How Being a Failure Led Me to Making My Feature Debut

Micaela Wittman charts her journey from frustrated actor to writer-director with her breakthrough film Clairevoyant.

When I moved to Los Angeles, things started off on a bad foot. I suffered from a binge-eating disorder and depression. I hated the way I looked and who I was. But I stayed. I stayed because I didn’t really have anywhere to go back to, and for some reason, I was drawn to this place; the magic – whether real or not – of Hollywood. This place where failure permeates. A city of people who know what they want, but don’t know how to get it. Do some people just get lucky while others fall into the pit of failure?

How can you acknowledge that failure is taking you where you’re meant to go? I remember going to a “young Hollywood” sleepover-type party. Everyone was sharing about their various roles, how crazy it was to work with their co-stars, what their fan mail said. I dreaded the moment for the round table to come around to me. “I … I haven’t really been in … I haven’t been in anything.” I wish I could say I got a nice pat on the back, but to be honest, everyone looked at me like a loser. And I felt like one. At that point, the only thing I had achieved was a couple agencies telling me I was too old. I was 18.

Micaela Wittman with her cat, on the day she moved to Los Angeles.

I’ve had a couple of defining moments of failure. One was when I was being considered for a role for nine months. It would’ve meant working with a director I loved and with an actor I’ve admired my whole life. Month after month, they reached out to me, reminding me I was still in the running. Until one day, the trailer came out on YouTube. Oops. I guess I didn’t get that one.

The other time was for a movie that I likened to my dream job. Same sort of schtick: months passed, kept getting callbacks, shortlisted, producers sessions. Until one day, I didn’t get the role. I seemed to be cursed with being hung up over one job for large swaths of time. I know that was my fault. I shouldn’t have grown so attached; I should’ve balanced my life better. But when you’re a “nobody,” with really big opportunities being dangled in front of you, it’s kind of hard to go back to the normal life of just being an extra. So I obsessed, I fixated, I prayed, day in and day out. “They’ll pick me, right?” I would reason with my boyfriend. As if that could change reality.

Micaela Wittman’s first role: in a 2015 episode of Modern Family, with Lauren Gaw.

I feel like actors aren’t granted much leeway. We are told to be quiet and be grateful. If you’re doing this, you have to be strong, even robot-like. You’re doing it wrong if you’re not constantly developing your ability to be apathetic. Although it’s cloaked in fancy words and Eastern teachings: detachment, space, letting go. I’m an actor because I care about things, so developing indifference for what I love doing was a challenge, to say the least.

My life as an actor led to some high highs, but even lower lows. I was in a vicious cycle, and every three or four days there was a downswing. I felt hopeless. With other careers, when you begin the climb, you know, most likely, if you’re good and put the work in, you’ll get where you want. Professional acting has a tendency to feel so cold and random. The thoughts of quitting started to come faster and faster. Before, I had never thought of quitting. Then it started, once every six months, then every few weeks, then days. But I knew if I quit, I would have to change my name, break up with my boyfriend and flee the country. Being an actor is my identity, calcifying in my body like stone, for better or worse. It didn’t matter if it would be healthier for me to quit. Despite how much I wanted to, I couldn’t. But the thoughts still came, day after day, trapping me in between the life I wanted and the one I was living. It’s hard being told you can’t have control over your life. You keep trying to take the wheel. You say, “I know what I want and I know what it takes to get there,” but imaginary people stand in front of the gates and say, “You think that makes a difference?” You just have to keep holding on by a thread, and hope that some crazy stroke of luck materializes.

Micaela Wittman with John Ross Bowie in a 2017 episode of Speechless.

So, why did failure push me to create instead of just giving up? I wish I could say it was grit and determination, but it really felt like there was no other option. I had some money saved up, because I shared a room with my friend in a crappy apartment. I worked as an extra, and long days helped me get bigger payouts. Sharing a room in L.A. is my biggest secret when it comes to saving up money. A lot of people can’t sacrifice their personal space and freedom, which is … more than understandable, but hey, it helped me fund my films. That combined with some handy dandy credit cards.

