Amanda Schull is more than just a pretty face; in fact she is one of the most dedicated and hard working talents in the entertainment industry today. A multi-faceted artist on the rise, she made her motion picture debut in Sony Picture’s ‘Center Stage.’ The role combined Schull’s talent as an accomplished actress and technically skilled ballet dancer. Following ‘Center Stage,’ she returned to the San Francisco Ballet for several years before setting her sights on a full-time acting career. Upon her return to film and television, Schull immediately booked memorable recurring roles on The CW’s fan favorite ‘One Tree Hill,’ USA’s ‘Suits’ and the wildly popular ABC Family series ‘Pretty Little Liars.’ Her feature film credits include a lead role in ‘Mao’s Last Dancer,’ directed by Academy Award nominee Bruce Beresford and featured scenes opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘J. Edgar,’ directed by Clint Eastwood.
Her latest project is her most ambitious to date and has thrust her into the spotlight as the show’s lead. Inspired by the 1995 film starring Bruce Wills, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, “12 Monkeys” follows the journey of a time traveler (Aaron Stanford) from the post-apocalyptic future who appears in present day on a mission to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will eventually decimate the human race with the help of Schull’s character, Dr. Cassandra Railly. The doctor is a brilliant virologist whose world is turned upside down when she’s kidnapped by Cole. He claims that in the future she’ll send him a message asking for his help to stop a plague that will kill billions. After he disappears, Railly’s life falls apart, and she questions her own sanity. But when Cole returns, she’s drawn into a mission to help prevent the viral outbreak. As a doctor she has taken a vow to do no harm — but what does that mean when harm must be done to save the world?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Amanda Schull to discuss her unique career path, the challenges she has faced along the way and her break out role on Syfy’s ’12 Monkeys,’ which is set to premiere on January 16, 2015.
You had a unique career path. What can you tell us about how you got started on your journey into the entertainment industry?
I think most performers don’t have much of a choice, they were sort of born to do it. I know that from a very early age, I was forcing my parents to watch performances of me in my living room. [laughs] I charged for tickets and created whole performances with costumes, makeup, storylines and the whole bit! [laughs] I think I have always kind of had it in my DNA, whether I wanted to admit it or not! I just can’t deny it anymore! [laughs] I became a performer professionally with the San Francisco Ballet where I was a professional ballet dancer. Right around the same time I got my contract with the company, I was cast in the Columbia Pictures film, “Center Stage.” Everything kind of came to a head at one time and then I continued my career in San Francisco. Seven or eight years later, I decided I would give acting a full time try and I moved down to Los Angeles.
Was making the transition from ballet dancer to actress a difficult one to make?
You know it was in many ways and it wasn’t in many ways. Ballet is a finite career. You can’t do it forever and you can’t decide it is something you want to do in your mid-50s. You have to pursue it while you are young and your body is capable. I did that for a while and I always had this little tickle in the back of my mind saying that I needed to go down to LA and give it a try but I wanted to make sure I gave my dance career justice. When I finally listened to that voice, it was challenging because dance was all I had known up until that point. Forsaking that and deciding to go full throttle with acting was scary but very rewarding in many ways. I think from fear is where you develop character and learn for about yourself and what you really want to do with your life.
For you as a performer, who were some of the people who had a big impact on you along the way?
Oh gosh! I have had so many mentors and people who have inspired me both in dance and with acting. I have been very fortunate that my parents allowed me to go to dance schools abroad to study with wonderful teachers. One of them, Violet Verde, really taught me how to articulate physically an emotion, which is something carried through with acting as well. As an actor you need to embody the character, the physical embodiment as well as vocalizing the words the writers have written for you. I think that dance has helped me greatly in transitioning into acting because I have been able to understand the whole person and not just acting at something.
Your latest project is one we are definitely excited about! How did you get involved with “12 Monkeys” and what spoke to you about the role?
I got the script through my representation, so the manner in which I saw the material was pretty ordinary. However, I liked the character from the very first read! I think she is strong, smart and she has a good sense of humor. She is really a likable person but she also doesn’t allow herself to ever feel sorry for herself having this mission sort of thrust upon her. She also doesn’t ever really question herself, which I thought was really interesting. She doesn’t wait for a knight in shining armor to come along to help to save the world. She is absolutely willing to take on the task! A strong female lead is such a privilege to play, so I was honored to get the opportunity to do this. The way in which it came about I had to fight for it. When I was cast, it was very exciting!
What did you bring to this character through your own life experience that may not have been on the written page?
