Interview with Katie O'Grady, Director, Writer, Actor
Katie O’Grady, acclaimed actress, owner of Alcove Productions LLC, Acting for Kids and Teens, The Studio Northwest, and native Oregonian was told to “Stop smiling” then found her truth, turned her life upside down and now helps teens find their truth.
Julie Roehm: We're here today with Katie O'Grady. Katie owns Alcove Productions LLC. Her first feature film, Rid of Me, premiered in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival and received The New York Times Critics Pick of the Week, and she went on to sell it to Showtime, Amazon and Netflix. Katie's second feature, Undeserved, is a faith-based feature film that won critical awards at the International Christian Film Festival, as well as many other festivals and [00:00:30] she's a 20-year veteran in the acting community. Her highlights include Portlandia, Everything Sucks on Netflix, and one of my personal favorites, Grim from NBC. She was listed on an Oscar watch list for best actress in 2011 and nominated for best comedic actress by women in film alongside the greats like Melissa McCarthy, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristen Wiig, super impressive. Katie is the owner of Acting for Kids and Teens, the northwest premier acting studio. [00:01:00] She also owns and operates The Studio Northwest in Portland, Oregon and was recently featured in Shoot Magazine in 2019's up and coming director for her work on Nike's Behind the Design. A promo for Laika Studio?
Katie O'Grady: Laika.
Julie Roehm: Laika. She has three screenplays completed and is currently directing the play, Tigers Be Still. Wow.
Katie O'Grady: I like how you say all that put together.
Julie Roehm: I am in awe. It's beautiful. Thank you for coming.
Katie O'Grady: Thank you. Thank you For having me here. I mean that. Thank you so much.
Julie Roehm: [00:01:30] It's truly my pleasure. This is so much fun for me and I love your passion for the art of acting and not only your commitment to it, but your desire to try to give back. I know we mentioned your organization to help teens and we talked a little bit about that, but isn't it a bit unusual to center an acting career in Portland Oregon? I think of it like LA, New York.
Katie O'Grady: Well I do too.
Julie Roehm: Yeah.
Katie O'Grady: I think most of us living here think [00:02:00] of that in LA or New York, but we moved here because of the beauty and the opportunity to really live a beautiful, balanced life. A lot of us are very centered with the outdoors, with nature, hiking, river walks. I have a cabin on the river. I want to raise my kids in this place with just good community, good people, good food. You make that choice.
Julie Roehm: That's a thing. Good food that's enough said for me.
Katie O'Grady: Right?
Julie Roehm: I tell you, yes.
Katie O'Grady: We're known for it.
Julie Roehm: I love coming to Portland to eat my way through.
Katie O'Grady: Yes.
Julie Roehm: Okay, [00:02:30] so how did you get the acting bug? Was this something that it was your plan from the onset or how did that emerge in you?
Katie O'Grady: Oh yes, yes, since I came out of the womb, definitely going to be in the business somewhere, absolutely.
Julie Roehm: From day one?
Katie O'Grady: Yes, but I lived in a little small town, Medford, Oregon. I think now it's home of 60,000, so it was tiny back then and there weren't a lot of opportunities. I just got really lucky to have super creative dad and a mom, who had a really smart business mind on how to get where you [00:03:00] want to go. That combination I think really helped propel me into sticking with what I believed in, what I wanted but then also make a plan for it, figure out how to get there. I just got really lucky being able to embrace imagination growing up.
Julie Roehm: You said you were from Medford. I believe you had told me when we spoke earlier that you were ... Are you fifth generation Oregonian?
Katie O'Grady: Oh yes, girl, Oh yes. I'm fifth generation Oregonian. My daughter is sixth generation. What's so funny is people [00:03:30] who aren't from here, they say, "I'm so tired of hearing people from Portland talk about what generation they are," but we're so proud of it.
Julie Roehm: Oh really?
Katie O'Grady: Yeah.
Julie Roehm: I've never heard that. I think that's great. As somebody who moved all over the place, I think having that kind of roots, especially in a beautiful place like this, is amazing.
Katie O'Grady: Yeah. Doesn't mean we're not well-traveled or we don't get out, but it's just something to be really proud of.
Julie Roehm: My Gosh. Okay, so as we spoke earlier, before the recording, because I wanted to get a little insight into your background and I told you that I [00:04:00] love to try to understand people's Holy Shit Moments or Hoshimos or Hoshimoms, and you have had I think so many, probably throughout your career, but I always think that there's probably always one or two that transform our plan. From the moment you were born and you were like, "Acting is the thing," was there anything that happened or any one moment that changed your thinking, maybe stopped you from moving to LA and [00:04:30] doing commercials and then getting to film, versus what you've done today and giving back to the teens in the community?
