Name: Scarlet Sheppard
Graduating: May, 2014
Major: Theatre (Acting Concentration)
Scarlet sits across from me at the restaurant, wearing a black jacket, collared shirt, and red hat. She’s growing out her pixie cut – hats, she tells me, seem to be the easiest way to avoid bad hair days. Her energy is contagious as she settles in, asking me about my day and what I’ve been up to recently. With such a wide, sincere smile, sweet is the only word that comes to mind.
In the last semester of her schooling here at Columbia College, Scarlet’s schedule is packed full of projects. Just a few weeks ago, she acted in a scene for Senior Showcase. “Graduating seniors audition and twenty are chosen to perform scenes. Columbia invites industry professionals to the show…casting directors, theater companies, talent agents, important people around [Chicago].” This is a chance to impress the big-wigs, to show them how she shines on stage- and she shines quite brightly, in both comedy and drama.
On Saturday, April 26th, she performed in the live sketch-comedy show, Freq Out –put on by Columbia’s own Frequency TV- in front of 250 audience members as well as the 25k people that tuned in to watch it. The theme was Heroes and Villains; Scarlet’s roles included therapist to Batman and the Joker, ‘Murica (America), and Catwoman, among others.
Last semester, Scarlet stared as Ann in the production of All My Sons, directed by Erin Shea Brady . “It’s a very big play that usually only very seasoned adult actors do,” she says. “It’s some people’s favorite American play ever so it’s really scary. And it was kind of crazy to do it with all college students.” She laughs. Scarlet talks about the seriousness of the play and the unexpected reaction during one particular part of the show: “The actor playing my brother, Ian Michael James, says the line, “Kate you look so young.” And in rehearsals we would always laugh because Kate is played by Erin Nedelman who is 21. So we’re like, the audience is going to laugh at that, obviously she’s 21, they’re going to think it’s hilarious. No one laughed during the performance. They took it so seriously; they believed she was older, they believed we were younger.”
“It was a good cast,” she continues. “The director, Erin Shea Brady, was a sweetie.”
Scarlet will be working with Brady again this summer in a reading of Little Voice, the story of a painstakingly shy girl who listens to her deceased father’s records when no one is around, singing in the grand voices the likes of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. LV’s impressions are so spot on that her mother’s boyfriend wants to exploit them and books the reclusive girl a gig. Scarlet, starring as Little Voice, is currently working on getting her impressions ready. She laughs at herself as she tells me she’s been practicing- singing a lot in her studio apartment.
She’s not too worried, though. While she is nervous about getting them right, Scarlet has had plenty of voice training at Columbia, including a voice-over class, which has proven itself helpful on a number of projects, including the independent film White Zombie, a remake of the 1932 movie of the same name which she completed last summer. She had to record her voice separately using ADR (automated dialogue replacement) for a few scenes in the film. “ADR is hard,” she says. “You’re matching your own lips on screen, so you have to make it look like they got it on set. You have to really amp yourself up; you can’t just sit there and expect to sound energetic if you’re not energized. You have to look the way you look on screen, you have to make the same facial expressions, you have to use your arms.” She changes her expressions to match her voice to prove her point. “Doing that- for whatever reason- helps you not sound like a robot.”
Scarlet’s mom, Susan Sheppard, wrote the script for the remake and was involved in the production. “Zombies are so popular right now and my mom is fascinated with that. She’s a folklorist; she loves researching that stuff for fun. She thought, zombies are so popular right now, so, where did they begin?”
Scarlet tells me the history of the original zombie, which came from voodoo in Haiti, where people were drugged into becoming slaves. “It’s very different from [zombies of today] where it is portrayed as a disease that makes them walk the earth forever and bite people and turn them into zombies. My mom wanted to rewrite that and bring in a lot of that voodoo, beautiful, really rich culture and do it on a small budget.”
It’s a feature length film that won’t be in any major theaters, but might show up in independent ones around Ohio, where most of the movie was filmed, and other areas of the midwest. White Zombie is coming out this summer, probably sometime in July. “It may go straight to DVD,” Scarlet says. “It might get picked up at Walmart or something. We’ll see. I could be in the $5 bins at Walmart in two years, which would be awesome.”
One of the things Scarlet loved most about working on the film was the costumes:
“I’ve never been on a set where the costumes weren’t my own clothes that I just brought them home. Actually having a costumer there (Amanda Baker) who had this full-out vision. She did my makeup, she gave me trims on set to keep my pixie-cut looking the same throughout the whole process. It was very professional in that sense. Her costume ideas, the aesthetic, were so different from the original. It’s very imaginative.”
While she doesn’t mind using her own clothes, as it helps with inspiration for her characters, the specific costume changes for White Zombie helped in a new way: “Most of the time I was in a corset, which totally changed the whole zombie thing; it made me very rigid. It was very creepy. And uncomfortable.”
Scarlet loves the stage, but her real passion is film. She’s worked on several student films while at Columbia and will continue to work in the city until the fall, when she plans on moving to L.A. in pursuit of her acting career.
