Where did you grow up and go to school?
I was born in Hattiesburg. I’ve been in and out of the state, but I’ve lived here most of my life. I grew up in Jackson, and I’ve now relocated back to Jackson. And I’m not sure why, but I’m here again! (laughs) I’ve left three times, and I just keep coming back.
I grew up in South Jackson and graduated from Jackson Prep. I went through the band program there and was drum major and had a big ol’ time doing all that. And then I went to Ole Miss and found out what a great education I had at Jackson Prep because I really didn’t have to go to a whole lot of classes freshman and sophomore year.
I went on a band scholarship to Ole Miss and was in the band for just a little bit and decided it wasn’t for me. It was just a whole different thing than what we had done in high school. Then I got involved in the theater department, and now I have a B.A. in theater arts from Ole Miss.
I had a blast doing plays and doing construction and costumes and assistant directing and on stage and off stage and writing—you name it. We learned it all. It was great.
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?
Well, what do you do with a degree in theater? You think you go get a job in entertainment somewhere. And I had always been very interested in film and got more so interested while I was in school. But at that time, back in the old days, if you wanted to work in film, you had to go to either New York or to Los Angeles. There was no film industry in Mississippi.
I hitched my U-Haul to my new Ford Escort and drove out to California to make my way in the world. I had three friends out there, and one of them got me my first real crew job. I had done some extra work. I also worked at the Improv for a little while waiting tables because you got to make a living!
So, it happened my friend Julie Kaye Fanton was sitting at the right lunch table one day, and a costume designer says, “Oh my God, we need a costume production assistant tomorrow. Does anybody have anybody that can come in?” And Julie says, “My roommate does costumes! She did them at Ole Miss for the theater department, blah, blah, blah.” And he goes, “Great! She’s hired!” I started there and did that for a while. The highest I got in that field, I was a costumer on “The Beastmaster,” the original movie, not the series. Most everybody who grew up in the ‘80s knows about that one.
I got out of costumes shortly after that and went into extras casting and worked there for several years at the Atmosphere Agency, which was at the time the largest nonunion extras casting agency in the world. I was the vice president and I worked there for about four or five years, and then I started doing production. I worked with Bud Fanton Productions as an associate producer and did some production work on small commercial projects and small industrial projects. I did that for a little while in St Louis.
And when we moved back to Jackson—this is after I’d gotten married and had a baby and put my career on hold for a little while in St Louis—there was a lot of commercial production here, but nobody had ever had a props person. There was just this huge hole in the market. My ex-husband was an ad guy, so he knew all the other ad guys in town and nobody was writing complicated gags for hard to find props because they had to go find them all on their own. It was like I kind of came in at the right time to the commercial market in Jackson in that there was nobody doing what I did. So I got to do props and set dressing on commercials. From there, I got hired on to “A Time to Kill,” which was my first job set dressing for film.
At what point did you realize you could take steps to pursue your dream from Mississippi?
It really was a surprise in a way. I never dreamed when I first left that I’d ever be able to come back and work here. But at that point in time, the film commission was rolling. We had some incentive happening, we were building crew. And I got to be part of all of that as a Mississippian working in the film industry, and it was great. And then the legislature shut us down and now we’re back to rebuilding and repopulating and retraining. But as long as I’m still working, I’ll be training somebody. I’ll be trying to recruit and help keep people here, or at least find ex-patriates that will come back and work with us at the very least.
What type of training have you had and where?
Well, there’s my theater degree from Ole Miss, of course. But in film, you learn as much from the school of hard knocks as you do from anything else. There’s absolutely nothing like being on set and seeing things go down and observing and learning from your peers. And mentoring people is so important in this industry, maybe more than any other. It really is important to train the people that are coming up behind us, to show them what we know and pass it along. It’s a craft.
What was your first Film/TV job?
My first one was on a movie called “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” which was an Armenian movie. That was when Julie was working in the art department and I came on as a costume assistant. Technically, I had done some extra work before that, but I couldn’t tell you what it was on. It was like, you know, show up and sit around on the set all day.
Not long after I did “The Beastmaster,” and I never failed to mention that movie to the younger folks I work with. Because everybody goes, “Did you work on something I would know?” And they all go, “Wow! The Beastmaster!” It’s been fun to have that on my resume.
Are you working on any current/recent projects?
We did “Paradise Highway” last summer. It turned out really nice. I thought it was great and it’s just a miracle we got it done. Everything fell apart on that movie that could possibly go wrong. And wasn’t just stupid movie stuff. It was acts of God and just crazy stuff every single day, I really don’t know how we made it through, but we did, and I’m very proud of it.
Despite all the trouble, I think the director Anna Gutto might come back to Mississippi. I think despite it all she appreciates the fact that we worked through it, that nobody threw up their hands and said “Well, we’re leaving this with you, pal.” We all just hung in there and did what we could with what we had to work with. And I think she really appreciated that. I know she loved Mississippi.
I’ve also got my food styling gig as well. I’ve got a couple of regular clients on the commercial side that I work with like Happy, Healthy Mississippi and Viking Ranges.
Can you describe food styling for the unfamiliar?
Well, like any talent you put in front of the camera you want it to look its best, right? Lighting is super important. But a lot of the time, I’ll just take stuff and make it look hot. Glisten it up to make it look shiny. Putting it at the right angle is always important. It’s just like photographing anything else.
It’s really fun, I enjoy it. A lot of times I’ll do the whole setup, the tabletop with the plate and the flowers in the glass and the atmosphere, but then sometimes it’s just food. It always needs to look pretty in the end. It’s a real contrast to what I do in film and commercials because that’s just a bigger process and this is way more tucked in. It’s doing things with tweezers instead of four-wheel dollies. It’s a whole different ballgame, but I really enjoy it.