Katie O'Grady: Yeah. I'm so glad you asked me that prior to this to just be thinking about because we don't often sit back and think about that. It's an incredible moment for all of us to just go, "What was the thing?" And I'm just struck by the memory of an amazing acting coach that I had, Laurel Smith Vouvray, who was here from New York and LA, teaching. I got in with her right away. [00:05:00] For those in the acting community, She's Meisner-based. She trained with Sanford Meisner, one of the greats. I remember a class where she looked at me and said, "You can stop smiling now."
Julie Roehm: That's super strange.
Katie O'Grady: I just thought that's the worst thing I've ever heard. I defended.
Julie Roehm: She must be from New York.
Katie O'Grady: Yes, that's definitely. Exactly. That's what I thought. She said, "You never stop smiling and it's driving me crazy. You have permission to not smile, to not be happy, to not present." Her and I got into it at the moment. [00:05:30] I was like, "That is not at all what I'm about. My mom is a smiler. I'm a smiler." Well, that struck me so deeply because that started the journey of embracing truth and embracing what you're really feeling and not presenting something that isn't authentic. It changed my whole life. It changed absolutely everything. I think now what I do is always about the pursuit of truth. When I go back and I think of a defining moment, it's that moment of permission [00:06:00] to be me.
Julie Roehm: Yeah. When you had that moment, did it make you look back on more than maybe your plan for your career but maybe your personal life as well? Did that have an influence beyond the walls of career?
Katie O'Grady: It did. The story gets a little bit sadder at that point, because I realized that I wasn't living authentically with the husband that I was with and one of the greatest men I'll ever get to know. [00:06:30] But I wasn't able to be authentic. When I started to be, I just found that that wasn't a truth in my life anymore. I knew though that if I was going to pursue truth and pursue who I really was and what I really wanted to be doing, that I had to make changes that were potentially going to be very destructive to family and friends and indeed were. But looking back now, I'm not really sure if I would still be able to be here today if I hadn't done that. [00:07:00] Not saying that I'm a proponent of destroying marriages and pursuit of truth, but that's what I had to do for myself to find truth.
Julie Roehm: Well and it's probably for your ex-husband as well. There was probably some truth that he had to come to realization to as well, I would imagine. Because it's a couple, it's two parts to the whole.
Katie O'Grady: Yeah. Yeah, I think so too. We've stayed friends to this day and he lives down the street and he's an amazing dad.
Julie Roehm: That's great.
Katie O'Grady: Yeah, it's all the fears [00:07:30] that I thought would happen in that pursuit of authenticity are not what came to be.
Julie Roehm: There's a great study that I read just when you mentioned these fears and they talk about worry and that we as humans, we worry about so much. But they had done some study and again how exactly true, because it's such a personal thing, but they said 80% of what we worry about actually never comes to fruition or 90%. It was some massive number, because our [00:08:00] capability for imagining the worst is so amazing. But actually what is real is much less frightening.
Katie O'Grady: I just laugh, because that's got to be closer to 100% for me. I feel everything I worry about, it doesn't come to fruition.
Julie Roehm: Right. It's crazy.
Katie O'Grady: It's a waste of time.
Julie Roehm: Right, the truth is so much easier to embrace. But going back to that truth and because it had such an impact on your life in that pursuit of truth for yourself. [00:08:30] You've done, and we mentioned it in the opening, you've done so much to try to not only live that yourself but help others live that, especially young people, who are interested in this industry, in the acting industry. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Katie O'Grady: Oh yeah, absolutely. During the divorce process, I went from not working at all to having to work. I thought, "Well what can I do? I'm kind of an actor and I know that these things are true and I could teach." That brought me into a whole path that I never expected, [00:09:00] never dreamt of, never anticipated, sometimes questioned, "What am I doing?" But it was exactly the place that I'm supposed to be, because I went from having eight students a week to sometimes 200 a week in the program. It's all about the pursuit of truth. We live that as actors, living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. But then we ask that of the kids to live truthfully, authentically in their own lives and that has engaged so many [00:09:30] wonderful conversations with kids and teens and so many life experiences with them that I just didn't know I was going to have.
Julie Roehm: Yeah. You've got little tricks to try to engage the kids, and we talked a little bit, having teens myself, just differences of kids now versus then, but you'd mentioned something about a share circle.
Katie O'Grady: Oh yeah, yeah.
Julie Roehm: Will you talk a little bit about that?
