MEET Anna Baryshnikov. The young star of DICKINSON gets into it with SBJCT about running your own race, her acting process, and why democracy gets her going. And, you know, how telling stories can make a difference in our lives. Read on below…
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Erin Walsh To start, I want to address your interest in being an actor and why. Were you always drawn to acting? I know performing is in your blood, of course, but how did you start finding yourself drawn to the arts and this world? I am curious about the beginning moments.
Anna Baryshnikov Hi! Of course. Well, the arts were so imbedded in my home life growing up. It felt like second nature to want to be part of that world. I tried ballet, but I was a terrible dance student. Too messy, too loud, wrong feet, all over the place. Then my neighbor started a Children’s Shakespeare Theater and she needed young kids to be in her production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream to play the fairies. I was six years old and got completely hooked on the feeling of being on stage. I started telling people I was an actress – probably to have an identity other than ‘garbage ballerina.’ But it stuck – I just fell in love with it. Shakespeare rehearsal became my favorite time of the day. It was so playful and collaborative. I loved the community. I loved how fiercely committed we all were. I was allowed to be goofy but also take myself seriously there, which is rare as a kid.
EW Talk to me about auditioning. How old were you when you started? How do you find the process?
AB I begged to work professionally from a really young age and my parents nixed the idea. They were protective. I was allowed to start auditioning when I was sixteen, but my parents were very intent on not helping me get representation. I found an acting class online and got a manager through that who sent me out on mostly commercials. I remember walking into these cattle calls of girls and immediately loathing myself for how little makeup I was wearing. I got a good dose of rejection right off the bat, which was tough. I had this idea that if I was going to have a career, I had to be a wunderkind. I had to be starring in quality films by the time I was 18 or it wasn’t going to happen at all. Meanwhile, I’m getting rejected for Verizon commercials and mayonnaise ads. It was a great lesson. If I wanted a career I was going to have to have to turn failure into fuel over and over again. When I finally did book something – a Staples commercial – I was so happy I cried. I went to college to study theater after that, but am always grateful for how much thicker my skin is because of that time period. It’s a good reminder, honestly! It’s easy to always focus on tackling the next big goal, but once upon a time getting a Staples commercial made my year.
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EW How do you do it these days? I imagine many of your friends these days might also be actors, perhaps often up for similar parts? Are you competitive? Is it comforting or confusing hanging out with actors a lot? I don’t mean this to be a leading question (!) haha, I just am curious- is there a sense of community that comes in the female actor in your 20s-30s world? What do you think?
AB I am friends with a lot of actors! It’s comforting more than anything – we can commiserate and celebrate together. Especially since the industry has shifted to self-tapes, we have to help each other constantly. We’re in each other’s living rooms, trying to make the other person’s work look good. And it pays off – nothing feels better than cheering on my friend’s performances. With my own work, I’ll always be caught up in my own self-critical neurosis, but I can feel unabashedly proud of my friends. That said – I’d be lying if I said that it’s not temping to compare myself to them at moments. We’re all ambitious – it happens. I think that’s human. Oprah had a quote about this that’s stuck with me – she says “you can only run your own race.” You’ll only slow down when you glance to the side to look at someone else. The only goal is to be better than I was yesterday.
EW Who were some of your role models and mentors growing up?
AB Oh god, I watched so many movies and loved actors so much. I always looked up to actresses who swerved between drama and comedy and being ingenues and character actresses. Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Madeline Kahn, Meryl Streep.
In terms of mentors, I’d say my Mom. She leads by example – she’s independent, intellectually curious, clever, handy, and very funny.
EW Who are you most recent mentors and guides?
AB I can’t claim her as a mentor, but I am in total awe of Isabella Rossellini. She lives by her own rulebook. She’s brave, honest and outspoken. And she loves animals! So I do.
EW Tell me a bit about your acting process. What are you tricks and tools and go-to’s…. What’s the process of creating a character like for you?
