Uzo Ngwu is a rising junior at Harvard College, dual-enrolled at Berklee College of Music studying Art, Film and Visual Studies and Vocal Performance. She’s a multidisciplinary artist with focuses in illustration, film/animation and music, but also has interests in writing, acting and directing. Alongside her academic obligations, Uzo works as a freelance illustrator and some of her clients include Hulu, Freeform and MTV.
Q. What sparked your passion for animation, visual art and graphic design? Do you define yourself or identify more as one than the others?
A. My passion for visual art is one I’ve had since I was a child. In elementary school we made compliment booklets at the end of the school year, and I vividly remember one of the recurring compliments in my book being “I like your drawings.” All throughout middle and high school I was known as the artsy kid, probably because I always decorated my textbook covers and went above and beyond on creative projects. Despite my obvious love of visual art, it wasn’t until freshman year of college that I really started to develop my skills as a visual artist. I purchased my first iPad and used it as my primary tool for visual art. Drawing so frequently made me realize how much I love the craft, and it reignited my love for digital art and illustration.
Similar to my passion for visual art, my passion for animation started young. As a child, I loved watching animated films and TV shows and for a while I refused to watch media with “real people.” I’ve always loved watching animated media, but my passion for creating animated media didn’t come until much later. This passion was sparked when I had to create a short animation as a final project for the class Fundamentals of Animation. There was something so satisfying about bringing my ideas to life and telling a story through animation.
I strongly identify with all the art forms I engage with. I like to refer to myself as a multidisciplinary artist or a multi-hyphenate creative because I can’t be defined by just one medium.
Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?
A. At Harvard I study Art, Film and Visual Studies, which is perfect because it directly relates to my interests and aspirations. There are 3 tracks you can pursue within that concentration, and I’m pursuing both the Studio Art and Film/Video track. That means I get to take classes on subjects ranging from drawing to animation to narrative filmmaking. I also love how much freedom I have to explore my own specific interests within this department. Last semester I took a class called Directed Research, which was an independent study style class. I crafted my own syllabus and used class funding to purchase a 2D animation package.
Q. What are you most proud of that you’ve made thus far?
A. My sophomore fall I took the course Fundamentals of Animation and as part of my final project I made a short animation that was about 1 minute in length. I’m proud of this project because it’s the first narrative animated short that I’ve ever created, and the process of creating it made me fall deeply in love with the medium of animation. Not only does it hold significance as being my first short, but it’s also meaningful to me because I created a world where Black women can exist peacefully. Representation in animation is something I care deeply about, and I want to continue to create animated media that centers the experiences of Black women and girls. Additionally, my animation was received well by people on social media. On Twitter alone, the video has amassed over 900,000 views and got the attention of a director I greatly admire, Matthew Cherry.
Q. What are some challenges that you’ve encountered, perhaps with balancing time while still being enrolled at the college? Or have you taken (or at least thought about) time off?
A. Balancing school and my personal hobbies is a skill I’m still working on, but thankfully my major is centered around art so even when I’m not pursuing my own personal projects I’m still satisfying my creative desires through assignments and class projects. This question also just reminded me that freshman year I scheduled a recurring event on my Google Calendar that was labeled “DRAW.” I don’t think I ever really followed it, but I always did my best to make sure I was incorporating making art into my weekly schedule.
I have never taken time off, but it is something I’ve been thinking more about recently. Though the summer is a great time to pursue personal projects, I can only imagine how much more I could get done with a whole year dedicated to said projects.
Eric J. Cheng AB’ 20 is a Chinese American actor, writer, and producer based in LA. He recently was a part of the 24 Hour Plays: Nationals and acted in AFI thesis Cure. At Harvard, was a cast member of The Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
Q. When did you know you were a storyteller? What experiences in Michigan made you know you wanted to act?
A. I remember growing up and performing with kids in the family friend group—five girls who all danced and sang. I vividly recall performing in front of all the Chinese families every New Years and having the time of my life. It wasn’t until I approached high school though that I got to really act. When I was in eighth grade, I saw a production of The Drowsy Chaperone at my local high school, and I immediately fell in love. I promised myself that I would try to be a part of the troupe, so when I started freshman year, I took a leap of faith and auditioned. If I remember correctly, I got cast in a tiny role in the play Harvey but later got promoted to a slightly bigger role when the boy originally cast dropped out (or got kicked out— I can’t remember). After that, I kept at it, and with every production I fell in love even more.
