I’m Christopher Clymer Kurtz. When I was at Shenandoah University at the end of October to report about the making of Santa Girl, a collaboration between the university and Capital Arts Entertainment, I sat down with two of the film’s professional actors, Barry Bostwick and then Jennifer Stone. We talked about the Shenandoah Valley, about working with students, college, and, of course, acting.
Jennifer Stone is known for being Harper on Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
Bostwick was Broadway’s original Danny Zuko in “Grease,” and is known for his roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and “Spin City.” We talked after his lunch break; he was still finishing off a brownie.
BARRY BOSTWICK: I get a sense of George Washington out here. I think when I was doing a mini series called George Washington years ago, we shot in a lot of the real locations, and he was big in the Valley, did a lot of soldiering out here, even during the French and Indian War, that’s where he started out here, and the House of Burgesses, I think he was in the House of Burgesses. I feel a sort of a home out here. It’s great.
Bostwick said that working with college students feels familiar.
BOSTWICK: I feel like I am at home with my kids. I’ve got a 22 year old boy and a 21 year old daughter, and they know the basics of life, and then you just sort of have to sneak in some of the specifics, and the kids here are well educated and they know what they’re doing in terms of this genre, and I’m real impressed with their knowledge of film making.
When I was in college, I never was in front of a camera. It was all theater this, theater that, but these kids seem to be very savvy. When I was in school, I went to NYU and we weren’t allowed to even audition for the film department. We had to think theater, theater, theater. That’s all I have to say on that.
No, what about the kids? Always the first thing I like to say to college kids is to drop out of college. You don’t want to end up with all this debt, do you? You want to be an artist, you don’t want to have to work at Starbucks for the next four years just to pay back your student loans, but that could just be me. A lot of these kids thankfully have grandparents, and their parents took care of their education at a young age. I took care of my kids’ education at a young age, and then I spent it, before they got to college. So now they’re just, we’re trying to figure out how to get them through college.
He does have some advice for the students he’s working with.
Seriously, as artists? I would say don’t create too many back doors. Just be totally obsessed with this, if this is what you want. Cause most of the people that I grew up with or knew who wanted to be actors or people who wanted to be in film business, if they had something else they could do, they always ended up doing it. Because in some ways it was easier, in some ways it was, at least they could make a living at it and they weren’t just busing tables. I was very fortunate that right out of school I was working professionally so I didn’t have to do a lot of that stuff, but I started on the stage in New York, and the hard transition for me was from stage to film. That was a really hard learning curve for me.
Actors should just act, wherever they can act. These kind of films, if they’re going to do community theater, if they’re going to do shadow casts of Rocky Horror Picture Show, do that. Just get in front of people and get comfortable with who you are, and build confidence, that’s all. And learn your lines.You know? You’ve got to learn your lines and just show up. It’s not a very mysterious business. I don’t think so, no.
You have to have a certain intelligence to understand the text and you have to know how to look at a script and look at all the sort of pinpoints of how the story affects your character, and then you just have to bring yourself to the part.
When you’re a college student, they all want to play character parts. I’m going to be the mean guy, or this guy, and what I notice that once they get out of school and they go into try to find an agent, a manager, and start working, they’re only being cast as themselves. They’re being cast as a 21-year old who is the guy who delivers pizza. That’s going to be what they’re going to do the first number of years, and so always my advice is to just be the best you you can be, and don’t think about all of going out beyond the envelope or threshold of who you just are on a daily basis.
You can do voice overs, work on accents, on that kind of stuff, but that’s different than just standing in front of a camera and just being yourself. That’s all it is, comfortably being yourself.
CLYMER KURTZ: Grumpy Santa, is that you?
BOSTWICK: Grumpy Santa? Businessman Santa. Yeah, I’m a businessman in this. He’s mourning the loss of his wife, he’s having trouble with his child, he’s trying to keep the business alive, he’s committed his child to a marriage that she doesn’t want to be in and I eventually have second thoughts about, and I think he’s certainly more complicated than most “Santas.” That’s why I don’t even look like Santa. I look more like a corporate guy. It’s like Santa Claus is running the Santa Claus corporation.
CLYMER KURTZ: You being your own complex self is this?
BOSTWICK: Yeah. I mean, I have to make certain choices about when I’m happy, when I’m sad and that all’s a collaboration between you and the script and the director, and the other actors, but I think I bring some weight to it because I think I personally have some weight emotionally. Yeah.
Bostwick has acted in a variety of productions. It’s impressive, and, he said,
BOSTWICK: I think it’s a positive thing, because I’m able to play bad guys on Scandal, which is a TV series, and then play Santa Claus. The extremes. I don’t think I’m personally that extreme, I’m not a manic depressive or anything, but that’s because the drugs keep me nice and calm. I think if anything I just observe people and, if called upon, I try to mimic behavior. I love airports. Do you like airports?
CLYMER KURTZ: Watching people?
BOSTWICK: Oh God, yeah. I love airports. I spend a lot of time in airports, just sitting there. A lot of people will sit and look out the window, I’ll sit and look at the people walking by, and I get a lot of ideas that way. It’s what I do.
And then Bostwick suggested I talk with another actor in Santa Girl.
BOSTWICK: Have you met Jennifer Stone, who plays the lead in this, who plays Santa Girl? You want to talk to her?
