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Funny, yet serious, to the core: The Amber Ruffin story

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Add Amber Ruffin to the roster of folks with Omaha roots to find success beyond here in stage-screen-media. The writer-performer got her start in theater and improvisation in her native Omaha. After years honing her craft with major improv troupes around he U.S. and abroad, she broke onto the national scene by joining the writing staff and cast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014. She also has a presence on Comedy Central. She’s working on developing her own TV show and she recently co-wrote a new stage adaptation of “The Wiz.”

For the second year in a row Ruffin has come home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event (this year’s iteration is today from Noon to 2 p.m. at Slowdown).

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue of The Omaha Star (https://theomahastar.com)

NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gives more than lip service to diversity thanks to Omaha native Amber Ruffin, a writer-performer on the New York-based show.

She’s a singular presence for her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues. She became the first black female writer in U.S. late night network television when she joined the staff in 2014. It marked her national debut. But she’s no newcomer. She comes from a deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury” she calls out newsmakers for everything from their stupid attire to their ugly rhetoric to their heinous acts. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (hate) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

The writer-actress headlines the Sunday, November 25 Inclusive Communities (IC) FriendsGiving at Slowdown.

Her high-energy performances sometimes find her flitting across stage as cameras try tracking her. While she can be serious when making a point, her default personality is sweet, silly, manic. She was voted Class Clown at Omaha Benson High School,

It seems this dynamo hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“You think I’m a happy person, whoo-whee, my parents are really happy,” said Amber, whose mother was voted Class Clown at her high school in Savannah, Georgia.

As a kid, Amber used humor to deflect the hurtful things classmates said about her then-homely looks. Nobody thinks the vivacious Ruffin is homely anymore.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day to day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Her folks, Theresa and James Ruffin, are both from the South, They met at Offutt Air Fore Base while serving in the military. They later ran their own business, T and J Daycare Centers. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. She’ll be with family over the holiday when she comes home for the IC event. It’s her second year in a row doing it.

IC Executive Director Maggie Wood said Ruffin’s humor is appreciated by the organization.

“We know how heavy this work can be and the levity of laughter makes us a little more resilient to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.”

Instead of a stand-up set or a speech, Ruffin will engage in conversation with the IC team on stage in response to some loosely scripted questions.

“Our donors, volunteers and supporters all know we need to face this work head on. That’s exactly what Amber does in her commentary. We’re so excited to have her back,” Wood said.

Growing up, Ruffin acutely felt Omaha’s lack of diversity.

“I remember just wanting there to be more me, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I’ve seen how important it is to have a place where you feel like you can belong and I’m also quite jealous of it because I’ve never had just a place like that where you can be as you as you want to be.”

Theresa Ruffin said dealing with Omaha’s lack of diversity “was challenging to say the least.” When she worked at Peter Kiewit Corp. for a year, she said, “I was the only black person in the building.”

Though Amber didn’t have any immediate show business role models, she gravitated to performing. She played piano at Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church. She also developed an early love of theater.

“I just love musicals,” she said.

She got the bug playing Princess Winnifred in a Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress.

“I just spent so much time watching theater and doing a lot of theater that everything I love is theater-based.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Amber said. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

“Many people believe The Wiz has the best music of any musical. I am one of those people. It was also rare to see a show with an all black cast that has nothing to be with being black. Often times, black people have to talk about their experience with being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy.”

She’s contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at the 11,000-seat Muny amphitheater in St. Louis.

“I rewrote the words with the original writer (William F. Brown) who is 91 in April. I have written a few musicals and my love of The Wiz is no secret. We’re going to take it on tour and see how close to Broadway we can get.

“One of the things that stands out to me about our version is that it is timeless. The original Wiz is very much of that era, like many rewrites since. I wanted our Wiz to never have to be rewritten again. It could be from this year, or 20 years ago or 20 years from now.”

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

“I just always assumed because it’s the funnest thing to write, everybody was writing musicals. But it turns out not a lot of people are. So, yeah, I’ll do it.”

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

“I can sing just fine, but I don’t know that I’d ever be in a musical, unless I wrote one for myself.”

 

 

She honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

“We had the best time. It’s how I learned that I love improv. To be a good improviser, you just have to trust whoever you’re improvising with. If you treat them like a genius, you’ll both end up looking good.”

