INTERVIEW ERIN WALSH
PHOTO CHRISTIAN HOGSTEDT
MEET Cleopatra Coleman, actor, writer, musician… SBJCT spoke with Cleo about what being a storyteller means to her, the power of encouraging empathy, and why art must contribute on a higher plane. Read on below…
SWEATER Elder Statesman JEANS Giambattista Valli
Erin Walsh Hi Cleo! Thank you so much for joining us. I would love to get into your work and what makes you tick, but let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you ended up as a working actor?
Cleopatra Coleman I couldn’t think of a better place to start! I was lucky enough to grow up in Byron Bay, Australia. It’s an idyllic coastal town known for alternative communities and lifestyles. It was a very free and creative place for me to spread my wings as far as exploring creativity and the idea of being an artist for a living. Also I come from a family of artists, so there had never been a time when being an artist wasn’t encouraged. I guess you could say it’s a family business. There was never that whole sit your family down and tell them you’re not going to be a doctor conversation. It was like -Dad’s working on music, Mum’s delving into sacred geometry, what’re you doing??? better hop to it, kid!
EW We spoke about the journey of finding a character, and the tools you harness to do so. I know accents are one tool for you, and everything from the cadence, tone, rhythm, vocal range- you found to be helpful. Tell us a bit about your process of finding characters, what is your toolbox, and how this might vary from role to role.
CC We did speak about that, and it’s so interesting. I think when we spoke I was just getting ready for a new project in which I have a West Virginia accent and we were discussing how environment can influence the way a certain group of people talk. How much they do or don’t open their mouths. The focus on the jaw as opposed to other parts of the face, and boom! All of a sudden you’re speaking in character. Dialect and accent have been a large part of my career, obviously being Australian, most of my work involves getting rid of my natural way of speaking. I think living in Los Angeles the past 10 years has helped tremendously. And from there, I take the specifics of the character and I ask myself questions- how does my character sound when she feels strong? How does she sound when she’s threatened. When she’s at work versus home with her partner? All of these things help me get into the dialect and behavior.
EW I am curious, having acted for almost 2 decades now, what has changed for you in terms of your intent as an artist? That is, are your reasons for wanting to act and what you consider your purpose as an artist to be different from what they used to be?
CC The nicest thing about having had all this experience is that I have been able to really hone in on what storytelling means to me. I always loved performing, from dance to acting to now singing and songwriting, but what’s cool is I know exactly why I do it. And what I want to get out of it. I’m drawn to very different kinds of projects, I play a lot of vastly different characters, but I am particularly interested in complex women. The more complex the better. The more dichotomy the better. If they contradict themselves- great! I’m into exploring the idea that people are more than just one thing. That’s something we are struggling with in society at the moment. A woman can be sexy and intelligent at the same time. So called “terrible” people have vulnerability for example.
EARRINGS Melissa Kaye
EW As someone with a growing platform, what do you feel in the way of social responsibility and how you put out, say, information about yourself and what you believe in, and on the other hand, what kind of message roles you might play could be putting out there?
CC I always try to encourage empathy as much as I can. But I am someone who’s always been more comfortable with action rather than talking about doing something. There is so much noise these days. There are many causes I contribute without saying a word about it on social media. I also believe there are real activists who own their space and are often much more educated than I. I would rather amplify them. Same goes for art. It needs to be a contribution, there has to be a reason to do it. I am also more comfortable putting my activism into my art. I try to choose projects that are trying to say something about the world at large and have somewhat of a message at their core. A contribution.
EW I want to talk about self discovery- you described to me the process of really finding yourself by shaving your head and escaping, and letting go. Tell us about this journey.
CC It was truly the most freeing thing. As an actress for so much of my life, I had grown almost paralyzed at the idea of changing my hair in any small way. You feel this sense of pressure to keep a certain signature look in order to keep working. And I think I just needed to rebel against that. As much as I am completely dedicated to my art, I have a healthy disregard for it. Each one of my tattoos is like a marker of me taking something for myself. It’s not all for the cameras. And same goes for having my head. It was the best thing ever. Highly recommend. Will do again.
DRESS AND SHOES Balmain
Each one of my tattoos is like a marker of me taking something for myself.
EW Tell us about The Right One. What was it that drew you to this project, and what do you hope people take from it?