There’s a whole lot of tricks of the trade, like making burgers look thicker with carboard in between the bun and meat, because you’re basically building props. I got to do some crazy things when I worked in the prop department on “Between the Lions.” I got to do things like make a cake that looks like it’s iced and has meat chops on it. Making a tiny little banjo for a monkey puppet. Because they were puppets and they were small you couldn’t just go out and buy these props. And it was so much fun. And food styling is along those lines. It’s taking whatever it is that you’re working with and making it look as good as it can. You’re not seeing the back side of that hamburger, so you’re not seeing all the cheats I’m putting in there. It doesn’t look like the one that comes out of the wrapper when you drive through. Reality is somewhere between the two, I figure.
What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?
The people are probably the most surprising thing. Film people are the most resilient people I’ve ever imagined. And there’s the feeling of camaraderie when you’re working on a project, when everybody’s working toward the same outcome. And I don’t know, I haven’t worked in very many offices. I guess you get the same sensation working in an office, meeting a deadline or something. But I know in film we all become a family because we’re all working toward a common goal. And we help each other. We buoy each other up. And then it doesn’t feel like work. It’s like a big scavenger hunt, and there’s nothing like crossing that finish line with your arms in the air. Yay! We did it!
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
That would be Julie Kaye. She was my first friend in the theater department at Ole Miss and all the other girls were like, “Oh, who is this girl?” and she walked right up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Julie Kaye, welcome to the theater department!” And we’ve been friends ever since.
I watched the “Cinderella” they did in the ‘90s with Brandi and Whoopi Goldberg last night, Julie Kaye won her Emmy for that show. I was real proud for her last night. I’ve admired her and thanked her a million times. And we’re still best friends. We’ve gotten to work together a couple of times and have just had a blast. I’m thinking we’re going to have some more adventures together before it’s all said and done. She’s back in Oxford for now, so I can get to her without a plane ride.
How does being a Mississippian help you stand out in our industry?
It certainly did in the ‘80s in California! It was me, Julie Kaye and another girl named Pamela Massey, we were the three Southern girls and we all had a drawl. We were like an attraction. It was very bizarre. But you can get a lot of mileage out of a Southern accent with people that aren’t used to hearing it. And especially if you’re not trying to get a part for something, you know what I mean? It could hurt you there. But if you’re just trying to get a job, it’s not going to hurt anybody. They always remember that Southern girl that seemed to know what the heck she was doing.
If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
Oh, that would be out on the islands off the coast. I just moved here from Long Beach, and my friend Diane has a boat and we used to go out to Horn Island. And it’s like real ocean and real waves and just gorgeous and beautiful and it looks like nothing else in Mississippi either.
Favorite moment on set or with a project?
My favorite story of a personality that I met that I like to tell, this was in California when I was working in extra casting on a TV show.
And I realized that Rosemary Clooney, who was George Clooney’s aunt, was there. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, she used to sing and she did a whole bunch of children’s albums. And when I was little, my mother had a record player and children’s albums for me to play. I used to wear out Rosemary Clooney and Shari Lewis and the 1812 Overture. Those three were my favorite.
Anyway, I realized who she was, and she was just sitting there in her director’s chair. I walked up to her and said, “Miss Clooney, my name is Mary, I just had to come shake your hand and let you know how much your music has meant to me over the years.” And I related the story about the record player in my room when I was little.
And then by the time we were through, she was hugging me. I was hugging her. We were crying. It was awesome. We had a genuine moment of gratitude, and it was just lovely.
What would you say to convince/encourage a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?
Well, I would not tell them that we have adequate crew, because we don’t now. And that seems to be a problem. A lot of them come in thinking we are only hiring locals. And it’s like, “Boss, I’ve got the two locals on the payroll.” So I would let them know that they need to build into their budgets housing and per diem for the crew I can’t get here.
But yes, hire our crew here, use our vendors here, use our wonderful locations. Our incentives are good. People are still glad to have film work happen here. They’re not jaded like they are in some parts of the country. It’s a wonderful place to shoot and the people are happy to have you here. We’re all thrilled to have production come to town.
And I tell you what, when we shot “Paradise Highway” in Clarksdale, we made an economic impact in that little town and even more because of COVID. If they’d had the bars open, we’d have made an even bigger local impact. We did a lot with gas and hotels and food. That’s why it’s a good thing to have film come to Mississippi. There’s a lot of places that can use a shot in the arm.
What do you do when you’re not working on a film set (other jobs, hobbies, etc.)?
I decorate other people’s houses. (laughs) That’s usually what I wind up doing. But I’ve got tons of hobbies. I crochet and I like to vacation, and I cook. I have a lot of fun in the kitchen experimenting with things. Any kind of creative stuff. I’m looking forward to getting back into pottery. I’m looking for a kiln and a pottery wheel and someone to teach me how to do it.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
I hope that we keep getting enough movies in so we can continue to train kids and getting them work and some experience. Hopefully we can get it to a point where everyone is working steady. Then we can keep a whole film crew in the state of Mississippi without having to go outside to get a director of photography or a script supervisor or production designer or whatever. I’d love it if we had every job covered with a Mississippian. That’s my hope. Like I said, I never dreamed I was going to be able to work in my home state. And so far I’m pulling it off here.
What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the film business?
The best advice I can give is to work as a production assistant. You’ll see a lot of different jobs. And then from there, you kind of look around and say, well, whose job would I enjoy doing? Am I the type of person that loves to sit under the shade and greet people and make sure they’re comfortable? Or do I want to work in the office where it’s air conditioned and run numbers? Or do I want to be on the phone all day and be a producer’s assistant? You give it a shot, give that a shot, and hopefully you find the one that’s right for you.
How can people find/reach you?
You can email me at email@example.com.