Katie O'Grady: Yeah. A share a circle is just a place of truth. I'm not [00:10:00] interested in small talk. I go back again to my coach, who was like, "I don't want to see your smile and see your presentation. I want to see you." It's an opportunity for us to quiet ourselves. We sit down, we light some candles and I just say, "Look, you can tell me what you want to tell me, but I'm looking for truth. I'm looking for what it is today that hurts, not the little stuff but what is the peace in you that's stuck? Where's it getting stuck? I want to hear that."
Katie O'Grady: I'm not a therapist and I don't try to pretend like I'm one, [00:10:30] goodness. But I think that our kids and our teens want to be heard and beyond that, they want to be seen. When they are seen, they want to know that they're okay, that what they are, whatever it is in that moment, cutter, drinker, having too much sex, depressed, whatever it is, gay, that they're just allowed to be themselves and to have that pain and to have that moment. We talk about [00:11:00] it and then we check in later like, "Hey, how's that going? I need to know that we're on a path of growing out of this phase and growing into this next phase."
Julie Roehm: It's crazy to hear. Did you ever envision, as you were thinking about your life, out of the womb, going into acting, now you're doing this and now you're in share circles where teens are talking about cutting or suicide or promiscuous or whatever it is, whatever [00:11:30] their vice is. How has that-
Katie O'Grady: No, never. Heavens, no. No, no, no.
Julie Roehm: [crosstalk 00:11:33].
Katie O'Grady: Like most adults, I was like, "Oh they're kids. They're going through their thing." But I've seen and I understand so much more now and no is the answer. I didn't really even know that that was what was happening in the program for years later. We've been doing this now 11 years. Until kids started saying to me after they left, "Oh, that was so impactful. That changed my life." Or I'm still close with those kids because of [00:12:00] what we shared. We both lost our mom. We both understand those feelings.
Katie O'Grady: I didn't know this or I didn't know that the most beautiful girl in class truly, a model, cannot stand to look at herself in the mirror and couldn't say out loud to me, "I'm beautiful." She could not physically say that. I think those experiences and those moments suddenly started waking me up to the fact that this is a thing that they've created. I made space for it, but they created it.
Julie Roehm: You spoke that you've been doing this for 11 years, [00:12:30] so let's do the quick math. You started this in '08?
Katie O'Grady: Yes.
Julie Roehm: Okay, so '08 and I think with the first iPhone came out like '05-ish, '06.
Katie O'Grady: Right. Nobody had a window.
Julie Roehm: [crosstalk 00:12:41] iPhones.
Katie O'Grady: Right.
Julie Roehm: It seems like we've all had iPhones or smart phones forever, but really it's not been that long. You were in that timeframe. My reason for asking is that I can imagine and I'm interested in your viewpoint about how kids have changed over, from when you started [00:13:00] in '08 to today, given that screens have become the dominant feature. I know I can speak to my teens' lives and their life, but I have to imagine it's made a big difference in those share circles and the issues that they have.
Katie O'Grady: I don't think anybody is quite as aware of how detrimental the screens are to our kids, unless you're directly working with teens. It's beyond anybody's capacity for understanding of what's happening. Because certainly 10 years [00:13:30] ago, 11 years ago, nobody even had a cell phone. They weren't even allowed to get one until they were like 16, 17 but we went from being able to really communicate, talk, having them engaged, having them listening, answering ...
Julie Roehm: Face-to-face.
Katie O'Grady: ... eye contact, face-to-face to now I can literally sometimes be giving a passionate speech about something they really care about and I feel like I'm looking out at a sea of dead eyes, a literal sea of dead eyes. I do understand that part of my work now [00:14:00] is about reaching them through the media, reaching them through messaging and content. That's something that they'll watch that way. We're rethinking a lot of what we do, but I tell you, back in 2008, nobody even talked about kids that had committed suicide. I remember maybe 2010, one girl knew someone who did it and it rocked our whole community. But now you even bring up suicide, you'll just get the same flat response, because they'll [00:14:30] say, "Oh yeah, I know three people who tried to kill themselves last month," or "I have three friends that successfully killed themselves."
Julie Roehm: That's so disturbing.
Katie O'Grady: Absolutely.
Julie Roehm: That's so disturbing.
Katie O'Grady: It's absolutely and it's just shocking because I know what it was like 10, 11 years ago with these kids who didn't ... That wasn't being talked about. It wasn't really as prevalent in our community.
Julie Roehm: Yeah, and so you think the screens are making them numb to some of that and that emotional [00:15:00] expression or that outlet and so they're holding it in? What do you ascribe to that? I know you're an armchair psychologist, much like me.
Katie O'Grady: Right. Right, right.
