Success is something often measured despite there being no clearcut scale. Are you successful if you get the job you want or make tons of money? Maybe you’re successful if you’re popular or well respected. How about if you take all that money and popularity and use it to help people? There aren’t many wrong answers, but there are several that are more “right.”
Our latest guest is having a successful first year on the big screen and it’s more than just about her performances. Debbie Sherman is set to star alongside the likes of James Franco, Eric Bana and Forest Whitaker while stopping to make sure she was also doing for others. Her first ever feature film, The Vault, set the stage for her entry into the movie biz while her latest, The Forgiven, introduced her to the realities that inspire some of our greatest stories.
Whether it’s learning her craft or sharing her compassion, Debbie’s someone to pay attention to. But I’ll let her tell you about her successful introduction into the film industry in our exclusive interview. Here’s my chat with the very thoughtful Debbie Sherman.
onFiction: Taking a look at your different work, entertaining is obviously in your blood, what was it that led to your career being more acting focused?
Debbie Sherman: Since I was little what I’ve always loved is being an entertainer, so whether that meant singing for my family and friends, or putting on plays when I was young. In high school I did drama and choir, I loved that. I started my career professionally as a singer, and that was such a big part of my life, I loved that so much and miss it, actually, a lot. Then I started my family and after that I got the opportunity to film The Vault. That was my very first film as a film actress and that’s where I started.
oF: You mentioned The Vault being your first, and it’s the first of several projects you have coming out this year, if you don’t mind introducing us to Lauren and her role in the film?
DS: Lauren in The Vault – which is actually my middle name so it was fun to already feel a little connected to the character to start out with – she is just in the wrong place at the wrong time during the premise of the film, which is a bank robbery. Things escalate very quickly and are very surprising, I think the audience will believe one thing is going to happen when something completely different does. It’s hard to tip-toe around it without giving away any secrets, but it’s definitely surprising what happens to her and what she goes through is super crazy and emotional.
oF: I’ve see the trailer for The Vault and am familiar with the film’s director (Dan Bush) who also did The Signal.
DS: It was really great working with him, he was such a great guy. I was on the last scene that we wrapped the film with, so it was kind of this culmination of the film over weeks and weeks of filming and I was there shooting the last scene. It was cool to be there during the wrap, because as an actor you’re not always there when the film wraps, because of how shooting works, and that was actually the only film that I’ve been there when it wrapped.
oF: I can’t even imagine what it’s like. How do you prepare for your first experience on a feature film? What was that first time on-set like?
DS: It’s nerve wracking, definitely. I am a perfectionist but sometimes in acting it’s not about being a perfectionist, you study and know your lines, but it’s about that moment. That moment when you’re actually shooting and filming, of course the preparation leads into that, but sometimes what you’ve practiced and gone over for that moment isn’t what comes out, and that’s a good thing. When you’re actually in the place with the actors and feeling different feelings that are going on in that scene, sometimes different things take over, different emotions and even different lines and words come out in such an authentic way that it’s cool to be able to capture that. It’s kind of a juxtaposition for me that I’m such a perfectionist in my normal life. The first experience is always really scary and nerve wracking because you don’t know what to expect, but after you get the first couple under your belt you feel more confident. But every set is different, every director is different, every producer, every cast is different, so it’s definitely not boring.
oF: On top of The Vault, you’ve got a very storied franchise returning with Day of the Dead: Bloodline, what was the experience like transitioning from a twist-filled thriller to more of a traditional horror film?
DS: Every film is just so different. Even if they’re in the same genre, it’s aways a different storyline, a different character who’s going through something different. It was really cool being able to play Linda in this film. And like you said it’s a franchise, so again, a little intimidating coming in to this movie that has such a fan following already because of the movies that have come before it. I was really excited to be able to be a part of this one, the set was amazing. I’m super excited for the audience to get to see the production value on this. This was in Bulgaria, which is really cool because it’s fun to get to go to a new place that you’ve never been, and the studio there is awesome. Getting to film there and have this huge production happening, there were pyrotechnics and special effects and I actually got to do my own little stunt – that was pretty fun. It was just different, but I loved both.
oF: This is the franchise that help set the table for zombies being a household staple in entertainment, does that register as you’re making this?
DS: When you first sign onto something and you – I already knew when I signed onto this about the fanbase and the movies that had come before – so you think about all of those things and you never want to let the audience down, you want to give it your all. But when I’m actually shooting and actually on set filming, I try to put all of that out of my mind. I try to really become my character. My character is not doing a film for an audience, my character is in the scene. There are zombies and this is really happening to her. I try to put all that aside and take that pressure off of myself so I can really just be in the moment and perform to the best of my ability because in the end, that is what’s going to be best for the film and for the audience.
oF: Based on your role in The Forgiven – your third project coming out this year – directors must really think you look like a Linda.
DS: I know! It’s a problem, right?
oF: How did your third outing this year stand apart from the other two films? It’s so different from the others.
DS: This film is very special to me. Obviously I already knew of the Apartheid and things surrounding that, but in becoming that character you do so much more research. You really delve into what happened to different people in that time period in South Africa and around the world and how the Apartheid effected people and it still affects them. I loved that we got to shoot the movie in South Africa, in Cape Town – I hadn’t been. Being there and getting to speak to different people, even people on the set crew who had been through that period, that was such a big thing. You have a totally different perspective, when you get a perspective from somebody first hand instead of through learning and reading and watching and researching, which I did, but getting to have that knowledge first hand was really big. That was a very important part of the film to me and I loved that the producers and the director made that a priority and made it authentic.
