Whitney Uland: “No one wants you to be perfect”

I have a vision of a world where the most empathetic and kind-hearted artists became the ones with the most decision-making power. I think the world would be a better place if there were more thriving artists and less struggling artists. I hope that through my example, and through the ability that I have to […]

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I have a vision of a world where the most empathetic and kind-hearted artists became the ones with the most decision-making power. I think the world would be a better place if there were more thriving artists and less struggling artists. I hope that through my example, and through the ability that I have to hire other artists and create spaces for elevating their voices, I can be part of moving the world in that direction.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Whitney Uland.

Whitney Uland is an actor, writer, director and producer. She is the creator and star of Janessica, a viral web series streaming on Amazon Prime, and co-creator of Hysterical Women, an independent pilot which received national acclaim at festivals such as Bentonville Film Festival and SeriesFest.

Whitney can be seen performing improv and stand-up comedy around New York City and co-hosts a weekly podcast, Hysterical Women, which offers comedic commentary on feminism in our current sociological and political climate. Her most recent project, The Improv House, streams on YouTube Tuesday to Sunday nights at 8 p.m. ET.

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?

Thanks for having me! I grew up in the Dallas suburbs and although I wasn’t performing in any official way, I was always angling for the spotlight and trying to find ways to make people laugh. I was pretty dorky (think tall and lanky with an insufferable forehead), but I realized early on that if I could get people to laugh with me, they were less likely to laugh at me. My sister, cousins and I created parodies, music videos, plays, and variety shows and forced our families to sit through them –and even pay for them. We spent hours perfecting our writing, acting, directing, and editing. A favorite performance of mine is when I played Donald Trump in a parody of The Apprentice. My impression of him still holds up.

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

After earning a BFA in musical theater, many of the opportunities that I felt entitled to did not come to fruition. Yes, I now realize how insane it sounds to think that anyone is entitled to a career in show biz, but I had to learn it first-hand. About 6 months after moving to NYC to advance my career, my dad passed away. The following year was a dark blur, and I had nothing within me to draw from creatively. I tried forcing myself to audition and put myself out there but just kept getting told ‘no’ over and over again. One night, the loneliness and heartbreak got too overwhelming and I found myself crying (literally on my bathroom floor) and wishing that someone would give me a chance. From the time I was little, my father would tell me to take the hurt and turn it into something good. In that dark moment, I heard his voice reminding me that I had the power to take charge of my future. So I decided to give myself a chance and start creating my own work. I’d never produced anything and didn’t even know what kind of crew or equipment I would need. I almost got too overwhelmed to do anything, but I remembered the projects I made as a kid –acting, writing, directing, and editing it all together — plus, now I had an iPhone! I decided it didn’t have to be fancy, I just had to get started and find a character and story that I was excited about. I created the character Janessica, a wannabe blogger, and developed a web series around her. Between self-imposing deadlines to put out a new episode every two weeks and calling as many friends as possible to act in the episodes (including a musical finale), the process felt familiar, collaborative, fun, even reinvigorating. I finally felt like I was telling stories that excited me, and the best part was that I didn’t have to wait for someone else to give me the green light. Then, amazingly, Amazon Prime picked it up!

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

A couple of months into the pandemic, I was driving my mom’s car home from picking up groceries and listening to a story on NPR about how people were so starved for entertainment that they were tuning in to live-stream construction sites. And I thought, ‘Hey, I can produce something more entertaining than two dump trucks and a backhoe.’ I wondered what would happen if we quarantined a team of comedians together and live-streamed comedy shows. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs to start mapping out a plan (I may have left the ice cream out of the freezer –but, pandemic, so who can really say how the Gorilla Vanilla melted), and I realized that the current situation might be the only time this zany idea could fly. As soon as I shared the idea with my Executive Producer-husband, Jon, he immediately got to work on it, and we started to assemble the cast. Because the world was stuck at home, we had access to such incredible talent that may have normally been otherwise engaged, and we gambled that we could find an audience who was also at home, starved for entertainment. The result is The Improv House, and the whole premise is a little crazy, but we figured that in this crazy time it just might work!

