Toni D’Antonio: “Know who you are and own it”

…don’t let anyone dictate your look or style as an artist. I was told early on that I was “too Italian.” I mean look at me: I AM ITALIAN. At first, however, instead of embracing my ethnicity, I considered changing my name. I cut all my hair off into this super non-specific bob and waited […]

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…don’t let anyone dictate your look or style as an artist. I was told early on that I was “too Italian.” I mean look at me: I AM ITALIAN. At first, however, instead of embracing my ethnicity, I considered changing my name. I cut all my hair off into this super non-specific bob and waited for the offers to come in to play “the girl next door.” Okay, so that never happened. Change of plans. Lean INTO who you are. Make it exactly about who you are. The work will speak for itself, and your authenticity will shine.

As a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Toni D’Antonio, CEO of Shake the Tree Productions, LLC.

Toni D’Antonio has used her passion for the creative to build a career in front of and behind the camera that spans over two decades. These years have included work as a Producer, Script Supervisor, 1st and 2nd Assistant Director, Hair and Makeup Unit, Production Supervisor, Casting Director, Location Scout, Consultant, and Actor, both on camera and for voiceovers. Toni’s extensive knowledge about the entertainment industry, immense respect for the collaborative process, and her diverse assets make her “get it done” mentality unstoppable. Working on myriad projects with talented casts and crew has been the most fulfilling, enjoyable part of her eclectic and still blossoming career.

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

This answer has a few parts as my career has morphed over the years. The entertainment bug bit when a beauty pageant coordinator in Rhode Island helped me start a pageant career that gave way to two state titles: Rhode Island Miss T.E.E.N. in 1980 and Miss Rhode Island USA (for Miss America) in 1986. After performing in some local plays, I flew to Denver, Colorado, for an open call for a soap opera. Even though I didn’t get the role, making the first cut from over six hundred girls to the thirteen who screen-tested for the role solidified my desire to perform and entertain. I moved with my high school sweetheart, who’d become my hubby, to — where else? — New York City, so I could pursue my acting career. One promise I made to myself was that I would learn as much as I could about all aspects of the entertainment business and not work in a non-industry job. I didn’t want the saying, “Oh you’re an actor, what restaurant do you work at?” to be a question I’d need to answer. I decided to work at an acting studio where I could learn “the biz” while taking acting classes as part of my salary. Then I tried my hand at freelance casting so I could see the inner workings of the audition process. While working for the brilliant and impassioned indie film Casting Director, Susan Shopmaker (just one of the manytalented Casting Directors I worked for during my seventeen-year run at that “day job”), I learned so much about the filmmaking process, from development through completion and even beyond. After five visits to Sundance to network, watch films, and meet filmmakers, I became inspired by these talented filmmakers and their journeys, and Shake The Tree Productions was born. With it came a desire to create original content that told amazing stories with rich, identifiable characters and to give a voice to unexpected and undiscovered talent. We became committed to our motto: “Encouraging Change. Demanding Equality. Embracing Diversity. Striving for Excellence. All through Content Creation and Storytelling.”

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

I worked as an extra on One Life to Live, where I met a lovely actress, Ellora DeCarlo Cooper, who was playing a nurse, as I was, on set that day. We spent the whole day chatting in between takes and got along so well that I offered her a ride home, calling our respective husbands from the car. Her husband, Gary, asked if I’d like to come up for a drink when I dropped her off, and my husband urged me to join them. I ended up staying at their place until 1:00 a.m., and feeling an instant connection, we made plans for our husbands to meet the following week at dinner. The crazy thing is that actors do this all the time — start friendships from productions or shows and what not — but then never really realize anything long term. The four of us, however, are seventeen years strong in our friendship and have become almost like family. Early on in the friendship, Ellora and Gary took a trip to Guatemala to do charity work, and during their trip, I received an email asking for a favor. Not your average pick-up-my-mail. Instead, they asked me to be a character reference for them to adopt a child. I was thrilled and highly honored. We made plans for Gary and I to meet at my bank to notarize the letter I had written recommending them as parents. Ellora stayed back in Guatemala to be with the child at the orphanage. When Gary and I met, he informed me that they were not adopting just one child. No, they wanted to adopt two! It seemed so unbelievably selfless that they were trying to provide a home for two orphaned children. I couldn’t have been prouder to be the person endorsing them as parents. Eighteen months later, they returned from Guatemala with not one, not two, but THREE adopted children and a dog. I have had the privilege not only to watch these children thrive and grow but also to be a part of their wonderful family. Did I mention that one year after their return from Guatemala, Ellora became pregnant? Fantastic! On top of all that, Ellora was the Executive Producer of my first film, and we continue to work together as actors and producers today.

