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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2019

From Stage to Set : Bay Area Actors Transition To Film

Wednesday, November 6, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

With luminaries like the Tony Award-winning Daveed Diggs and hometown fave, Margo Hall, who both lit up last year’s Blindspotting, the Bay Area holds its own when it comes to minting stars of the silver screen. As Hollywood remains a short plane ride or moderate road trip away, and with a current resurgence in stories set in the Bay, many theatre actors continue to foray into film and television. But what does the journey look like for those who are starting out?

Cameron James Matthews. Photo by Lisa Keating

For Cameron James Matthews, a self-proclaimed “super shy kid from South Sacramento, as green as you can be … who never even saw a theatre production,” the path to a film career began with an audition at age 21 for the Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre program for Northern California. Matthews booked the job and for six years performed in health ed productions while taking advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement program, which covered a percentage of employees’ fees for performance classes.

“For me, coming from the hood in Sacramento, I’m like: ‘Y’all are going to pay for me to get better at this?’” he recollects. “I don’t think they were ready for how many classes I took.”

Matthews feasted on the offerings at programs like American Conservatory Theatre’s Summer Congress and Berkeley Repertory’s School of Theatre, taking improv, movement, and script analysis and meeting instructors who helped him get cast in his first play—San Francisco Playhouse’s production of the football-themed Colossal, which allowed Matthews to connect the sports experience of his youth with his growing love for theatre. Roles in productions with companies like TheatreFIRST and Marin Theatre Company soon followed.

Actor Tristan Cunningham had an earlier introduction to the performing arts. After spending her childhood touring with Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, she enrolled in the theatre and film conservatory at SUNY Purchase. Taking the one film course offered in her program left her with a curiosity about the medium that would slowly grow over the next ten years as she moved west and experienced the highs and lows of being one of the Bay Area’s busiest stage actors, deploying linguistic dexterity and astounding physicality in productions with a wide range of companies—from Cutting Ball to Cal Shakes.

Tristan Cunningham. Photo by Lisa Keating.

“Theatre can be really taxing on your body and on the amount of time and energy that you need to put into it. The beautiful thing with theatre is you get this rehearsal time and you get to know the people you’re working with and do table work and talk about the play,” she says.  “With film and television it’s a lot less time and there’s a magic to that too. I prefer more rehearsal but there is some magic to it happening fast, to there being that sort of raw, organic instinct [in the performance].”

Matthews developed his film bug while participating in a series of workshops organized by photographer Lisa Keating for an invited group of Bay Area theatre makers who nicknamed themselves “The Tribe.” Part support group, part training cohort, the group brought in theatre and film professionals like veteran actor James Carpenter and Nick Thurston, a star of Dawn of the Planet of The Apes, to lead workshops on topics like monologue, Shakespeare, and motion capture movement for film.
Cunningham and Matthews both took a more solid step towards film when they signed with STARS, a Bay Area print and on-camera agency. Among the audition notices for commercials, industrials, and small film roles shooting in the Bay Area came castings from the occasional Los Angeles based project. In attempting to make the best of these new opportunities, Cunningham and Matthews soon found that they were paying a high price.

“You know how they have airline travel miles? I wish there was some sort of app where I could log all the miles I spend traveling. I know that ‘Grapevine’ like the back of my hand now,” says Matthews, referring to the stretch of Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The LA film and television casting practice of sending out invitations sometimes as late as the day of the audition and the expectation that actors be available at such short notice necessitated numerous red eye flights and overnight drives.

“Just the journey to get there from the Bay, by the time I was in the room I was tired,” says Cunningham. “Those were not my best auditions—mama was tired!”

For Matthews, the challenge presented an opportunity to make the best of a necessary nuisance.

“Podcasts are huge,” he says. “Sing some Prince songs, cut loose. Call your friends, your fellow actorsif you have an audition, run your lines with them.”

For Cunningham, the strain of going back and forth necessitated a clear-eyed assessment of her goals.

“These auditions were coming up and I was not able to be fully present for them.” She asked herself: “Do I want to do them? Do I not want to do them? I found doing half-half to be pretty challenging and I wasn’t able to be the artist I wanted to be.”

Cunningham is now based in Los Angeles while Matthews is based: “Where they need me to be.” “They” being the opportunities that are available in either region.

As Cunningham stresses, everyone has their own unique experience with the Los Angeles film industry. But while the approaches of Matthews and Cunningham have their differences, they share an underlying commitment to research and persistence.

Matthew’s quest to get an agent in Los Angeles involved “a lot of homework.” Noting that most of the top agents in LA don’t accept unsolicited submissions from actors, he scoured online film database ImdbPro (”make that investment!”) for the names of reputable agencies that do and was able to secure representation with the aid of a referral from a former colleague.

Cunningham used a service provided by the online platform Actors Access, which, for $40, pitches an actor’s headshot and resume to prospective representatives for three weeks. She received some invitations to meetings where she learned the importance of being over-prepared.

“Every agency sort of asked different questions so you come in feeling prepared because ‘Oh, they asked that at the last agency’,” she says. “And the questions at this one will be totally different and you’ll feel like, ‘Wait, I wasn’t prepared!’.”

After a few “bombs” she was able to secure a manager, who signed her immediately after a cold read, and a “theatrical” agent (as TV and film agents are known in LA). The quest for a “commercial” agent would put her through a few more paces.

“It was like the commercial agent obstacle course, you were tested to the fullest,” she said.

Cunningham was determined to ace the two audition rounds that required her to cold read commercial sides of varying lengths.

“I put myself through a 'commercial gym’,” she says. “I would find commercials online and grill myself. And then film myself doing them in my bedroom.”

The agent signed her.

Cunningham’s first movie role came on the heels of acquiring representation and brought its own lessons in preparation and commitment. She happened to be on a trip to Kenya, teaching with a friend’s nonprofit, when her manager called at 2am local time asking her to submit a taped audition for a film that would be shooting in China.

“So I filmed in the bathroom,” she says. “I recorded the other characters’ lines, timed it out, sent in this self tape and I ended up getting the role, which is crazy.”

In addition to teaching her the importance of always being ready to tape oneself (“It’s important in LA to have a self tape station in your house.”), the experience reinforced her determination to keep putting her foot forward.

“It was a real lesson too in going hard,” she says. “Get the self tape in, get to the audition. If you put in the tape, they’ll consider you.”

Meanwhile Matthew received benefits from remaining close to his “tribe.” In a scene breakdown workshop at Keating’s Berkeley studio, he connected with actor and coach Stan Roth who became a mentor and would eventually coach the audition that booked him his first film. From the fees paid by workshop participants, Keating raised a scholarship to send Matthews and Aseani Miller, another young actor, to Antigua this past October, where they attended the inaugural Wadadi Short Film Festival and shot the feature film Deep Blue with Antiguan production company HaMaFilms.

From these beginnings have come further milestones. Notorious Nick, a film featuring Matthews, appears in movie theaters later this year and he’ll begin shooting his first lead role, in a film entitled Median, later this month in Oakland. Cunningham recently played roles on the TV shows Lethal Weapon (opposite Damon Wayans), All Rise, and The Fugitive (opposite Kiefer Sutherland).

With each step comes greater insight and appreciation for the foundations they’ve laid in the Bay. Matthews credits his training in theatre tech rehearsals with helping him earn the praise from a director of photography who said: “That kid who plays [Notorious] Nick’s best friend always hit his mark.”

“I think LA gets this name and this weight and people are like 'are you ready to move there?’” says Cunningham. “And it is all that but it’s also not all that. They want good, strong, passionate actors just like anywhere else and if you own that in yourself then you deserve to be anywhere."

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at