Gaels in Hollywood

Building a successful career in one of the toughest industries out there requires talent, sure, but above all, it demands real pluck. Some sturdy Gaels have demonstrated that they have the discipline, motivation and resilience to make it in Hollywood. And they say it all started at Saint Mary’s.

Mahershala Ali stars in "House of Cards" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1."In a town where longevity can be as fleeting as a rising starlet’s Botox injections, Gary Murphy ’74 keeps showing up. He’s been kicking around Hollywood for 35 years, one joke at a time.

“I should be too old. There are a million reasons I shouldn’t be working,” said Murphy, a writer and producer best known for his Emmy-nominated work on The Tonight Show and Malcolm in the Middle.

“It took me a long time to accept this, but if you’re good and you know what you’re doing, that’s a valuable commodity,” he added. “It isn’t a fair town at all, but you can overcome a lot. I still love the idea of sitting around and coming up with things.”

There may be no script for success, but Murphy and other alumni have struck show-biz fortunes with a blend of resilience, self-advocacy and Gael-inspired motivation—from a January Term on Broadway or the belief that their liberal arts backgrounds schooled them well in the art of the possible.

They’ve endured countless auditions and rejections, produced award-winning cinema and television, and penned scripts enjoyed by millions. But success, even back to Saint Mary’s most famous thespian—Tony Martin ’34, an actor and singer who starred in musicals during the 1940s and ’50s—always starts with something every bit as important as natural talent.

“You’ve got to have a thick skin,” said Margaret French-Isaac ’85, a producer whose film credits include Stepmom and The Fan. “It’s basically being able to play well with others, which helps in all aspects of life.”

French-Isaac credits her days as a student worker in the Graduate Education Office for teaching her how to operate in an office setting—skills she applied in her first full-time job with Paramount Pictures’ human resources office.

“You’ve got to have a thick skin.” - Margaret French-Isaac ’85

She did her time and was promoted to creative executive, then went on to DreamWorks for two years to work in a mail room and then climbed to the ranks of Hollywood’s creative power brokers.

French-Isaac, who earned her degree in liberal arts (with a minor in business) gravitated to show business for one overriding reason: a love of storytelling—uplifting and transformative.

Margaret French-Isaac ’85 (shown here with her daughter, Sydney, at the premiere of "The Lone Ranger," which she helped produce) says her experience in the Saint Mary’s Graduate Education Office helped her land at Paramount Pictures.“The goal was to get into film somewhere,” she said. “I didn’t know where.” She’s now a producer at Infinitum Nihil, actor Johnny Depp’s production company, where she’s developing a network television series that aims to transform Shakespeare plays into several 10-episode series.

“The professors and small class size made me feel that anything was possible to achieve,” French-Isaac said. “The education and values at Saint Mary’s were going to be a step toward the next part of my life, and those have been reflected in what I’ve tried to accomplish.”

Meanwhile, Murphy, a history major, got his start in the Saint Mary’s Library, where he perused the stacks for books that could tell him how to make a living being funny. He tried out material as a member of Butch Whacks The Glass Packs, a 1950s nostalgia show band that incorporated music and comedy routines. The band, founded by Saint Mary’s classmates in 1971, staged its final gig in San Francisco this June.

The College even let him take off the fall semester of his senior year so he could tour the country with the group. The band played clubs around the Bay Area, with Murphy retreating to the kitchen between acts to catch up on his studies.

“Whatever got a laugh, we’d keep, and we tried a lot of stuff that didn’t work. It was the crazy courage of being 19 or 20 years old,” said Murphy, who, after graduation, struck out for Los Angeles, where he landed work writing for The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show. “I think my parents felt like I was joining the circus. Nobody in our family had done anything like this.”

Being a screen star can feel like a sideshow in its own right.

It’s one thing when Hollywood discovers and validates talent, quite another when fans join in. Mahershala Ali ’96 was standing in line at a Los Angeles Starbucks several years ago when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Turning to meet his inquisitor, Ali’s eyes landed on someone straight out of Central Casting. Only, he wasn’t. Instead, it was a homeless man praising his work on TV’s The 4400, a critically acclaimed sci-fi television show that ran four seasons starting in 2004.

Walt deFaria ’49, producer of three TV series or movies based on the children’s book "The Borrowers," used to stage living room productions as a child. “It was really kind of shocking,” recalled Ali, whose career has taken a star turn lately with his portrayal of the morally bankrupt Remy Danton on Netflix’s House of Cards. “How would he have had access to the show? It turns out he had been in a rehab program and they were playing a 4400 marathon.”

An acting career was never preordained for Ali, a mass communications major. His grandmother always told him to have three career options.

Ali didn’t take his first acting class until his junior year at Saint Mary’s with Professor of Theater Rebecca Engle. “It wasn’t like she was speaking a foreign language to me,” he said. “Saint Mary’s was definitely the birth of me for acting and beginning to take myself seriously as an actor.” Ali did consider law school or a graduate-level creative writing program. But then there was acting.

He honed his performance chops by taking part in slam poetry events around the Bay Area and really caught the performance bug while apprenticing after graduation at Orinda's California Shakespeare Festival, then in Berkeley.

“It was very much alive in my heart,” he said. “The stage resonated with me in a way that felt like home; it felt very true for me. I was following my passion, and I always believed if you do that, it would work out.”

