Erin Cummings may not yet be a household name, but with her unbelievable range and dedication to her craft, she is poised to become one of Hollwood’s brightest stars. She made a huge splash in 2009, when a new cult classic film by the name of “Bitch Slap” erupted onto the silver screen. As one of the film’s leading ladies, starring alongside Julia Voth and America Olivo, Cummings provided creative depth to the epic cat-fighting, hair-pulling, go-go dancing, pile-driving, thrill-a-minute fury that allowed the film to kick ass and take names with fans worldwide. Now in 2010, Cummings continues to wield her acting might opposite of actor Andy Whitfield in the critically acclaimed series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, where she plays the pivotal role of Sura, a Thracian princess and wife of Spartacus. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this woman on the move, to discuss her journey in the entertainment industry, breakthrough performances in ‘Bitch Slap’ and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, as well as her upcoming pilot for ABC’s ‘187 Detroit’. Read on to find out what makes her tick and what the future holds for this multi-faceted artist!
Where did you grow up and how did you decide to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
Well, I’m an Air Force brat. My dad is a retired colonel in the Air Force, so I moved around quite a bit growing up. I was born in Lafayette, Louisiana and then moved to Omaha, Nebraska, Seoul, Korea Bossier City and then to Huntsville, Texas. Throughout that time, I always loved doing plays and little bits of theater, but when you grow up in a small town, the idea of becoming an actress is quite impossible. I always assumed that you needed to know someone in the business. I did a lot of theater growing up. I loved doing plays and being on stage and creating characters. It was one of those things that I did just for fun. Then I became a Kilgore College Rangerette, which was the first collegiate dance team that was created in East Texas. Then I transferred to the University of North Texas, where I was pursuing a degree in journalism with a specialization in advertising. About one semester before I graduated, I ended up getting spotted by a talent scout while I was doing community theater. At the time, I was doing my internship with some very prestigious advertising agencies in Dallas, when I realized that the thing that I loved the most about the advertising world was being in front of the client and doing the pitch. it was sort of a performance for me. Upon the suggestion of a friend, I began working with an acting coach in Dallas and auditioning for plays. It was through that process that I ended up getting spotted by the talent scout. Nothing really developed from that particular scout meeting but it did put the idea in my head of going to Los Angeles. I came out here to visit and see what the lay of the land was. I met all of these people that were similar to me in not being related to anyone in the business or not necessarily having an “in,” so to speak. They were just people working really hard, going to acting classes and waiting tables. I sat my parents down and said “Immediately after graduation I will be moving to Los Angeles!” So, that is what I did! That was nine years ago in January.
It seems to be working out for you, so I am sure that your parents are pretty happy with your decision!
They are so thrilled! And you know what? My parents have been such a lifeline for me because throughout this whole process. It’s interesting because I don’t come from a family of artists. No one in my family has ever gone off to pursue an artistic endeavor. My dad even told me that he assumed that I would go off to college, graduate and move forward with my life. I think I was driving back from the University of North Texas to Huntsville with my dad, and almost the entire conversation was me explaining to him why I needed to come to Los Angeles and pursue this career. I can be quite persuasive when I want to be! [laughs] He said that he will always remember that conversation because at the beginning of it he was 100% adamant that you did not have my support in this decision and that by the time that we got to Huntsville he was almost as excited about me going to Los Angeles as I was! My parents have been so supportive of my career and they are incredibly proud. They came with me to the premiere of ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’. It was almost more exciting for me to be able to watch them, than to enjoy it for myself! My mom is kind of a “hometown hero” now! [laughs] She works at the hospital and people are always saying to her “Oh! Your the mother of that actress!” She was at Blockbuster the other day and asked the saleswoman for the movie ‘Bitch Slap’. The girl gave her the movie and said “Why do you want this?” because obviously my mom buying a movie called ‘Bitch Slap’ is pretty funny! She told her that I was one of the girls on the cover and the girl flipped out and got really excited. Later that day, one of my mom’s good friends happened to go to the same store later that day to ask for ‘Bitch Slap’ and the girl was very excited. She was going on and on about this girl on the cover being from Huntsville and how her mom came in earlier and how exciting that was. It is really fun for me to hear those stories because for so long my parents have had to endure people saying “God! Is she still out there! How long is she going to do that!” and “When is your daughter going to get a real job?” Here in Los Angeles, people understand that when you have even two lines on a television show, it’s a major accomplishment. You had to beat out about 3000 people just to get those two lines. Where as my parents, they see that on television and are like “God, that’s it? That’s all she did?” Now my parents are able to revel in my success, that has been very exciting for me.