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?

When I first moved to NYC, my agent asked me if I could tap dance because she had an audition for me for Will Roger’s Follies. I cannot in fact tap dance, but I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity! When I got to the audition, I realized I was in way, way over my head. There were Broadway dancers and choreographers there, literally dancing circles around me. The choreographer taught the combination so quickly that I was lost after the very first eight count. I should have just faked an injury and left, but instead, I decided to smile really big and hope that no one would notice. Spoiler alert: I was asked to leave. Immediately. As embarrassing as it was, it was a great lesson. I learned that even making a huge fool out of yourself doesn’t kill you. I also realized that I should invest in what I do well instead of pretending to do what I clearly wasn’t born to do.

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 owe my success to my late father, who always believed in me and always supported me. During my first semester in college, I auditioned for a production of Hairspray the night before a family reunion. My dad waited in the car for me while I auditioned and then drove me four hours to the family reunion. As soon as we arrived, I got an email that I had gotten a callback. I didn’t want to put him out, and I doubted I would get the role, but the next morning, he woke me up at 5:00 a.m. to drive me all the way back so I didn’t miss an opportunity. I booked the role, and to this day it’s one of the most fun projects I’ve ever been a part of. Even though he has since passed, when I’m in a tough spot where I feel like quitting, I’m reminded of his belief in me, which often gets me through. He taught me to never allow my circumstances to define my path and to turn any setback into an opportunity.

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?

You have to learn how to believe in your work, yourself, and your worth, even when no one else understands it. So often we want other people to believe in us before we permit ourselves to believe in us, but no one will understand what you are creating because you haven’t created it yet! You have to believe first and then show other people. Your job is to believe in your ideas even when no one else can see your vision and even when you have no evidence that what you’re doing is working. If it sounds delusional, it’s because it is! Creating art is literally bringing something into the world that doesn’t exist yet. So you have to believe in it before your partner, friends, parents, and colleagues do. To me, that is the process of creating art, and the process of becoming resilient. While making every single one of my projects, I have had people along the way telling me that it was a bad idea or a waste of time. Learning to tune those voices out gets easier the more you do it, but there will always be people who don’t believe in your vision — and that’s okay because believing in it is your job, not theirs!

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?

To me, days on set feel like being a kid on Christmas morning. I get so excited that I can’t sleep for days before shoots. I love the energy and the collaboration: every person has their unique way of telling the story and when all of those parts come together to tell the same story, it is truly magical. I especially love being on comedic sets. I love creating a work atmosphere where people are playing and having fun while making something meaningful. And of course, getting to share what you’ve made with the world, and let them digest something you’ve worked so hard on is insanely beautiful. I think that’s one of the things I love about the medium of film: as a theatre actor, you can either make a live performance or experience it as an audience member, but as a filmmaker, you get to make it and experience it with an audience. And that’s super fun.

Going forward, I hope to see more parity and inclusion for all genders, orientations, and races. I strive to be part of that movement by creating spaces that feel safe and inclusive for everyone. We have work to do, but I am grateful for those filmmakers, actors, and producers who have forged the way before me, and I think these changes need to be made at the inception of a project, not as an afterthought.

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?

Right now the main focus is The Improv House! It’s like a cross between Hype House and Middleditch and Schwartz. We are experimenting with blending the mediums of television with long-form, live improv comedy. It feels fresh and innovative in a way that’s exciting to me and our cast. Each night we can experiment with the space and with the form, and audiences can interact with us by sending us suggestions to integrate into the show. It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen and it’s been a great way to collaborate and safely create amid social distancing.

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?

