I was thrilled to get to interview the fantastic Kathleen Simmonds, who is blazing trails for women in the industry through a wide variety of projects. We talked about how she balances so many different hats, what makes her choose a new project, and some practical steps we can take to move towards more gender equality in the entertainment industry.
First, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you went from being a corporate lawyer to diving into the entertainment industry? Was there a specific moment that inspired that leap?
I grew up dancing and performing from the age of 2 and a career in the arts was always in my game-plan. But I was also an excellent student. I’m not sure if it was my own competitive nature, or the views of my family or my career coach at school, or society… maybe it was all of those things, but by the time I had to start thinking about choosing a career-path, I understood that “I would not be using my full potential and I would be taking too great a risk” if I wanted to go to drama school. So I pushed it out of my mind and I got into the toughest university program that I could – a double-bachelor of Law and Psychological Science. After earning honours and landing a job at a top Australian corporate law firm, I spent 6 years practicing law. To be perfectly honest, I think I was a pretty terrible lawyer. I worked really hard, but I was always nervous that I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe I just didn’t care enough. The truth is that every day I put on that skirt and blazer, I felt dead inside. One day I woke up and I couldn’t get out of bed. I now understand that it was an anxiety attack. What followed was a series of very drastic decisions involving my personal life and career, resulting in me boarding a plane for New York City with 3 bags in tow. I have now been here for almost 7 years and I couldn’t be prouder of how far I have come and how much I have achieved. It certainly hasn’t been easy, but its been rewarding, and there is no way I could be as successful as I have been without my background in law. I am grateful for it every day.
You have experience in a wide range of projects — from acting in theater and film to teaching, to producing both scripted and documentary work. How do you feel those different paths influence each other?
I can’t believe how lucky I am to have had experience across so many mediums at so many different levels. It is absolutely all interconnected. For example, what I learnt from producing network television certainly influenced how I produced my indie web series. What I learn from doing on-camera work, I absolutely take into my theatre work. What I experience from meeting so many fascinating real people in my documentary work, I use in my character work for narrative projects. As I do more work in different parts of the industry, I build my network – adding to the people who inspire me and the people who I want to work with in the future.
How do you choose which projects to devote your time to?
I think almost every artist or person pursing a creative career will tell you that the ultimate dream is to have the luxury of only choosing projects which feed the soul. I am not yet at that stage. Money is always a consideration. But I am lucky that right now, for me, it’s probably 50% passion projects and 50% pay-the-rent projects. Having said that, I will NEVER take a project if it doesn’t come with the following things – a meaningful end result, a learning opportunity, good people and a solid end date. These are essential to me. Over the years, I have become much better at saying “no” and I have definitely regretted not following my gut. I am a big believer in giving yourself space so that you have time to take the amazing opportunity when it presents itself. If you fill your time with projects that you weren’t brave enough to say “no” to, then you won’t have time for the things you want to say “yes” to.
How did you get involved with Break Thru Films, and what brought you to Reversing Roe and Surviving Jeffrey Epstein? Those are both hot button subject matters, how has that impacted your experience of making those films?
My start as a producer came as a direct result of my legal career. One of my old clients referred me to someone who referred me to someone… you get the idea. And my skills as a lawyer made me prepared to take on the role of a producer without any experience in the industry. I already knew how to negotiate licenses, read contracts, deal with budgets, hold my own in meetings with corporate clients. It wasn’t a big leap.
Both Reversing Roe and Surviving Jeffrey Epstein are projects that I came to through my connections with BTF and Bungalow Media. It’s interesting, but not at all surprising that when I look back on my experience, there is a pattern. All of my projects (in film, TV and theatre) had women’s issues at their core, and their creative teams were all lead by women. Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, of Break Thru, are absolutely incredible filmmakers and I am so lucky to have been able to shadow them, learn from them and be inspired by them. They take a topic and make it digestible, meaningful and timeless. I can’t wait for you to see the Epstein series.
You teach a “business of acting and filmmaking” seminar. What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to a new actor?
Never compare your journey to anyone else’s. It is creative and career suicide to let jealously get in the way. If someone else got the part, its because it was their part to get. Be absolutely ecstatic for them and believe that your opportunity is just around the corner. Don’t miss what’s right in front of you because you’re looking over the fence.
Tell me a bit about Woe is She, and putting together the all-female team that made the web series.
Stephanie Fagan and Chelsea Lockie. Two names that you must absolutely be aware of. These extraordinary women are why Woe is She happened. We all finished grad school together – The Actors Studio Drama School MFA program – and had been lucky enough to work together for 3 years before Woe is She was born. So we already had a very easy rapport. Stephanie is an Actress, Playwright and Musician. Chelsea is a Director and Actress. We compliment each other and we make each other better. We got together for a coffee one day where the topic of conversation centered around how terrible most of the material we were auditioning with was. So we decided that we would cobble together whatever savings we had and make a little proof of concept. It became a 7 episode dark comedy web series about two women who are living with and trying to overcome depression. We seek to destigmatize depression by showing it in the ways we personally have experienced it. Woe Is She is a series for anyone who has ever looked at their life with dark irreverence and still managed to make others laugh.
We’re at a cultural moment where gender equality in the entertainment industry is finally getting the attention it deserves. Based on your experiences, what are a few practical steps the industry could take to create a more equal playing field for women?
I feel like the most drastic change will happen with a top-down approach. The more women that we can have in top executive positions or positions of power within the industry, then it will trickle down. Those of us that are casting our short films or producing our own web series, for example, can also use the same strategy – be conscious about giving female-identifying crew, actors, producers, etc, an equal opportunity. We are also all content-consumers and we know that ratings and viewership numbers drive funding. So the more that we give attention to content that is inclusive in nature, the more networks and studios will take notice and make more of it!
Laura Hunter Drago is a producer, writer, and actress living in Los Angeles, California. Laura is a proud SAG-AFTRA member, is the assistant editor-in-chief of Ms. in the Biz, and is the co-founder of New Girl Pictures. She also likes baking, obsessing over Olympic ice dancers, and having long conversations with her dog Buffy. She dislikes being bored. Most recently, Laura just completed her first feature film as a producer, To The New Girl, which will screen at festivals in 2020.