‘Bitch Slap’ is one of your breakout roles. For those not yet familiar with the film what can you tell us about your character and how did you originally get involved with the project?
I always tell people the best way to get to know the characters in ‘Bitch Slap’ is to check out the website, www.bitchslapmovie.com. It is a very well put together website with a fun and interactive page that has all of the character descriptions. The short version is that “Hel” is the mastermind behind the plan in the desert. There is something very secretive about her that we don’t know at the beginning of the movie. By the time the movie finishes, through a series of flashbacks and certain revelations, we find out a lot about her. Who we think she is at the beginning is certainly not who we see at the end. She spends a lot of time throughout the film trying to protect “Trixie” (Julia Voth) from Camero (America Olivo) and tries to make sure that Camero doesn’t end up killing Trixie or that Trixie doesn’t accidentally mouth off to much!
For me, “Hel” was a great character because I feel like I get to do a little bit of everything. I have the big love scene, I have the big fight scene. She is such an excitingly diverse character to have the arc go from one thing in the beginning to a completely different character in the end. I actually got involved in the movie in the very traditional way of my agent submitting me for the role and me going in and doing an audition. I was sort of their first choice. I was one of the first people who read for the role but of course they continued to read other people but kept coming back to me. That is sort of how that all happened. I ended up going back in for a call back. I was supposed to have read the script and they were just about ready to offer me the role. An assistant had read the script and my agent had told me that the script was unavailable. Of course, as I am sitting there in the waiting room, I overhear the other girls talking about the script! I realize about a minute and a half before I walk into this meeting that I am the only person in the room that has not read the script! I had to think fast and be creative on why I was not prepared. I am not usually that person, typically I am VERY prepared. I basically threw someone under the bus and said “Yeah, my agent screwed up and didn’t get me the script!” I was off the hook for that. It actually worked out in all of ours favors, I think, because it gave the guys the opportunity to explain to me who the other people on the project were,you know, Zoe Bell, William Gregory Lee, Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo. Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo had already agreed to do the film at that point and Michael Hurst, as well. They were able to explain to me, many of the quirky aspects of the film and that helped me to really understand the story that they were trying to tell. There were some actresses that they sent the script to that immediately passed and I think that might have been due to them not knowing that it is supposed to be funny and that it is not supposed to take itself seriously. It is really supposed to be a fun movie that is for pure entertainment. Once I understood that, I was able to go into reading the script with a very open mind. I went home and immediately read the script and they wanted to meet with me again at Brian Peck’s house in the valley. I walked in and the first thing that I said was “My agent knows the address of this house and if I don’t text him in fifteen minutes and tell him I am ok, he’s sending the cops!” [laughs] Which I think pretty much got me my part!
That is when they asked me if I would be willing to dye my hair. I said “Only if I get to be a redhead!” They said “Great! because that is exactly what we wanted you to do.” That is how I went red. Oddly enough, I just went red yesterday again! I just booked a new pilot for ABC called ‘187 Detroit’. They had apparently seen some photos of me online as a redhead and thought that it would be good for the character, so they asked me to dye it red for the part. I have so many photos of me as a redhead and I had to go black for ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’. So many people asked me if I was ever going to go back to red, so I said “I will be whatever color they pay me to be! As long as they pay for the color change, I am more than happy to do whatever they want!” [laughs] It is kind of nice to have a job that forces you to go through these transformations. It’s fun!
Both ‘Bitch Slap’ and ‘Spartacus’ are very action-oriented roles. Did you have to do any special preparation for these roles?
