“And They Look Great Doing It”

I recently passed by a professional actress on my way to a meeting. She positively beamed with radiant energy and light, knocking out everyone around her. Her perfume was fresh and floral, her clothing stylish and feminine. In a town where people err towards casual, I had the immediate thought: “that’s what I want to be.” Having chosen to put on my “filmmaker garb” for the day, I was left to wonder about the state of women in film vs. the all-seeing eye of fashion, and the practicality vs. expectation of our wardrobe.

Being an actor (and musician) my entire life- I listen, I watch, I learn. I take on particular habits, hairdos, styles. I emulated the artists I admired until I formulated my own style. When I became a New York actor, that particular style changed over time to a more sleek, stylish professional look with gothic undertones. I feel the most comfortable in this respect. As time went on and I started writing and directing my own work (sometimes acting in them), I started to learn about branding – as we have all done-  with the boom of social media.

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Me  (2005). 2nd year in New York. photo by Michael Chinnici

This always agitated me as an actor because I hated the idea of forcing things to be simple so people could understand (there is very little people understand about my first impression, unless they are familiar with the history of Nova Scotia, Trinidad, Finland, theater, and metal). It was far easier to brand myself as musician- the music speaks for itself. “Branding” became somewhat of an identity crisis more than anything else, and I longed for success so I could get to a point where branding didn’t matter so much.

And then I saw the W Magazine article interviewing Ana Lily Amirpour and Julia Ducournau (two highlighted horror directors emerging from TIFF this year with feature films), and the second I saw their photos, I could immediately relate to them. I realized that as a director – like being a musician: your work is your brand. This is the club I belong to. This is the movement that I strive to be a part of. It’s clear that women directors no longer have to shove themselves into a “male director costume” in order to be taken seriously. We can be as fashionable and presentable as actors. I will say this- when I directed and acted in Queen Gorya, I was in a revealing gothic outfit for the entire shoot, and I was treated with nothing but respect. The director is the chef, and everyone wants to do a good job and get home as fast as possible. No time, no room for a lack of respect.

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“The Chic Women Changing the Face of Horror Movies” –W Magazine

IN COMES the new wave of intellectual, or “mature” genre films. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. I’ve been writing films since 2010, but only recently honed in on writing feature length screenplays. On this journey, as all writers do, I have been finding my “voice.” After years of accumulating a strong interest in high-end genre (horror, sci-fi mostly), I realize that these are also the stories that I tend to write most. It’s an exciting time, as science fiction is due to catch up to horror, and for fans and creators alike, we are frothing at the mouth for films like The Arrival.

I have found my new inspiration, my voice, and certainly a great place to be. I have peers that I look up to and can compete with that happen to be female, for a change. And it’s a thousand times easier to believe in yourself when you see someone who is the same sex doing the work you want to do.

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Asia Argento

So when it comes to fashion? I got it covered. Like when I just started out- I took my cues from Asia Argento for a particular character I was working on. It stuck.

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Director/Actress, Asia Argento (I love her)

It will all balance out in the end. Back to the rewrites.

-Satu Runa

The Onus and the Outrage

The Stage. The one place where you honestly, truthfully can be anything you want to be. People often transcend their upbringing, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background, genetics, and physical attributes to form a self-image outside of what is expected of their kinfolk. People are by nature complex and varied. The profession of acting falls into this category just the same.

There is a dividing line between political correctness and creativity. Film and TV studios dictating who plays what role and what stories are told to target audiences. There are independent artists creating work not domineered by any studio or voice. Independent artists have the freedom to create anything, for any purpose. Studios, on the other hand, have a responsibility to reflect the public’s interest for two reasons: 1. To make money, and to a lesser extent: 2. To affect change for the greater good. The system isn’t perfect, but is slowly making strides in terms of representation behind and in front of the camera.