Q. What has it been like transitioning from Harvard to LA, even part-time, as a recent grad? Can you talk about the journey to LA and what you've seen thus far in our increasingly remote (and changing) industry?
A. It’s been a crazy ride with ups and downs; I’m very thankful for it. My move to LA feels like it’s been a long time coming. I came to LA for the first time during the summer of 2019 to pursue an internship at MTV. I aimed to know once and for all if I really wanted to pursue this path after graduating. The summer served its function; I had gotten a taste of LA and the industry, and I left the city with the awareness that that I wanted to be a creative as an actor and writer.
Outside of coming to LA for few weeks or months at a time before going back home as the pandemic worsened, I’ve attempted pursuing an acting and writing career remotely— writing at home, taking Zoom classes, doing virtual performances— for the past year. Now that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic (fingers crossed) , I feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment being here. I’m finally able to shoot the project I’m working on and collaborate with other creatives.
I have a lot of hope for the industry with regards to representation. This past year has demonstrated that we need stories that reflect the state of our world. As someone who creates projects from the Asian and LGBTQ+ perspective, I feel a sense of excitement. Though I still get discouraged at times, I think that the change that we are seeing will only continue. In a way, I think that the shift towards more virtual processes has actually been conducive to this. There are new ways to tell stories and get one’s voice out that didn’t previously exist, and the need for content to be high-budget has dissipated. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of this (and one singular piece of advice that I’ve universally received), it’s that creating one’s own work and opportunity leads to positive outcomes. And in a time when people are looking for authentic, diverse, and new stories, I like to think that holds true now more than ever.
Q. For a young actor/writer/producer, how do you balance your days? What do they look like?
A. Often I still don’t know! I think I am still and will continue to be striking a balance; I feel like my day-to-day always changes. Usually though, my day starts after I knock out some tasks for my part time jobs. I try to prioritize writing at least four times a week, though in reality my inability to counteract distraction sometimes makes this an unmet goal. Other than that, I spend my days taking acting and improv classes at The Groundlings (which I’ve loved), filming tapes/doing auditions, trying to meet new people and collaborators, and producing the project that I’m currently working on.
Delon de Metz is an actor on the TV show The Bold and the Beautiful. He portrays Zende, the charismatic, handsome and talented grandson of the Forrester patriarch, Eric Forrester. De Metz's acting career has spanned theater, film and television. His recent credits include Netflix's The Kominsky Method as well as CBS's NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Zoo and Scorpion.
Q. When did your interest for acting first begin?
A. I always loved movies, but my interest in pursuing acting as a career didn't start until my mother sent me to take acting lessons with a coach named Susan Batson during my sophomore summer in high school. Apparently my mom didn't have much interest in my pursuing acting as a career either - she told me the classes would be good prep for college interviews a few years down the line. After going to my first lesson - somewhat begrudgingly - I was hooked.
Q. Did growing up in New York City relate to your passion for acting? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. I lived in the cinema. I can't remember a weekend I wasn't at the movies through all of middle and high school. It didn't matter what was out or what the reviews were; I was always there. There are some NYC movies that definitely influenced my love of performing, specifically American Psycho, Cruel Intentions, Zoolander, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friends and I would speak almost exclusively in American Psycho and Zoolander quotes through high school.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. Well I studied economics, and for a while it seemed like finance would be my path, but I kept performing in school on-camera and theatrical productions. During the summers I would always make time to be in acting class at night back in NYC, and at some point - probably during the summer after sophomore year in college - I got an agent in New York.
By the end of senior year I arranged my schedule so that my mandatory sections were all held during two days of the week - I think it might have been Tuesday and Wednesday - and Wednesday afternoons I would hop on the train to New York and spend Thursday to Monday taking acting classes, auditioning, and clubbing. My friends back on campus would joke that they only saw me with a suitcase the last few years at Harvard.
