50-for-50 interview: Bonnie Gillespie, casting director

bonnie gillespie, casting director

I first “met” Bonnie Gillespie back in the mid-1990s, when she was writing a (deservedly) popular column for Back Stage West and I was (deservedly) writing nothing but weepy entries in my journal about my non-existent acting career. Soon after that, we become internet “friends” via an actors’ message board; eventually, we became real-life friends who actually do stuff like meet each other for lady-dates at various upscale hamburger joints around Los Angeles. She is one of the smartest ladies I know and the most generous people I’ve met. Also, she is just a wee bit woowoo around the edges, which I am always a sucker for. 

When did you decide to become a writer?

My mother would’ve told you I didn’t decide; writing chose me. I was a kid actor and when mom would say, “My daughter, the writer,” I would stomp my foot and scream, “MUH-THUR! I am an ACK-TRESS!” But I was always writing. Always. Wrote my first (produced) play at the age of seven. Filled journals with poems and songs and short stories. Submitted pieces to Young Miss and Seventeen magazines, then The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, all while in my teens. I was a writer before I was anything else, really, but I didn’t self-identify as a writer until I was in my 30s (which is crazy, considering I had been paid to write for decades by then).

Who was your favorite teacher?

It would have to be Mrs. Stivers, for sure. It’s tough to choose a favorite, as so many wonderful teachers have their fingerprints on my success, but my fifth grade teacher was the first teacher to see my life’s path cracking through my shell like streams of sunlight. Mrs. Stivers saw that I was bored (and acting out) in class, but unlike teachers before her, she didn’t label me a discipline problem (which many Montessori kids who are then mainstreamed by age group rather than academic level tend to be), she gave me a job. She handed me a first grade spelling book and sent me to the nurse’s station with a half-dozen ESL students who needed practice learning English. I got to teach our beautiful language to eager but scared refugees who were brand new to our country. I was headed down a path of bitterness and resentment until Mrs. Stivers taught me to give back. That was when I learned that I only learn by teaching. My writing is an extension of that, for sure.

What do you love to write about?

The human condition. Sociological observations. Ethnographic analysis. What we, as humans, choose to see and how our lives are so very different from one another’s simply based on the lens through which we pull the exact same information. Obviously, writing for actors has been my bread and butter for many years, and I do love writing about the entertainment industry as a whole—especially as we find ourselves in a new Wild West era of production evolution—but sharing tips that lead readers toward greater productivity, more efficient time management, or general personal happiness is my greatest use of the keyboard.

What has writing taught you?

That no one is perfect! I used to read textbooks in school and find typos, grammatical errors, problems with punctuation, and I would SCREAM with frustration that these people who were being paid to supply us with educational material couldn’t get it right. Welp, I got to eat a huge slice of humble pie when my first book came out with a major error (I had renamed an interviewee in 75% of her interview—and she was the one who caught the mistake, when we dropped off her copies of the book—ACK!) and every book I’ve published since then has had at least one mistake. I thought, with enough proofers, copy editors, and my own ridiculous drive to “catch and kill” every typo, I could do better than anyone else. Nope. You get too close to your work and you know what you mean, so you miss something that someone else will catch. And because you can’t employ so many people to double-check your work as to possibly catch everything, you learn to roll with it. The first book out of the first case of every title we’ve published is labeled the “CORRECTION COPY” and it gets lots of red ink, in preparation for the next edition. I’ve also learned that breaking rules is totally okay… as long as you know the rules first. Ignorance of the rules is not permission to break them!

How has writing made you stronger?

