harder than anyone else, and, for me, that enthusiasm and commitment are among the most important traits to look for in anyone you are looking to hire or want to work with (and professionalism obviously but that goes without saying). A lot of younger and not established artists are sometimes sidelined only because of their lack of experience, not because of the quality of their work, but if you give them a chance, they might blow you away. And I know that there is the risk factor to take into consideration — always — and that’s normal. Still, my wish is to see more of that happening in the industry, with studios taking more chances on projects and people who may not have a proven track record but have the energy and commitment that makes up for all the rest.
There are a few examples of those, but I would love to see more. There has to be more. And this is very tightly correlated with the diversity aspect as well. Letting people tell their stories that may not be familiar to you but other people are thirsty for can contribute to everyone’s success. And you don’t want to do it mindlessly, obviously, and just for the sake of doing it. You want to do it because you know that these stories deserve to be told and heard and because they are original and authentic. Because audiences connect with that. We all look for that truth when we turn the TV on or go to see a movie. We all want to recognize ourselves in those heroes and heroines who inspire us and connect us to our humanity even more.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Thank you for saying that! What a nice compliment. I am working on getting my series project made (the comedy one that takes place in the fashion world). It is written and fully developed. It’s a very particular show and needs to be done right with the right people who understand and connect it with fully. That is very important to me. Just like in the example of “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan (the creator of the series) had many big networks pass and finally found AMC as a home for his show. And while AMC wasn’t HBO or Netflix, Vince had the creative freedom he probably wouldn’t have had with those bigger names, and that is what contributed to the success of his show and it ultimately becoming a hit.
So with the right team, I hope that my series can be next. I am also working on expanding “The Critic” into a full-length feature upon popular demand. There is a project that I was approached for to direct, and I also look forward to doing more acting work as well. My directorial debut and my writing work took me a little bit away from that, and while I don’t mind that one bit as I love all of it, I am starting to get a bit antsy and to miss my first love, so I look forward to having more exciting roles coming my way, while I work on getting the other stuff out into the world.
We are very interested in looking at 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 and our youth growing up today?
I already touched on that in my answer to your earlier question. But yes, more specifically, I believe it’s incredibly important to have diversity and representation in the entertainment industry. It’s vital, actually. And I am convinced that it can be incredibly rewarding not only for the consumers but for the people producing such content.
Look at what happened with “Black Panther.” It broke numerous box office records. Look at “Crazy Rich Asians”. And yet I don’t feel like there has been a significant enough change. There have been small steps that were made towards that but not nearly enough. Also, with the rise of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, there have been more and more women directors, getting more recognition. But there has to be more. And it pays off. We cannot stay stuck in the past. When you walk out on the street, what do you see? You see all kinds of skin color shades, and you hear all sorts of accents, etc. And that needs to be reflected in movies and television. And yes, the subject of youth and kids growing up in an inclusive environment that presents all sides of the story (not just one) is so important. We live in the 21st century. We already lived through World War II, the Holocaust the Civil Rights Movements, and we cannot let bigotry and discrimination sneak back into our society. A lot of young kids look to the movies as a way to expand their worlds and learn beyond the constraints of their environment, and if they are fed a diet of one-sided stories, then they grow up to believe that that’s the only reality. And while parents and schooling and all that are also important in shaping their ways of thinking, the entertainment industry has a big responsibility to be part of that education and the solution, not the problem. I strongly believe in artists’ mission to be that and to show the better side of humanity, which extends to the business part of the industry, and decision-makers need to realize that diversity and inclusion will bring them success and rewards and make the world a better place for their kids.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) I wish that someone had taught me about the importance of the business side of things. Being an actor, I thought that the only thing you need is to focus on your art and craft and on being as good as you can be, and the rest will fall into place. Not true, unfortunately, especially in today’s world. It may have been in the past, but today, in order to thrive in this crazy and unpredictable industry, you need to be savvy about the business side of things. You need to understand how things work, how decisions are made, and what comes into play. When you do that, you start to take it less personally and begin to find new ways to adapt, so that you can make things work for you.