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – where she worked with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“Boom Chicago was terrifying and it was bad for awhile and there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep trying to survive. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a lot of money. So there were times when I wanted to go home so bad, But I just had to stay. Thank God I did because it turned out great.”

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

“Because they think I’m great because they’re my parents, they were like, ‘You’re excellent and soon        everyone will be able to see that.’ That was very sweet of them.”

Ironically, she met her Dutch husband, Jan, in America. The couple struggled in L.A. for a period. She feels it only made them stronger.

“I did a lot of my own projects. I wrote musicals, made a bunch of funny videos and really did what I wanted to do. Financially, I struggled, but I also had a great time.”

An unsuccessful “SNL” audition was soon followed by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers hiring her.

“Those two things happened within days of each other,” Theresa Ruffin recalled. “Amber was very down about ‘SNL’ and over the moon when Seth called.”

Going from improv to “Late Night” has been seamless for Amber. “I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. “I vastly prefer a live audience to just being in front of a camera alone. Improvisers make a thousand corrections a minute every performance until they figure out what the audience likes. You can do that with scripted material, too.”

Being the designated comic who outs racism, narcissism and mendacity, she said, is “this odd space to exist in.”

“I kind of feel like if I don’t say it people might feel desperate and insane. I have to be like, Okay, the president said that, and that’s cuckoo, and you do not have to accept it  It sounds silly but it feels so good to have an adult say you’re a human being and you shouldn’t be treated like this. Until you hear it from someone you do not know and have never met,

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Theresa Ruffin loves that her daughter echoes what many black Americans feel. “She says most of the things we are already thinking.”

Every time Amber outs someone’s misbehavior, her mother said it’s cause to shout, “THAT’S OUR GIRL.”

As brutally honest as Amber is on “Late Night,” she must deal with network censors, which is why she feels she was “rowdier and took more chances” doing improv.

On her way up, she met one of her biggest influences, Whoopi Goldberg. “She’s great,” Ruffin said.

Amber’s close friend since childhood, Kristina Haecke of Omaha, said watching her bestie’s breakthrough has been “awesome and great but mostly it has been completely expected..” Haecke insists fame hasn’t changed Ruffin, calling her “very down to earth” and “almost too calm about it.”

Grounded, too. “Her on-screen is her off-screen, just with a platform,” said Haecke.

Fame hasn’t changed Ruffin’s lifestyle. Yet. “Maybe someone recognizes me on the street once a week. No one cares. So when someone says, ‘Hey, Amber.’ I still think it’s pretty neat.”

Her celebrity may grow should a new TV show she’s trying to get off the ground escapes the development hell that befell her previous attempts as a producer.

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it, but I’m going to because I don’t know what the rules are. I have a show called ‘Village Gazette,’ which is the third show I’ve sold to NBC. The premise of it is I am the editor of a small town newspaper in Benson, Nebraska. The owner’s nephew is a big shot reporter fallen from grace after making up a story that people find out is false. He gets fired and this is the only job he can get and he doesn’t want to be in this small town. But then he realizes we’re not so bad.”

Her “boatload of other projects” includes movie scripts she’s’ writing. She also pulls duty on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

By now, she’s mostly over having cracked the glass ceiling in late night, though she feels she did strike a blow for inclusion.

“What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them because there is.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Tickets to FriendsGiving with Amber Ruffin are $25 and include one drink and heavy hors d’oeuvres..The event is from Noon to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org for more details and to purchase tickets.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The following story appeared in advance of the diva’s April 21 concert with the Omaha Symphony but after attending the show I can now report that she and her band in performance with the orchestra were off-the-chain that night. I have always admired Vanessa Williams for her beauty but I never followed closely or even casually her singing and acting career and so I never really formed an opinion about her as a performing artist. Well, count me as a convert to her immense talent after thoroughly enjoying her vocal artistry and stage presence. She delivered a world-class performance to the delight of the diverse crowd on hand. Her voice, her range and her stage craft and command are as good as anything I’ve ever witnessed live. This was her first performance in Omaha and I certainly hope it’s not her last.

 

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams, 55, brings a regal serenity wherever she goes.

