You will fail. In fact, let’s hope you do, because that’s how you’ll learn. The nice thing about that, though, is then you need not have any regrets. Because there will be success in growth, and growth in failure, and therefore, success in failure. I hope we can change our definition of failure, actually. It would be so freeing to walk onto a set, into a rehearsal, unafraid of what failure would look like, and instead focused on how you get to challenge yourself to learn and be better.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rosa Gilmore.
Rosa Gilmore is an actor best known for her role as Zoe in season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale, and more recently, Lucia Mazur on season 4 of The Expanse. With a background in theater, Rosa graduated with a Masters in Acting from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and performed in Phyllida Lloyd’s all female Taming of the Shrew at NYC’s Public Theater, alongside Janet Mcteer and Cush Jumbo.
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?
Sure! I grew up in Cambridge, MA in a pretty cerebral, academic household with parents who are both professors and named me after the activist and Socialist Rosa Luxemburg. I was raised with cats, a lot of museum visits, and I spent most of my childhood playing dress-up and make-believe in the backyard, including a superhero character I’d invented. And before playing a couple of medically savvy women on TV, I was playing what I still refer to as “old-fashioned” as a doctor from olden-times, another bit of make-believe fully based on watching the TV show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman when I was young. My older sister, who is now an OBGyn, often jokes with me that both our jobs involve a lot of doctoring. And while there were always plays in school and “dress-up” at home, most of my experience with performance growing up was with my violin, which I started playing at age six. Playing violin meant I spent several hours every Saturday in orchestra rehearsal or at a violin lesson, and practiced every day of the week. I think there are some very real ways that my relationship with the violin taught me how to express myself and process emotions through music.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
There were a lot of lucky steps along the way that brought me to the right people at the right time, including my day-job after I graduated from college. I worked at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in marketing, and one night I offered to lend a hand passing out programs. I happened to hand one to my now-manager who was there seeing another client perform, and that’s how we met. It was serendipitous, to say the least. But maybe an even earlier experience that solidified my love for acting was performing in a play my eight grade class had written. It was called 0.1% and it was about a group of aliens who visit earth to figure out why humankind is always fighting, seeing as our genetic makeup only differs by 0.1%. The plot was a perfect example of why I want to do this, and what I think being an artist can look like. We share stories that actually help us learn and become better people, and that help us better understand the human condition.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This question just makes me feel so grateful. I can think of several exciting moments that I could share. I suppose the first that comes to mind was from a day on set for The Expanse. We had to shoot a scene where my character gets knocked out of a space shuttle and goes flying into space. It was my first time in a harness. Some debris hits my character in the back, which is what sends me flying, so we had to figure out what that physicality would be in the moment of contact, and what trajectory my body would take, all while in zero gravity. Does my head go back while my body flies forward? Do I fold forward and into myself or do my arms flail out? And what looks most believable on screen? And of course, all of this was while the amazing stunt folks yanked me by the harness so I could zoom away from the set. I loved how much attention to detail and how much specificity went into this tiny moment that was just a split second of flying. And on top of all that, I felt a lot like Peter Pan.
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?
You know, I’m inclined to tell you instead about a more recent moment. Well, recent being about three years ago. I was in a three person theater production of Romeo and Juliet, three women to be exact. We were all playing several characters, often switching back and forth between two characters in the same conversation. I was playing Romeo, among others, and we spent a lot of time playing around with what masculinity would look like in my body. What were my instincts, physically, that actually read feminine, and what was some stereotypical male physicality to work towards. There was of course the horrifying realization that I naturally make myself smaller, make myself take up less space by hunching ever so slightly, which feels like a symptom of being a woman in our society, being told to be smaller, quieter, all that. My director, whom I adore, kept telling me to keep a straight spine and I kept forgetting to do so. The result was that he found a broom in our rehearsal room and made me put it along my spine, and then tied it in place with a scarf around my waist. I was laughing while furious while humiliated, while totally loving him for not letting me get away with letting my posture fold. I was unable to separate my anger and laughter. Anger at the society that made me make myself smaller, that I had to teach my body to take up more space, and laughter at the absurdity of it all. I know I looked ridiculous, Romeo running around tied to a broom, but it was also necessary in the best way. And totally worth it.
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?
