To say Liz Vassey is more than a pretty face is an understatement. Through the years, she has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Fearless, quick witted, intensely expressive, and laser focused, she pours her heart and soul into every project she meets. Her dedication to her craft is undeniable as she continues to turn heads of fans and critics alike with each new endeavor.
Her journey as an artist began in Florida, at the age of 9, when she took on the titular role of Oliver in a hometown production. She was instantly smitten with stage life and soon found herself in front of many delighted audiences, performing in more than 50 plays at regional and professional theaters in the Tampa Bay area. At 16, Liz took an even bigger plunge when she moved to New York to join the cast of the legendary soap opera, “All My Children.” It didn’t take long for the powers that be to notice as she was quickly nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Since her time on “All My Children,” Liz has appeared as a regular or recurring character on 11 television shows including “ER,” “Maximum Bob,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Brotherly Love,” “Push Nevada,” “Two And A Half Men,” and FOX’s live action version of “The Tick.” However, she is best known for her five-year run on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” as DNA technician Wendy Simms. Liz has also guest starred on many TV shows (including “Castle” with Nathan Fillion), starred in many pilots (including “Dragons Of New York” written by and starring Hugh Laurie), and appeared in several films (including “Man Of The House” with Tommy Lee Jones). In addition to acting, Liz is an accomplished writer. She co-wrote an episode of CSI in the 10th season. She has sold six television pilots and a TV movie, developing for such networks and studios as NBC, Freeform, Universal, Imagine, and Sony. She is also a contributing writer to UpstageLeft.com, created by the Tampa Performing Arts Project for young artists as a place to share their stories and connect with professionals in the entertainment community.
The latest chapter in her already incredible journey as a storyteller also serves as her most ambitious undertaking to date. While we are used to seeing her dazzle in front of the camera or in the writer’s room, this time around Liz took the camera into her own hands to shine a light on a subject near and dear to her heart. “The Human Race” is an inspirational documentary about six runners, all over the age of 50, as they train for the biggest race of their lives. These six athletes cover quite the spectrum: from a father attempting his very first 5K – with his autistic son by his side, to beloved running icon Kathrine Switzer who, in 1967, became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry, to an 80-year-old running a half-marathon in celebration of her birthday, to a cancer survivor’s attempt to run across all 50 states. We find out what motivates them and we cheer for them all the way to the finish line – while getting to know their colorful personalities and gaining insight on how running helped them through various struggles.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Liz Vassey to discuss her passion for the arts, her evolution as an artist, and the challenges of bringing her first documentary to the screen. Along the way, she offers up an inside look at her unique career and a glimpse into what the future may hold for her both in front of and behind the camera.
You’ve become a familiar face to audiences over the years through your eclectic body of work. How did the journey begin?
I started acting when I was 9 years old. I had seen my sister do a production of “Grease” and I thought it looked fun! I told my mom that I wanted to audition for the next play that the same theatre company was putting on. She had never really heard me sing before so she sort of said, “Yeah, OK but your sister can take you to the audition.” She didn’t want to watch me crash and burn on stage. So, I got up on stage and I sang, which led to me getting the role of Oliver in “Oliver,” because they needed a girl to hit the high notes. This was in Hollywood, Florida, so it wasn’t like they had the largest talent pool to pull from! [laughs] So, they needed a girl to fill a boy’s role. It was fantastic and it was transformative! I did 50 musicals after that from the age of 9 to 16. Then “All My Children” started holding auditions for a new role and they needed someone who could sing, so when I was 16, I started flying back and forth to New York as I auditioned for the role of Emily Ann. I had to read, sing and do a screen test. Then I got it, so my mom and I moved from Florida to Hell’s Kitchen! [laughs] We were right smack in the middle of New York City!
That’s amazing! Was making the transition from Florida to Hell’s Kitchen difficult?
Honestly, it was a lifesaver because my parents were simultaneously going through a divorce. Getting that job enabled my mother and myself to start over again completely. I was obsessed with New York growing up anyway because I was all about doing musicals and I wanted to be as close to Broadway as humanly possible. My mom also liked the city and we had gone to visit a couple of times. It wasn’t so much a transition as a gift. We were grateful every single day that we lived there! It was fabulous and the timing was perfect!