I worked very closely with the stunt coordinator on ‘Bitch Slap’. I was very fortunate to have Zoe Bell, I am sure you know that she is one of the stars of ‘Grindhouse’. She was also Uma Thurman’s stunt double in ‘Kill Bill’ and Lucy Lawless’ stunt double on ‘Zena: Warrior Princess’. She was the stunt coordinator and she really went the distance, as far as America Olivio, Minae Noji and I, we were very prepared and looking more than capable for our roles. My background is as a dancer, which naturally lends itself to being able to understand choreography and body placement. Zoe worked quite extensively with me because it was very important for me to make sure that I was able to be the one in the shot, instead of my stunt double, but that I would learn something. I think that is one of the joys of being an actor is being able to develop a new skill set. When I went on to ‘Spartacus’, it was really funny. the first day I went to the stunt rehearsal with the boys and I think that they thought I was going to be a little ballerina that couldn’t throw a punch! Within the first ten minutes the stunt coordinator, Al Poppleton, looked at me and said “Well, you are gonna save us some money because it looks like we don’t need to hire a stunt double for you!” We worked out that whole fight and fortunately, Rick Jacobson, who directed ‘Bitch Slap’, had been hired to direct the pilot of ‘Spartacus’. He and I had developed a short hand of how we were going to do fight scenes. He knew exactly what I was capable of, exactly how far he could push me and what he could ask of me and that I would be willing to go there. That helped quite a bit. When I was in New Zealand, I had to get my body ready, because not only do I have fight scenes but I have love scenes and I am not necessarily always wearing a lot of clothing on the show. If I am going to portray the part of Spartacus’ wife, this girl has got to look a certain way. Otherwise, people are going to say “Really? He did all that for HER! What’s that all about! ” [laughs] So, I was training with Amanda Foubister over in New Zealand. She was Ms Fitness Australia 2007 and 2008. She was training me and helping me with my nutrition and really getting me in shape. In episode six, there is a shoot where Sura and Spartacus ride off on a horse. Amanda also happens to be a master equestrian who has black hair and blue eyes. They are required by law to hire a horse riding stunt double for you whenever there are horses. I suggested my friend Amanda and they hired her, so that was really great.
You mentioned Rick Jacobson, America Olivo, Julia Voth and others from ‘Bitch Slap’. You have all been out promoting this film for two years.
Yeah, we started in July of 2008 at Comic Con.
It seems like you guys have developed a real bond while working on this project. I imagine that is pretty rare in Hollywood.
Yeah. It is interesting because this movie was always a labor of love and one of those things where we all hopped on board and knew exactly what we were getting into. There were no false expectations that this was going to be a massive studio luxury cruise through publicity. In the beginning, the girls and I would share hotel rooms, get ready together, borrow each other’s jewelry or clothes. We would call each other before red carpets to see what the others where going to be wearing. We helped each other with auditions. When we were in Scandinavia, I had my little flip camera and Julia held the camera and America read with me for an audition that I had to put on tape and send in. So it has been a family that we have developed over the past two years. Julia and I attended America’s premiere for ‘Friday The 13th’ and Julia came over to my house when I had a screening for my episode of ‘Cold Case’. There has been a ton of support that we have given each other over the years.