There is an awareness happening now in regards to when non-trans actors portray trans characters. Prior to this, there was a movement shining a spotlight on white actors portraying characters of color. Both movements have serious validity. Conversely, as an actor who started and trained in theater- while theater is an entirely different medium (of which still suffers the same non-inclusiveness as rampant in film and TV casting practices)- an actor can play any part they can believably portray to an audience. While a variety of voices need to be heard and portrayed, the onus for inclusivity in media is on the studios. The onus for hearing more voices is on all of us.

These two opposing forces (inclusivity vs creativity) enter a complex battle arena. I believe in the freedom of the artist. I also believe that studios and production houses have a responsibility to be inclusive. I believe that the actor has trained to become anything they have the power to imagine. The profession would be entirely tedious if we were limited to only playing ourselves- otherwise, why do it? It would be one long scripted reality show, and no one wants that. The magic is in the transformation.

It’s about the human condition as portrayed by the person who has spent their entire life training and educating themselves on how to live in another person’s shoes. Trust the experts. I’ve read from certain non-actors that believe if an actor shares the same background as the character, somehow they will deliver a finer performance. I couldn’t stress more that the best performances most often come from those who are the farthest removed from the character they are portraying. Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth. The mask is more powerful than you can imagine. The mask will set you free. The mask is vital to the honest performance. The mask is everything.

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The Actor, Picasso

-Satu

“Nostalgiacore” in the Time of Progress

I have a story idea that takes place in the early 90s and I’m having the hardest time getting started. Taking a closer look at what is causing my hesitancy, I find that it’s because the cast would have to be mostly white due to the historical context. To be more inclusive for people of color, how do I proceed?

One thing I’ve noticed about period TV programs is the noticeable erasure of people of color. One could possibly attribute this to a recreation of the “Hollywood version” of history, featuring all white leads, as well as actual history- where the storyline takes place in a workplace scenario where people of color were rarely (if ever) hired during this time. I love well done period TV shows, particularly when it serves as a metaphor for current societal issues. What doesn’t work for me in the constant repetition of revisiting the past in American television: zero people of color in leading or even guest-starring roles. While the country celebrates a return to the 80s genre TV movies with Netflix’s Stranger Things, I’m left wondering: why are we doing this again? Haven’t we fought tooth and nail to push away from all the character tropes of TV past?

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Stranger Things (Netflix)

Turns out people will eat it up. I know, I did too. For a few episodes. But I was horribly distracted by the lack of seeing something “new.” It was familiar, but not in a good way. It reminded me of a time lost, but it also reminded me that there is a psychological desire to cut non-white people out of the creative conversation. I don’t think that was the intention of the Duffer Brothers. As is the case with the Coen Brothers, “[the 80s, white Midwest] is the world we know.” As several smart people have pointed out- are aliens/zombies/vampires any easier to write about on a fictional level, without truly understanding them, living with, or growing up with them?

I’m starved for things like The Get Down. It takes place in the late 70s Bronx borough, and I can’t get enough of it. I was born in the 80s and I listen to every kind of music and I still understand the 70s nostalgia factor. But the show does not solely aim to tickle your easily picked at nostalgia scabs or heartstrings. From what I can tell (and I wasn’t there) it feels totally 70s in every aspect of the sense, but it’s also examining the underbelly from a fantastical perspective (as Baz Luhrmann often does and does well). The music speaks for itself and lives within a cast of highly spirited, talented actors.

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The Get Down (Netflix)

We see familiar faces from a legendary decade, people we’ve since celebrated for their skill in creating an entirely new, much needed musical genre to tear disco apart and destroy the status quo. Isn’t that what revolution is about? Isn’t that what art is about? The show’s format itself rips apart the norm. Baz Luhrmann for television, in it’s second Golden Age (can we call it the Platinum Age already?), co-written by the Pulitzer prize winning playwright, Stephen Adly Giurgis (Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the A-Train, Last Days of Judas Iscariot), the show is bound for a promising recipe of artistic excellence. And it delivers, all of these things: Nostalgia, top class talent, and a new way to recreate that specific time and place through fantasy.