Q. What motivated you to pursue acting full-time after college?
A. It was a tough decision, I had some offers from investment banks and hedge funds etc, but one of my friends - who was working in the mail room at a management company in Los Angeles called 3 Arts - called me, asked if I was considering pursuing acting at the professional level and offered to represent me in LA. After she mentioned that Power Rangers was casting and she could get me an audition, I turned down the finance offers and packed my bags. I didn't get cast on the team that season, but I ended up being offered a role on the show a year or two later . . . that's a story for another time.
Join us in congratulating Chloe Cho (Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, CA) & Lucy Yue (Valley Christian High School, San Jose, CA)!
The aim of the Harvardwood Prize is to recognize and celebrate the artistic accomplishments and potential of high school students who exemplify our mission. Given Harvard University's robust arts communities and arts education opportunities, the Prize is meant to encourage high school students to apply to Harvard College. It is awarded annually to a high school junior (rising senior) who will apply for admission to Harvard in the upcoming fall and who has demonstrated excellence in their dedication to the arts, media, and entertainment and its power to enact positive social change.
Chloe Cho (Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, CA) | Born and raised in California, I grew up in a predominantly artistic family--with fashion designers, architects, toy designers, ballet dancers, and bakers. At the early age of three, my mother enrolled me in ballet lessons, telling me stories of how I danced while drinking from a baby bottle. By the age of six, I was attending the Kim Eung Hwa Korean Dance Academy, where I studied the art and music of Korean history. I learned traditional folk dances and performed at various events--in which I have received several President’s Volunteer Service Awards and Medals, as well as certificates recognized by the Korea Times Los Angeles.
My appetite for exploring different forms of creative expression began as I watched my sister pursue her creativity and imagination through drawing and painting. I was immediately inclined to uncover this realm of sorcery, participating in ceramics and pottery lessons and attempting traditional mediums of art: watercolors, acrylic paints, and oil pastels. Eventually, my portfolio started shifting to photography, digital art, and 3D models. Throughout my course, I have been selected as the Top 10 in the Kidizenship American Flag contest, accepted for publication--in the Celebrating Art Summer 2020 contest, LA County Library Brand New Day exhibit, and LA County Library Safer At Home exhibit--and nominated as a finalist in the LA County Library Bookmark Contest.
Entering junior high, my dance teacher presented an opportunity to take dance to a competitive level, gathering teammates to form the pom dance team, perform at school fundraising events and annual dance shows, and compete in national competitions—even joining our first virtual meet this past April. Meanwhile, given the opportunity to pursue the arts at a greater level, I was determined to pursue a career in design and psychology, in which I had found a great appreciation for architecture. I was incentivized by the interplay between structures and psychological settings, as well as how architects could positively respond to current global issues, in light of today’s unpredictable climate.
I have always found my sanctuary through art, allowing me to vividly contextualize universal opinions and ideas in the minds of individuals that cease to exist in reality. Therefore, I intend to incorporate my knowledge and observations of the human psyche into my own artistic endeavors--through traditional and performance art--and understand how art could unravel the battles that humanity endures and propose innovative perspectives.
Lucy Yue (Valley Christian High School, San Jose, CA) | Lucy is an acclaimed artist and hard-working academic, who started experimenting with the brush at the age of 3. Now a junior at Valley Christian High School, Lucy takes part not only in leading activities to promote Asian heritage and culture but also in the most rigorous classes Valley Christian has to offer.
Lucy integrates visual arts into the Valley Christian community through her involvement in the founding of the Asian Arts Club, as well as the National Art Honor Society and as a member of the Applied Data Science Program. With connections to STEM and art, Lucy intertwines the two worlds via design and application with technology.
As an artist, Lucy enjoys working with all mediums ranging from watercolor to oil painting and charcoal. Her artworks, accumulating over 6 Gold Key awards, 4 Silver Key awards, and 1 Honorable Mention award from the Scholastic Art Awards demonstrate her excellence in the artistic field. Lucy was also a 2020 National Gold Medalist of the Scholastic Art Awards, gaining the opportunity to exhibit her work at Carnegie Hall and at the Pacific Grove Art Center. Lucy displays her roots as an Asian American by practicing traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. Her outstanding skills are acknowledged with national level awards from the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.
