Meet Essa O'Shea, star actress in the upcoming film "We Used to Know Eachother"! Essa's passion for acting started as a teen, performing in local theatre in her hometown of Fairfield, Iowa. She followed her bliss to LA after a year of studying acting at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts - shortly thereafter landing her first big break on the Discovery Network's television series "Harley and the Davidsons".
We chatted with Essa to learn about her journey pursuing a career in acting, her creative process for taking on new roles, and how she stays grounded in moments of self-doubt.
Tell us about yourself!
I grew up in a small town in Iowa in a community of yoga and meditation practitioners. It had a new-age vibe smashed together with the rural country. I say smashed because those two sensibilities didn't always come together harmoniously. That being said, I wouldn't trade it. Both brought out different sides of my personality. A country music-loving hippy if you will. When I was seventeen I moved to New York City to study acting and screenwriting at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. After a year I left. That decision didn't come lightly as I had worked very hard to get there. Ultimately though, with the economic collapse just a few years before entering college and professors claiming we were being taught to become "starving artists", I realized that the institution wasn't serving my end goal. I wanted to become a working artist and I wanted to put myself in an environment that could nurture that. Shortly after my first year in New York, I skipped across the country to Los Angeles. I had no concrete plans of how to make my life work but I did have a blind faith in myself. I am not entirely sure where that faith came from, but it has proven to be important in navigating the beginning stages of a career in acting, i.e., the rejection.
Congrats on your new film, "We Used to Know Eachother"! Tell us about the film and what it was like having a leading role.
Thank you! It's a little indie that could. It's about a couple. He lives in Portugal and she lives in Las Vegas. They have been long-distance for years. He comes to visit her and the film follows them as they come together and try to figure out what their relationship means in its current iteration. It's pretty raw, uncomfortable at times, and has some dark humor sprinkled in there too. I think anyone who has experienced the throws and difficulties that can come with romantic relationships will be able to relate. After showing at festivals over the past couple years, it will be out on Amazon Prime on December 15th!
What inspired you to go into acting? How did you get started in the industry?
I was an extremely introverted kid but I always had a buried desire to perform. I think that I saw it as a way to connect with others, which was something I struggled with. I started doing local theater as a teenager. Then, when it came to applying to colleges, I began looking at the best acting programs. I don't remember actually making a conscious decision to pursue acting. For whatever reason, it was just an area of work and life that made sense to me. I felt like I had something to offer that was unique and that made me feel like I had a place in the world. That meant everything to me because I wrestled a lot with those big existential questions like "Why am I here?" and "What does this all mean?". To feel a sense of purpose, or at the very least, to have a way to cope, has been the reason I've continued even when challenges have arisen. My first foray into the industry was doing independent shorts, working on my own film projects, and gathering experience and footage. Eventually, through a referral from a director I worked with, Mylissa Fitzsimmons, I signed with my first agent. Initially, they only wanted to take me on commercially because of my lack of experience but I convinced them to take me on theatrically on a trial basis. That's where that blind faith comes back in. I figured I might as well ask and, in that instance, I received.
How do you get yourself into character, what's your creative process?
It's never the same. I'm not married to a method, personally. I start with reading the material I have been given. That will give me a vague sense of what that character is bringing up for me. Then I'll take into account notes I may have been given about what the writer or director is looking for. It really snowballs from there. Subtle things, like the way sentences, are structured or certain mannerisms I find, help me define the specificity or uniqueness of a character. Beyond that, it's a little magical fairy dust that I can't really explain.
What's a day in the life like?
It varies so much. If I am working on a project then it usually involves waking up early, going to set, sitting in hair and makeup, shooting, taking off hair and makeup, and then prepping in the evening for the next day. If I am auditioning, which I am doing a lot of at this stage of my career, the majority of my time is spent prepping and memorizing. That can mean memorizing anywhere from 4-20ish pages at a time, having multiple full-length scripts to read and dissect, as well as the obvious of actually finding and building a character. Other than that, it's finding side hustles to sustain myself if acting isn't supporting me fully at that time, and prioritizing time to be creative. I've found that it's really important for me to keep that creative channel open if I'm not working on a set at the moment. Whether it's writing, painting, or adding to my ideas journal, keeping that part of my brain alive and stimulated is vital. That way when I get a part to work on or an audition, I'm already engaged and present. I think creativity is connected and even if you choose to focus on a specific area, expressing yourself through other creative outlets can help keep you from becoming stagnant.
