Mornell, A Uniquely Successful Hollywood Coach
There’s something alluring about Hollywood, isn’t there? The world of performance has a warm glow around it, which leaves you intrigued to know more. For some, like me, it leaves you knowing exactly what it is you want to do with your life. What then? Once you’ve decided to become an actor, how do you break into the surprisingly small world of Hollywood? Luckily, I was able to sit down with the lovely Sara Mornell.
Evolution from a Shy Child
Mornell is an actor and acting coach in Los Angeles, California. She brandishes a very successful and impressive client list. Originally from Northern California, Mornell describes herself as a “painfully shy” child who found her confidence through acting. Speaking with Ms. Mornell, I found so many parallels to my own life. We seem to share a longtime passion for both performance and film. As our interview progressed, I realized how crucial this piece will be to young actors, like myself.
It isn’t often that you get to sit down with someone with so much insight into such a far reaching industry. After all, It’s an industry that touches our daily lives. Although navigating the finicky waters of TV/film may seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be complicated for young actors. This is in part thanks to people like Mornell, who really break down the in’s and out’s for actors who seek to achieve real progress in their careers.
Stage- and Screen-Bound Early
Shelby Bias: How did you get your start?
Sara Mornell: I was always just a very quiet introverted child. I grew up in Northern California in a very small town. I was painfully shy, but for some reason when I was on stage, I felt like I was home. I lived in my imagination for most of my life, and my parents were very supportive. So, when I was Thirteen, I went to a performing arts camp in Sema Springs, CO. It was like I had found my people. ‘Oh there are people who are weird like me?!’ It was never a question in my mind; that was what I wanted to do.
When I wanted to audition for Carnegie Mellon, I was told by my high school that I couldn’t get in. That I should apply as a liberal arts major and a drama minor. I auditioned and I waited and waited. I went and visited the other schools: UCLA, Pepperdine, USC. When I visited Carnegie Mellon before I was accepted, I was like ‘I just walked into that fame school’. It was like I was home, theatre actors 24/7.
Carnegie Mellon or Bust
It was what I always wanted for my life. I waited to find out if I got in, and finally I called the school. The Liberal Arts Department said they didn’t have my application and the drama department has it, and I called the Drama department and I still remember the secretary; his name was Victor. He said ‘I’m so sorry Sara you didn’t get in as a Liberal Arts major, but you did as a Drama Major. Congratulations.’ That was it.”
Her Uniqueness as a Coach
SB: What’s the difference between your coaching style, and that of others?
Sara Mornell: “The main difference is, I am still a working actor. I don’t think you should teach what you don’t know. The problem is acting hasn’t been updated, by really anyone for our century. If an actor wants to do tv/film, it’s great to study Shakespeare, but they should be studying Sorkin. They should be studying the great playwrights, so to speak, screen writers of our time; Shonda. Shonda is our new Shakespeare. She is amazing. She has a language, a new iambic pentameter. If you watch Scandal or Grey’s there is a rhythm there. So, I want to revolutionize the way actors are being taught.
She’s Done What She’s Teaching
The other thing I do that is very different is I am in audition rooms.The problem with so much of what actors are being taught now is [that it’s] by people who have never auditioned, or [who] auditioned 70 years ago, 50 years ago. You can’t coach an actor on what to do in a situation if you have never been through it or seen it.
Auditioning is hands down the hardest part of an actor’s career. You are acting off of nothing, it is a completely different art form. It ruins actors. It creates bad actors, [and] it also can devastate us. I reinfuse actors’ passion and energy by learning how to tackle the hardest aspect of our career first. It became evident that no one is teaching what I teach, and that is frightening to me. It means that a lot of actors are being taken advantage of. I just believe [you] start with the hardest aspect first. Actors are capable of that.
Preparing for the Audition
SB: If someone said to you, you only have 15 minutes to coach an actor, how would you spend the time prepping them for how to audition?
Sara Mornell: “That’s a good question. Everyone is different. I think that’s another thing that I do that differentiates me from other teachers or coaches;[it] is, there’s not one method. Its an individualized way of coaching and teaching. The way I work with you is going to be different than the way I work with someone else. So it’s much more about actors finding their process and what works for them. It depends on who that person is sitting in front of me and what they need. Are they just starting out? Do they need career advice? Do they need to know how to get an agent or manager?
The problem is, with auditions, you only have one or two chances to get into the room. You have a year if you’re going in and you don’t know how to do that? They go into the room and they start bombing. The casting director is angry at the representatives and saying your actor is green. For me the goal is to find what each actor needs at this point, and start from there.”
Common Biggest Mistakes
SB: What is the biggest mistake people are making in the audition room
Sara Mornell: “Two things. One, they are trying to play a breakdown, instead of what they can bring to the role and what they know the role needs. The other thing is, they come in without confidence, or with the tiniest bit of doubt. Confidence and playing what you can bring to role are the biggest things.
For example, I had an actor book opposite Kiefer Sutherland on his new show. Big role. Big series. The role is for a strong, by the book guy. We worked on softening him and coming from a place of love. Actors have to look at the bigger picture. We aren’t breakdowns as people, so why would you take that stereotype into the room? One of the things I ask actors all the time is ‘what can you bring to the the role that no one else can?”