Ali went on to earn a master’s in acting at New York University and then landed movie roles that included The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in addition to several episodes of HBO’s Treme. He’s currently filming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

“I think my parents felt like I was joining the circus.” - Gary Murphy '74

Jorge Diaz ’06 never had any doubts about his profession.

The communication major from Los Angeles performed in middle school stage productions but redoubled his commitment to acting after watching a filming of TV’s Married…With Children. He’d later sneak onto studio lots, enamored of the creative process.

Diaz went on to act in the films Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones; Filly Brown; and Love, Concord, which was directed by Gustavo Guardado Jr. ’01. He recently finished filming The 33, based on the collapse of a Chilean gold and copper mine in 2010.

“When I found something I was passionate about, doors just started opening,” Diaz said. “I had to take advantage of opportunities that were presenting themselves.” Success has allowed him to be more discriminating in the roles he accepts: “I didn’t want to go from Paranormal to doing a cheap, silly stoner comedy or something that would go straight to DVD. I wanted to up the game a little.”

Jorge Diaz ’06 (in cap), who has acted in movies including Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, with Lou Diamond Phillips. Diaz traced some of his initial inspiration to a Jan Term trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

Still, there are challenges. Roles based on Latino stereotypes abound: gardeners, gangbangers and criminals.

“My agent has had to fight for me,” said Diaz, whose mother worries about the Hollywood business, concerned her son will end up fodder for the tabloids.

But risk has always been part of Diaz’s persona. In a decision befitting his improvisational skills, he chose to attend Saint Mary’s sight unseen because “I wanted to be somewhere I didn’t know anyone, just to see how I would naturally react in that environment. That first semester I asked myself so many questions and grew so much,” he said.

He was influenced by a workshop hosted at the College by Bay Area playwright Octavio Solis, and also by a Jan Term trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

Diaz is an acute observer of human nature, and it’s with eyes wide open that he goes about his craft.

“Every experience you go through as a human makes you a better actor, and you constantly have to be conscious and aware of the relationships you have with people so you can use that in your art,” Diaz said.

Nearly 5,500 miles east, Buck Herron ’79 is instructing a new generation of talent, including Downton Abbey’s Michael Benz, as head of performing arts at The American School in London. He oversees 16 performing arts instructors and 1,000 students in kindergarten through high school. He’s directed 35 school plays since 1998, including, most recently, the musical Avenue Q.

“It’s very much talking about racism, sexual orientation and young love,” Herron said. “There’s a lot to it, and it’s really perfect to encourage conversation in school, which is really what should be happening.”

Herron performed alongside Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. in the 1994 romantic comedy Only You. And while he still has a London agent, “I just don’t seem to have time to act,” he said.

“Directing has been the most creative part of my career,” he said. “I’m working so much more consistently and creatively, and that’s been fulfilling. I’m very fortunate for that. Directing is giving back to the art.”

Herron traces his passion to Saint Mary’s, where he performed in Grease and reveled in the camaraderie among the actors. A double major in psychology and English, Herron’s Jan Term experience in New York, where he saw 13 plays in a week, cinched his decision to pursue a life in the arts.

“I just fell in love with what I felt was really the sacredness of theater, where I went in and was transformed by everything I was exposed to,” he said. “I quietly came back and thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ A year later I went to drama school.”

“You simply have to have a goal and stick to it.” - Walt deFaria ’49

Not every actor follows the same path to work. ErinRose Widner ’01 was so busy with her job as a vice president for a Los Angeles media company that she didn’t have much free time for auditions. “I would audition for roles that were one-liners here and there, but I just felt I could do more,” she said. “So I started creating my own projects.”

Years before web-based series became popular, Widner co-created and acted in a 10-part series called Deserted, a parody of the hit TV show Lost. She also created and starred in The Women of Wall Street, another parody that mocks the Academy Award–nominated The Wolf of Wall Street. She’s developing a third web series called The Great Indoors, about a group of board gamers.

ErinRose Widner ’01 appears here in a scene from her viral YouTube hit, "The Women of Wall Street," in which she plays the Leonardo DiCaprio role.In some ways, it’s easier now to break into show business, Widner said. But there’s always a flip side.

“There are absolutely more avenues with the Internet and camera technology becoming so cheap,” she said. “But that means the market has become saturated with content, so it’s also harder to find some of the good stuff.”

Theater has always been Widner’s passion, one nurtured at Saint Mary’s. She grew up reading classic plays and watching old movies on AMC. She went on to perform in several theater productions at the College, including playing the lead in Our Town when she was a senior. “It was an incredible experience for me,” Widner said. “It was my dream role since I was 7 or 8.”

Walt deFaria ’49 traces his Hollywood dreams back to childhood, when he staged living room productions with whatever props he could muster. “I used to take a card table, turn it upside down, hang Christmas tree lights on it and turn on the radio for dialogue for cutout figures,” he said.

DeFaria was so tantalized by children’s fare that he bought the rights in 1971 for The Borrowers, a fantasy novel about a family of tiny people by author Mary Norton. He’s since produced three television series or movies based on the story, the last being the film The Secret World of Arrietty in 2010.

Now semiretired, deFaria, who lives in Carmel, offers this advice for aspiring producers: “Be able to accept rejection. You simply have to have a goal and stick to it. I was going to get it one way or another.”

With perseverance, deFaria and other Saint Mary’s alumni are making it clear that there are many curtain calls to come.

Nothing beats a happy ending.

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