What was it like landing your first big break on Harley & the Davidsons? Tell us about that experience!
Pretty cool. It was actually a relatively short process for casting I have since learned. Initially, I sent in a tape of about three scenes. A week or so later I was called and told I was pinned which means that my agent has to notify casting if any conflicts come up for me. Then I went in for casting and about a week after that I got the call I was booked. It was pretty surreal. A few months later I was off the Romania to shoot for a good portion of the year. One of my first scenes was out on a street on the studio lot that the production had built to look like Milwaukee in the early 1900's. I had never been on a set of that scale. There were hundreds of crew and extras, all for this little two person scene. I think that was my first glimpse into the machine of filmmaking. There are so many moving parts.
Who inspires you? Who do you look up to in the industry?
I admire a lot of people working in this industry. Currently, I find myself gravitating towards multi-hyphenate female filmmakers. For instance, Phoebe Waller-bridge wrote, starred, and produced "Fleabag" which is one of my favorite shows of the last few years. Or of course Reese Witherspoon, Margot Robbie, Alicia Vikander, and many more who used their success as actors to start production companies. There isn't a lot of power over the outcome or casting of a film when you're just an actor. I really admire women stepping forward and making projects that they are passionate about.
What's your big dream for your career path?
I'd like to continue to work with people I admire on projects I am passionate about. Beyond that, I hope that some of those projects end up being pieces that I have written. I know that's vague, but I truly believe it's important to leave room for surprises when it comes to a career. It makes those moments all the more exciting and helps me stay present. Otherwise, my ambition can make every new endeavor feel like a box to be checked as opposed to an experience to be grateful for.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've had? & Most rewarding moments?
There is no linear path to a career like this. No two careers are the same and there are peaks and valleys at all stages. I think staying solid in myself when I am experiencing the lows that come along with auditioning and rejection is my greatest day to day challenge. The most rewarding moments come while actually doing the work. I never feel happier or more in my element when I am working on something or on set. This is going to sound cliche, but it truly is my happy place.
In moments of self-doubt, how do you build yourself back up? What keeps you grounded? Do you have any self-care rituals you swear by?
First, I call my mom, a friend, or my boyfriend. I am very lucky to have unbelievably supportive people in my life. Just hearing another person's voice helps me come back to center. After that, I focus on the things I am in control of and little things I can do that bring me happiness. I love cooking healthy and indulgent meals. It makes me feel nourished and taken care of. I will often write my feelings of self doubt out. That way, I can revisit it later and it helps me see that those thoughts are temporary. I love a good bath with candles, epsom salts, and Enya. Truly, though, the biggest help for me when it comes to dealing with depression or self doubt is my little pup Buffy. There is nothing a good cuddle or stroll with her can't fix. She's so silly!
What's on your bucket list for 2020?
Travel. I want to go somewhere I've never been.
What's a personal motto / quote you live by?
I'm just trying to love big, create something meaningful, and say fuck it to the things that don't matter. Not easy when you're a worrier!
What are your favorite spots to eat, shop, explore in LA?
I live in Echo Park so I'm partial to places I can walk to. The food in LA is so, so good. I love Sage, Monty's, Sticky Rice, and Ronan to name a few. I love Bar Flores for live music on the weekends. For shopping, I tend to go vintage or second-hand. I'm super down for a unique find and there are a ton of places to get thrifty in my area. When it comes to exploring I love to go to the water or get out of the city a little ways for a hike or a camping trip. AND, big fan of The Getty and museums in general.
What does "following your bliss" mean to you?
Throwing caution to the wind and unapologetically doing YOU.
What are your favorite pieces by f.y.b?
I pretty religiously only wear gold. Lucky for me f.y.b. has some really beautiful, dainty gold jewelry. I love all of my pearl and gold pieces. They just kind of go with everything and make me feel more put together. Like frosting on a cake!
Connect with Essa!
Watch her film "We Used to Know Eachother" streaming on Amazon Prime 12/15!