What went into finding your creative voice as a young actor?
Honestly, I had been in the hospital for a long time when I was 2 years old because I had E. coli poisoning. I went into the hospital a gregarious kid who would dance and sing, and I came out of the hospital very shell-shocked. I was very shy and very withdrawn. For me, it was about finding my voice as a person. When you spend a long time in the hospital as a child, you don’t understand that the people who are poking and prodding at you are helping save your life! [laughs] I was there for quite a period of time, so I came out scared. The first time I didn’t feel scared was, ironically, on stage in front of people singing. So, for me, it was never about finding my creative voice, it was just a way of being able to feel comfortable and at home for the first time in a long time.
You hit the ground running as a professional actor. When did you come into your own as a performer?
Ya know, I don’t know if anyone really feels like they come into their own. I think once you’ve got anything mastered, you probably stop doing it. I know that each job gave me more confidence. I moved to California when I was 19 and my mom made the move with me for the first six months. There was one day when I booked a Tide commercial and an episode of “Quantum Leap” in the same day. I remember my mom crying because she was so excited because she thought, “OK, she’s going to be OK out here! She’s going to work in Los Angeles.” For me, I think the time I became most confident as far as my ability to work in television was a series called “Maximum Bob,” which was on ABC. I got to work with Beau Bridges and Barry Sonnenfeld. It was the first time I was number one on the call sheet, meaning it was the first time that I was like the quarterback of the show. I got to carry the show with an extraordinary cast. By “carry the show,” I mean I was the eyes in which the audience saw the show. I was this person going into this strange land. It was kind of a “Northern Exposure” type of show. I had such a great time, I enjoyed it and I was so proud of my work and everybody’s work on that show. I left feeling confident that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
What lessons did you learn early on that had the biggest impact on your career path?
Never get excited until all the paperwork is signed! [laughs] That’s number one! Never buy anything until all the paperwork is signed! That’s two! [laughs] Honestly, my mother mostly helped me with the emotional parts of it. She was the antithesis of a stage mother. Since I started so young, she watched me like a hawk to make sure that I kept two things in mind. First of all was that if it stops being fun, I should quit. She taught me that just because it was something I did, that didn’t mean it was who I was. She was always very open with that. The other thing was that I realized that it was a group activity and a cumulative effort. The crew has to be there, and the other cast members have to be there, so one person is not more important than any of the others. There was a third too! When I wouldn’t get a role, she would help me realize that it wasn’t personal. Now, being on the other side of things when I’m writing or producing things and I see people come into read, she is absolutely right! Sometimes the best person doesn’t get the job. Sometimes the best person does. Sometimes there is someone who is just extrinsically right for the role and sometimes you just can’t help that. She helped me not take the rejection so personally.
You have been a part of awesome projects through the years. Which of them stands out as creative milestones?
“Maximum Bob” was my favorite. I’ve always been completely open with that. We actually had a party, a reunion with all of us from that show and every single one of us say it’s the best thing we’ve ever worked on. That was wonderful. “CSI,” to be perfectly blunt, was the first time that a show that I loved wasn’t canceled after six or seven episodes, so I was thrilled! [laughs] I was so thrilled to be on the same show for five years! That had a huge impact on my life because, I realize this is said by a lot of people, you’re seeing these people as much as you’re seeing your family. For five years with the same cast and writers, they become very dear and important parts of my life. I have gone to so many “CSI” weddings and parties. I just love these people, so that was a really big one. I also did a movie with Tommy Lee Jones in 2003 called “Man of The House,” though at the time it was called “Cheer Up.” I met a camera operator on that movie, and I asked him out on a date. Three months later, we were engaged! Three months after that, we were married, and we’ve been married for 15 years! So, out of all the jobs, that’s my hands down favorite because it had the biggest effect on the largest part of my life! That was a really good job! [laughs] I think he would tell you the same thing, thankfully! Fifteen years of marriage and we are both REALLY happy about that Tommy Lee Jones movie! [laughs]
That’s awesome! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention your role on “The Tick.”