CC As a child of the 90’s I grew up watching Rom Coms, and I had never seen one with someone who looked like me in the lead role. So that was a big part of why I said yes. Representation is a great box to be able to tick. Not only that, I loved the script, I found it to be genuinely so funny. It’s unique in that it tackles mental health in a way that I hadn’t seen done in this genre. Any conversation that destigmatizes mental health struggles is one worth having. There’s not an adult person on this planet- especially now, that hasn’t struggled with their mental health in some form at some point. And so The Right One felt like a cool way to both subvert and celebrate the classic rom com.
EW Describe your character Sara to us…
CC Sara I found to be so endearing in her unscrupulous cluelessness. There’s something so loveable about someone who just has no idea how to be a person. She’s someone who is living a somewhat unexamined life, writing romance novels for millennials that she doesn’t really believe in. She’s someone who found success in college as a writer and just settled there. Then she meets Godfrey who, because of trauma he dealt with in childhood, has decided to create all these personas to avoid being himself, and when they collide, they each learn the value of authenticity.
EW I love the range of your roles, like that this is more rom-com territory, and I know you are off to shoot Dopesick, which examines America’s opioid addiction crisis. Given the range of characters you play and the projects you tackle, how do you find and harness YOU in between? Do you find it difficult to let go of characters once they are done?
CC There’s nothing more satisfying than coming home, taking off all your makeup and letting the day fade away. I love being on set more than anything… but there’s such an utterly blissful feeling that comes with taking the character off. I’m really sensitive so when working with darker materials sometimes it can be hard to shake the mood. Music helps immensely. And my dog George. He always brings it back to square one: Where is my food mum? The basics.
TOP Chanel JACKET AND PANTS Cecilie Copenhagen
EW What has pandemic living been like for you? How have you been coping, what keeps you sane, and what rituals do you find to be helpful?
CC Aside from the emotional ups and downs I have found an anchor in being creative. I wrote an album. Now I just have to get to the studio to record it. I released my first single, After Midnight in the throws of quarantine and I can’t wait to get more out there.
EW Who has been most instrumental in terms of grounding and guiding you, helping you to harness the person you are and are meant to be?
CC My parents in equal measure and the wisdom of true allies in this business. I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to work with some really incredible humans so far.
Then covid happened. Then George Floyd happened and the depth and breadth of current emergencies was undeniable.
LOOK EDDIE BAUER x KARLA
EW What do you find most exciting about being an actor?
CC I love being on set. I get giddy on set. I get excited when I take stock, which I often do, and I look around the sound stage or the random location in the middle of nowhere, and I see all these different people, from different backgrounds with different roles and departments, and we are all working towards a shared goal. I think if the world could be a little more like that it would be a better place.
EW What do you find to be most frustrating?
CC Being away from loved ones. The first two weeks are brilliant. And then it feels a bit like you’re missing something.
EW Do you have anything in the way of a mantra?
CC I don’t need to be right.
EW Do you keep 5 and 10 year plans?
CC I try to live in the present moment as much as I can but I am such a little planner. I love lists. I have a million plans.
EW Is there anything about yourself or how you have been portrayed in the media that you would like to set the record straight on? I give you free reign to do so here…
CC Not really. Or maybe I just haven’t read it. I try not to read that stuff it’s not healthy.
EW What do you hope your legacy to be?
CC There are no mistakes, only journeys.
EW What should we be reading?
CC Since we can’t go see it, read the play Top Girls by Caryl Churchill.
EW What should we be watching?
CC The Right One, duh!
SWEATER Elder Statesman
EW What charities and/ or causes are important to you? Any ways you find particularly helpful to move people to action? How do you use your platform to do so?
CC Well the bushfires in my home country really tore my heart into shreds and I felt implored to do something. So I donated as much as I could, I educated myself on fast fashion, meat consumption and reforestation and I encouraged others to see that it is truly an emergency. Then covid happened. Then George Floyd happened and the depth and breadth of current emergencies was undeniable. Sometimes it’s hard to know which way to turn to help. And the internet is so loud, sometimes you feel like you are screaming into a void. So I just donate donate donate. Sometimes I wake up and I look for charities on charitynavigator.org I do what I can.
EW Cleo, What’s Your SBJCT? What really moves and motivates you?
CC Empathy. And storytelling. Both are so important to humanity. We want to see ourselves. And when we aren’t seeing ourselves, to be transported into the life of someone who, without story telling we could never empathize with, is such an imperative part of the human experience.
SHOES Ulla Johnson LOOK Elder Statesman