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?

You’re asking me to limit it?! What immediately comes to mind is my first shoot day on my first feature film, Alto, and just really not being prepared to troubleshoot. As ready as I thought I was as a producer, NOTHING except experience actually prepares you for a first shoot day that includes missing equipment, broken lenses, a lead actress who arrives three hours late, and an intern who crashes your only car while driving another lead actress to set. I was on the brink of insanity when a call came in from my husband to see how it was going. After telling him, the following exchange should make everyone believe in the power of a kind word: John: “Is anyone hurt?” Me: “No.” John: “Can the car still drive?” Me: “Yes.” John: “Can you still shoot with the equipment you have?” Me: “Yes.” John: “Can you shoot something else until the other actor arrives?” Me: “Yes” John: “Okay. Put your big girl pants on, tighten up those bootstraps, and go get ’em. You can do this. Failure is not an option!” Me (through sobs): “Okay, okay. You’re right. I can do this.” And while I felt like my hair was on fire every single day of that shoot, at the wrap party, actors and crew were telling me it was one of the best indie shoots they had ever worked on. Looking at them in awe, I thought, “Were you on the same shoot as me?” Hilarious, but it turned out to be a wonderful film and an experience that gave me some of my most treasured friendships.

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

Honor is a feature film about a family driven by secrets, torn apart by lies, longing for a way out but all bound by one thing: honor. It was written by my producing partner, Lou Martini, Jr. (The Sopranos) and directed by Mark Lester (Commando, Firestarter). I’m also working on a TV/digital series titled Sober, which focuses on a retired detective struggling with sobriety and relationship issues. Along with its superb acting and comic timing, its tone sits somewhere between Shameless meets Roseanne meets Barney Miller. In the unscripted realm, I’ve got Justice Delayed, an exciting true crime docu-series about an unsolved murder case. An expert dream team of attorney Rob Sciglimpaglia and Private Investigator Vito Colucci search for the truth and for justice while the case unfolds in real time. I’m also working on several feature projects: An Unfamiliar Life, a drama with a very Under the Tuscan Sun feel about a woman who loses everything but finds herself and the love of her life on a tropical island, and A Brooklyn Christmas, a feature film that is heartwarming and a little unconventional because odds are, putting out fires and saving lives wasn’t a bet this bookie planned on making. The team at APL Films (Canada) will serve as Executive Producers and Sales Agents for this one. We’re also developing a rom-com with APL called Third Date that Richard Grieco is directing. We’re also developing King Killer, a dark comedy about an Elvis tribute artist, with Evolutionary Films (UK) as well as a true biopic, Fallen Princess, about a beauty queen turned drug addict who redeems herself in the end. You can visit to learn more about our full slate of film and TV content.

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

I have three prominent memories of interesting folks I’ve met.

1. When I worked on The Following, I wrapped a very long day of being killed with a spear gun through the belly, repeatedly. I’d had my fill of fake blood and was coming out of the bathroom when I ran smack into Kevin Bacon. Even though I’d worked with him the whole second half of the day, it had been all professional, with everyone trying to make the day — so, not a lot of small talk — but since we’d wrapped, he stopped to thank me for all my hard work that day. He said some very complimentary things, the exact nature of which I have no idea because I suddenly became star struck. As this humble, lovely man continued to speak, all I could think was, “One degree of Kevin Bacon. All my friends are now one degree of Kevin Bacon. I cannot believe I am zero degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The rest is a blurry, mumbling version of thank you from me, and I’m pretty sure I shook his hand for far too long. It was AWESOME!

