Rising Star Cynthia Gray: “Do not be in a situation where you ‘need’ to book a job in order to make rent”
Realize that when people say it takes a while, it really does take a while. My mom had warned me how it takes years to really climb a ladder unless you’re incredibly lucky. Patience is not my virtue, so I wanted to prove her wrong. Of course, she was right. This business takes time. People have to get used to seeing your name and your face pop up before calling you in, then booking you. It’s a long game, not something where you can just jump into it and get leading roles. Again, unless you’re incredibly lucky. If that’s how it was for you, hi, hello, want to pick out some lotto numbers for me?
As a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Gray.
Cynthia Gray is an award-winning actor and writer. She has appeared in several films, TV shows, theatre productions, commercials, and more. Her writing has been published in Burnt Pine Magazine and the Strand Zine, and her scripts have been produced into films and plays that have shown in various festivals across the country.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I actually never thought about acting as a career for myself. My mom’s an actor, always going off to shoots and popping up on TV, so to me it just seemed like a regular job any parent would have, and not something special. I did school plays and a couple of little shoots, but was always much more interested in writing until my mom suggested we do a show together. We lived near this gorgeous regional theatre, restored to its original 1920s splendor; I’d seen a couple of shows there when I was a kid; I never thought about performing there myself or what would go into shows of that caliber. My mom and I auditioned for the show, a production of Ragtime, and got cast in the ensemble. I had only done one musical prior to this, at my high school, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. The rehearsals, the costumes, the stage, everything was so much more than I had ever imagined a show to be. I knew, during the Act One finale on opening night, with all of us just having finished belting out that final note, as the curtain started to come down and the audience was giving a standing ovation, that I was hooked.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
A while back I worked as a background actor on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I had submitted to work on the show, because come on look at those costumes, and was eventually booked to be a waitress. I arrived at the fitting knowing they’d give me a period haircut, and they cut it on-site before they’d even let me into the room to try on costumes. Best haircut of my life! Anyway, when the day of filming came, I got to set and found out apparently I was one of only two waitresses. I had thought I was going to be working as a diner waitress, one of a slew. Instead, it was just me and a waitress who actually had lines. That didn’t stop them from using me a lot more than I had expected. We did a few takes and someone called for the make-up team to touch me up. I realized I was the focus of the establishing shot. It was a tracking shot, following me as I walked by with a tray of drinks. I was shocked that I was being featured like that. How had I nabbed this scene? I’d never even carried a tray of drinks before! I made the cut and got a cute little snippet for my reel.
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?
The mistake that makes me laugh most is the time I complimented Aaron Tveit’s shoes without realizing he was the star of the show — or even recognizing him. So! Another time I did background work was for the show Brain Dead. It was for a big gala scene and I got to wear a pretty dress. Hey, I might prefer jeans and no make-up most days, but the occasion to be all dolled up by a team of talented professionals? Yes please! So, there we all were, milling about as they set up a different shot and I saw someone dancing around a bit in these super cool saddles shoes. With nothing else to do, I went up to the guy and complimented them. He thanked me and said he couldn’t take the credit since it was the wardrobe department who provided them. Upon looking at him, I realized he was a principal and didn’t know if I was actually allowed to be talking to him, so I said something awkward like how they were still cool and wandered off. You know, like a regular adult. Lesson learned? No one is going to fire you for having a regular conversation with someone. Also, I tried to get shoes like that after and I did not pull them off anywhere near as well.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
With us all being in quarantine, I don’t have many projects in the works right now, though I’ve been keeping busy with self-tapes and voiceovers. Personally, the project that is exciting me the most right now is my Let’s Play channel. It’s been a great way to learn editing skills which I’ve been using for my own little productions I’ve been filming while stuck inside. I’ve also gotten back into working on art and music. They may not be acting projects, but you never know what kinds of skills are going to be required for a role!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
This almost feels like cheating because he’s actually a family friend, but I have to plug the voice-acting all-star Rob Paulsen. He is one of the nicest, most genuine persons I have ever met. He and my mom went to high school together, and so I’ve met him a few times. The first time we met was backstage at New York Comic Con where I happened to run into him. My mom had always said he was a nice guy, yet it still blew me away how sweet he is. Truly an amazing person, and it was great to see that someone who is so insanely successful is also so humble and so grateful.