The always put-together Tony, Grammy, Emmy nominee makes her metro debut headlining the April 21 Omaha Symphony Gala Concert at Holland Performing Arts Center. For the 8 p.m. gig benefiting the symphony’s community engagement programs serving youth, she’ll sing her own hit tunes (“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind”) as well as American Songbook classics.

She looks forward to a backstage visit from an uncle who lives in Omaha.

The Broadway musical star, concert hall veteran, recording artist, film-television player and humanitarian has won multiple NAACP Image Awards.

“I’ve felt the embrace of the African-American community from the get-go – besides incidents where people felt I wasn’t black enough,” she said.

She’s proud of her behind-the-scenes reputation as a steadying influence.

“I’m usually the leader of calm. People say when I’m a part of an ensemble, it’s a calm and happy set. I know how to deal with people. I don’t like drama and I don’t engage.”

Thirty-four years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing. In February, she appeared in the New York City Center Encores production Hey, Look Me Over. She sang a tune idol Lena Horne originated in the show Jamaica.

Here, Williams will interpret standards immortalized by Horne and other icons.

She recently completed a three-week Asian tour. Then she went to Dallas to shoot an ABC episodic dramedy pilot, First Profits, about women cosmetics moguls. If picked-up, it will mark her fourth ABC series, following Ugly Betty,Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue.

“It’s kind of like going back home. The character I play is a force to be reckoned with. I’m excited.”

She loves moving from one genre to another.

“It’s great because it exercises a lot of different muscles for me. It never gets stale and I get a chance to reach different audiences. Playing a small jazz club I can do some intimate, personal stuff. Doing a symphony concert allows beautiful, lush orchestrations I don’t get to hear all the time, so for me it’s a special treat. Then acting behind a camera, I get a chance to step into another character.

“The reason I get to do so many things is that I take care of my voice, I’m professional, I show up on time, I know my material. That’s how you have longevity in this business – being prepared and dependable.”

Performing is play. Preparing to play, especially doing eight shows a week on Broadway, can be a grind.

“The biggest effort is getting to the theater and going through the process of putting on your makeup and costume, especially when you’re exhausted or your voice doesn’t feel right or you’re dealing with distractions. Once you hear the downbeat, then it all goes away. You feel the electricity from the audience, the camaraderie of the cast, and it’s easy.”

The mother of four, who successfully manages her Type 1 diabetes, said she consciously “doesn’t try” striking a positive image but instead projects her authentic self.

“I think it’s a byproduct of who you are. I am who I am and I’m lucky I had great parents who instilled great values in me and I get a chance to demonstrate that. I think it’s also reflected in my children (one of her daughter’s is singer-actress Jillian Hervey).”

In 2012, she and her mother, Helen Williams, released a memoir they co-authored, You Have No Idea, in which Vanessa revealed being molested by a woman as a child. Though raised Catholic, she got an abortion as a teen. She became “a trailblazer” as the first black Miss America, only to have erotic photos she posed for published without her consent. Stripped of her crown, she recovered from the scandal.

“I’m seen as a survivor after being famous overnight at 20 and then having to create a career when, within 11 months, it all changed drastically. It shows fortitude, perseverance, talent. That’s what’s revered. That’ll never go away. That’s a badge of honor I continue to carry.”

She supports today’s women’s advocacy movements born from sexual harassment allegations against men, including some prominent film-TV-music figures.

“I know these are very positive and strong women helping to bring awareness to the issues,” she said.

She cautions branding all men with a broad-brush.

“I don’t want an attitude where every man is bad, a threat, a predator, untrustworthy. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented, wonderful, warm men – producers, directors, writers, actors – who are my good friends.”

She weathered divorce from NBA player-turned-actor Rick Fox – the father of three of her children.

She married businessman Jim Skrip in 2015.

Williams has come to represent what black women she admires symbolize.

“Lena Horne, Diahnn Carroll, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt.

All legendary women stellar in their career and active with civil rights. Their own personal struggles were such lessons for us and our generation. They paved the way.”

She’s a nurturing “mother bear” to younger artists.

“I’m always the one everyone comes to for advice. I love to connect people and make things happen.”