I can tell you that Terry Matalas, one of the writer/creators of the show, told me that as the series progressed and he got to know me better, he adapted the writing to fit some of my own words and the way I speak and, in particular, my sense of humor. I have a bit of a dry sense of humor at times, so he started to incorporate that and would allow me to improvise some of that from time to time. That was really interesting and very much a privilege to have a writer not be so protective of his words but to be open to suggestions from the people who are portraying these characters. He was totally OK with me suggesting things, asking questions or adapting dialog to make it flow more easily out of my mouth.
What a great compliment from the writers to give you that freedom to explore!
Yes. Thank you! I think so highly of them. If they didn’t think it was right, I would absolutely agree with them! [laughs]
A bit of an obvious question but were you familiar with the “12 Monkeys” film before you became involved with the script?
I was familiar with it. I think I saw it when it originally came out or in the years that followed. I did not re-watch it before we shot the pilot. I specifically chose not to do that because I didn’t want it to influence my performance. The show is not a remake and I didn’t want to imitate Madeleine Stowe’s character or performance. Our characters are very different and it was specifically done in that way. The show is very different from the film in many respects. It has been updated to fit our particular times. It was really only when the show got picked up that I rewatched the film and loved it all over again.
As a fan of the original film and what is happening with the series, it is exciting to see everyone involved carrying it very close to their heart. What have you taken away from being a part of a unique project like this one?
You know what? I have really been very, very lucky on this project. You are very right when you say everyone takes their job very seriously. Not so seriously that we all consider ourselves artists or “only call me by my character name” kind of serious! [laughs] I think everyone has a great sense of humor. We understand it can be, at times, intense subject matter but everyone has a great sense of humor. Everyone does take it to heart and cares about what they are doing. Everyone shows up prepared and puts everything they have into every single scene and every single take. Gosh, it is a luxury to be able to work with people who love and care about what they do. It is really, really nice and makes going to work so much fun! I couldn’t even consider it work on most days!
What do you consider the biggest challenge for you to date on the series?
Good question! Hmmm. I face challenges every single day of my life! [laughs] I guess the biggest challenge with the show has been wrapping my head around the time travel. I have had to get it explained to me a couple of different times because I need to understand it in some regards but I am lucky because Dr. Railly isn’t a time traveler so she doesn’t need to understand all of the specifics. There have definitely been episodes I have read, re-read and then re-read again only to go into the producer’s or writer’s office and say, “How is it that they knew about this before this happened,” and get the whole explanation of the time travel broken down for me.
I am sure it can be a lot to take in, especially in written form!
Yeah! It can be a little confusing at times!
Whether it is this character or any given project, do you have a process of bringing a character to life?
I do. I have a very specific way that I read a script and break it down. I take quite a few notes along the way. I am very meticulous about that. I make sure I have everything written down on the page so that I can understand it analytically before I approach in an artistic sort of sense. I’m a little bit of a journalist where I try to observe the character before I try to understand her emotions. I think after I understand why she is doing something specific, I can then digest how she would behave in a particular situation. I also have a wonderful acting coach that I frequently call for advice and suggestions. She has always been a wonderful resource for me and the characters I get a little stumped by.
Looking back on your career to date, what do you consider your biggest evolution?
Wow! You know, maybe this project because I see it as a little bit of a game changer professionally. This is my first series regular role that has been picked up for a series. I shot a pilot a few years ago that didn’t end up getting picked up. The way I need to approach this and sort of live as my character has been very different from being able to drop in every once in a while to visit a character that I only do recurringly, if that is even a word! [laughs]
As an actress, is there a role or genre you are anxious to tackle in the long or short term?
I try to find and create characters that are interesting. It is more the role than even the project that speaks to me and that I choose to take on. I think a bucket list item for me would definitely be Broadway for me one day! I think that would be jump out of my socks fantastic! [laughs]
What about the world that lies behind the camera in the form of writing or directing? Any aspirations to pursue those aspects one day?
Not just yet. I think I still have a lot to learn and a lot of things that I still want to achieve in front of the camera. I do tend to have a lot to say about other people’s performances! [laughs] I usually keep that moderately to myself and I think I should for the time being! [laughs]
You can serve as such an inspiration to aspiring actors. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make a career in today’s entertainment industry?
Work! Just work, in all regards! I had a friend tell me, when I first moved down to LA a few years ago, when things weren’t really going as easily for me, they would want me to go out to dinner with them and I would want to stay home and work on characters or scripts for acting class. They would say, “I am worrying that your life is passing you by and you are not really having fun.” I am having so much now because I put in all of the work before! I think a lot of people don’t understand that acting is work. It is not just getting some hair and makeup done for you and then going out and hoping the emotion comes to you or you know your lines on the day. You need to put in the time and effort. Being disciplined is a very wonderful character trait as an successful actor!
Thanks for your time today, Amanda! I really appreciate it and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Thank you so much, Jason! Have a great day!