For other interesting people, gosh, there’s a bit of a list. I worked for years as an events coordinator at a major store where we hosted a lot of celebrities. I did love meeting and presenting Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles at The Town Hall; I’d always been a huge Ben Folds fan and Sara Bareilles’ music has moved me over the years. They were super cool.
One of the nicest persons I met was Kim-Joy from The Great British Bake-Off and her partner Nabil. I got to interview Kim-Joy for an event at Strand Book Store, and those two are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Kim-Joy had said she had been nervous before we started, but she looked so relaxed and at ease; a real pro! I think I was more nervous than her since I had just gotten over being sick and my voice sounded so scratchy and bad, haha!
Finally, one of the most interesting groups I interacted with was probably Taylor Saracen, Joey Mills, and Cameron Parks, three sweethearts. Taylor had written a book based on Joey’s life, and Cameron was overseeing the book tour. For anyone unaware, Joey and Cameron are adult entertainers. I had met people in similar businesses before, but never this, so while I expected them to be regular people; I wasn’t sure what kind of a crowd would come. This was another event where I was the interlocutor, my first in fact, and before we started I peeked out at the audience. It was…mostly old men, at least at first. Considering Joey looked about ten, it was a bit of an interesting crowd to draw, but to each their own? After the event, one of the guests approached Joey and Taylor with gifts, a college-aged girl. She had brought some beautiful custom name stamps for them and had them stamp sign a book she had. It was definitely not what I had expected, though it was also one of the cutest things. I don’t know what I thought the audience would be for a porn star, but a young fangirl being precious and bringing amazing gifts was not what I had expected.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I always try to vary what projects I’m doing. I love both being on camera and on stage and love jumping between the two to try and keep things fresh, along with going between different genres. I also make sure I do personal projects, like making a video game YouTube channel or writing scripts. By doing different things it not only keeps me energized, but it also helps me from feeling like I’m not doing enough. I’m sure most actors have dealt with self-doubt, bad auditions, or not booking for a while, and by keeping busy with side projects it not only helps keep me going, but also makes conversations more interesting when I get back in front of a casting director or an agent since I can always talk about a long list of stuff I’ve been up to.
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? Kindly share a story or an example for each.
A couple of years ago, I bought a fold-up treadmill. I had moved recently and missed walking in the park, but also didn’t like being limited by the weather or what hours I was available to exercise. I had never been into running, but had read even something simple like power walking can do the body a lot of good, so I started doing that. I never thought I’d fall in love with my treadmill, but boy have I! I love how beneficial and therapeutic it is. Getting on my treadmill after a bad day or whenever I gorged on too many cookies just completely changes my mood and energy levels.
Another way I love to workout is through learning K-Pop dance routines. I got into K-Pop about ten years ago; I remember seeing some clips of these dancing idols and thinking their routines looked fun, so I started looking up tutorials and attempting them in my bedroom. Nowadays I still may not be a real dancer, but my movement has improved and I always feel so accomplished once I learn a new routine.
I also read and play video games regularly. It’s refreshing to fall into other people’s stories and can help inspire me in my own craft. Another inspiring hobby is playing Dungeons and Dragons. Not only it is a great time amongst a group of friends, but the fact that we’re all actors who try to develop our characters as much as possible makes it a great way to hone our acting skills in a safe and fun environment.
I think doing anything, any sort of hobby that allows one to escape for a while, is really important in order to take care of oneself.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1 — Take classes and develop a strong foundation. This is basic, yet it was still a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Coming from an entertainment household and having worked a fair chunk of jobs before moving to the city made me think I had enough preparation to dive right into the world of acting professionally in a big city. Boy was I wrong. I flopped around for a while, getting small gigs and fumbling through auditions before I realized I needed to get serious and get into some classes. Having a truly solid foundation for acting is absolutely essential.
