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TAKING A CHANCE ON LOS ANGELES

(life lessons)

Young Rachael Blackwood on motorcycle photo

Matching my fashion to my transport

“Do all kids dream of being in the movies?”

“Of course they do, it’s nothing special.”

I was seven when I asked that question about my secret dream. The kind of dream you don’t dare admit, not even to your closest friends. The kind of dream that hides in the shame box of your soul, longing to be set free. For me, this dream was always tied to Los Angeles, a far-away fantasy place that couldn’t possibly be real. I don’t know why, maybe I was brainwashed by countless hours of American film and TV, but as long as I’ve wanted to be an actor and a writer, I’ve wanted to make it happen in Los Angeles.

I grew up in a small town in the bush. It was a rough, rural upbringing where sporting prowess reigned supreme, but my parents allowed me to dance and write as long as my school work didn’t suffer. When I left home, I allowed myself to pursue acting, still with a secret eye to Los Angeles, but I never landed a commercial. I had a few bit-parts, a few theater roles, and a couple of lead roles in indie features to my name. The idea of Los Angeles seemed ridiculous. If I couldn’t make it work in Australia, how would I ever survive the cutthroat world of LA?

In 2012, I found myself at a crossroads, treading water as an actor, blocked as a writer, unable to break into the clique inner circle of the Australian industry. I began exploring postgrad training that would lead to a straightforward career, something I could do each day and fall asleep each night feeling as though I’d accomplished something. On a whim, I applied for Howard Fine’s masterclass in Melbourne, and promptly forgot all about it. A few weeks later, I asked a friend about her career in natural medicine. She laughed at me. “Rachael, you’re not going to be any happier doing something else, you’ll just be distracted from your feelings.” That same afternoon, I received an email accepting me into Howard’s masterclass.

I have a strong, visceral memory of the first set of notes Howard ever gave me. Over 150 people sat in the audience of the theater. All eyes on me, my face burning hot, as Howard tells me, “Watch the tendency to make yourself smaller. You want in, this is your chance. You have ambition, you just haven’t had a chance yet.” That’s a direct quote, because I still have the recording. Of course, Howard was talking about the me-within-the-character, but I sat on that stage willing myself not to cry, a deer in 150 headlights, because “Our issues in life are our issues on the stage.”

Today, I know I could have cried in that moment without judgment. That’s the kind of safe space I found in the Howard Fine community. The twist is that I did return to study, but as a member of the Howard Fine full time ensemble for 2013. There’s no hyperbole in the statement that the training changed my life, and I was determined not to let my momentum slip away. I also had a good dose of wanderlust, so after a late-night Google search in early 2014, I whisked myself away to a writer’s retreat in a remote area of Canada, hosted by two producer/writers who happened to run the biggest pitching festival in the world. During the retreat, I wrote a feature film in four days. My hosts read the script and loved it (and for those of you playing at home, it was my first draft for THE VACCINE). They invited me to join them at their pitching festival in Los Angeles, three months later.

Despite my secret dream, I’m not the LA type. I like space. I like quiet. I loathe sushi with a passion. I’m shy. I’m an introvert. I have no idea how to walk up to people and start a conversation, but that’s the beauty of the Howard Fine family. The faculty take care of you, wherever you are in the world, and the studio attracts such a wonderful and warm character of human being, that when I turned up to the LA studio on the second day of my trip, I found myself surrounded by instant, lifelong friends.

Blackwood as the Hollywood sign picture

Amazing sketch by illustrator Kenneth Erickson

I spent three weeks in Los Angeles, and at the end, my secret dream seemed not just reasonable, not just attainable, but the logical next step. I had assumed my writing and acting wasn’t good enough to progress my career further. However, my experience with Howard and my results at the pitching festival proved otherwise, and it finally dawned on me that my stagnating career was a lack of opportunity and network, not talent and skill.

As I built my acting resume to strengthen my visa application, I also entered my scripts in the top six writing contests in Los Angeles. I’m proud to say my writing has had several awards and placements, including a Top Three placement in the Final Draft Big Break. That’s Top 3 from over 7,000 entries. Sidebar: I still can’t get anyone to read my scripts in Australia.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2016 (and then again in 2017, but that’s a story for another time). My LA friends made the transition so much easier and I’ll be eternally grateful to them. Without the gentle urging of the mentors at HFAS, it’s likely I would be stuck at that 2012 crossroads, wondering what I’m doing with my life, trying to force something to fit, making myself small, hiding my ambition, and longing for a chance. Longing for the permission to do what I was being called to do, just like that seven-year-old girl so many years ago. My training brought me full circle and I found my way back to that little girl, and now, when she asks me her secret question, I respond:

“It doesn’t matter what other kids dream about. What do you dream about? Because, darling, you can do anything.”

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