Julie Roehm: What are you seeing is driving that and then is it that you think that acting can help them as an outlet maybe?
Katie O'Grady: Well, it's funny you say we're just armchair psychologists, because it's so true. But when you work in the field with kids, you really feel like you have your finger on the pulse of what's happening when you're working with so many at one time. What I'm seeing is that [00:15:30] they're not measuring up, they're just not measuring up to all the beauty, all the success, all the pretend, all the filters, all the ways in which they're not, or we're dealing with a lot of bullying. Kids do something, they post something, and they're just getting shut down or they're not getting time after school to download from their own brain. They're not getting the time away from friends, away from images, away from messaging, which we used to get, right? Even if you were bullied at school, you go home after school, [00:16:00] you shut down, you wouldn't have so much exposure to that.
Katie O'Grady: But why I think acting is important is because it calls in your imagination and it calls on you to be and think greatly. I think that is something that I can provide for the kids and we don't allow the phones, specific times, sometimes like if they want to make a movie with it. Whenever I catch a kid on the phone, they'll say, "Well no, it's my mom. She's just checking on me." I said, "I will guarantee you right now, your mother is not texting you or expecting you to text [00:16:30] back in the middle of acting class." We try not to have any phones or anything like that allowed, just to have that freedom of imagination.
Julie Roehm: How have you seen, with what you've poured into both the share circle, as an outlet and an opportunity for them to really connect together as a group of peers, to then taking the next step and actually teaching them the art form and the business of the acting industry. How has that progression gone? What kind of success rate [00:17:00] are you seeing with these kids. Over 11 years now, you've got a couple generations of them you can probably look back on.
Katie O'Grady: Yeah, one for sure, the group I started with, because they're a little further along. They're in their early twenties and gosh, I've got one little gal just out in New York, her name's Jess Barr. She just wrote and made her own film and she said, "Well, I just remember in acting class, you saying it's about the work, do the work, do it yourself if nobody else will do it. I'm just going to do it myself," and got a LA director to come up and shoot it for her, got all the [00:17:30] friends from that class, brilliant actors, to be part of it.
Katie O'Grady: I'm seeing kids go on to wonderful programs at NYU, at Harvard, USC and pursue, so to be in the pursuit of art, which like you said, understanding the business side, it's a 50-50 split to be successful at acting. It's a 50-50, to have that business, but you also have to have that creativity and that imagination and freedom of imagination.
Julie Roehm: It's [00:18:00] interesting because you've talked about the work that you put in, and you've spoken about teaching the kids how to do the work or letting them know there are no shortcuts to this, because I know in this world, where everything's digital and everything's at the fingertips. For Google, I can get the answer to just about anything. There's a lot of that sense of speed, of the immediate gratification that is in younger people. But you teach them that there is no shortcut to the work. You [00:18:30] shared a story just one of the kids that you'd helped having to put in the work, that they were in trouble, and that there is no shortcut. What does success look like for you? Are you finding that kind of effort to be success? Are you seeing success in your own work that you're putting into yourself? Can you talk a little bit about the two and the juxtaposition and how you're managing? Because I'm sure this is very different than what you had envisioned when you started.
Katie O'Grady: [00:19:00] [crosstalk 00:19:00]. Yeah, the kids all think that the work means getting auditions and getting coached and showing up and looking great and being great. That is not the work that I'm talking about. Of course yes, we all love to do that part. That's the good part.
Julie Roehm: The fun part.
Katie O'Grady: It's like when you go work out, the fun part is getting in the tight little outfit that you've been wanting to wear and go show it all off. That's the fun part.
Julie Roehm: Looking at the meters [crosstalk 00:19:22].
Katie O'Grady: How far you walked, but the real work is the struggle. The real work is when you're laying in a hospital bed because you don't want to live [00:19:30] another day in this life or you don't want to take medication that maybe your doctor has prescribed for you just to get through a day or whatever it might be for a family, the work staying away from cutting or saying no to something. That is the work that I'm talking about. That's the hard work of getting to do this business and this industry. That is what success looks, because the rest of it is just a crapshoot. We just don't know. To your point about what does success look to me, I don't know. I'll just [00:20:00] tell you honestly that I really don't know. It's certainly not being on these TV shows or turning into the director now or any of that stuff.
Katie O'Grady: Because every day, it feels it's just not enough, even for me. But when I'm with those kids and I'm talking to them about just stay with it every single day, make the choice today to stay alive today, make the choice today to pursue greatness, then I have no choice myself but to practice that. [00:20:30] Even though I don't know what my success looks like ... I'm sitting here with a, I don't think anybody quite knows how beautiful you are, smart, intelligent woman.