As far as Rick Jacobson, Eric Gruendemann and Brian Peck are concerned, they have become a part of my extended family in a major way! With Rick, we helped each other get our jobs on ‘Spartacus’. I had worked with Steven DeKnight, who is the show runner, so I was able to talk to Steven about Rick. So when Rob Tapert said “Hey, I have this director in mind…”, Steven already knew who Rick was because they had heard me rave about how great a director he was to work with. On the flip side, when I was up for the part of “Sura”, Rick had already been hired to direct. He was then able to push for me and say “I have worked with this girl. She is going to be great with the fight scenes. She is a publicity machine and she will be great for you guys!” We really helped each other out. I think that as close as we got on ‘Bitch Slap’, that bond was cemented on ‘Spartacus’ because of what we were going through together. There were a lot of positives and some difficult things that we both had to go through. It’s not always easy. He was a really good friend and really there for me during that time. I have become so close to Eric Gruendemann, his wife and his children because they are such incredible people. A lot of times when there is something really good or really bad in my life, Eric Gruendemann, will be one of the first people that I call. He was definitely one of the first five phone calls I made when I booked the pilot for ‘187 Detriot’. He has really taken me under his wing and taught me so much about the industry and given me so much responsibility in taking on projects in relation to ‘Bitch Slap’. Even when I shot the cover of Steppin’ Out Magazine, our location fell through at the last minute, it was Eric who volunteered his house for my photo shoot. We had this entire photo crew walk over his house in Malibu for a day. That was really wonderful. Brian Peck has been such an incredible asset to me. To have someone in my life that has such a wealth of knowledge and experience in the industry is amazing. I had him over for dinner the other night and he is really just one of those people that seems to “get it” about everything. He and I have become so incredibly close. Those three guys are people that I will continue to have a good relationship with and I only hope to be so lucky to work with all three of them again, whether it is on ‘Bitch Slap 2’ or some other project.
I take it that ‘Bitch Slap 2’ is definitely in the cards then?
Yeah! They are writing it right now! That was always sort of the plan. It was written as a trilogy. The film has such an exciting following. The people who get this movie, get it in a very big way! The people who don’t get this movie… I could give a shit about them. [laughs] For the people who really get this movie and really respond to it, I think that they really want to see a trilogy. They want to see how these characters can come back and get into more ridiculous antics, more fight scenes and probably another water fight! Everyone seemed to love that!
I found the film and the behind-the-scenes documentary very interesting. It was really amazing, the range that you were able to bring to the character.
Is there a type of role that you haven’t played yet that you might like to tackle in the future?
So many! So many! I have always said to myself that I want to be like Philip Seymour Hoffman. I look at his choices and his roles, the way he bounces from theater to film and takes on these different personas. I would love to do a film about Texas. ‘Giant’ with Elizabeth Taylor is one of my favorite movies, I love ‘Urban Cowboy’ and those Texas sort of films, because I am from Texas. I would love to play ‘Medusa’, the superhero. There are all sorts of fun things that I would love to do. I think the biggest thing for me to do is to diversify as much as possible. I would love to do another period piece. Lady McBeth is my all-time favorite role and there is so much left for me to explore in her. I would really love to do that again. I would love to play Sally Bowles in ‘Caberet’. There are so many things. I just don’t want to be one of those people who gets pigeoned-holed in one kind of genre or one style of character. The interesting thing when I look back on the character choices that I have made, whether it is the pin-up model that quit modeling to become a photographer in ‘Cold Case’, or the cat-fighting, lesbian assassin in ‘Bitch Slap’ or the love of Spartacus’ life — these characters are all interesting and strong women, but they are all so vastly different. Even my role coming up in the ABC pilot, ‘187 Detroit’. I play Dr. Cork, the medical examiner, who happens to play roller derby on the side! She is a very intelligent women who has this very quirky, fun and interesting side to her, that will allow me to explore this different type of character. For me, my goal as an actor, is to constantly seek out these new and different roles that will allow me to flex different muscles and explore different aspects or my emotional capabilities.
Having seen much of your work, I have to say that you are doing a great job in showing that amazing range as an actor.
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I also appreciate the fact that in a film like ‘Bitch Slap’, which some people may think just has a superficial layer and not much depth to it, it was exciting for me to be able to have a character in a movie like that which already has so much written for her. It really allowed me to explore what I had to give and push the character even further. The guys were on board with it. I said “I know this is an exploitation film but in this moment, I feel like she would be very upset to the point of being emotional about it. They said “Yeah, go for that! We want you to explore your range as an actress.” I was talking to Rick and he was telling a me a little bit about the development of ‘Bitch Slap 2’. Apparently, they are going to be incorporating more of my acting range into the script for the sequel. I don’t know what that means, so I am a little nervous! [laughs] Hel was originally written as an ice queen that didn’t have any emotion. I said “That is fine in the beginning but I need to bring her somewhere as an actor. I am not just going to play a role where she is the same in the beginning as she is at the end.” They were excited about that and were excited that I was eager to take it to where they hoped it would go. Now I am excited to see where they want to take Hel for ‘Bitch Slap 2’.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on a career in the film industry?
