The Multi-Hyphenate Curse

Brea Grant, whose new film 12 Hour Shift is out this week, talks with Kit Williamson about their transition from actors to writer-directors.

Like a lot of people in the film industry, I carry a hidden fear onto every set. I fear that this time will be the last. I’ll never get to make anything again. That fear was very real last year when I went to make my sophomore feature, 12 Hour Shift. It had been seven years since I had directed my first film, so the world had shown me that my paranoia wasn’t unfounded. In an attempt to make sure the gap between this and the next film wasn’t as long, I built a safety net of people around me to ensure that I would have a supportive team. One of those people was Kit Williamson, someone I have known for more than 10 years and have worked with as an actor, writer and director. I knew he understood me and my fears, and could offer advice and support. If I needed to cry to someone in a hotel room after a long night, he would be up with a bag of popcorn, waiting. He was more than just an actor in the film. He understood what it was like to be on the other side. We come from the same world – one that has been gaining steam over the past 10 years of our friendship. Kit, like me, is a multi-hyphenate and, also like me, has watched the way the industry’s attitude toward the writer-actor-director has changed. Whereas once it was an embarrassment to try your hand at multiple jobs in the industry, now it feels almost required. Kit created, wrote, directed, produced and starred in the Emmy-award winning Netflix show EastSiders (which I worked on as a writer-director-producer-actor – I’m not going to apologize for all the hyphens), and he also had a recurring role on Mad Men, acted in my first film, Best Friends Forever, and plays a clueless cop in 12 Hour Shift, which is out October 2.

Brea Grant with Kit Williamson on the set of 12 Hour Shift.

Brea: I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to about the way in which the industry has changed regarding the multi-hyphenate. So to begin, don’t you just wish you were Phoebe Waller-Bridge?

Kit: All I want in this world is to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge, smoking and drinking a margarita in a ballgown, surrounded by Emmys. Is that too much to ask? I’m unabashedly obsessed with her – she created two of my favorite shows, Fleabag and Killing Eve, and she is fucking amazing at everything she does. And I absolutely love that the stage version of Fleabag was funded on Kickstarter, because EastSiders was too – the show started on YouTube before coming to Netflix.

Brea: Looking back, EastSiders is one of the very few examples of web series that successfully made the jump to a streamer or network. In the late ’00s to mid-2010s, every person I knew was trying to make a series in their NoHo apartments, hoping to launch their careers, but you actually did it! (Except in Silverlake, not NoHo.) It was such a new territory. I remember watching Felicia Day with awe, because she also did it very successfully, and thinking, “I want that.” Now we’ve gone from just a few people making their own projects to this actor ethos where you must “create your own work.” I think the change was in part due to cameras becoming more readily available and YouTube becoming something that was here to stay. What do you think caused this change in expectations?

Kit: I agree that advances in DSLR cameras over the past decade have led to a democratization of online content; you don’t need a huge budget or an MFA from AFI to make a decent-looking product anymore. That said, the novelty has worn off – now everyone you meet in L.A. is shopping a web series. I think actors really need to ask themselves what the hook of their project is, beyond just creating an opportunity for themselves. Ultimately, creating your own work won’t do you any good unless you actually have something to say.

Brea Grant and Vera Miao in Grant debut as writer-director, Best Friends Forever.

Brea: When I directed Best Friends Forever and you created EastSiders, making your own work as an actor felt like a complicated and almost negative thing to me. Almost like we were admitting we had no other options. I personally felt like it had a bad effect on my acting career. My agents and managers at the time did not encourage it and I don’t think any of them ever watched Best Friends Forever. I felt like people did not like the idea of the actor-creator because we had no Issa Rae or Donald Glover to point to as good examples of success.

Kit: I relate to that, considering I had just been dropped by my agent and manager right before I made EastSiders. I was really frustrated with the audition circuit – it seemed pretty clear to me that I wasn’t gonna be Speed Racer, but the only opportunities I was getting were at the high-stakes table. EastSiders definitely came out of a “fuck this shit” attitude, both in terms of the industry and in terms of my frustrations with LGBTQ representation.