Additionally, Lucy is passionate about social issues extending from financial inequality to gender inequality. Her artwork titled “Who’re you?”, focusing on the treatment and perception of women in modern society, was exhibited at the New Museum Los Gatos and selected as number one in the category of printmaking for the ArtNow juried exhibition in 2019. A key member in her community, Lucy helps people of all ages by spreading love for art and learning. Lucy is a volunteer art teacher for students at her local public elementary school and also a part-time tutor at Kumon Math and Reading Center. She also delivers handmade cards to the elderly, easing their loneliness exacerbated by COVID-19. Furthermore, Lucy contributes to the art community here in the Bay Area and Taiwan by being one of the directors of the Youth Art Foundation, uplifting artists in her domestic community while fundraising internationally to provide art supplies for children in Taiwan.
Shirley Chen stars as the female lead in Beast Beast, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020, opened in select theaters on April 16, and will be available for streaming on May 4. Shirley is a junior at Harvard pursuing a joint degree in Theater, Dance, & Media and History & Literature with a focus in Asian American Studies.
Q. When did your interest for theater and acting first begin?
A. When I was in elementary school, I would go to every one of my older brother’s high school theater productions. Back then, from the audience, I remember thinking that collaborating with friends on stage looked absolutely electric. I began to take acting classes in Seattle and fell in love with acting as a way to connect with others— whether that be a scene partner, director, crew, or the audience. Then, in middle school, my mother moved with me to Los Angeles to pursue acting full-time. I’ve realized that when that connection feels authentic and every part of the creative team works to produce great art together, it feels like pure magic; that’s the feeling I love when acting and always try to chase.
Q. Do you think starting your acting career at such a young age has informed your perspective on the career or the industry more broadly?
A. Definitely. The more experience I’ve gained through working on projects, the more I have been able to see directors, writers, and producers as collaborators, rather than as an intimidating pressure, which has allowed me to develop stronger relationships and work more freely in a professional environment. Growing up as an Asian American child actor has particularly allowed me to more deeply appreciate recent industry conversations on “diverse representation.” As a kid, I often viewed other Asian performers as “competition” because of the scarcity mentality surrounding such limited opportunities, but as conversations have shifted in the past few years, I have been able to see the types of roles I’m considered for opening up in a new and exciting way. There’s still work to be done, but starting out in the industry at an early age has ultimately hardened my sensibilities so that I now have a clearer perspective when approaching the industry as a business.
Q. What compelled you to apply to Harvard and to continue your acting journey there?
A. Harvard was actually a far-off dream of mine — I never thought of it as a real possibility! I was a theater major at a public performing arts school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and was originally planning to apply to conservatory programs in Los Angeles so that I could continue my education while auditioning. At the end of my junior year, my guidance counselor recommended that I try applying to a school like Harvard, where students gifted in both the arts and academics would fit well into its new theater program. I applied to Harvard on a whim and, to my surprise, I was accepted early! Compared to other programs, Harvard has such a rich, unique history in the arts and humanities — both academically and extracurricularly — and I found the prospect of auditioning for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals during its first year of women in the cast to be a particularly exciting opportunity!
Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?
A. I am currently pursuing a joint degree in Theater, Dance, & Media and History & Literature, with a focus in Asian American Studies. While I plan to continue acting after college, in my long-term career, I aim to also write and produce work that draws focus to Asian American history and culture. Through my studies, I constantly find new historical narratives to tell through art, which will culminate in my senior creative thesis approach.
Ria Tobaccowala AB '10 is an Indian-American writer-director based in New York City. Her short film, Shadows, was selected for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.
Q. What parts of your upbringing in Chicago led you to becoming a filmmaker? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. My love for storytelling and filmmaking started in my early years. Instinctually, I would gravitate towards my father’s camcorders. In our home movies, I’d be jumping in front of the lens, begging him to let me use it. I remember my childhood home being full of cameras, books, and music. My parents love the arts and gave me access to different art forms throughout my childhood. They are the single most influential force in my journey as a filmmaker.