Jim Calder. I think there are a lot of NYU Grad actors who might say the same. But yeah. Jim Calder. He was one of my movement and Comedia teachers. He instilled in me the importance of always making it about the work and being unafraid to fail. As actors — as artists, as anyone really — we can get so bogged down by a desire to please, by focusing too much on the final product. Whenever I get caught in those detrimental spirals, I remind myself to make it about the work. My goal is to grow via the work, and that means I get to win every single time, no matter what the product is. Every exercise he gave us in school was set up to fail. That was the point. If failure is inevitable, then the process is where you’ll focus, where you’ll grow. It took me a while to face that without fear — especially as a type-A student who desperately wanted to please. But in Jim’s class, eventually you’re just pretending you’re a mollusk, gripping a blue mat, screaming to your classmates that you won’t let go while they try to push you off, learning what your mind and heart and body does when you’re forced to be so determined. Jim is the one who directed that three woman Romeo and Juliet. And I did that production right before auditioning for Lucia. I have no doubt that the broom tied to my back, reminding me to take up space unapologetically, is linked to me getting that job, and getting to play a woman who stands in herself and her convictions so completely. When I want to remember to be fearless, when I want to make it about the work, when I want to remember to be curious, I think of Jim.
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 will fail. In fact, let’s hope you do, because that’s how you’ll learn. The nice thing about that, though, is then you need not have any regrets. Because there will be success in growth, and growth in failure, and therefore, success in failure. I hope we can change our definition of failure, actually. It would be so freeing to walk onto a set, into a rehearsal, unafraid of what failure would look like, and instead focused on how you get to challenge yourself to learn and be better. This certainly applies to this career path, and I try to apply it to other facets of my life, too. Acknowledging you have something to learn is not a sign of having failed, it’s actually you embarking on a noble endeavor: trying to do and be better next time.
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?
Those of us who work in this field have an incredible power to enter into the homes of people who think differently from us, as well as those yearning to see particular stories represented on screen. We can connect, we can reach out and enter people’s lives that we wouldn’t be able to, otherwise. We can make people feel seen and heard. We can magnify and lend a megaphone to points of view that are often overlooked. We can teach empathy, and we can provide a vessel through which people can process their own emotions. My hope is that writers’ rooms become more and more diverse, so a greater diversity of experience can fill our screens. That more money and support is thrown behind BIPOC and womxn directors. This moment in history in our industry has the opportunity to be an amazing one, as production companies, films, and shows commit to greater diversity on their sets. I know it sounds cliche, but we actually do have the power to change the world, to inform, to heal, to inspire. Let’s do more of that.
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?
I feel like I’ve lucked out to such a huge extent, getting to play, among others, both Zoe from Handmaid’s and Lucia from The Expanse, that I can only hope to continue to play women so courageous and so unapologetic in their fight for justice. Women who certainly aren’t defined solely by their womanhood, or motherhood, or themselves in relation to the men around them, but rather who are defined by their overwhelming humanity. This is a moment in our own country when a commitment to that fight for justice is a true privilege. I find it fully fortifying to play these characters who do just that, and I hope to play more women who can continue to teach me what that fight looks like.
In terms of current projects, I’m a member of a theater company — Society Theatre — that has provided me with some solid food for the soul, and also a great deal of growth during this Covid lockdown. We’re currently trying to figure out what it looks like to have a fully democratic company, whether that means complete transparency within the group when it comes to finances, membership, rotating leadership, as well as working towards having an actors’ fund for whenever one of our members is in need. And most importantly holding ourselves accountable as a group to being anti-racist. We just completed a run of our first full length play, meant for the stage and translated to Zoom, and we’ll be continuing to put on nights of short plays on Zoom to keep the community connected.
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?
I might have begun to touch on this earlier, but I can’t think of anything more important than representation on our screens. When we support a wide diversity of people, characters, stories, we’re saying those stories matter. When we makes sure children can grow up seeing themselves on screen, we ensure that they know they and their stories matter, too. That their faces, existence, lives matter. When I watch stories of those who are different from me, I learn to value lives that are different than mine, to respect them, and simply to even acknowledge their existence. If we allow diversity in representation, we are gifting all of us, enriching all of us.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The first: Everything actually does happen when it’s meant to. I applied to grad school twice. The first time, I didn’t get into my program of choice, so I waited and applied again, of course feeling totally inadequate. When I got accepted, it was so clearly the class I was meant to be in and the people I was meant to learn with, as well as the time I was meant to be there. I wouldn’t have been ready before. And being ready has led me to all of the amazing experiences that followed.