What turns me off about Stranger Things– because it’s replicating, it features all the tropes we are desperately pushing away from. What holds me back from congratulating Stranger Things and anything else like it (let’s call it “Nostalgiacore”): while it remarkably recreates what we love about 80s film + TV, it also clearly showcases things that were wrong about 80s Hollywood, including all white casts with one token person of color, and stereotypical, tropey roles for women and girls. I enjoy period stories showcasing what society was genuinely like, but I do have an issue with revisiting a time in which Hollywood itself was less enlightened. Things that, should we see it in any other program, would make us cringe and trash it to pieces. Being “woke” has gotten to a point were it takes an exorbitant amount of forgiveness to get through certain films of “less enlightened times” and to me, it’s not excusable to recreate our past mistakes. Today, we want to see more from our media. Time to adapt.

Back to my story idea that takes place in a very white part of the country in the early 90s, in a very white “scene”: I’m going to do more research. If I can find the people of color in this narrative, I’d rather include them, especially if they were left out of historical documentation. Otherwise I feel like I’m doing a disservice to progress, and I’ll have to write about something else. The story is important for women (feminist), despite the scene in question being entirely dominated by white women (lacking intersectional feminism). I don’t want to careen the story into present day, but I don’t want to write “another story devoid of color” either, not for me, or anyone else. Especially when my (mixed) perspective includes color.

Have you ever hesitated to write something in the name of progress?

-Satu

First Seven Jobs

That “#firstsevenjobs” hashtag thing got me reminiscing.
Hot Topic at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was my first paying job at $5.15/hour. It was the first expansion to malls outside of San Francisco. 3/4 of my paycheck always went back into the store. People make fun of Hot Topic for being cheesy but back then it was one of the coolest jobs in town, like working at a record store (we sold records too). We even had fans who would bring us cool things like cake, rock prints, albums, artwork. Everyone looked cool. Bands whose merch we sold came in to visit when they were on tour. We played whatever music we wanted and would always get a shipload of fresh records that came out that Tuesday. I learned a lot about music through this job, some records I still listen to today with as much passion as the first time. Sometimes I’ll walk by and instantly get hit with that unmistakeable smell of incense, scented candles, and cheap glitter body spray. It was awesome, especially once I got a raise to $5.50/hour 🙂

My First Seven Jobs (A Fantastic Exercise in Perspective)

sales associate, Hot Topic
sales associate, Party City
sales associate, campus bookstore
music columnist/concert & album reviewer, The Seahawk (UNCW)
intern, then set + office P.A., Fuse TV
secretary, Tin Pan Alley Studios
assistant, Sheryl Crow + W Management

What are yours?

-Satu

Film Courage Performance, General Anguish, and a “True Calling”

We had a ridiculously good time at Film Courage’s night of readings and monologues as a “Tribute to the Sunset Strip.” I was the only one who actually performed a monologue (I wrote in homage to Dio and Lemmy). Everyone else read from a favorite book about rock n roll, or read a passage from a personal diary. Nice to connect with fellow metalheads and music lovers who all also happen to be actors.

I got a chance to workshop a character that I’m working on that may or may not be part of a TV series I’m developing. More on this later as it becomes declassified! See video of my performance here (it was REALLY fun!):

It’s been tough to keep your head up these days with all of the shocking news day after day. The only way to survive it is to push through it and stay busy. Stay WOKE, but stay busy. As an artist, I wrestle day to day with how I can help without being trite and obvious with my work. A documentary, a narrative feature, a powerful dramatic short, or a comedy bringing light and humor to the dire situation we may be in. In these circumstances I always come back to music.