At my high school in Chicago, I had a wonderful photography teacher who inspired me. I spent the majority of my time in the school’s dark room. I also shot my first short film with a Super 8 camera. By then, I was hooked on the power of images to tell a story. In many ways, as a teenager and now as an adult, I’ve simply been nurturing the young girl within me who was born keen to film stories about life.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. At Harvard, I varied my creative interests. I was a photographer for the Harvard Crimson as well as produced and danced in cultural shows, such as Ghungroo. My blockmates would lovingly laugh whenever I edited promo videos for campus events in a baseball cap. They called it my director’s hat. Little did we all know, a decade later I’d be keeping up the tradition of wearing baseball caps while editing my films. Harvard was the beginning of an important detour from pursuing filmmaking as a career. I spent college filling my mind with new subjects and filling my heart with amazing life experiences and friendships.
Q. Can you speak about your time at Google, staying creative in a corporate setting, and maintaining your goals?
A. Google surprisingly brought me back to the world of storytelling. Google is an intrinsically creative place where storytelling is required when imagining future technologies. I joined their rotational marketing program after graduation. One product I worked on was Google+. Our team’s mandate was to encourage content development on the platform with some of the most influential thought leaders and creators, as well as elevate underrepresented voices to the mainstream through social and video platforms.
I developed content partnerships with the New York Times, ESPN, NBC as well as produced interviews with President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, the Dalai Lama, and many others around major cultural, social, and public events. For example, I produced State of the Union interviews with President Obama, inviting Americans to be the first to converse with the President before the media. To use technology, such as social and video platforms, to democratize storytelling was a central mission for me at Google. I’ve carried with me, as a filmmaker, the same mission to elevate unrepresented voices in my work.
Daniel Rogers AB '12 is an award-winning writer, producer and actor. He's currently a TV staff writer, is developing his own series, and won the 2019 Harvardwood Writers Competition.
Q. When did you know you wanted to get into writing? Can you explain the journey from the first light bulbs, to any light practice, to now?
A. I think I first knew I liked writing in elementary school. I always had a knack for telling stories, and actually won some writing competitions at my school and in some regional events. I dabbled here and there throughout middle school and high school, but fell off during college (though I did take a creative writing class about poetry!). But the real lightbulb moment came when I was in grad school and took my first screenwriting course with Ken Lazebnik in USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. Up until that point, I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, and was still figuring out exactly what my niche would be. That class helped me rekindle my love for writing, and now almost five years later, I guess it’s working out!
Q. How did your time at Harvard (Acting, Glee Club, etc.) play into that story?
A. I studied English at Harvard, which obviously involved a lot of reading novelists and playwrights in the Western canon. Spending so much time with Byron and Shakespeare and George Eliot, plus the poetry writing course, definitely lends my writing a classical (dare I say musical?) bent. My time in the Glee Club inflamed my passion for music, and these days I think every other project I take on is about musicians, whether rockstars, choral singers, conductors, or whatever. In addition, being Manager of the Glee Club gave me a firm foundation in running an arts organization with a large budget and dueling creative and administrative goals. As an aspiring showrunner, that background is crucial. I know how to be creative, and I also know how to keep the trains running. You’d be surprised how rare that combination is!
Q. Can you speak about Writing vs. Producing and your MFA journey? How did you pursue both career-wise, to the point where you now produce content while operating in a writer's room?
A. People say “Film is a director’s medium, while television is a writer’s medium,” and it really is true. While at USC, I learned that most (or at least, a large chunk) of the producers on TV shows are writers. These folks have significant creative control over the direction of a series, in a way that most film screenwriters simply don’t. When I realized this, the choice between film and TV was easy. These days, as a member of a writers’ room, writing an outline or script or breaking story is basically second nature, though of course I’m always improving. But producing is its own beast. I was lucky enough to be a producing writer on set for an episode of “In the Dark” in 2019, and the hours we kept and the decisions I had to make were overwhelming. I had a say in everything from costumes to props to actor’s notes to set design to lighting to… well, the list goes on and on. That’s the kind of work I got into this business to do. Someday I’ll be able to separate the two, so I can produce the writing of younger writers I believe in. But for the moment, my focus is on producing for TV shows that I write for.
Harrison Greenbaum AB '08 is a comedian and writer in NYC. He was the co-founder of the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society, and can be seen on America's Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, Conan, Comedy Central, ABC, and much more.
Q. You’re a popular stand-up comic, so I imagine before the pandemic, you were touring a lot. So let me get right to it: how did you adjust after the pandemic shut everything down?