Julie Roehm: That's why we're [inaudible 00:20:39] for radio.
Katie O'Grady: I love it.
Julie Roehm: You can draw a better picture, right?
Katie O'Grady: No, no, no, these are lies, these are lies. I don't know that that looks like success, but I know that getting up, getting showered, putting on your moisturizer, calling a friend when you're really hurting. Those are more of the measures that I see myself relating to. [00:21:00] That success is being in pursuit of truth, even when it sucks and it hurts and you're laid up in a hospital or you're grounded or you've got to be honest about something that you haven't been honest about that. That that is you being in the pursuit of greatness and if you're in the pursuit of greatness, success doesn't matter. The measurement doesn't matter.
Julie Roehm: That is the success.
Katie O'Grady: Right.
Julie Roehm: That you're constantly in the pursuit, that you haven't given up.
Katie O'Grady: Right, right.
Julie Roehm: Love that. It's beautiful.
Katie O'Grady: Yeah.
Julie Roehm: [00:21:30] Before we wrap, I want to make sure that you have an opportunity to talk about your organization or anything that you want to add, to talk about, just helping to promote, because we spoke a lot about trying to create more awareness of what's happening with teens. If there's anything that we can add in, to add it back in. I want to make sure that we get an opportunity to do that plug for you.
Katie O'Grady: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think something that's missing in the schools [00:22:00] is arts. When I was growing up, we got to do speech, we got to do theater, we got to be involved in so many different things.
Julie Roehm: I've never heard anybody say, "We got to do speech."
Katie O'Grady: We got to do speech. That's how I figured out I like standing in front of people and having people laugh was in speech class in seventh grade. I didn't have an acting community. I didn't have an acting class. The thing that's so special about acting for kids and teens and the Studio Northwest, where we train adults, is that people come together with like minds and they come together [00:22:30] in acceptance and a nonjudgmental spirit and just say, "Let's play and let's put everything down. Let's put away all of our worries and stresses and measurements of success and set our phones down and let's play." I feel really grateful to open doors to just about anybody that has that spirit about them.
Julie Roehm: I love that. I love that you've had those big Holy Shit Moments and that they still influence you today, those people who said [00:23:00] you can't that you stepped over. We talked about there must be so many more of these. Have you seen a Holy Shit Moment in somebody else? One of the things I think about is that you must ... With these teens, there must be these moments where, whether it's in the share circle or whether you're at their bedside someplace and they're suffering and you say ... Have you seen it come to them? Have you seen that light bulb go on for any of them? I know it's [00:23:30] a spur of the moment question for you.
Katie O'Grady: No, I think so many of them have a moment of recognizing, a moment of hearing and it's probably something their parent has said or perhaps somebody in their life has said a hundred times, but there's just a moment where somebody else that you trust and you love and you're in a safe place says it just a little bit differently and then it's usually followed with tears. What comes to mind is a little gal ... Gosh, this must've been 10, 11 years ago now and she [00:24:00] was on stage and all she had to do was be the strong, good-looking, confident character. This was not her inner spirit. She was the girl who was very shy and quiet and didn't stand up for herself and I kept pressing and pushing and pushing her and she was like, "No, I just want to sit down and I don't want to do it."
Katie O'Grady: I said, "You're going to do it." Well, she did it and she stood up in those lines and she started speaking them with so much strength that tears just started coming out of her eyes, just pouring down her eyes. When she finished, she looked at me, and she said, "That [00:24:30] felt so good." I remember that feeling. Now I see her, all these years later, she's gorgeous and thriving and has this beautiful life in college and you can just see that confidence ...
Julie Roehm: Oozing from her?
Katie O'Grady: Yeah.
Julie Roehm: [crosstalk 00:24:46].
Katie O'Grady: I just want to go back in time and be like, "Girl, it's all going to happen. You just stand in your strength and shout like, 'I deserve to be here.'"
Julie Roehm: And own your truth.
Katie O'Grady: Own your truth. Find it, own it, be in pursuit of it, just surround yourself with people, even if [00:25:00] it's not fun to hear, because sometimes it's just not.
Julie Roehm: I love it. Well, I love that your moment has turned into moments for so many others. Congratulations on the work you do. Thank you so much for being part of this with me.
Katie O'Grady: Thank you very much for making their voices heard, because I feel like just sitting and having a conversation about them is them getting to say, "We want to be heard. We want to be seen." I appreciate you making space for that so much.
Julie Roehm: It's my pleasure. This is a gift for me too. I love hearing your story. Thank you, Katie.
Katie O'Grady: [00:25:30] Thank you.