Brea: Right, and I also come the from “fuck this shit” school of thought. If it doesn’t work for you, do your own thing. But now, everyone is doing their own things. Things have really changed. “Create your own work” is the number one advice I hear for actors. Personally, directing and writing came more out of a need to control my life, a way to create a space for myself that wasn’t acting, not necessarily as a way to push my acting career forward. I intentionally wanted to try my hand as a writer and director. I’m entirely too bossy to just be an actor.

Kit: We started off in kind of different places, because you had broken through as an actor, with Heroes and so many great genre movies under your belt, in a way that I hadn’t. Before Best Friends Forever, I had done a Broadway play and some other stage work in New York, but I was pretty new to the industry in L.A. I wasn’t getting the opportunities I wanted, so I decided to go to grad school and create opportunities for myself. Best Friends Forever was actually a big inspiration for me when I decided to crowdfund the first two episodes of EastSiders. Mad Men came shortly after that.

Kit Williamson (right) with Trevor Einhorn in Mad Men.

Brea: Do you think creating EastSiders helped you book Mad Men?

Kit: I don’t necessarily think it was a result of the EastSiders, but the newfound confidence I had probably helped. I actually think the success of EastSiders backburnered my acting career for a while, mostly because I was getting more opportunities as a writer. That’s how I make my living these days, but who knows what the future holds – I had a fun part in an indie movie that went to Tribeca this year (yours!) and I’m starring in a new series in the fall that I created called Unconventional (that you wrote an episode of!). Being a showrunner is my dream job, but I don’t ever want to stop acting. I love acting in other people’s projects and helping support another filmmaker’s vision.

Brea: You’re a really great actor to have on set and I think that’s the case with most actors who are multi-hyphenates. At one point on 12 Hour Shift, I looked around and realized most of the cast were also writer-director-producers of some sort. Brooke Seguin, Tom DeTrinis, Tara Perry (who produced and acted in 12 Hour Shift), Dusty Warren, Angela Bettis, just to name a few, are all multi-hyphenates. They understand the nuts and bolts of a shoot. I caught Tom and Brooke cleaning up the lunch leftovers at one point and Dusty came on his days off to help out. He was moving lights! Is this just the future or is it who we are drawn to, knowing our own background?

Kit: There’s a real “Come on, gang, let’s put on a show!” feeling to the best sets, and you definitely foster that as a filmmaker. You set the tone. I’ve acted in TV movies where I got one take and no one on the set gave two shits. It was beyond depressing. I don’t roll that way, and I try not to roll with people that do.

Brea Grant and Kit Williamson.

Brea: I think we differ when it comes to acting, because I would be fine with never acting again and you are about to make your own Fleabag in your upcoming show, Unconventional (which I will plug again, because it is brilliant!). In part, I think I still worry that if I even pursue acting a little bit that no one will take me seriously as a writer-director, and that’s really where my heart is now.

Kit: I totally get that. But I definitely am not pursuing acting now the way I once did – writing has been all-consuming for me this year.

Brea: Same. There is something I miss about the simpler time of just focusing on acting, but I would never go back. When I was just focused on acting, I lived in a constant state of desperation. It wasn’t a good fit with my personality and goals. But now I feel like I never have a “down” moment. I could always be doing something else – writing, pitching or coming up with my next idea. Remember when we would just drive to commercial auditions in Santa Monica all week long and that was our whole existence?

Kit: I was honestly miserable as an aspiring actor – I felt helpless. I loved doing Broadway, but it didn’t really prepare me for how much of a grind Hollywood can be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s almost impossible to make a living doing theatre, but at least there was a modicum of respect afforded to performers. I’m much happier being in the driver’s seat.