A. Before the pandemic, I was averaging about 600 shows a year, touring all over the world, so as soon as the lockdown started back in March, I immediately pivoted everything to virtual and livestreaming so I could keep performing. By the 2nd or 3rd week in March, I was hosting three different shows, five days a week: National Lampoon Live! with Harrison Greenbaum (raising money for the COVID Foundation), Who Books That? (an interview series presented by the International Brotherhood of Magicians), and SCAM Online (the first weekly magic livestream show from NYC). I learned A LOT very quickly and – between these three shows and all the private events I’ve been doing – I’ve been able to perform for more than a million people in the last 10 months. It’s been insane. At this point, my living room is a TV studio capable of a TV-broadcast quality, three-camera shoot, so I’m just grateful I can still connect with a wide audience. I’m having a blast doing virtual shows, especially since it combines the benefits of being on TV (being able to reach a large, global audience directly in their homes) with the benefits of performing live (being able to directly interact with the audience and to have their reactions immediately impact the show) – all of that, and I don’t have to be more than 20 steps from my couch.
[Editor’s note: for more info on Harrison’s virtual shows and/or for booking information, visit harrisongreenbaum.com/virtual.]
Q. Alright, take me back to the beginning: how did you know you wanted to get into comedy? Can you explain the journey from the first light bulbs, to light pursuit, to now?
A. I started out doing magic when I was about five years old. It just stuck. I loved every aspect of it and, as I got older, I realized I especially liked the parts of the tricks that made people laugh. I went to Magic Camp when I was 14 years old, because obviously I was very dedicated to not ever getting laid. In all seriousness though, Tannen’s Magic Camp changed my life and exposed me to so many different kinds of performers, including the funny ones, who became my heroes. When I got to Harvard, I was invited to do a stand-up show and, even though I’d never done stand-up before, I figured, “Why not?” As soon as I did that first show, I was immediately hooked. Harvard was such an important part of me becoming a comedian. (Don’t tell my parents.)
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story? Can you give any (hilarious) anecdotes about your time there on your journey?
A. I’m so glad you qualified “anecdote” with “hilarious” – as a professional comedian, so many of my stories are real tear-jerkers… The summer of my freshman year at Harvard, I interned for MAD Magazine and started doing stand-up around the city (mostly getting on stage by “barking,” which means I stood on the corner, handing out flyers to try to get people to buy tickets to the show in exchange for stage time); when I got back, I realized that the only way to really get up on stage as much as possible while on campus was to start a club, so by my junior year, I was handing in the paperwork to make the Harvard Stand-Up Comic Society an official student organization. I made sure to write out the full name every time on all the forms with the hope that the administration wouldn’t figure out that the name of the club was actually “Harvard SUCS.” A few days later, I got an e-mail from the Dean’s Office about the application, asking me to come to the office, so I was worried we’d been caught; at the meeting, the dean started off by telling me that the name wasn’t acceptable, so I was sure we’d been caught. But then he explained that, since the group was undergraduate-focused, I’d have to change the name to the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society… and I realized they hadn’t worked out what we’d done at all! I don’t think I ever turned around paperwork faster in my life. In fact, the university didn’t realize they had approved a student group called “Harvard College SUCS” until we wanted to get sweatshirts and applied to the Trademark Office, which was when I finally received another e-mail from the Dean’s Office chiding us (but letting us keep the name). Years later, at my 5 Year Reunion, the dean who called me in pulled me to the side and told me that – while officially they had to be upset with us – internally they had actually thought it was one of the funniest stunts that had ever been successfully pulled on them. I’m proud of that, and also really, really proud of the fact that HCSUCS is still going strong and still ruining the lives of students who decide to throw away all the advantages of a Harvard degree and become comedians.
Oh, and Harvardwood. I did the Harvardwood winter break trip. I should probably mention that, huh?
Q. Now that you’ve brought it up… tell me how Harvardwood influenced your career.
A. I had such a blast going to Los Angeles with Harvardwood my senior year. Legitimately life-changing. I remember Dan O’Keefe met me for coffee and still – to this day – I can’t believe how insane that a writer like that (he’s the guy behind the Festivus episode of Seinfeld, for God’s sake!) to listen to a college senior blab on and on about his dreams at a Coffee Bean. (Of course it was a Coffee Bean.)