2 — Realize that when people say it takes a while, it really does take a while. My mom had warned me how it takes years to really climb a ladder unless you’re incredibly lucky. Patience is not my virtue, so I wanted to prove her wrong. Of course, she was right. This business takes time. People have to get used to seeing your name and your face pop up before calling you in, then booking you. It’s a long game, not something where you can just jump into it and get leading roles. Again, unless you’re incredibly lucky. If that’s how it was for you, hi, hello, want to pick out some lotto numbers for me? ;P
3 — I’ve always suggested that recent grads try to book a tour before signing a lease if they can. I came to NYC having never been here before; I just knew I had to go to a big city in order to climb ranks and succeed, so I took a 14 hour greyhound bus to Manhattan with one week to find a place. Before I left I had signed a lease and applied to day jobs. I then drove a 16’ moving van with all of my possessions in it out here and moved in for two weeks before flying back to Ohio to partake in one last show in my beloved hometown theatre. After that, I was here and I had bills because New York is expensive, so I had to get a day job. That day job, while somewhat flexible, hindered me from getting more work for many years. While I regret starting my life in the city strapped down by a fulltime job, I still got a decent amount of work for someone who got into acting after college and is making progress every day.
4 — Try making connections and figure out the lay of the land before you arrive in the city. I moved here with a full resume and an agent; unfortunately, that agent had no New York coverage or connections. I knew no one here, and had no idea who to trust or who to talk to. My mother had been L.A.-based, so while she had some general information and tips, New York was a different market, so it was quite a learning experience.
5 — Do not be in a situation where you “need” to book a job in order to make rent. Okay, this one I knew, yet I still fell for it. This lesson is typically used when an actor is so stressed about having enough money for bills that they end up messing up their audition; I learned it more another way. I had just arrived in New York, hadn’t secured a job to cover rent, and got booked to be a model. Now, I am not the model type, being a bit too short and curvy, yet I actually do book work every once and awhile. This job was for a girl who needed to be seen laughing. Easy enough, right? So, I submitted, got the job, showed up, and met the director and the cameraperson. The cameraperson mentioned something about video and I asked what that was about since this was just supposed to be a photo shoot. Turns out it was a foot fetish video. The director had completely lied about the job. I was uncomfortable and scared, yet all I could think about was how I needed the money. So I did a take. I let the director, who was also my co-star apparently, strap me into these medieval stocks and tickle my feet. After the first take, I told them I couldn’t do this. No judgment for people who are into it, but I just couldn’t do it. The director was livid, but the cameraperson completely understood, even apologizing for the director having lied about the content of the job. Had I not been so desperate for money, I wouldn’t have even done the one take. They said they deleted the footage, but I still wonder… Lesson learned!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Short cuts make long delays.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Trying to rush into acting was a silly mistake. Taking classes and doing tours before I came to New York would have helped so much and really made a huge difference. Granted, I was young(er) and idealistic, having really no idea how things worked, so I took a leap of faith and managed to survive. Now I know that if I want to do this and succeed, I have to do it right, even if it takes more time and much more work. This career is 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?
My mother! My mother has been such a huge help to me. Not only is she super supportive, but since she’s also an actor, she helps me constantly with all my questions about the industry and shares techniques she’s learned. I cannot count how many times I’ve called her freaking out about something, an audition I have or a script I don’t know how to approach, and have had her walk me through everything, running lines, doing exercises — it’s truly been priceless to have her as a mentor.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
There are so many options. I would really love to see more efforts to lessen pollution. Until we figure out and master terraforming other planets, Earth is all we have, so we have to start making more of an impactful effort to take care of it. Individuals doing their part can help, though what would really make a big difference is getting large companies on board, too, and having them change how production is done so that it lessens the damage being done to the environment. If we can help save the planet, then everyone in the world is helped, too.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to sit down with Anne Hathaway. Ever since The Princess Diaries came out I have been told how much I look like her, and I’d love to see how similar we actually are. It would be a wonderful opportunity to thank her for taking that role because before that movie I always thought I was ugly for not being a blue-eyed blonde. When that movie came out, boy did my life change. All of a sudden I saw that if people could cast this brown-eyed brunette as a beautiful princess, maybe I could be seen that way, too. Plus, she is such a phenomenally talented actor, so getting to know more about her training and any tips would be great.
How can our readers follow you online?
Check me out on Instagram and Twitter! I also have a Let’s Play channel on YouTube where I play video games quite poorly.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!