Yeah! I loved doing “The Tick” and I’m really sad that the newest one was canceled recently. They had asked me last year if I wanted to come do a part on the new series. Luckily, last year, I had sold two scripts and I said, “I do but I’m in editing for a doc and I’m writing two scripts. I can’t fly to Brooklyn and do this.” They said, “You don’t have to fly to Brooklyn. It’s all voiceover!” I said, “What am I playing?” They said, “Well, it’s kinda hard to explain but we’ll send a picture.” They sent a picture of this giant lobster in a cage with pants on that were made of garbage bags. His claws were held shut like they do to lobsters in a restaurant so they can’t snip you. They said, “You’re going to be play Lobstercules.” To that I immediately said, “Oh god, yes!” I ended up doing the voiceover for Lobstercules for a handful of episodes for the new show and it was great. I really wish I got to go back and do more, but Amazon canceled the show. I guess we’ll see if they find a life somewhere else because it deserves to. They are a good group of people, those “Tick” guys and girls.
Well, it’s hard to keep “The Tick” down, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him spring up again in the future!
I hope so. I really hope so! I’m all for superheroes, I love comic books and I grew up playing with action figures not dolls. I’m totally into that culture and one thing I can say about “The Tick” is that it’s nice to see a happy hero. There are so many different incarnations of heroes who look at it as this great big curse or thing they have to carry around with them, so it’s really nice to see a light, bouncy, happy hero! The show is about love, so it’s a really nice message!
What are the keys to longevity and keeping your creative fire fueled in the entertainment industry?
For me personally, it’s all about switching things up. When I was on “CSI,” I wrote an episode during my last season. Basically, I sat in with the writers and got to study how they broke a story. For people who don’t sit in the writer’s room, breaking a story is a good thing! [laughs] It means breaking the back of the plot and figuring out who you want to plot a story. I learned how to outline and they offered me the chance to co-write an episode with Wally Langham, who played Hodges. I did it and I absolutely loved it! When I left that show, I was on “Two And A Half Men” for a while and, at the same time, I was writing more. I ended up selling the first pilot that I wrote all by myself. Then I ended up writing something else and selling it and then something else. So, I’m focusing more now on writing, producing and directing then I am on acting but it’s all in the same business. It really keeps things fresh for me. I realized that very rarely do we do exactly the same thing for a living that we were doing when we were 9! [laughs] So, I think it’s good to shake things up!
The latest chapter in your career led you to directing your first documentary film, “The Human Race.” What made this a story you wanted to tell?
It was sort of threefold. I’ve been an athlete since I was a kid and I took up running about 10 or 15 years ago. I just fell in love with it. I found it was a really good stress reliever, so it was something I had an interest in anyway. My mother passed away in 2012 and I found that in addition to running being a good stress reliever, that it was a good way to grapple with grief. I would wake up every morning and run. I tell people that it kept me vertical and it gave me something to do every day. It ended up really helping me through the grieving process. That was a big part of it. Another big part is that I live in Los Angeles, where they pretty much make the ageism! [laughs] I get really sick of it, honestly. I get sick of the way that people, after a certain age, are portrayed on television and in movies. That’s changing! Not quickly enough for my tastes but it is changing! I started reading because I thought, “How long can I run? Can I keep this up until I am 60 or 70? At what age do I have to start mall-walking or doing something else at home?” I started researching and I discovered all these people who were running in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. I thought, “If I’m surprised by this, everybody else will be surprised by this as well. Maybe I will make a documentary about it.” Not to get too political but there is a lot going on in our country that’s making people very upset. I thought I could either rail against the darkness or put a little light into it! I think people need hope and something a little more unifying right now. This documentary shows people that there is hope past a certain age and you can take control of the aging process to a certain degree. I thought that was a message that people could hear, especially now.
One of the coolest things about this film is the amazing array of people you feature, who come from all walks of life. How did the concept for this film take shape?
I wish I could tell you there was a process! I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! [laughs] I just knew I wanted to make it. My husband laughed because I’m probably the most stubborn person you would ever meet. I ran a marathon last year and my husband, David, ran it with me. Never once did he think I wouldn’t finish. He said, “You will finish. Even if you have to scratch and claw your way there, you will finish running that marathon!” [laughs] There is something in me, I guess from having been in this industry for so many years, that I am very good at finishing what I started. I started doing research into how to do a documentary. I also asked my friends for their help and any advice they could give me.