I feel like I have multiple “true callings.” If I ever feel lost, I move into another medium, and my blood starts pumping again. In high school, the first college I requested a pamphlet from was Berkeley College of Music. It wasn’t a firm “no” from the parents, but it didn’t seem possible, so I played it safe and went to UNCW for Communication Studies. Great experience, but I always wonder where I would be today if I had followed through with my lifelong passion. After several A&R people handed me business cards early on, I’m confident that I would have made it as a singer, but I changed direction in the middle of the pursuit towards acting. Acting has been an uphill battle since the beginning. Not actually acting itself (it’s a thrill), but being successful at it has been the biggest struggle of my life. It’s gotten to a place where the chase is too draining in every aspect, so I find myself somewhat reluctantly surging towards another path, which also feels quite right. I may not get what I want in the end, but all I really want is to perform on a regular basis and not die of starvation doing it (anymore). So the path remains clear: I’m focusing on directing for the rest of the journey. It’s very odd, but I know in my heart that I have a better chance directing than acting, as it’s far more hands on and proactive. I will work as hard as I can, stock away survival money, and play music to appease my heart and soul. If acting wants me back in (as it always finds a way to pull you back in), I will follow. But not at the expense of my creative spirit, and fridge.

Certain events this year involving acting opportunities have driven me farther away from a desire to aggressively seek out acting work at this level. I’m happy to create my own, but I’m stepping away from the “chase” to feed the artist in me, and the stomach. It’s a big decision to make, and as soon as I made the decision to step away from chasing acting work (not acting itself, mind you- I will never say no to a solid part), of course, I got the call to come back to set for a short stint. It was semi-fulfilling, but in the end, far too much trouble for the small payoff it truly was. I’m happy to pay my bills as an actor for the first time in a few years, but it’s certainly not enough.

[The monologue I did for Film Courage for FREE was ultimately 1000x more satisfying, so I have to keep that in mind and keep doing that kind of stuff].

I shall go forth seeking out more fulfilling work, and in turn, my other callings shout loud and clear. Every time I see a film. Every time I hear a great song. I’m there.

x

Satu

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Satu Runa, photo by Joao Carlos

 

Me interviewing Woody Harrelson at the After the Sunset junket (NYC, 2004)

Humble Beginnings

I was recently involved with a Buzzfeed video as a subject testing Caribbean cuisine. I got to check out the studios and get to know some of their staff: highly diverse early 20-somethings. As I was wondering what each of their stories were in how they got this gig, I began reflecting on my humble beginnings from the perspective of an “elder millennial” in showbiz and journalism. It’s funny how different we can be when only separated by 5-10 years.

Just before I ran the Kickstarter for my indie pilot, “Queen Gorya,” I was a guest on a panel at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con featuring indie content creators. It was me, a YouTube star, a YouTube employee, and a cosplay weapon designer. The entire audience was there to see the YouTube star. A few months after the panel, the YouTube employee invited me to come see the YouTube Space. My thought going in was that I was going to be asked if I wanted to use the space to shoot content for my channel. Then the question came up: “How many subscribers do you have?” then I knew the “tour” was over. I’ve never had a huge YouTube following despite starting a channel shortly after YouTube began. I did have a solid following on MySpace, but then… you know. So I thought, “Okay, I’m here because YouTube is trying to develop talent by generously giving them the resources to film higher caliber content. Only they just want their own stars, they don’t want to make new ones.” The studios were mostly empty, with the exception of a few spaces being rented out by Felicia Day for Geek and Sundry.

Flash forward to the day after International Women’s Day: I read an article about “YouTube Funding Women Creators.” This is definitely a step in the right direction.

YouTube’s femme-focused foray, launched ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, comes as studies show Hollywood continues to lag in employing women directors and depicting female characters and that pay gaps persist between men and women in the biz.  

This quote from the Variety article is partially irrelevant because YouTube is fostering their female content creators for the purpose of gaining more exposure on YouTube alone (with no plans to connect out because once you make it in Hollywood, who needs YouTube?). I’ve had this discussion with several creators and filmmakers (not YouTubers) in that YouTube may be missing the mark by overlooking raw talent in favor of their own stars. It doesn’t seem to be part of their mission to curate rising talented filmmakers by creating stars in their space. Instead, they are plucking existing YouTube stars, capitalizing on their existing success, and thereby making the company look good because diversity.

This is the generation where followers and subscribers matter to the industry. I suppose it matters if you have nothing else going for you. But if someone had only 200 followers and a sensational short film I wouldn’t care about subscriber count, I would do everything I could to make sure people knew who they are and to watch their work so they can make more work. But that’s the fundamental difference between YouTube and Vimeo. Vimeo doesn’t even have follower count on your main profile page. Why? Because it’s irrelevant to the quality of the content you present.