An example for me personally is when I made my feature film debut as a lead in an indie film that premiered at Cinema Village NY during my first year of drama conservatory in New York, and I thought that that was it and that my career was going to take off, and I wouldn’t have a care in the world. Not quite. I didn’t hustle for it; I thought it would come to me. And it didn’t. At least not in the way I imagined it would. So the moral of the story: Don’t wait for anyone to come looking for you. The industry is saturated, and you need to keep reminding them of your existence, even at the risk of being annoying. Even established actors and entertainers have to do that. All the time. And while that may be already part of someone’s character, it wasn’t part of mine. So I had to learn. The hard way.
2) Have an idea of the big picture, but don’t focus on it too much. Having big plans feels great, but I know for a fact that you can only accomplish big things by making small steps and focusing on the task at hand. This industry can feel genuinely overwhelming, and if you set overly ambitious goals, you tend to get discouraged faster. You never know how long it may take for you to get where you want to go, so having unrealistic timeframes is not helpful either and can lead to even more disappointment. It may happen tomorrow, or it may happen years later. So, I truly wished that someone had hammered into my headmore that all you need to do to move forward is focus on what you need to accomplish now and not think so much about the big picture when you’re doing that. Just like in auditions, you need to remain present and focus on your character and what she’s going through, and not on how that one audition can change your career. (A great book on the subject, by the way, is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, but you have to be ready for it. I know I wasn’t the first time I picked it up.) It’s not one event that can change your career or life; it’s many small ones combined, and every little step brings you closer to your dream. Artists are dreamers, and while that’s a quality, sometimes, being too ambitious can make you stall if you are not meeting your own expectations.
3) Learn how to prioritize. That’s a tough one, and easier said than done. It’s also so personal that it’s hard to teach someone that. When you’re starting out, you don’t necessarily realize the importance of some decisions you make that may seem minor but can actually make a big difference. You really need to weigh the pros and cons in every situation, and no one can do that for you other than you.
4) Be less trusting. Assume that if you don’t look out for your own interests, no one else will. If you operate too much on trust, you will get taken advantage of. I speak from personal experience, being cheated even by people who are supposed to protect your interests. I grew up in a very safe environment, and while that’s a good thing, I wasn’t really prepared for the shark mentality in business. And people like me who are trusting are easy prey. Or at least used to be (I hope). I was deceived by big companies and people who appear reputable. And it’s crazy when you think about it, and often hard to wrap your mind around it. But it’s sadly the reality, so always be extra cautious. The devil is in the details.
5) Create your own work, and learn about all aspects of the industry. You know how MFA directing programs for example have acting classes so that directors know about the process an actor goes through to be better directors. The same is true for performers, writers, etc. It helps to know all aspects of the industry you’re in. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but having basic knowledge about everyone’s process gives you an advantage. And when you’re creating your own work, you have the freedom to do it exactly (hopefully) the way you want to and showcase your skills and talents in the best possible light.
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
Of course. I love yoga. I used to take a lot of classes before, and now I know most moves and just do whatever my body needs at that particular moment. You need to listen to your body and give it what it’s asking for as much as possible, and it will thank you for it. And in terms of exercise, I love the trampoline (great cardio, and great for overall health), swimming, jogging. . . I’ve always been very curious by nature, and I like exploring and experimenting with new things, depending on the environment I find myself in.
Sleep is very important to your wellbeing, so I make sure I get enough sleep.
Also, a few times a year, I would do a green juice cleanse or some other fast to detox and give my body a break and start anew. It’s a refreshing and relaxing experience, and you feel like a newborn afterward. You do want to research and read some books about that and not do it carelessly, and you certainly don’t want to do anything for too long, unless you are supervised or experienced with that. If you are a beginner, you can start with a couple of days, maybe three. Beyond that, you might want to consult your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.
I grew up eating very healthy thanks to my parents, and I actually like healthy food. I truly enjoy it. But I don’t believe in being a total health food fanatic either. I do enjoy the occasional dessert and pizza and fries and red wine and all that good stuff. The point is not to eliminate pleasure from your food but to balance it.