The second thing would probably be, if you can’t make up your mind over some decision, you likely do know the answer to that decision, it’s just hard to make that choice. I can think of so many times that happened for me, where my gut was telling me what to do, but I tried to ignore my gut because I was scared about what that choice meant. It’s just the eternal lesson of learning to trust your gut.
Third thing — there’s power in saying no to a job. As an actor, I’ve often told myself that “beggars can’t be choosers,” that we have to get work to be seen, which will then lead to more work, so it’s important to just say yes to whatever job comes your way. There’s certainly truth and importance to just saying yes and diving in. Of course there is. But there’s also a lot of power in saying no, and taking control over what you want your career to be. The auditions I’ve passed on have helped form my idea of myself and my career as much as the auditions I’ve gone in for.
Fourth, being an actor doesn’t mean you just act. Being an actor means you might have several different ways you express yourself and your artistry and fill your time. I think it’s easy to think of yourself as a failure if you somehow don’t only make money as an actor, or don’t only express yourself as an actor. That acting and only acting should fulfill every part of you. But we have to give ourselves permission to be full and well rounded humans. Only that will make us full and well rounded characters.
And finally, and very simply, leave your home by 10AM every day. Even if it’s just to run an errand for five minutes, drop something in the mailbox, whatever. We won’t always have structure, and no matter how productive my day has been, it often feels like it’s a bust if 6PM rolls around and I have’t left the apartment. Get out by 10AM.
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.
The things that immediately come to mind are for my heart and mind — a few years ago my partner, who happens to be a cinematographer, lent me one of his point and shoot film cameras to snap pictures with while I was hanging out with some friends. Actors know that we won’t always be in front of a camera or on stage doing what is, in a more technical sense, our “job.” But as I touched on before, there are so many more forms of expression, communication, and most importantly, human connection, that are part of that same job. Without those things, connection and expression, I can find myself depleted and heartbroken. And the camera has become one of those vessels of connection for me. It’s routine now for me to set up a shoot with a friend, often times another actor, engage them in a conversation — and get as intimate as I can — and take pictures of them. Recently, I asked a beloved actor friend if we could use her roof to do a shoot outdoors (so she could take off her mask and keep distanced), and I asked her to imagine herself engaging in the very job we’re longing for since Covid quieted our entire industry. So I asked her to imagine herself on stage in front of an audience, what did it smell like, sound like, what did the air feel like. And I snapped pictures as she let her imagination run. In that moment, I got to travel with her, to imagine with her. I got to see the things she was seeing. I wanted to share in that longing. I wanted to share in that connection. In acting, I get to learn something new about what it is to be human. In these photoshoots, I find that I get to do the same thing.
And even more simply, my heart needs fiction. I read. My imagination expands, my heart expands, I like to think my ability to experience empathy expands. I need — I think we all need — to hear the voices of other people in our heads. They teach us how to feel.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a quote from Guillaume Apollinaire, and it goes like this:
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, We will fall!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”
This quote brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it. It reminds me to hope and to trust. This is what the career of an actor is, being brave enough to leap even in the face of self doubt, in fear. I mean, that’s just what an audition is, for starters! But I think this quote, this little story, is also what life is. Wouldn’t it be so much more beautiful to embrace a chance to fly than to be held back by fear? Inevitably in life, we’re going to experience a lot of fear, and a lot of pain. But I don’t want to miss out on the beauty because of that. This reminds me to leap, for the possibility of that beauty.
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 don’t want to inspire a new one as much as encourage people to learn, join, and participate in the Black Lives Matter movement. Follow the three women who started BLM, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, on social media. Learn from them, listen to them. Donate money if you can. Don’t be afraid to be wrong and make mistakes, because again, that’s how we learn and how we grow. I bring up this specific movement because it actually encompasses so much. If we fight for justice, equality, and freedom for Black people, for Black womxn, for Black Trans lives, we actually fight for all of us. We fight against White Supremacy, we fight against the Patriarchy. That is freedom for us all, men, women, non-binary. And this encompasses environmental racism, too, and to combat that, we fight for a healthier environment and planet. For us all.
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!
At the moment, Sasha Velour from Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Lately, I’ve been watching her iconic lip syncs daily, sometimes before I go to sleep. It feels like just the right medicine to watch someone express so much, feel so much. Again, I think that’s how we connect. And during a time so lacking in connection — be it every-day and physical, or through a performance on set or stage — seeing someone feel so much, share so much, makes me feel like I’m able to open up through catharsis and feel, too. It reminds me to be brave.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on both Instagram and twitter as @Rosagilmo.
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!