Hmmmm. [laughs] That is such a loaded question!
You mentioned diversity…
Yeah, but ya know what, honey? We are talking about the last two years of almost a decade of being in this industry.
I have a girlfriend, we are really close, but I only met her about a year and a half ago. I have other friends that I have known for eight or nine years. So she sees the red carpets, the free trips to Vegas, the swag and the fact that I have been working steadily. She sees where I am at this point in my career. She sometimes says jokingly “Man! I am in the wrong industry! That is so cool that you get this and this and this…” or “Oh my God, you are getting paid this amount of money for only this amount of work!” I said “No! I am getting paid this much money for the past decade of my life! For every independent film that I never got paid for because it never saw the light of day. For every student film that I shot that I lost money at my job waiting tables because I had to take time off. For working with people who didn’t know what they were doing on those films who, people who didn’t know their roles, it was ok because I didn’t know what I was doing either. For every black box theater production with three people in the audience who were all comped because they were my best friends. For every megalomaniac director that made your life miserable. For every thousand dollars I put in to my career on head shots, retouching, printing, acting classes and going to London to study Shakespeare with crap props and costumes for my theater productions. All of that, is why I am getting paid what I am getting paid now! Not for the one scene that I am doing for this pilot.
I think that if you are interested in pursuing a career as an actor, I think that you need to tattoo into your brain that it is a marathon, not a sprint. All of these people that said when I first moved out here, “Well, how long are you going to give it?” I never answered that. I always said to myself “As long as it takes. This is my life.” I went into it with the mindset that there would be many years of struggle before I would begin to reap the benefits and the rewards for my hard work and that is exactly what happened. It is true that there are people that come into this business and within a couple of years end up landing on a show or something like that. Look at Julia Voth. She was on five auditions and the fifth one happened to be ‘Bitch Slap’. I worked eight years in my career to get the same size role in that film and all the publicity that went with it. So yeah, there always are gonna be people that come out here and stumble onto some opportunity that puts their career on the fast track. However, that is also like saying that “I want to be a millionaire!” but instead of going to college, getting my degree, starting my own business, developing that company and really making it successful and making your million dollars that way, saying “I am just gonna go play the lottery and hope it works out.” You must make a decision for yourself about what you want in this business. If you want to be famous, start a really funny blog or if you are really desperate and have no soul, go do a reality television show. Be prepared for the fact, especially if you are in your early to mid twenties and you are halfway attractive, you are going to see every halfway attractive person in their mid-twenties on the planet because they are all in Los Angeles! [laughs] There is a major pool of competitiveness there and it may not happen overnight and you have to be willing to put in the hard work and dedication.
For anyone that doesn’t live in Los Angeles and wants to pursue an acting career, stop fooling yourself. What you are doing does not matter, except for your own personal growth and development. No one in Los Angles will care about any play or film you did unless you are winning a Tony for it on Broadway or unless the film wins the Sundance Film Festival and at the end of the day, you will end up moving to Los Angles anyway! So just pack your bags and get your butt over to LA! [laughs]
Sounds like solid advice. Obviously, you have seen your fair share of interesting times in Hollywood. If you were putting together an autobiography for the future, what would you call it?
Wow! That is a great question. I would call it “Yes, that is a gun in my pocket. And no, I’m not happy to see you.” Although I like to think that by the time I write an autobiography, I’ll be known for more than my ability to pack a pistol and scare the bejesus out of people. Ha!
I think it will be on hell of a read! Thanks for your time, Erin. We look forward to seeing a lot more of you in the future and wish you luck on all your upcoming projects!
Thank you, so much!
Be sure to follow Erin Cummings on Twitter at @erinlcummings and check out the official site for ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ at www.starz.com/spartacus!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.