2. Working with James Gandolfini on The Sopranos. Now, mind you, I was not an actor on the show, I was a stand-in and photo-double for an actress on the show. What that entails is basically a lot of time spent on set blocking and lighting scenes with the crew and Jimmy until the actress arrives to perform and shoot the scene. It’s a commonly practiced way to save time and expedite shooting, and in shots where only a part of the actress is seen (just her back, a hand, an arm, etc.), her photo-double is actually shot in the scene instead. Suffice it to say that this particular actress’s part involved a lot of bedroom and hotel room scenes, scantily clad in bed in compromising positions. Throughout it all, Mr. Gandolfini was hilarious, comforting, kind, and caring, always safeguarding my dignity and checking to see if I felt comfortable and if I needed anything. In a time in the industry when so many people were NOT practicing integrity, my enjoyable experience getting to know him, in what could have been some of the most awkwardly uncomfortable situations, was a joyful memory. He was truly a great man and is sadly gone far too soon. R.I.P., Jimmy G!

3. My most thrilling time was working with Penny Marshall when she directed Riding in Cars with Boys, starring Drew Barrymore. I started as an extra on that film. Brittany Murphy and Peter Facinelli were phenomenal to work with, and Drew was quiet, warm, and professional despite her actually not feeling well during most of the shoot. And Penny, she was just AMAZING!!! That raspy smoker’s voice shouting out directions, fearlessly diving into scenes with the utmost attention to detail, and her commitment to making sure everyone was not only safe and working hard but also having fun. It was a period piece, so the costumes and attitudes had to be specific. I worked on it for two solid weeks on location in New Jersey, on a town set built specifically for the film. So, there I was, playing a hippie. I was having such a blast with no pressure at all since I am an extra. And then the call comes. A loud, booming voice begins to shout, “Tie-dyed girl. Where is she? That tie-dyed girl.” She spots me, but I think to myself, “She can’t be talking to me.” I look around and then down at my shirt. Yup, it’s me. I am the only one with a tie-dyed shirt. “You. Yeah, you. Tie-dyed girl. Come here!” Holy Laverne Batman, Penny Marshall is talking to me. I make my way over to her and boom, it happens. What every extra wish for and dreams, I am getting an upgrade. She proceeds to throw me into a scene with David Moscow and says move here, do this, moves there, says this, exit…got it? I might have peed a little in my pants, but I was over the moon. Not only did she speak to me directly, I HAVE LINES IN A PENNY MARSHALL FILM! One of the highlights of my life. She was the coolest, most grounded, real, and exciting director I’ve ever seen in action and is sorely missed in an industry that needs more inspiring women like her at the helm.

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

This involves a swinging pendulum in a constant flux of two directions and finding a balance for both. First and foremost, constantly keep creating and growing. Think outside the box to reveal some new and interesting ways to tell stories, portray characters, and showcase media. We live in uncertain, unpredictable times. Use these times as a springboard for outrageous ideas and unique creativity. Write them all down. Act them all out. Record and shoot it all. And stay positive and busy. The second is to stop and smell the roses, as they say. There is nothing worse than an empty idea factory, nothing more disappointing than a lack of any plans or motivation, and nothing more depressing than a blockage of creativity. The only way to get through that is to stop and be present in your real life, to draw inspiration. And continue to talk with your family, friends, and colleagues about all of it. It helps to purge your doubts and hear encouraging words that will get you through.