Halle Phillips AB '11, a Creative Executive in TV Development at Kilter Films, is a producer on HBO's Westworld.
Q. Can you talk about your activities, involvements, and interests at Harvard, and how those play into your life as a producer / exec today? Or how they led you here?
A. I didn’t know that I wanted to work in entertainment while I was at Harvard—the only thing I knew about the Lampoon is that they had a nice building and a habit of stealing sh*t from The Crimson. But looking back, most of my activities were centered around media and management—I was the production manager for Eleganza 2009, probably the closest thing I’d done to film production in its scale, complexity and creative collaboration; Lead Manager for Lamont Cafe which portended a love of working with people, working late nights, and crafty; and the Photography Chair of the 137 Guard of The Harvard Crimson, a commitment that required managing and working with many different departments to get something engaging out the door, maintaining an integrity of craft all while under daily deadline (the signs were all there!)
Q. When did your interest in producing come? Can you tell us about it?
A. After a stint in TMT investment banking, I knew that I didn’t want to venture too far down a path in finance knowing that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I needed to—the hours were insane and only got marginally better as you rose in the ranks. I always liked math, science, and tech, but I was equally if not moreso interested in the arts, and was craving a creative outlet. So when my quarter life crisis came early, I resisted the urge to go to grad school and instead talked to friends who worked in the industry. I was a huge TV person, and grew up watching HBO and FX series earlier than I should have (Oz!!). I never considered working in Hollywood because I never saw myself as a writer or director, but it turned out that making TV is much more than that.
Q. Tell us about Kilter and how you arrived there.
A. After quitting finance and doing some informational sit-downs, I had a friend send my resume in to CAA, following the advice given to me by countless others on “how to get started”. After 3 months as a floating assistant and spending extended time in TV Lit, I heard about a job at Bad Robot, and made the move into development. CAA was a great crash course in the lay of the land, and I made a lot of great friends, but Bad Robot is where I started to learn how the TV sausage actually gets made, if CAA is where it gets packaged.
Westworld was a property that Bad Robot had in development, and once we brought Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy on board, it was off to the races. We shot the pilot and I decided that I wanted to get further in the weeds and closer to the creative process—I wanted to work the farm before it became sausage (is this metaphor still working?) and decided this was the show to do it on. Luckily my boss at Bad Robot felt similarly and we both left to join Kilter Films as Jonah and Lisa looked to expand their development slate.
Julio Vincent Gambuto AB '00 is a writer and director, based in New York City. Team Marco, Julio’s debut feature film, is now available nationwide in the US and Canada, from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Check it out. Julio also wrote that viral essay about the pandemic that 20 million people read around the world. Now, he’s a weekly contributor to Medium.
Q. What about your upbringing in Staten Island first inspired you to write, direct, produce, etc. and get involved with the film industry?
A. Being an artist in an Italian-American family can be tough. We’re the children of immigrants, so when you get the chance to go to Harvard, the last thing your parents really want to hear is that you want to be an artist. My family has always been remarkably supportive, though. They trusted me from the beginning, and it’s really only because of their love and support that I was able to stay the course. Specifically, I think Italian-Americans are natural storytellers. We are a very dramatic culture — at least in my family — so stories are how we communicate. I actually discovered that for myself at Harvard. I realized freshman year that a lot of people around me communicated only through intellectual sparring — not all, but many — and that was a different form of communication than I had been used to from a working-class family. I just wanted to tell stories. It’s how I connect to people.
Q. What motivated you to continue studies at USC in Directing?
A. To be honest, I was just very frustrated that my acting career wasn’t going anywhere. I had a movie deal with an independent film company to make a film based on my one-man show (Julie from Staten Island), but it fell through during the recession in 2008, so I put myself back in school.
Q. In what ways did you get involved in film while at Harvard?
A. I was very involved in theater with the HRDC. I loved it. I came to film much later in my life. I was an actor right out of school. I did a lot of downtown theater in New York, working with an LGBTQ+ theater company. I did some improv and then went into standup comedy to prepare for my one-man show. The show was really a turning point for me. I ran it in New York monthly for two years, then in LA. We had an independent movie deal, but it fell through in the ’08 recession, so I put myself back in school and went to film school at 32.