As far as finding the subjects, I didn’t have to work that hard because one of the benefits about a group of people who don’t necessarily get seen the way they would like to be seen is that they will raise their hand and say, “See me! I’ll be in your documentary. I’ll do this.” Someone told me to track down Helene Neville, who’s the woman in my documentary who is running across all 50 states. She’s done 49 1/2 and she’s about to finish running across Alaska. At the time, she was going to do the middle section of the United States and I wanted to follow her. I called her and she immediately said, “I start training next week. Do you want to come and film me as I train?” I said yes and I was off and running before I even meant to be because I couldn’t pass her up as she was too extraordinary!
Debbie Voiles, who is also in the film and a producer on the film, has a running club in Florida. They are a group of women who run together in a pack down there. They are best friends, giggle like teenagers and are fantastic. I think things really heated up when Kathrine Switzer signed on. It’s a funny thing because she is a feminist hero of mine as well as a running hero of mine. I basically just cold-emailed her out of the blue to ask if she would maybe consider narrating the film. One of the best benefits of being in this business since you were a fetus is that you’re used to hearing no, so you basically don’t care anymore! [laughs] I thought, “Oh, I’ll just write her and ask. The worst thing that could happen is that she would say no.” She wrote back and said, “I’m really interested in this topic because people always told me I couldn’t run because I was a woman. In 1967, they told me I would grow hair on my chest and my uterus would fall out. Now, they’re telling me I can’t run because I’m too fragile. I just ran the Boston Marathon again at the age of 70.” I believe she was four minutes slower than she was at 20, which is unbelievable! She’s amazing! She’s a superhero! She said, “If you’d like to follow me running the New York City marathon, it’ll be the first time I have run it through the streets of New York. I only did that marathon when it was all contained in the park. It will be my first time doing it like this. Do you want to follow me?” Suddenly, she became a big part of this, and Humana signed on as a corporate sponsor because they love to talk about aging actively.
Everything just sort of fell into place, but I have a sneaking suspicion that when you do things and it’s coming from a good place or a pure place, sometimes things work out that way. I was thrilled! I didn’t have a plan so much as a wing and a prayer! [laughs] Along with the hopes that I could cobble something together!
You made it look easy! You must have been doing something right!
Thank you. It was really funny because I also got a distributor, which is incredibly fortunate, because it’s one of the hardest things for filmmakers to do. Luckily, Gravitas Ventures came into the picture when someone who was working there at the time was a runner who was turning 50. They saw a trailer for my doc and said, “If we like the way the movie turns out, we’d probably want international distribution. I said, “That would be fantastic!” That sort of fell into place too. They would be shocked to hear this, but they had me on the phone and said, “OK, when you send us your deliverables, we’re going to need a shot by shot breakdown.” They were using all this jargon that I wasn’t familiar with because I had never done post-production work before. They would literally say, “How long do you think that would take?” I would be on my computer Googling the terms! I’d read whatever the answer was and say, “Ya know, I think it would be about 2 to 3 weeks. I think I could get that done.” I Forrest Gump’d my way through it but I realize a lot of people do that in this business! [laughs]
What are the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
I’m not going to lie. There were a lot! It’s one of the toughest things that I’ve ever done and also one of the most fulfilling! It was fantastic to be married to a camera operator and director of photography. That was a giant help, as you can imagine. David was traveling around with me for probably around 92 to 95 percent of it, which was fantastic. Then I hired other people for the days he couldn’t make. One of the biggest challenges was the red tape of getting to shoot in certain places. I had to learn about production insurance and shooting permits. I knew that the editing process took a handful of weeks for your average hour-long television show. However, because I was a neophyte at documentaries, I didn’t realize it would take six to eight months for a documentary. It was an extraordinarily long time and I had a really gifted editor, Leah Brewer, who was an integral part of making this happen. There were challenges every step of the way. The thing I am most proud of is that I learned about it as I went along and, now, I have a lot of friends who are making movies and I’m finding I am able to help them. That’s really great! When my distributor first called me up and asked me about “errors and omissions insurance,” which is a very important part of all this, I could have sworn they said, “Arizona Missions.” [laughs] I was like, “Arizona Missions? I’m not even shooting in Arizona. I don’t know what the hell they are talking about!” [laughs] I had to learn a lot and now I’m happy to be able to help others who are in the same boat. It’s radically changed my view on filmmaking, so I just have to pay it forward!