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? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

For me, it’s all about self-care. Overall for mind and body, my hubby and I do two cleanses a year. Sometimes 4–6 weeks. No carbs, no sugars, no processed foods, no caffeine, and no booze. Flush out the liver and do a body reset, all while exercising and keeping fit with yoga, cardio, and some lightweight training. It’s a great way to clear your palate of unhealthy cravings. When not doing a cleanse, I still work out 5–6 days each week. This mostly means yoga, some cardio, and free weights or resistance bands. It centers my mind, body, and spirit to focus and breathe. At least every other day, I make sure to have some down time alone to reflect and plan. I also make sure to have at least two vacations a year where I am pretty M.I.A. from work. Trying to be present to enjoy that special time and really sink into the culture of wherever it is we’re traveling. I once read somewhere that the simple act of planning these vacations can lead to longer, happier lives. And for my heart, hubby and I (married 30 years this May) have one designated date night each week where we have a kitchen dance party. Been doing that for almost our entire marriage. And for my heart as well, I maintain an impenetrably close bond with my Dad, my family, and my close friends.

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. Don’t try for fame and fortune. Make it about the work, the journey, and relationships. I spent so much time early on trying to “make it” that I forgot to slow down. So, remember to soak in the adventure, get to really know people, and learn your craft. Now, I absorb everything and take great care in continuing to learn and build strong, professional, long-lasting relationships.

2. Know who you are and own it. When I was 26, I had an agent, Gary Krasny, tell me that I was a very talented girl with lots of ambition and drive, but my type (a character actress, not a leading lady) was not really going to work until I was 40. I, being young and naïve and assuming I was a leading lady, fought that tooth-and-nail for years. My career kicked into high gear in film, TV, and voiceovers the year I turned 41. I wasted a lot of time pursuing the wrong things because of that. Live, learn, and listen.

3. That said, don’t let anyone dictate your look or style as an artist. I was told early on that I was “too Italian.” I mean look at me: I AM ITALIAN. At first, however, instead of embracing my ethnicity, I considered changing my name. I cut all my hair off into this super non-specific bob and waited for the offers to come in to play “the girl next door.” Okay, so that never happened. Change of plans. Lean INTO who you are. Make it exactly about who you are. The work will speak for itself, and your authenticity will shine.

4. STUDY, STUDY, STUDY. No matter what aspect of the industry you are pursuing, the more you know, the more prepared you will be. Also, it’s fun striving to be the smartest person in the room. Especially if you’re a woman. I took so many odd jobs in production through the years because I wanted to know as much as possible when I was ready to make my first film. And I felt certain that while on set, I could confidently walk up to someone and say, “I’m sorry but I have to let you go. I’ve done this job and you suck at it.” I chose different words, but I was able to do it (chuckle).

5. Don’t take any aspect of this business (especially the rejection) personally. Most of it has nothing to do with you. Casting helped me overcome that as an actor. Being in the room during auditions, running camera, being a reader, it all taught me that there are so many factors that go into hiring decisions, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with anything that is in your control. Let it all go and just be present, authentic, and do your best work. Then forget about it. The same applies to production jobs. There are so many cogs in the wheel. Sometimes your cog isn’t quite the right fit, and that’s okay. There’s another wheel right around the corner.

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

I actually have a few that always inspire me. My mom was a super strong and very intelligent and kind woman. She was always throwing around quotes to make me rise up and find my own strength. One of my favorites was, “I didn’t get there by wishing for it or hoping for it, but by working for it.” Yes, from Estée Lauder, via my mom, I learned my work ethic and never to take anything for granted. Have pride and earn respect by working hard at anything you pursue. Another was, “Be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” Judy Garland. A tougher one to follow when we’re always trying to mold ourselves, as actors, into what we think they’re looking for. My acting coach, Ted Sluberski, once told me, “Stop over-thinking! They’re looking for YOU!” And the last quote is, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This Eleanor Roosevelt quote has been a huge inspiration to me, as every aspect of the entertainment industry can be very daunting and intimidating. Knowledge is power, and it can allow you to feel a confidence that will encourage growth and quell inferiority.

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?