Anne Marie Farrell: What has been the most helpful class at Columbia for your acting career so far?
Scarlet Sheppard: Clowning at Second City. We had a class that taught Physical Theater but for the first half of it we learned clowning taught by this wonderful woman named Jet Eveleth; she’s fabulous and has gotten very close to being on SNL a few times. Clowning is this thing where you don’t speak. You put yourself in this state were you just react, you just live in the moment and completely follow your instincts. It’s like being a little kid; clowning is just like tapping into what you were like when you were two and three and four. You do whatever you want.
[Eveleth] would set up little scenarios. We would warm up and then get into these scenarios where she would, say, put an object in the middle of the room; one group of people is trying to get it and another group of people is trying to get it and we’re all in clown mode so we’re all trying to get at this object. Crazy things would happen: people would start to cry (not for real, crocodile tears), we would tease each other, jump around, be hilarious. Also, if someone got sad all of a sudden for some reason, you’d just be sad, just let that happen. It’s teaching you to be in the moment, hold back judgment, just do whatever feels right. Following your instincts. Some people don’t do that when they act, they think they have to analyze it. While that is true, you’re an actor for a reason, you’re an intuitive person; do what you think is right, don’t over-think it and it will look real. Clowning helps you get into your body, too, so you’re not just a talking head, standing there and talking really loud.
It really helped with film because when you’re clowning you have to pay attention to the other person and not think about your own face. If you’re thinking about what you look like, you’re not concentrating on that person. On film, it’s very obvious when you’re thinking about your face…you do things that aren’t natural No one thinks about their face in real life, you think about the other person and how they’re affected.
Clowning was through the Comedy Studies program at Second City, which Columbia students have the option of doing during their junior or senior years.
AMF: Has there been anything that you’ve auditioned for that you haven’t gotten that you’ve really wanted?
SS: Yes! I really wanted to be in a main-stage before I left Columbia and it’s just never worked out. Because of scheduling and also because of casting. I had this really big idea of doing this musical main-stage, but I’m not a singer really- I sing, but I’m not a great singer. So I thought, “Wouldn’t this be great if I whipped out this singing voice, no one knows that I sing and then just be a lead in a musical.” I just always thought it would be so fun to do a musical at school.
There’s been Violet, Victor/Victoria…there’s been a whole bunch of musicals that I wanted to get into. But, to be honest, musical theater students have dibs and I get that.
I’ve done musicals outside of school, but for whatever reason I get my heart set on the Columbia musicals so badly. I’m so mesmerized by them.
Earlier on, I really wanted to be Anita in West Side Story; that was the great loss of my high-school life. I wanted it so bad.
AMF: Is Anita your dream role?
SS: It kind of is! It’s an amazing acting role. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet and Anita is the Nurse character. She’s amazing. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is very cute, but she’s a very strict woman, a motherly person. Anita is too, but Anita is so sexy and full of life and exciting whereas the Nurse is not really allowed to be. When you take it out of Shakespearian times and put it in 1950s/1960s, she becomes the star of the show. Juliet’s boring, Maria’s kinda boring. As beautiful as she is, as great of a part as it would be to play, it’s kind of boring. And Rita Moreno who played her is a goddess. I’ve watched her in so many things.
AMF: Who are some other actors you look up to?
SS: A lot of my favorite actors are men… I love Meryl Streep, of course.
AMF: Who doesn’t?
SS: Who doesn’t. I love Tom Hanks. I love Robin Williams. Pretty weird, eclectic…I think some comedians are great actors.
AMF: Well, those three are all very versatile in their roles; they can play very big people and very stern people and very emotional people…
AMF: There’s a pattern there, Scarlet…
SS: [Laughter] Who else…I should probably have a larger list of people. I love certain parts of people…like, this actor was great in that but not so much in that. I just expect a lot from them, I guess.
AMF: Do you think there’s a reason you idolize male actors more than female ones?
SS: No, no, I guess it just tends to be that way for me. I guess I’m noticing that even though Meryl Streep is amazing, she still doesn’t have as much to do as male actors do. She’s made a ton of great strides, but…
Like, in one Senior Showcase rehearsal, I was listening to the other scenes and a lot of the male scenes have so much fire to them. And so many great words to say and thoughts to articulate that I do feel like sometimes with female characters it’s very rare to find that they’ll articulate something complicated. Sometimes I feel like the men get the more fun things to do. But that’s changing.
AMF: I understand. A lot of scripts are still written male-heavy.
SS: Yeah, and the subject matter that we get isn’t as fun. Sometimes you have to work a little bit harder for the fun. You have to bring another layer into it and make it a little bit more.
AMF: If there was one role, male or female, book, play, movie, cartoon…anything…who would you want to play?
SS: I really want to play Audrey Hepburn in a biopic. That would be very fun. It’s been done before but I think there’s so much more to her story that might be really fun to play with.
And I’m really excited about Little Voice. If I can pull that off, it will be a great part, something I can be really proud of.
Watch out for Scarlet in the future! In the meantime, make sure to check her out at all the usual places.
Interviewed by Anne Marie Farrell