Is Success a Matter of Luck
SB: Would you say there are tangible steps that actors can take, checkpoints you can reach in your career that help to propel you forward, or is it all just a matter of luck?
Sara Mornell: “Luck has a lot to do with it, but any overnight success has been doing it for 20 years. You look at someone and you say, ‘Wow! How are they now the second lead on a major show?’ But then you look at their IMDB and it’s just a massive amount of credits. I think there’s very few overnight successes. Is this a career you can do for the next 20 years, not two. I think a lot of actors think it’s going to happen over night, or they will get an agent or manager and it’s going to be made. You’re constantly having to prove yourself. You are always auditioning. I think knowing that [is important]; things have changed.
Actors getting a reel? That doesn’t help anymore. It’s much more important to create your own content and to have your own Youtube channel or Funny or Die. That’s where the investment should go, instead of going and spending $1200 and getting an old fashioned reel. People want to see you work. There are agencies now that have online departments that are only looking for talent online. I think that people have an idea that it happens all at once, and it doesn’t. It’s years, and years of no’s and rejection.
It’s Hard Work
It’s hard work. You could hands down be the best person for the role every single time and not book it because you don’t look the role. It takes a really strong person to say ‘This is who I am and what I bring to the role’. I think the amount of perseverance and persistence that it takes is beyond what people really have an idea of. The psychology and the mentality that it takes is that of an athlete, not and actor.”
Acting is a Mental Game
SB: So, it’s definitely a mental game then as well?
Sara Mornell: Totally. One of the things I do that is different is I understand the psychology of actors. We are in a business of rejection. We can get to the material, we can get to the work. That is not a problem, but what ever you have going on today is what I am picking up on. You’re going to bring that into the room. The difference between acting versus truth. You want to stop acting and start bringing truth. In TV its just say the words.
Getting out of Your Head
SB: I reached a point where I started to realize that I was very much in my head about things, especially when prepping for an audition. What would you say someone should do if they are having that problem?
Sara Mornell: [Theatre School] does a really good job of teaching us how to act. What it did not teach us is how to be, how to not act. How to be one with the words and stop relying on technique, something I am seeing over and over again with auditions for film and tv: subtext, beats, moments, tactics, and objectives. All of that terminology we learned in school does not apply to film and tv.
So, when I see actors trying to apply it, that’s what the problem is. It’s getting micromanaged. What you need to do is back up, and look at the bigger picture. What’s the show? What’s the tone?[And] What’s the feel, the pace, the vibe, or the rhythm? It’s almost like music. Then what’s my piece of the puzzle I need to fit into? How would I say these words in this situation? And the second that you get it and it clicks, [it’s] that moment when you say ‘Oh yeah that was it’. You stay. You don’t move.
An Audition is Not a Rehearsal
They are not looking for rehearsals when you go into an audition, they are looking for a final product. Cut. Print. Moving on.That’s a big thing with actors, wanting to show that they are workable. No. You go in with your choices and if they need you to do the opposite, well, you are a trained actor. Of course you can do the opposite. No Problem. A lot of times now they are so rushed that you have to come in and give what you would give with no direction, and be able to walk away with that one audition being good enough to book the job. [It’s] not about showing you’re great to work with or that you are malleable; [but] it’s about showing this is what I bring to the role. It’s a final product.
Stage to Screen and The Business
SB: What would you say to someone like me, who is making the big switch from Theater to TV/Film?
Sara Mornell: Start working on camera in front of a camera as much as possible.
Watch TV. It drives me bananas when I see someone who wants to be an actor but they say “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” It’s like saying you want to do Shakespeare but saying you have never read Shakespeare and never will. You cannot go into an audition if you don’t know who the show runners are; if you don’t know the tone, the feel or the vibe. AMC is different from ABC. Know the difference. What ever they did last year that worked? They are going to do that again this year.
SB:What about getting an agent?
Sara Mornell: “Don’t Pay. Know your brand, and know what you are selling. You want to have a great package, a great headshot and resume, And, if you don’t have anything on your resume then you want to write 400 special skills. Be creative with it. Learn how to take a meeting and how to sell yourself. They should know the version of you that is sellable. Have some stuff online. Internet presence is important; twitter, instagram, snapchat…etc Do your research. Don’t rush to sign with whoever.”
Mornell’s Advice to Starters and Re-Starters
SB: So finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to a new actor or an actor getting back on the horse, what would that be?
Sara Mornell:“Know the business. Actors make a lot of mistakes because we are different. We are creative and more emotional. I think, learning how to have a business mind is crucial in today’s Hollywood. Separate yourself from the art. Be very aware that there are scams, and ask. Don’t ever settle if you don’t feel you are getting what you need to be a working actor. Until you are Leo DiCaprio and choosing whatever projects you want, you are going to have to do the grunt work. There are plenty of working actors out there that will sit down with young actors and give them their time. Find people you admire and trust and ask their advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t jump into anything, and know the business side first.”