Last year, Hysterical Women, a project that I co-created with Nora Kaye, was part of the Bentonville Film Festival. The theme was “See It To Be It,” meaning you have to see something in order to be able to create it. As filmmakers, we have a duty to show a world that could be, to show what is possible for the better. This happens through representation on and off camera. By including all types of voices, we are able to show people what could be, to be an example for younger generations of what is possible for them. For me, even watching Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel was inspiring because growing up, I only saw boys as superheroes. We need this kind of representation across all genders, orientations, and races, to show every person that they are worthy of being heard, seen, and respected.

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. Seek feedback from people you trust and admire. You don’t always have to listen, but you need to ask for it so that you can see your blindspots. As a leader, I have noticed how inclined men are to seek feedback, and how women often avoid or skirt around it. Even if it feels scary, find the courage to ask for ways to grow and improve.
  2. No one wants you to be perfect; they just want you to be authentic. I am always inclined to be a perfect student, but I remember working with a manager who told me to stop answering his emails too quickly because it was coming across as desperate (haha) I still answer my emails pretty quickly, but the takeaway for me was that I didn’t have to do everything perfectly to be valuable.
  3. Done is better than perfect. I see so many writers and creators who work so hard to get something perfect that they never actually put their work out into the world. I always strive to get my work at a B-, because aiming for an A+ is way too much pressure. Plus, I heard this story about a very successful runner, Carl Lewis. He always started behind everyone else but somehow finished first. A sprint coach studied his running and saw that the reason he was ending in first place is because he wasn’t straining at all: he was giving only about 85% of his effort, while the other athletes were clenching, tightening, and overworking, which slowed them down. Often when we push above 85%, we push too hard and lose the magic and spontaneity necessary in art.
  4. Not everyone will get what you’re doing, and that’s okay. It’s way better to find your people than to try to appease everyone and make your work so vague that it’s unrecognizable. I have a quirky and dark sense of humor. It’s not for everyone, but by sharing it authentically, I can connect with the people who get it.
  5. Don’t be afraid to have interests outside of the entertainment industry! When I first moved to NYC, I did all kinds of jobs from installing people’s IKEA furniture, to dressing up like a lamp for someone’s birthday party (weird, but true!) to being a private investigator (also weird and also true!). There’s a saying, ‘If you love anything other than acting, do that instead,’ but I disagree. I think that having other hobbies, interests and passions only makes us better artists and positions us to interact with all kinds of people, which just expands our empathy and gives us better stories to tell.

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.

I truly believe that we have to prioritize our own well-being if we want to have enough to give to others. I have worked with a mindset coach for several years and I journal every single day. I know that’s probably too intense for a lot of people, but it’s become a routine that feels like taking out the garbage. It’s a brain dump of all of the thoughts and feelings swirling around my anxiety-ridden brain that helps me find perspective and focus for the day ahead of me.

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

My dad always taught me to be the hero in my life’s story, to not let the hard times define me. Sometimes bad things happen to us that aren’t in our control, but he taught me to use those moments as jumping-off points and to turn them into something better. Sometimes after a tragedy, we need space to heal and learn and reflect. But after the healing, we can use these moments of darkness to be a catalyst for something better. I strive to do that every day in my work and to hold space for others to do that as well. The Improv House was born from that line of thinking: take what’s in front of you, even if it’s not ideal, and turn it into something better.

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?

I have a vision of a world where the most empathetic and kind-hearted artists became the ones with the most decision-making power. I think the world would be a better place if there were more thriving artists and less struggling artists. I hope that through my example, and through the ability that I have to hire other artists and create spaces for elevating their voices, I can be part of moving the world in that direction.

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!

Tina Fey, of course! Do I even need to explain why? I admire her multi-hyphenate career, her comedy, and how she has transcended sketch comedy into narrative, television, movies, and musicals. They say you can’t have it all, but she gives me hope that maybe I can. Also, I’d like to tell her that I’ve seen her musical Mean Girls 7 times.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

@whitneyuland and check out our Youtube Channel — The Improv House!

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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