AB It really changes depending on the role. Dickinson is so cross-disciplinary. It’s a period drama, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a cooky comedy, it has a splash of experimental theater. So I get to use a lot of different tools. I did research about the Dickinson family and women in 1850s New England. But I also did all of the fun daydreaming, scrapbooking, and playlist compiling about who Lavinia would be in 2019. I wanted her to feel truthful in both centuries.
She lives by her own rulebook.
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EW What are you most currently excited about recently?
AB Reading and nature. The simple joys.
EW I am curious- you grew up with a family that had its share of attention from the world and the press- do you feel protective of your privacy? Anything you resent from having that experience?
AB I totally understand why you would say that, but it never felt like my family got that kind of attention growing up. It could be because my parents are so private that they didn’t invite much of it, but there also genuinely didn’t seem to be that much interest. Sure, fans would occasionally approach my dad, but I never resented that and neither did he. In my case, I don’t feel overly protective of my own privacy because from what I can tell, nobody cares that much. Why would they, you know? I like it that way!
EW What centers you? I find the experience of being an actor these days to be sensorially exhausting, and there are so many MEDIA requirements you have to attend to, including the social media bits. And of course interviews with digital platforms like us. How do you stay calm in the storm?
AB I’m learning to parse out what is actually my job. There are so many media opportunities that could theoretically “be helpful” for my career, but I don’t know how concrete that correlation is and sometimes I doubt if that’s even true. My goal is only to keep acting, so all this feels extra-curricular – in a good way. I’m trying to saying yes to what feels creative and inspiring, instead of getting product oriented about it. This shoot is a perfect example. Watching you style me was so exciting. You were so improvisational – it reminded me of jazz! And these are such thoughtful questions. I’d do this any day of the week.
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EW What are you fave NYC spots?
AB Prospect park before 9am when dogs are allowed off-leash. Joe’s Pizza. Books Are Magic. The Russian Samovar. The piers along the west side highway at sunset.
EW Favorite film of all time?
AB Some Like It Hot / Legally Blonde
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EW Piece of work you have taken part in that you feel most proud?
AB Dickinson! Also, this little play I did right out of school called Horse Girls. It was a very DIY production – we were all paid in metrocards, but it was one of my favorite creative experiences and I met two of my best friends through it.
EW What are you cooking when I come over for dinner?
AB Vodka martinis! And plum crisp for dessert. I learned that from my Mom and I think mine is delish if I do say so myself. As far as the actual food, we might end up ordering pizza because I’ll be so pleased with myself for the martinis and crisp.
EW Where is home these days?
EW What is making you tick currently besides this crazy of profession of yours? What are you passionate about? Any causes that you would like us to be aware of?
AB Fair Fight – Stacey Abram’s initiative to fight for free and fair elections. Our electoral system is so stacked against people of color, marginalized communities, and young people. There is so much at stake in this election. I’m so energized by Stacey and carving out as big a chunk as possible of my schedule in 2020 to get people registered to vote. True democracy gets me goin’.
I’ll be so pleased with myself for the martinis and crisp.
EW Why act? What’s the point? Do you think there is a greater social responsibility that comes with being an actor and being in the arts?
AB I do believe that art has the potential to be a catalyst for social change. Without putting too fine a point on it, my Dad fled Soviet Russian for artistic freedom. I know firsthand that the arts can be a form of resistance. That doesn’t mean that the work has to be inherently political. Even just encouraging compassion feels like resistance these days. If a story can strike a chord in someone and make them feel like they understand themselves or someone else a little better, that’s a successful piece of work. I’m not one of those people who believe artists to be somehow enlightened or doing more meaningful work than anyone else. I just know stories make a difference in our lives, so it feels worthwhile to be part of telling them.
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EW What is next on your to do list?
AB I have a list of films I haven’t seen that I’m working my way through. Amadeus is next. And laundry. Always laundry.
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EW What is your SBJCT Anna?
AB My SBJCT is compassion. And martinis! And plum crisp.