Making this film was a life-changing experience. What did you learn about yourself along the way?
Ya know, I don’t get as much sleep! I will wake up really early to go running, no matter what time I have to be at work or whatever I might be doing. Now, I have this voice in my head that says, “Alright, if Leo’s getting up and doing it … Terri doesn’t even like running and I know she’s running six miles this morning.” So, you don’t have a lot of excuses when you start looking at people who are decades and decades older than you are who are putting in the miles every day. That has definitely changed me. It’s also made me more optimistic about the future. I’m an optimist by nature but I just look at these people and think, “OK, now I have something to aim for. I want to age like that. I want to be Kathrine running a marathon at 70 years old.” She travels all around the country giving speeches and she’s so inspirational. She’s a light of a human being for everybody that she meets. Her schedule is mind-boggling and she’s doing it now at the age of 71. I want to do that! I believe if you show people what they can be, if they see it, they know they can be it. It certainly worked for me and has given me something to aim for!
At this point in your career, you have done it all from acting to writing to directing. How do you feel you most evolved as an artist?
I would say that I’m probably a better writer because I’ve acted. I’m probably a better actor now than I’ve been because I was directing and, now, I know more about camera shots. Ultimately, I think when you start taking part in other aspects of your business or career, you learn so much about all the other parts of it that it can’t help but bleed into the parts you are already doing. I’ve been shadowing directors lately because I’m interested in directing something scripted. Sometimes, as an actor, a director will say to you, “Can you get up and move to the refrigerator on this line?” As an actor, sometimes you go, “Well, no. I don’t really understand what motivates it.” I’ll tell ya, now as a director’s point of view, what motivates it is that it’s a really cool friggin’ shot and it’s gonna look great! [laughs] It never really shows on camera, but you never feel motivated to go on over there. Now, I’m being simplistic obviously but there are so many people who make up the finished product that I think, once you are able to get more of a view of all of it and stop being so myopic about one aspect of it, you’re invariably going to get better at all of it. I think all directors should take an acting class and all writers should go shadow a director. I think it definitely helps!
Where are you headed in the future when it comes to the projects you take on?
What I want to be doing is writing and producing my own TV show. I sold something at the end of the last year and the studio is interested in shopping it around now because it wasn’t picked up by the network that we sold it to. We are shopping it around and I have a pitch tomorrow for a totally different show. I have also been meeting with production companies to talk about other ideas I have. We are moving into pitching season, so hopefully I will sell something soon and then I will be making a TV show. I’m also thinking about making another documentary. This one would probably be about gender bias because it’s something I am really interested in. I just hate when people are told no, whether it’s because of their age or gender. It’s something that speaks to me, as well as being something I’ve dealt with, so I’m thinking about diving in and making another documentary. At least this time I moderately know what I’m doing, so I think it’s going to be a much easier road! [laughs]
What goes into pitching an idea for television in this day and age?
I’ll tell ya, the first two things I sold were spec scripts. I just wrote both of the scripts and sold them as is through the notes process and then went through the development process with the networks that they’d sold them to, which was pretty fascinating. It’s a process that I didn’t know much about. Like tomorrow, I will go in and pitch this idea to this network. If they like it, then they’re going to ask me for a story area document, at which point I have to turn in a one-page document explaining what happens in the story. If they sign-off on that, which they won’t because they will give me notes, I will fix it and send it back. Then they ask for an outline. They give you notes on the outline. Then you send in the first draft of the scripts and they give you notes on that as well. It’s a long process. The whole development process with the network takes four to six months. It’s definitely all about learning that they are always going to give notes. You’re never going to hear, “It’s perfect!” A lot of people complain about notes. I’ve found that the notes I’ve gotten from every network have a point. They may note not really being able to pitch how to fix what they are missing in your script, but they usually write that something’s not clicking. At that point, it becomes about reading the spirit of the note and going from there instead of taking the note incredibly literally. In doing so, to a large degree, it’s always made it better. I’ve had a lot of luck working with good people in that respect.