She’s encouraged by how many women of color have become creative forces behind the camera

“Progress is definitely apparent in movies and television,

Certainly, there’s plenty of opportunity now, which is fantastic.”

She’s may even direct one day.

Meanwhile, she despairs America’s divide. “The hate speak and the divisiveness,” she said, “is just really saddening”

Escape with her in music on the 21st.

For tickets, visit omahasymphony.org.

Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

gabrielleunion1

 

Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from “The Get Down” to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

October 18, 2016 1 comment

Dope actress Yolonda Ross from Omaha gave me some love for the new Reader (http://thereader.com)) article I wrote about her, her recurring role as a teacher in “The Get Down” and an inspirational teacher in her life–

“Hey Leo!! I saw The Reader. It looks great. Thanks for including the part about Mrs. Owens. She meant a lot to a lot of people. Thanks for the nice spread in The Reader.”

Just now featuring it on my blog, leoadambiga.com, where you can find several more pieces I’ve written about Yolonda as well as Gabrielle Union, John Beasley and dozens of other Omaha native screen and stage stars.

Love the photo of Yo going all glam. How about you? She’s that rare actress who can transform herself from role to role and go from high to low, serious to silly, hard to soft in a heartbeat.

 

Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from “The Get Down” to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in October 2016 issue of The Reader (http://thereader.com)

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From bowling alley to Broadway and back

August 27, 2016 2 comments

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba

From bowling alley to Broadway and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com.

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Model-turned-actress Jaime King comes home for screening of film she wrote and directed, “Latch Key,” atOmaha Film Festival

March 1, 2012 2 comments

When Jaime King made the move from modeling to acting I tried getting an interview with her in early-mid 2000s but I never got a response from her handlers.  I guess I always figured I would catch up with one way or the other, and as fate would have it she’s coming to me in the sense that she’s coming back to our shared hometown of Omaha with a film she wrote and directed, Latch Key, which means she’s predisposed to promoting it.  Thus, I finally got my interview with her.  It was worth the wait.  She has a great story and it turns out she’s very serious about the writing-directing track she’s on.  It also turns out she gets back to Omaha, where all her family lives, with great frequency, which means she’s been closer than I thought all these years.  I should note by the way that the Omaha Film Festival is an ever-growing event that increasingly lands major industry figures.  In addition to King’s appearance, the fest is rightfully touting appearances by screenwriter Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man), actress Famke Janssen, who’s apeparing with her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, and actor Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill).  This blog is full of my stories on film.  Look for my Q&A with Ostby in an upcoming post.

Jaime King
Model-turned-actress Jaime King comes home for screening of  film she wrote and directed, “Latch Key,” at Omaha Film Festival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In the 1990s Omaha native Jaime King‘s fresh face and lithe body graced the runway fantastic for the likes of Gucci and Alexander McQueen in New York and around the globe. She did provocative shoots for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other trendy mags. She appeared in music videos. She was a Revlon girl in the same media campaign as Halle Berry and Eva Mendes.

Heady stuff for a girl in her mid-teens who left Westside High School to pursue The Dream. She actually began modeling at Nancy Bounds Studios here. A New York agent discovered her at a fashion graduation show.

But when King comes for the Omaha Film Festival this weekend she’s arriving not as a model or actress – the career she’s known for today – but as a filmmaker. She’s appearing with a “deeply personal” dramatic short she wrote and directed titled Latch Key. She shot the movie in and around Omaha last winter, using local youth actors alongside industry veterans, including her husband, director Kyle Newman (Fanboys, The Crazies), who’s also one of the film’s producers.

Latch Key shows as part of a short film block on March 9 that starts at 6:15 p.m.

This writer-director thing is no passing fancy. The directing bug bit her in her teens and she angled for years to make her own films, debuting with the short The Break-In (2011). She now has several film projects in development, including a feature she co-wrote, Polar Seasons, that her good friend Selma Blair (who appears in Break-In) may co-star in. King’s interest in writing – she pens a style column for the Huffington Post – goes even further back, to her childhood in Omaha.

“Before I went to Westside it wasn’t that easy for me. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like a jock or a cheerleader or your typical type of kid in that way. I went through a lot of bullying in school. So I wrote a lot and that really helped me to get my feelings and emotions out. All I did was read and write, that was all I really cared about. I so immersed myself in all of these creative things.