I went to my co-director and producer, Arthur De Larroche, who had come off of some failures of his own. He had just wrapped a grueling eight-year shoot and ended up with a film that hardly resembled his original vision. Nevertheless, I persisted. I told him we had resources, talent and dreams. What more could we need? I’m so glad he got on board, because he’s such a talented filmmaker and artist.

Arthur De Larroche and Micaela Wittman co-directing a scene from Clairevoyant.

A lot of synchronistic moments transpired for us to get the idea for our mockumentary feature about a spoiled rich girl trying to attain enlightenment, Clairevoyant: Mark Duplass’ keynote speech at SXSW, an acting class I was in at the time, my quest to figure out the meaning of life, a documentary we saw that was parody-able (but shall not be named), and also just the sheer desire to make something. I thought it would be a one-weekend shoot, but Arthur knew this thing had real potential and we couldn’t phone it in. So, one weekend turned into two, two turned into a month, and a month turned into six. Every weekend, we would rent a camera and further develop Claire’s story. It was fun, it was effortless, and it reminded me of what acting was supposed to be.

Acting isn’t supposed to be waiting for approval, clinging to the hope that somebody will tell you you’re good. And it’s certainly not about endless rejection. It’s art, it’s expression. Duh. So simple. But when you’re in a big city trying to make it as an actor, it’s so easy to make it about anything but that. To get caught up in the bullshit, in the marketing, putting yourself into a box, being what people want you to be. Quiet and grateful. I was anything but quiet and grateful when I made Clairevoyant. I was pissed. I was pissed that my time could be so wildly disregarded, that I, Micaela – as a person, not as an actor – could be so neglected by the world, by people in the business that I wanted to see as family. That nobody ever looked at me and thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t waste her time.” I was furious. And I’m not making a qualitative judgment about that. I’m not saying I was right or wrong. I know that’s just the way it goes, and I can accept that, but I wasn’t going to be grateful for it.

Micaela Wittman as Claire in Clairevoyant.

How did I decide to let out my anger? By making art. Lots of people don’t even like what I made. And that’s OK. Because it feels so good to do what I came here for, finally, after years of other people telling me no. While I was making Clairevoyant, I could cast aside doubt. I didn’t have to worry about not being good enough. All I had to do was be Claire. And nobody could take that away from me.

I got to truly act, maybe for the first time since I moved to L.A.

And it felt so good that I did it again. During the pandemic, with a second movie. It’s called Remy & Arletta, and it’s not even out yet, although it just got into its first film festival. I can’t say which yet, because it’s confidential. Which is cool to say. Some people love it and some people hate it, which is a feeling I’m still getting used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because these movies are my greatest accomplishments. I’m so proud of myself for turning my anger and sadness into something that’s useful. For me, mostly, but also, for other people, too. I get really nice DMs about how much Clairevoyant means to people, and that’s something I’ve always dreamed about.

Micaela Wittman (right) with Riley Quinn Scott in Remy & Arletta, her forthcoming film co-directed with Arthur De Larroche.

So, how can you acknowledge that your failure is taking you where you’re meant to go? I truly believe if I had gotten the roles I was up for, my pressure valve would’ve been released. I wouldn’t have been angry, and I wouldn’t have learned how to put my voice out into the world. It’s a good voice, and nobody else is going to have it. I’m grateful that I learned how to use it. And while I was anything but grateful at the time, I am now. Because those people who I thought were hurting me were actually helping me down the right path.

When I watch the films Arthur and I make, I see the images I once imagined in my head, the words that were clacks on a keyboard, brought fully to life. If this is the product of all that failure and anger, I’m pretty happy about it. I’m still auditioning for other people’s projects. And I feel pretty good about that. But I also have my own projects. I’m acting, I’m writing, I’m gaining respect in the industry, I’m growing in confidence and love for myself and those around me, and I definitely don’t feel like a failure anymore.

Featured image shows Micaela Wittman directing a scene from Clairevoyant, filmed by Arthur De Larroche. All images courtesy Micaela Wittman.

Micaela Wittman is a Los Angeles-based actress, writer and director. Her feature debut, Clairevoyant, received international distribution with Gravitas Ventures/Myriad Pictures. She has also appeared in shows such as Teen Wolf, Modern Family and Sharp Objects. Her next film, Remy & Arletta, will be released this fall. (Photo by Arthur De Larroche.)