I’ve got to say that it’s really inspiring to hear how excited you are about taking on new challenges and roles within the industry you love.
That’s very sweet. Ya know, I think we are kind of circus people. [laughs] My husband has been doing it since he was very, very young too and his father was talking about how he just doesn’t understand how we basically freelance all of the time. We said, “Right but we don’t understand how you’ve had the same job for 40 years!” [laughs] Not that there’s anything wrong with either life decision because there’s not. I just think there are types of people that are just interested in one or the other. For me, it’s been about jumping from job to job, creating these little families with everybody and feeling like I’m not working for a living. That’s really the best part of it; I feel like I’ve pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes because I can’t believe I get paid to do this! That’s the goal!
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I think you have to appreciate every single moment. It sounds pat but it’s true. It’s a very ephemeral type of career. When I got one of my very first TV shows, I can remember exactly what my dressing room looked like, exactly where it was on the Paramount lot and I remember stories from doing that show. I don’t think you can take any of that for granted, so that’s one thing. I also think that comparison is the death of creativity. There are so many people out here thinking, “Oh, if I could just be so and so … ” or “If I could just accomplish such and such … then I will be happy and successful.” I guarantee you that every single person at every single stage feels that way! The trick is being happy with what you’ve got and still aiming for what you wish to have. You have to tap down any resentment that comes along the way because some people out here get pretty bitter with the divide of what they think they deserve and what they have without looking at how lucky they are to be where they are in the first place.
Before I let you go, do you have causes close to your heart that we could help shine a light on?
I’m very involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. I would say that if anyone is even partially interested investigating, they should because it will change your life. I’ve been involved with the same girl for going on four years now. I call her my Sometimes Kid. I spend time with my Sometimes Kid at least every other week, if not more. She’s become a part of the family! I think it’s an incredible organization. You start to wonder if you are actually making an impact and then, a couple of months in, it’s pretty amazing what these kids will open up and talk about with someone that they trust. I went to her graduation from fifth grade and her mom kept it a secret from her. If I ever had any doubt about making an impact, this was the moment. Her eyes when she saw that I made the drive and showed up at her gradation told me everything. The importance of showing a kid you will consistently be there for him or her can’t be overstated. That’s the cause that’s most important to me right now.
I love kids and I don’t have my own kids. David and I don’t lead lifestyles that make that very easy. It’s just an agreement that we have come to. I have strong feelings about girls being able to do everything that boys can do and being able to become the type of girl that they want to be. I always laugh and think that if I had a bio-daughter, she would probably come out pink and princessy simply because I never played with dolls. I only played with Matchbox cars and Star Wars figures. I would embrace that because that is who the kid is! I thought, “I know I can make an impact by helping a young girl be who it is she is whether or not it’s what society expects from her.” That was exciting to me. I like girls who stand up for themselves and who are confident. I read a book a long time ago called “Reviving Ophelia” and it was about how girls lose confidence, on average, when they start entering into middle school. That’s the point where they start to answer fewer questions or become more intimidated around boys. I feel a strong part of that is the way society is sort of dictating how they act; that they are supposed to take a back seat to a certain degree. Again, these are things that are changing but I’d like them to change more quickly! [laughs] It was nice to be very holds on about that. So, when a 10-year-old tells be she wants to play with a toy for a boy, I can explain that they are just toys and they aren’t toys specifically for boys or girls. If you want to play with it, it becomes a girl toy because it’s yours. Being able to do that for somebody really spoke to me.
That’s amazing! I don’t know how often you hear it, but you are an inspiration, Liz. Keep up the great work. I can’t wait to see where the next chapters of your story take you!
Thank you so much, Jason! I appreciate that. Take care and have a wonderful day!
Check out the official website for Liz Vassey’s eye-opening documentary, ‘The Human Race,’ at www.the-human-race.net. The film is available now via Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Target and Walmart. Follow her continuing adventures of through social media via Twitter!