And lastly, for my soul, what feeds me the most is when I am creating something. When I am writing a script or directing or acting, that’s what nourishes my heart and soul. I am a creative, so I need to create. That’s when I am at my best.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Gosh, I can’t quite remember whether it was an actual quote or just a thought that someone shared with me at some point, but it’s something that drives me in everything I do and in some of the crazy and unconventional choices I have made. It’s about arriving at the end of your life (at your deathbed) and having regrets that you didn’t dare to do what you truly wanted to do with your life. You look back, and you think, “Yes, I could have done this and that, but I didn’t have the courage or the guts to do it.” And I think that’s probably the most terrible feeling one can feel — that you wasted your life, and you didn’t even try. Maybe you would have failed, but who knows? You may have well been very successful if only you had tried. And that thought is what keeps me going at times when things don’t look so rosy. Do I want to live a lifetime of regret or weather the storm and run the risk of coming out on the other side better off for it? Life is short, and we owe it to ourselves to pursue our dreams and deepest calling as best as we can. We were brought on earth with a unique set of skills that no one else has, and it is our duty to share them with the world. We have them for a reason. And then go with the flow. Not in a sense to not take any action, but allow whatever’s being sent your way to just be. The road to where you want to go is never straight, so look for clues along the way. Don’t ignore them just because they’re not part of your plan or how you imagined them to be. Life never goes as planned. So go with the flow and imagine yourself on your deathbed, not filled with regret but remembering all the exciting adventures that your life was filled with.
You are a person of huge 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 know what I found out is that the best way to help the most people is first to help yourself. Then you find your calling and offer your resources to others. Whatever you feel like doing, you were born to do it, and the best way to help as many people is to contribute those talents to the world as much as you can. Like for example, in my film “The Critic,” I chose to tell a very personal “small” story. But because it was so intimate and personal, it resonated with so many people. Everyone found something to connect with in the film, and it’s been fascinating.
Among the reactions that moved me the most is when I was doing a Q & A after a screening at the AMC Time Square in New York City, and there was a couple in the audience who talked to me about their son and how my film struck a chord with their experience with their son’s struggle with drug addiction and relapse. They were so moved by “The Critic” and felt it was an important story to tell. To this day, that memory gives me goosebumps because it’s so profoundly touching on many levels.
So, I think the best way to help as many people as you can is to help one person at a time. And just by being kind. You don’t know what people are going through at any particular moment, so always remember to be kind.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Oh yes! I’d love to sit down with Jeff Bezos. I’d love to pick his brain and learn about how he did it. To me, he is among the most brilliant men in business, and it’s incredible, especially knowing where he comes from.
I think that people like him, who were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth and achieve such massive success, are among the world’s most interesting people. And the man reads all his emails. I honestly don’t know how he does it. I know that for a fact because I recently reached out to him and got a response through someone else, but I knew he got the email from the answer that I received. And I won in the Amazon All Voices Film Festival, which is a festival that celebrates diversity in front of and behind the camera, and it was a real honor. And I absolutely admire Amazon’s strong stance on the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming from one of the biggest companies, it is so incredibly important and meaningful. And there was some backlash. I saw a few posts from Jeff’s official Instagram account about a man who was cursing and insulting him about the position Amazon has taken in the matter. Making things like that public and exposing such ugly behavior (obviously, the person’s name was masked) is very, very important! So that’s my number one.
And if I had to pick someone from my industry, that would be Aaron Sorkin. He is a genius screenwriter and looks like a very kind and generous man. And he directs, too. I think he’s brilliant in everything he does. So, I would love the opportunity to meet with him.
And last but certainly not least, I recently learned that two-time Academy Award-winning composer A. R. Rahman, who I don’t know and have never even met, has been spreading the word about my movie. I only learned that by pure accident, and I would love to thank him and learn how and where he saw my film and what he’s working on next. Acts like these, where people go out of their way to do something kind or spread the word about something they love, really move me.
It is how I connected in the most amusing way with Leah Frazier (of Think Three Media and Inspire N Style magazine), an amazing woman entrepreneur and Emmy-winning stylist. She wrote something about my film “The Critic” in a review on Amazon Prime that was so on point and so sharp that I had to look her up (at the time I didn’t know it was a she/her yet), and I was able to track her thanks to social media links on her profile. My film has many layers to it, and she basically articulated everything I was trying to say with it. I intended the film to be interpreted in many different ways, and I knew that not everyone would take away everything I was looking to say with it, and that’s okay. Because it was meant to work like that. But Leah (who is not a professional film critic) grasped so many of the underlying issues and meanings, and I felt compelled (again stronger than me) to find out who that person is . . .
And that led to a beautiful relationship of long-distance friendship. And I love that. It’s the small things that matter in life that connect people, and that was a beautiful thing that happened.
I know you said one . . . But you know, we artists are always a bit unruly . . . I hope you will forgive me.
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This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!