Working with Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana and Jeff Gum was really awesome. Forest is exceptional – they’re all exceptional – and I worked directly with Forest in this film. What he brings to the table is so overwhelming, so shooting with somebody, an Oscar winner, was intimidating. But he is so gracious and he is so good in this role. I’m so excited for the audience to see this and I think it’s such an important movie for people to watch in general, especially during these times with everything that’s happening in the world today.
oF: That kinds of leads into my next question. When you’re doing something that has a significant amount of social relevance, how much of that plays into your preparation?
DS: It’s tough. It’s hard to keep what you feel out of the character and out of the film. Keeping those two thing separate are really important though because the character is the character and not me. It’s so funny when different actors who play villains or bad people in films have people yelling at them, “I hate you, I can’t believe you would do that.” And they’re like, “I’m an actor! I don’t really think those things.” Keeping that separate I think is important. It’s really hard to do because it has such relevance in what’s happening today. It’s in the news 24/7 and with racism and things that are plaguing our country and lots of countries around the world, that’s why I feel so honored to be a part of this film and bringing that story to life.
People can see what others went through at that time and try and get a grasp of that, but can also take that into life now so we can make better decisions as humans towards one another in society. That we can be kind at the end of the day and show respect to each other and I think that’s really lacking.
oF: I agree completely. Now, in these three films, you’re sharing the set with some really great talent in front of and behind the camera, what are some things you take away as someone breaking into the film industry?
DS: Watching some of these huge hitters like James Franco, Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana – people that we’ve already talked about – Taryn Manning who’s so awesome, I love her. It was so great to see them have fun on set. Yes, they take their work very seriously and they prepare and to see them transform…A movie I was on the set of, it’s called Vincent N Roxxy and Jason Mitchell is a smiley, fun, super happy guy and then the character he plays in Vincent N Roxxy is this terrible, mean, awful guy. So to see him be off set, smiling, happy, laughing then just to snap right into character, that is a true talent. I have trouble with that, I need to stay in my character while I’m doing my scenes, while I’m in that moment so I don’t break and have to go back in and out because it’s difficult. Someone who can do that, I admire that so much.
What I’ve learned the most was from Roland Joffé, who has been nominated for two Oscars himself and he’s the director on The Forgiven. Again, really intimidating to work with him before you get to meet him. We did some Skype calls before to go over the character and figure out things. Being on set with him I’ve never felt more nurtured by a director, but [he was] also tough on me. So the best combination of getting to grow as an actor and getting to really get his knowledge. Him sharing those thing with me and helping me do better and making the scene better, I grew so much and learned so much working with him. That’s definitely my biggest takeaway and the thing I cherish most from these three films.
oF: I know you did some humanitarian work while you were in South Africa, does that experience inform your work? Obviously it hits you as a person, but how do those two elements intermingle?
DS: Professionally and personally, both, they’re helpful for both things. On a professional level, to understand that, one: It is a huge epidemic in South Africa, the AIDS epidemic, and there are a lot of people who have fallen victim. There are a lot of orphaned children because their parents died of AIDS or have AIDS now, the children have it, it’s just a horrible thing and it’s really hard to witness firsthand. At the same time these children have this beautiful spirit about them. Their life is precious and they know it. They’re living to the fullest and they love playing games and joking around and hugging and just being sweet. They were just amazing.
Getting to have that experience of meeting with them and to support the organization that I do in South Africa. It’s so nice to see an orphanage or organization that you work with firsthand. My husband and I visited both times we were there and I’m still in communication with the director there. We email back and forth, she sends picture and I send pictures. It’s nice to be able to continue that. I think, me personally, I would have a hard time just going then cutting it off. Once you meet people and you meet children like that and individuals who share that special place in your heart, it’s really hard to be done. So I’m not done! I advocate for them on my website (Click here to get info or even help out), I have links for their donation page and their website to learn more about them and then also my personal experience on there as well so people can kind of see what these kids go through and a brief snippet into their lives. You never really understand how it feels, unless that’s your reality, but how it feels to not have a mom and dad or parents who are sick or you being sick, it’s a difficult thing. Then putting that into the movie where you understand during that time period so many people were going through the same thing. And there were so many individuals who were orphaned, not just because of AIDS, but also what was going on during Apartheid. So many African people were brutally murdered. It was a significant thing for me to be able to do this and it had such a big impact on me personally and professionally.
oF: You’ve done so much in such a short period of time, how have you changed in the ways you prepare for a role now versus stepping onto that first set?
DS: I would say going with the flow. I mentioned it before, that’s not my favorite thing to do, but on set and in this industry things are so last minute, “Hey can you fly out next week to play this character?” or “Are you available to come to Budapest tomorrow.” Things like that. But the opportunities are amazing so you take them as they come. It’s not everyday you get these opportunities, so if it’s something that you really like and it’s something that you really want to work on you just go for it.
In general, sometimes you have a script – one: scripts change often – but sometimes you have a script and you’ve prepared so much for a certain scene and that scene is different now because in the moment it’s something else. Or they need to change the scene because they changed the storyline, whatever it is. So I would say not being married to what I have on paper in front of me, being more aware and being more in the moment and letting what’s real and natural come out in different scenes instead of, “This is what I have to say and this is how I have to say it.”
oF: I think the process is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the content because of what you have to do as a performer to produce these people that aren’t you.
DS: It’s a lot. And I think from the outside looking in for people who aren’t very familiar with acting and the industry in general, it’s easy to watch someone on the screen, “That’s easy, I can say this or that.” But what actually comes behind it is not just lines you regurgitate, it’s a feeling, it’s an emotion, it’s this new spirit inside of you becoming somebody else in these different moments and having that translate onto the screen.