Brea Grant and Kit Williamson goof around at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Brea: An actor called me the other day to ask if I thought she should try to create her own stuff. She felt the pressure to, but didn’t really want to. In some ways, I think the acceptance of the multi-hyphenate has pushed people to try to be a multi-hyphenate when they don’t want to – essentially adding more pressure to the life of an actor that is already a pressure cooker. You don’t have to create your show, do you? Can you just be an actor these days?

Kit: I think when people are telling aspiring actors they have to be content creators, they’re telling them two things: 1) You need footage of yourself; and 2) It would help if you were famous. The thing no one really explains when you set out to pursue acting is that you will be competing with people who have been acting since birth, who have fancy agents and famous parents and $1,000 headshots and amazing footage of themselves. I went to school for acting, but had to hustle for years doing student films and a bunch of no-budget bullshit that usually didn’t even get finished in order to scrape together my first reel. I made EastSiders in part because I was sick of relying on other people – I wanted it to be my responsibility.

Brea Grant directing an episode of EastSiders.

Brea: I get that. I feel like the luckiest person in the world because I landed Friday Night Lights and Heroes knowing no one and having a resume made up of only short films and music videos. But both of those shows took a chance on me. It’s something I think about a lot when I’m casting now. I’m more willing to take a shot on someone no one has ever heard of. So, where are we now? I do not define myself as a multi-hyphenate. I say I’m a filmmaker, in part because I still feel the stigma of the word “multi-hyphenate.” I don’t want to push myself as an actor, even though I am the lead of a movie that is about to premiere at Fantastic Fest. I hate the idea of the “multi-hyphenate,” but need to really face my own bias. It used to feel like a curse, but now … maybe it’s an asset?

Kit: I think it’s both! People tend to pick one of your skills and focus on that – usually whichever one they were introduced to first. It’s a tricky thing to navigate, because you don’t connect with producers and executives as an actor the same way you would as a writer. As an actor, there are so many more gatekeepers between you and the powers that be. As a writer, you sometimes even get an hour-long meeting for them to get to know you. I much prefer the latter. But I know it’s not easy getting scripts read until a project of yours has broken through, which is a real catch-22.

Brea: I often get asked the question of which I like to do best. I always just say the one which pays the bills the most at the time. Right now for me, that’s writing. How do you answer that one?

Kit: If you put a gun to my head, I’d say writing too. But the truth is I feel most alive when I’m operating on all cylinders: writing, directing, acting, producing, spinning every plate I can spin, tearing my guts out and smearing them on the screen.

Angela Bettis in Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift.

Brea: We all enjoy your guts. What is the future of roles in the media as budgets and access start to change? How do we become Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Again, do we just want to be her? I think it would be difficult to be her.

Kit: I’m interested to see what Phoebe will become in the next few years. And Issa Rae. And Lena Waithe. And Lena Dunham. And Donald Glover. And Ramy Youssef. And Ryan O’Connell. And Jen Richards. And James Bland. And all the other amazing multi-hyphenates whose work I love. They’ve all forged slightly different paths that are pretty unique to them in the industry. I hope that they all continue to tell stories, utilizing all their talents, and I hope the same for me and you.

Brea Grant is a filmmaker/actress best known for her roles on Heroes, Dexter, and Friday Night Lights. Her second feature as writer-director, the horror thriller 12 Hour Shift, is out October 2 in theaters and on demand through Magnet Releasing. Her first feature, Best Friends Forever, an apocalyptic road trip movie, premiered at Slamdance in 2013. In 2017, she became a producer on the Emmy-nominated LGBTQ series EastSiders, and in 2018, she wrote and directed an episode of the show. One month after 12 Hour Shift wrapped in Arkansas, Brea starred in the film Lucky, which she also wrote. It is directed by Natasha Kermani (Imitation Girl) and was set to premiere at SXSW 2020 before it was cancelled due to COVID-19. Brea has directed many shorts, including the award-winning Feminist
Campfire Stories and Megan, 26. She has also directed television for the CW and
writes comic books. She continues to act and recently was in Jeremy Gardner’s After
Midnight and just completed shooting Jill Sixx’s The Stylist opposite Najarra