When I first decided to move to New York City, I knew NO ONE. Before the move, I started commuting by train every week to take classes at this acting studio. It was scary and exhausting, as I would start in Rhode Island, training in and out sometimes in the same day. There are two people without whom I would NEVER have made it past the first year of commuting, the second year after moving to NYC, or probably many more years to follow. The first is David Donovan (Baker), my mentor, a friend and a father figure, even though he’s really not that much older than me. This spectacular human being was the first person I met at that acting studio. He was kind, he was patient, and he was pure of heart. He guided me that first year through the ins and outs of pursuing my acting career. He steered me to all the right classes and headshot photographers and extended his knowledge as a fellow actor. He also gave me my first job at that very acting studio when I finally made NYC my home. I continued to work for him years later at his casting facility, Endeavor Studios, for thirteen years. That place became my safe haven. My colleagues there became my family. David’s generosity and kind-heartedness, and that of all my Endeavor family, remain a constant in my life till this day. He is truly one of my best friends, and I will be forever grateful for all he has done and still continues to do for me. The other is Cynthia Leigh Young, a woman I met in one of my acting classes early on. She took me under her wing and gave me so many insights into how to pursue my acting career. She became somewhat of a mentor as well and selflessly let me stay in her apartment when I came to town so I would not have to keep commuting back to Rhode Island in one day. She is still one of most important people in my life. I would never have been able to navigate a strange new city and career without her mama bear grip safeguarding and guiding me.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

I was actually a first responder for Hurricane Sandy in the Roxbury area of Breezy Point. So, being on the front lines of that disaster really brought home how we can better respond to disasters as a community, instead of just waiting for federal and state governments and agencies to respond, which was painfully slow during that disaster. Hurricane Sandy brought panic and chaos, and communities didn’t know what to do while they waited for FEMA, Red Cross, and others. Living right over the bridge in Marine Park, my husband and I couldn’t have imagined the devastation so close to where we lived. It seemed unfathomable that beaches we had frequented for years had been destroyed. But we got in the car that first day and drove over the bridge, only to find people trudging through four feet of water with plastic bags over their heads, filled with whatever belongings they could salvage, just trying to get to dry land. We began giving people rides to escape the flood waters. The next day, I had to go back. So, my cousin and I made a Target run. There were three fire houses in Breezy Point, and we went to each one that day with three huge pans of soup, three huge pans of pasta, and a ton of cleaning supplies. The next day, again, I had to go back. I went by myself this time to the first firehouse in Roxbury. The fire fighters, exhausted from fighting the fires that ravaged over 100 homes the night of the storm, directed me to Fire Chief Dickie Colleran, who said, “You’re back.” I said, “Yes I am. I had to. What can I do?” He said, “Well, see over there?” I looked over at an enormous pile of bags, all consisting of donations. He asked if I could help organize the contents. “We can’t fit them in the fire house,” he said. Fast forward: I started a distribution/donation center at the church hall and worked those front lines for six months. I took a leave from my career and continued to help this community until it got back on its feet. My center (as my family, friends, and acting and producing colleague volunteers will tell you) was like Macy’s. I personally went through every donation bag and made certain that whatever was put out for the community was usable IMMEDIATELY. Here’s the thing with a disaster like this, people think they are helping by cleaning out their closets and basements. This is NOT THE CASE. By not understanding the loss and process of recovery, you make decisions that do more harm than good. Why would someone need bathing suits, evening gowns, or your broken items? So, in a perfect world, moving forward (and eerily not much different than our current status and climate), there should be more protocols for self-preservation and an organized response by the community itself during certain disasters. And I’d love to see that aid rise up immediately with local volunteers. I know a lot of times people say, “I am just one person, what can I do?” I was just one person and I worked tirelessly every day for six months. Three of those months, the hall was damp, full of mold, and had no electricity or heat. I corralled volunteers, organized donations, designed a space that looked like a retail store, provided counsel when people needed a shoulder to cry on, and raised over 30,000 dollars in goods, supplies, and gift cards for the community. And I was just one person. Imagine what 20 people, 200 people, 2000 people can do. All we need is a plan. Ideas?

We are very blessed that 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. 🙂

I’d have to say Oprah Winfrey. I would LOVE to pick her brain on becoming a mogul with multiple consistent, successful careers. And I would be so inspired to discuss her philanthropy and travel all over the world. It would be fascinating to get her take on some of our projects as she is a producer and actress as well.

How can our readers follow you online?

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

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