JENNIFER STONE: Hey man, I’m Jennifer. What’s your name? Chris is my brother’s name. Did you have fun talking to Barry? He give you too much trouble.
BOSTWICK: She plays Sant .... This movie’s called Santa Gi...what’s it called?
STONE: Santa Girl.
BOSTWICK: This is Santa’s Girl. She’s my daughter…
STONE: I’m glad you read the script.
BOSTWICK: ...if you’d like to talk to her.
STONE: Go take one of your naps.
BOSTWICK: I’m going to.
STONE: I know you’re super excited.
BOSTWICK: Did you see these shoes?
STONE: I did.
BOSTWICK: My idea.
STONE: Really? Look at you coming to work!
It was Jennifer Stone’s first time to the Shenandoah Valley.
STONE: No, I’ve never been here before. My boyfriend’s from here originally, not too far from here, so he was super pumped when he was shooting here. I was just super excited too, because I love to see new parts of the country and obviously the university and everything, and I’m actually going to see the Rocky Horror Musical, which Barry was in the original Rocky Horror (film), which I’m sure he told you. The students at Shenandoah have been great just showing me around and recommending places to go see, and so I feel like I’ve really dived into the culture, so that’s been really cool.
She said this filming scenario, on a university campus with few professionals, is unique for her.
STONE: It’s different from what I’ve done because I’d have to say I’m from LA, and I everybody that I’ve worked with has been in the business for a while, and we’re really trying to work with this movie be an immersive process. And so we have a real mixture of professionals and students, to allow it to be a learning experience. It’s really cool. I’ve never worked on a film set like that.
It’s cool to see the vigor of someone who isn’t been jaded by the business yet. They haven’t gotten all of the entertainment BS crap, yet, and they still have stars in their eyes and they’ve really gotten into the technicality of it, and they’re really excited about every step of the process. Which when you’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve been acting since I was six, so I’ve been doing it my whole life, and so there’s certain things you take details for granted. This process has been different because it really allows me to see the details again, and appreciate them all over again, through the students’ eyes. So it’s been really cool.
Bostwick had suggested that student actors should avoid debt by dropping out of college. Stone said this:
STONE: It’s tricky. I think it’s really tricky because there really isn’t a right or wrong answer, because you’re going to get skills, and you’re going to learn about all of the classical methods at college, that you’re not going to learn about outside. It is a very contained environment that you can learn all these methods and add tools to your toolbox.
But having said that, on the flip side, to play devil’s advocate, you don’t need it. Casting directors aren’t going to care. I’m sure there’s a lot of art forms where the business side is not going to care if you have a degree in it, and there is a lot of life experience, that I feel like college can be a bubble, that you’re not going to get as an artist that you n eed, in college, but I think if you haven’t developed a technique, I think college can be helpful with that.
The hard work of acting, she said, is to be relatable and vulnerable, to create a sense of reality.
STONE: I think there is comfort in playing characters. Because one of the hardest things you can do as an actor is be vulnerable. I think one of the hardest things you can do in life is be vulnerable because you’ve got no armor, you’ve got nothing to hide behind, you’ve got nothing to protect you, and that’s what I love about playing characters that don’t have a limp or don’t have an accent or crazy costumes or things like that is because you don’t, that’s where the real work comes in, and that’s where the real talent shows through, because you don’t have anything to hide behind.
Those are the actors I respect the most, and the ones that can go back and forth from doing the character work — yes, they can be super over-the-top, and they can play these over-the-top characters that have elaborate costumes and have accents and you know, intricacies when it comes to physicality, but they can also just play a regular person that something maybe extraordinary happens to but they respond to it like the girl or boy next girl would respond to it as. I think natural vulnerability is the biggest challenge, as an actor.
That’s true for her role in Santa Girl, she said.
STONE: In some aspects, for sure. It’s definitely heightened in some circumstances, because obviously I’m playing like Santa Claus’s daughter and there are certain things where they are super over the top, but the thing is, my job is to bring reality to everything, so I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t somehow relate it to something that I’ve experienced and so that it becomes more realistic. Because here’s the thing. I read the script and it’s heightened and it’s extraordinary, right, and I have to find a way to make it relatable to someone that hasn’t experienced something that’s so extraordinary and so over the top. You can look at things like Lord of the Rings, right, where you get these amazing actors, like Ian McKellan can bring a character like Gandalf and make him so relatable even though he’s magnificent.
Stone is 24 years old, and started acting when she was six. It wasn’t that long ago that she was in college. Her major?
STONE: It’s very random, I understand. I took a break from acting for four years and I started majoring in psychology and then I switched to nursing. A little out of left field.
CLYMER KURTZ: So you could go be a nurse.
STONE: I could go be a nurse, yeah. I have a few classes left. It’s something that I like having the option because this business can be very much in a bubble, and I like the fact that I have the option to go be in the real world and not have to talk about auditions and have that be the only conversation because it’s so not real life, you know, and I love having the option of being able to go and talk to people about being a person.
I’m an actor because I love the human condition, and I love what people can survive, and what people can go through, and how people are different but I don’t like the business aspect of the entertainment industry, that drives me crazy. The art form, I love. The business I just, it’s not my thing. I think a lot of artists in my business are like that.
The nursing is my escape from it, plus I’m a big science nerd, so it satisfies that other side of my brain.
Santa Girl is set for release Christmas, 2018.