The more I thought about it the more it baffled and angered me. “Why wouldn’t they take me on when my content was clearly way higher caliber than any of the low-quality churned out content we see from YouTube stars? I actually have the chops to be a real filmmaker and YouTube wants to give these kids power and equipment they barely know how to use?” 

And then I had the astonishing revelation that I did have my shot at a “YouTube Space” when I was just starting out. It was called “Public Access.

We could shoot anything we wanted that didn’t need to be censored.

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Captain Schoolgirl with Satu Runa and Will Finan

It was my first audition after I moved to New York City a month after graduating from college. I was lucky. It was minimum wage, we could eat all the pizza we wanted, and none of us had experience. Us kids hung out all day at the studios in Jersey City brainstorming skit ideas and writing content for our entertainment programs.

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On set of The Adventures of Captain Schoolgirl at Comcast studios, Jersey City, NJ. (Our public access playground)

We were entertainment hosts covering all the most fun high profile pop-culture events of New York City, and occasionally flying out to Los Angeles on the movie studio’s dime to cover press junkets of big movie premieres. It_was_awesome. This was my YouTube Space, fostering all of my creative skills. It’s where I learned how to use Final Cut. It’s where I learned how to produce content. It’s where I got my feet wet as an entertainment journalism interviewing celebrities and acting in comedic skits that my co-hosts and I would write and direct. It was everything I needed to set me on the path towards being a film director, producer, and actor. And my boss took a chance on me- a former music television intern with zero experience as a host. Just the drive (and a good image).

I often feel a little resentment because “kids today have it so good” when it comes to opportunity. I feel like we missed out on the “viral revolution” by about 5 years. Despite having a 16 million viewer reach with Comcast, we wanted more. We made one of our skits into a comic book and web series (a few years before web series even existed). We didn’t know how to elevate it to the next level, so we put it on MySpace, got a healthy following, then MySpace disappeared, and we had all moved on to new projects and jobs. When I look at today’s job opportunities, there are several “content creator” jobs for almost every company that wants a social presence. They want medium quality disposable content. But I’m just not that into YouTube channels. In fact, I can hardly watch them. That’s a generational thing, even though I am part of this generation.

I was looking around the Buzzfeed studio and watched the early 20-somethings do their thing. I wanted to help them get better lighting. I wanted to help them use the cameras properly. I wanted to give them a simple solution when something went wrong. I kept silent because I was there as a guest, and they did not want any kind of input, being the young know-it-alls that they were (hey- guilty of the same thing right here). All I could think to myself was, “I could do this so easily. I have done this. If I was just graduating today, this would be my job.” But there is one thing stopping me from pursuing an online “content creator” job: That time in my career has passed. I’ve been there, done that. I am creating higher caliber and traditional film. The mediums that speak loudly to me are the mediums that we watch the best narrative TV programs on, and the best feature films. This is what I am meant to do, now, despite my humble beginnings as a skit and pop-culture news writer/host for public access. I have come a very, very long way. I applaud the new generation for pushing forward and making their silly videos, just like we did a decade ago, and the generation before us. These little skits and bits are gateways to greater things. It’s how we learned. Ten years from now, these kids will leave it behind and focus on creating meaningful art. So, jealous I shall not be, for I have paid my dues long ago.

Time to finish that screenplay. I have big plans, and yes- it involves Vimeo.😉

Satu Runa
Writer/Director, Actor. Former entertainment host/content creator for Comcast, Jersey City.
http://www.saturuna.com

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Captain Schoolgirl (character I played for our Comcast public access show), 2006

But What Do You Really Want?

You can’t go on Twitter or Facebook without at least 50 articles outlining the issue of “diversity in Hollywood.” If we are focusing purely on casting, what is it that we really want to see on the big screen?