Writing has taught me discipline. I am very fortunate to have been paid to churn out a weekly column pretty much non-stop since 1999. The few weeks here and there that I’ve taken off from turning in a column, I’ve had to fill my writing day with a big-ass blog post or an old-fashioned letter to someone I adore. I love that I have a writing day! I love the sacred space I’ve built around my Sundays, every week. Sure, I could get my column done some other time, if I had to, but the fact that I honor—no, cherish—my writing self by calling Sunday off-limits to anything but writing is probably a deeper gift than it may look on the surface. Creative people aren’t great about boundaries, I’ve learned. The requirement that I provide safe space and time to write, I believe, has made me strong enough to create limits. I don’t allow other people’s emergencies to encroach upon my sacred space. I don’t invite energy vampires into my life. I am unapologetic for the limits I have set in my professional and personal life. I don’t think I would’ve been so bold without the discipline writing has brought into my life.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

It’s cliché these days, but it’d be The Trevor Project‘s mantra: “It gets better.” Like most creatives, I was bullied, picked on, put down, made fun of… the usual. The thing you don’t know until you’re older and have the advantage of reconnecting with those gradeschool “friends” using the newest social networking site is that—despite what you thought at age ten—you would never choose to trade lives with them. Sticking it out, weathering the downs, letting the creeps’ words roll off your back, all the while trusting that you are built for a far better life than they will ever lead, is the best gift you can give your ten-year-old self. That’s what I’d say to me. That, and, “Don’t slump. Those boobs you got too early will be GOLD to you, someday.”

What are your five favorite books, blogs, or whatever-else to read?

Only five? Eesh! Definitely Steven Pressfield‘s The War of Art. It’s a new book to me, even though it’s been out for years. It is made for writers (and all creatives) working through blocks. I call it my guide to DDA (“Done Dickin’ Around”). It has absolutely made 41-year-old me ten times cooler than 40-year-old me. Fact.

Lynn Snowden’s Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher, My Year-Long Odyssey in the Workplace was a book that changed my life as a young writer. She chronicled her year as a participatory journalist and the fascinating journal of that year taught me not only what writing can be but also that the generation of “50 years employed at the same company, here’s your gold watch” was behind us. It opened my mind to what my career(s) could look like. It freed me to “get down with the pursuit,” rather than focusing on some reward.

Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffee and Anita Pollitzer, compiled by Clive Giboire, is a favorite. Before the Internet entered my life in a meaningful way, my bestie and I would write these huge, long letters to one another, throughout our late teens and early twenties. We are still besties to this day (I believe she is another of your interview subjects, here) and while we still send long-ass emails to one another, there is nothing like the history of our lives that is depicted in these longhand letters, complete with sketches and sometimes teardrops. Learning we weren’t so different from those lady leaders was huge for me, when the book landed in my hands at a used bookstore in 1993.

This one will make me sound narcissistic, but y’know what, when it comes to my writing, I am. I love reading my writing. Every word of it. I think I’m pretty dang ninja with analogies, I love the stories I weave with the order in which I choose to arrange words, and if I can’t love my writing, how I can I expect anyone else to? So, my columns, my blog posts, my personal journals, my published books… all of it. [Editor’s note: I concur with Bon. I devoured all of her writing on acting while I was coming up, and I still devour the personal stuff. Bonnie = fun-to-read.] I love learning from myself by reading my works from years ago. I love seeing how much I still have to learn by seeing how far I’ve come, as a writer. I am—at my core—a teacher. And my most effective teaching tool is the word. I love the things I teach myself.

Finally, anything by Colleen Wainwright. Nope, this isn’t a thank-you for her including me in the awesomeosity that is this brilliant, selfless project of hers. It’s the truth. I’m not an actor, but I read what Colleen writes for actors. I’m not a designer, but I read what Colleen writes for designers. I’m not a lot of audiences for which Colleen writes, but I read everything I can get my hands on, because she always inspires me to be a better me. And isn’t that the best gift a string of words can give a reader? Thank you, Colleen, for all you give to the world. [Ed.’s note: Uh…I…thank you. This is horribly embarrassing, but awfully nice to hear.]

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Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Want to connect on Twitter? Follow Bonnie here. You can also circle up at Google+ here. For cool emails from Bon, get listed here.

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