“Writing for me has always been the most freeing part of my life.”

At 14 she turned to the pen when her boyfriend at the time died. That experience informs Latch Key, whose young protagonist, Emma, deals with a sudden loss.

“It comes from me having this experience of being young and losing someone very suddenly, and waking up not understanding how the world can continue when your whole world feels like its been shattered.”

 
Jaime King as Goldie in Sin City 

 

 

Having to grow up fast the way she did informs another script she’s looking to develop, Life Guard.

“I write a lot about coming-of-age and what it’s like to grow up very quickly and how to handle that type of thing. I guess I’m inspired by what we have to go through to become adults or to make our way in this world, but I guess all good stories are about figuring out who you really are.”

Once considered an infant terrible and party girl, she’s many years sober after battling a substance abuse problem. She long ago made the successful transition from modeling to screen acting (Happy Campers, Blow, Pearl Harbor, Slackers, Two for the Money, Sin City). She has major roles in a pair of films due for a 2012 release: Pardon and Mother’s Day. She also stars in the CW comedy Hart of Dixie.

Does she harbor regrets about having gotten swept up in the high-pressure model subculture, with its ultra-thin obsession, stealing away as it did part of her youth?

“Not at all. I feel very blessed, I feel everything that’s happened in my life has been perfectly on track for me, through the ups and the downs, through everything, and I feel so incredibly lucky that I was discovered and that my parents stuck with me and made a difficult decision to let their young daughter go off into a big world.

“Through modeling I got to travel all over the world and I got to meet some of the most amazing people, and I was smart, I saved my money and I knew I wanted to go into filmmaking.”

Besides, being a model was her idea from the start. Always interested in fashion, style, photography and film, she set out to get noticed, make it to New York and use this platform as a springboard to a film career.

“I wanted to live a very creative life and not necessarily taking the traditional route of going straight through high school and onto college. I just didn’t feel that was right for me. I needed to be doing something creative. It may seem odd for someone that age but I just knew that was my direction.

“As an adult now looking back I feel a lot compassion and gratitude towards my parents for letting me foliow my dreams.”

Poster for Jaime King’s film, Latch Key 

 

 

King’s made it all happen, too, though walking away from lucrative modeling gigs didn’t set well with her entourage.

“When I told them I was quitting modeling at the height of my career people weren’t happy about that because they were making a lot of money off of me, but I was lucky to have some people who were supportive.”

She still does fashion spreads.

Of the high profile film roles she landed right out of the gate, she says, “It was just one thing after another and I think it happened because I never doubted myself, I went into it thinking that’s what I was meant to do.”

Acting’s worked out better for her than it has for many former top models. And as much as she finds that career satisfying she needs more to feed her creativity.

“I don’t feel completely whole just doing that. I feel whole when I’m writing and directing and acting, when I’m creating material and stories that I feel should be told and will move and entertain people,” she says. “As a creative person you just want to create.”

She could have made Latch Key anywhere but she felt pulled to do it in her hometown, where her entire family still lives and where she gets back to visit a few times a year.

“I have a really romantic view of where I was born and raised,” she says. “I have these very distinctive memories of every single season in Omaha and what it felt like to grow up there and to have a space of your own where you could run along the train tracks and be out in a park or farm by yourself or yet be in the Old Market and go find a great record or comic book or see a great show or concert.

“So much of my creativity started there, and I feel like there’s a great creative community there. I just really want to honor that.”

Jaime King in Hart of Dixie 

 

 

Her sister, Sandi King Larson, put up Jaime, her husband and two fellow producers and let her home stand-in as Emma’s dwelling.

King says she received excellent cooperation from Young Filmmakers In Nebraska in filling out the crew and from Ralston Public Schools officials in letting her use Ralston High School as a location. King had an inside woman there in her sister, who works at the school. The head of Ralston’s drama department, Todd Uhrmacher, helped King cast via Skype auditions-interviews. Alexis Jegeris, who plays Emma, is among several Ralston students in the film.

King says she was impressed by how her young cast “were really willing to go there for a film that’s very honest and raw and real,” adding, “I cant’ wait to come back for the film festival to show the kids what a beautiful job they did.”

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