When it comes to diversity, television has film beat. The only issue is that while TV casts boast highly diverse leads and guest-stars, they almost always fit in the stereotype box of race. Not necessarily the portrayal/performance of the race in question, but moreso the visual representation of the race in question. When I am called in to audition for any role, I briefly scan the competition in the waiting room and decide if I have a shot or not or if I was called in because of my skin and hair color, or the box that was checked under “ethnicity.” Sometimes I’ll be surrounded by beautiful brown-skinned Indian women with long braided dark hair wearing saris, other times I’ll be in the company of sleek, sophisticated ethnically ambiguous Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean types. Occasionally, for a drama series, I’ll be competing with different ethnicities in order to fill the “this role is ethnic and it doesn’t matter which kind” box. In the end I must wonder if the companies who make the final decisions utter the words “well last week we had an Asian so this week we probably should have a Latina instead.” More often than not, the smaller parts are on a roulette wheel of chance in terms of who gets the part after callbacks. With good reason. But for this reason, I think that diversity initiatives actually hold specifically mixed-race and non-stereotypical actors back.

I continue to write and produce content that I may act in to showcase my skill, but in the interim I keep auditioning for everything I am eligible for in order to get my foot in the door. I am grateful for every solid audition that comes my way. But I am constantly analyzing and wondering if there is a way to improve the diversity initiatives in casting to broaden the spectrum. While casting breakdowns continue to only have the five top ethnic choices, so long as they feature someone black, Asian, or hispanic- they pass the test. Meanwhile, a whole lot of “others” get shafted and will never get booked unless by pure luck or a specific vision by the writer. I was lucky enough to book a co-starring role on a prominent TNT procedural which was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had on set. I applaud the casting directors and producers for having an inclusive show featuring all types of people in their cast on a weekly basis. I only wish all shows would reflect America this way, perhaps they may be more successful in the end for doing so. But it’s rare that I get called in for this sort of thing because my type is rarely called in at all, since we fall outside the usual race-box.

Actresses like Eva Longoria and Priyanka Chopra face a similar wall in the beginning of their career because they were considered “not ethnic enough” to give studios a pass for diversity. This includes all mixed-race actors. Yes, there is a box for that too, but it’s a miniscule category with fewer roles than Asians (who have the smallest number of representation across the board for media).

So what do we really want to see up there, in the lights? With the controversy of such films like Prince of Persia and Gods of Egypt where the predominantly white cast is playing parts that are not of their race, this is a hot topic among Hollywood players and audience members alike.  My firm belief is that, within the realm of TV and film, an actor should be allowed to portray whatever role they are able to portray. This, to me, means two things:

1) They must have the talent to play the role well, and

2) They should have the look to believably portray the part.

I am not in the camp that believes one must actually be what the character is in order to play the part, but I absolutely believe there should be more roles reflecting all parts of humanity and society. I never want to limit actors to the point that they are only allowed to play roles that are exactly what they are. NOTE: I’m bias, because, should that be the case, actors like me would never work. As far as white-washing is concerned, I believe Gerard Butler as a Greek, but not as an Egyptian. As for Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, I think she looks like the character and has performed similar roles and is more than capable of playing the part- the part that is not necessarily Japanese, as it is indeed an android- however, if the entire cast is white-washed, then we have a problem. As with every film, it is a case by case basis and every individual will have their own opinion about it, and most certainly there will be outrage just as much as there will be excitement.

What we should demand is more inclusion. Keep writing the parts as unique and different as you can. The actors vying for the parts will prove themselves worthy, and the studios, (who will hopefully work on being more in touch with society and not so close-minded when it comes to race in casting) will cast accurately and efficiently.

I live for a day when the outrage subsides because the studios listened (to some of it), but also made qualified and careful casting decisions that A) Reflect society’s POV today and B) At least make an effort to cast somewhat appropriately when it comes to race. All we need to be as actors is look the part and play the part. We don’t necessarily have to be the part in all cases.

When I see a woman on screen kicking ass, I feel good. When I see a woman of color kicking ass on screen, I feel better. I dare the studios to connect with me, because I represent a pretty large piece of the pie.

Thoughts?

Satu