As many successful Hollywood actors can attest, breaking into the industry is not an easy task and not one for the faint of heart.
But one former Langford resident is starting to turn some heads in Vancouver’s film industry.
Athena Russell’s short film, High Five Goodbye, made its public debut earlier this month at the prestigious Whistler Film Festival.
“It’s one of the biggest things my work has screened at,” she said.
Russell was one of five finalists in a competition that saw each filmmaker supplied with a Canon camera package to create their shorts – a $7,000 equipment package that the winner got to keep.
“We were only allowed to use ambient light,” she said, adding that is incredibly unusual in the industry. “They really wanted us to showcase what the camera can do.”
Russell and the other finalists were given a crash course in how to operate the camera before being turned loose. They were given just five days to complete their shooting, but Russell and her crew did it in one. “We shot eight-and-a-half pages in a day and in the film world, that’s insane,” she said. “It was very fast moving.”
High Five Goodbye is a quirky, slapstick romantic comedy that centres around a couple who try to end their day with an awkward high five instead of a kiss. But their hands get stuck together when a freak piece of gum falls from the sky. “These two people that don’t want to be stuck together have to spend the day together,” Russell said.
She not only co-directed the piece, she played the lead. “It made for a very crazy day. It’s a lot of physical comedy … I didn’t realize how exhausting it would be, I was sore.”
The 25-year-old had a modest start to her career, joining the PACE musical theatre program in Grade 5 and going through Dunsmuir middle school’s arts program. Later, she made the shift to Spectrum’s high school’s theatre program and would spend an hour and a half busing to and from school every day.
“Performing arts has always been in my blood,” she said.
Despite the modest start, this actress/writer/director/producer has lofty goals. “To have my own show by 35, that would be the dream,” she said. “I find such a joy in this. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
On her way to achieving that goal, Russell doesn’t take much time for herself. “It’s been a busy year and a half,” she said. “(But) if you love it, it’s not work.”
While Russell is starting to turn heads in the industry, she was originally shooting to reach Broadway. But after graduating from high school and starting SchoolCreative’s full-time acting intensive program in Vancouver, she quickly realized, “I’m not quite tall enough to be in the chorus and I’m not good enough to be the lead.”
So she made the shift to television and movies. “It was super scary,” she said, recalling her first few times in front of a camera. But now, she said, “I call it that spark moment. That a-ha moment.”
That’s not to say her path has been easy. She found herself at a point where she wasn’t getting any callbacks and was starting to doubt her career choice. “As an artist you feel stale,” she said. A colleague suggested she try her hand at writing. She sat down with a friend, had a few drinks and in an evening they had written three episodes of a web series. She went to camera three days later and Almost Actors is now in its second season.
Russell is also trying to create more female-driven content that features women in well-rounded roles. “I think a woman can be funny and smart and still have her clothes on,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait for those roles … I’m making the films I’ve always wanted to watch.”
Now with her own production company and a number of films, television shows and web series under her belt, she’s quick to credit the people in her life that have helped her reach this point. She also hasn’t forgotten about her friends back on the Island. “The western communities are such a home and I’m so grateful to still have that connection.”
For more information on Russell and some of her projects, go to imdb.com/name/nm4689088.