Erin has loved being theatrical since she was a little girl. She had her first agent at age thirteen, and, after graduating from BYU, she moved to Los Angeles. As a working stage and film actor in L.A., Erin reflects on the challenges and joys of her business.
How did you get involved with performing?
When I was maybe five or six years old my mom and dad noticed that I had a flair for being theatrical so they signed me up for dance and piano lessons. My piano teacher discovered that I could sing, so I would sing and practice my theatrics with her. When I was seven, I was in a high school production of The King and I. That was my first experience being on stage, and I just fell in love with it. I felt like I was in this other world. The audience was completely dark but everything on stage was light. I was creating this entirely new world that I had never experienced before. To me it was very magical–it took me to another place. I’ve always been very imaginative; when I was younger I would pretend to be the girl from the book The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I was always pretending and dressing in funny clothes. I really loved to put myself in different situations and new worlds. I think the idea of becoming somebody else and going somewhere else was really appealing to me as a kid.
I continued with theater all through high school and also did some TV and film as well. I got an agent when I was thirteen and did a couple of independent films because there were quite a few that would come through my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I was really blessed to have so many opportunities around me and to have parents who always pushed me to be involved and to use my talents.
Growing up, did you know that performing was something you would do professionally?
No, I didn’t. In fact, when people asked me as a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would say, “A horse jockey.” I was obsessed with horses as a little girl; my favorite movies growing up were Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, The Man From Snowy River, and The Black Stallion. I even took horseback riding lessons. I remember hearing people talk about the fact that horse jockeys had to be small. I thought, “I’m small. I can be a horse jockey!”
After high school, I went to Brigham Young University and wasn’t really sure what I was going to major in. I knew that I definitely wanted to continue with theater and singing. I kind of fell into the acting program there, and the more I got involved the more serious I became about it. I realized that I could do this as a profession. Around this time I landed the lead in a film called Don’t Look Under the Bed. I was working with people who had been in the business for many, many years, and working with them really instilled a lot of confidence in me. I thought, “Hey, I can carry a movie. I’ve never really done this before but I think I can do it.”
It’s such a hard business to succeed in, though. When I watch commercials and episodic TV I see a lot of friends I’ve worked with or met on auditions. I get so excited when I see them because it’s such a hard business to be in. I always think, “Yay for you!” Success in this business is a combination of working your butt off, having really good luck, and being talented. Because success is a combination of so many different factors, there are a lot of really talented actors who don’t even have agents and never audition. It’s so much about being in the right place at the right time. In L.A. there are so many different levels of success. There are people who are working actors, and that’s considered successful because they’re working. Then there are actors who star in huge blockbuster movies and get stopped on the street. I think both of these types of actors are successful. As for the person starring in huge blockbusters–they either have really awesome representatives or they’re really lucky. It’s like the stars have to align just perfectly.
What are your most prominent roles in stage and film?
My most prominent stage roles have been playing Johanna in Sweeney Todd at PCPA TheatreFest and then when I played Jessica Poole in The Pleasure of His Company at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego opposite Patrick Page (a well-known Broadway actor). Filmwise, my most prominent role so far has probably been the lead role in the Disney film Don’t Look Under the Bed, and then I also had the leading role in two independent films, one that shot in Utah (Singles 2nd Ward) and the other in Austria (The Errand of Angels). I was also a lead in an indie film that is just coming out now that was shot in Oklahoma and based on a true story–Heaven’s Rain.
Are you working as an actor full time?
Currently, yes! I am playing Siobhan McKenna on ABC’s General Hospital.
Did you move to L.A. right out of college?
Yeah. I graduated from BYU in 2002 and got married at the end of the year in December. My husband, Carson, and I moved out to L.A. in January of 2003.
Do you audition regularly for film and stage roles?
Because of my General Hospital schedule, I don’t have as much time now. But yes, usually when I’m not currently working on something, I’m super busy auditioning for film and television roles.
Performing in front of others requires a great amount of vulnerability. How do you manage this?
As an adult I get nervous every now and then when I’m in front of the camera or when I go to auditions. I get more nervous to perform now than I ever did as a kid. I think this is because as an adult I put a lot more pressure on myself. I don’t remember ever getting nervous when I was younger. When I was in elementary school I had the opportunity to sing the national anthem at the Portland Trail Blazer games a few times. I remember my mother standing with me near the announcer’s desk. They would say, “Please stand to hear Erin Chambers sing the national anthem,” and she would be freaking out. She was so nervous for me. She would say, “Are you nervous? Are you nervous?” and I would say, “No. I’m not nervous. But you’re going to make me nervous if you keep talking like that!” I think as a kid I didn’t really have a clear idea about how scary these situations were. I see a lot of kids–like my nieces and nephews–that have no fear at all.
Really, being vulnerable is just a part of my career, and it’s a very difficult thing. Even though I’ve been acting for quite a few years, it’s something I’m still learning how to do every day. I remember one day when I read something nasty someone had written about me online, and I sobbed for hours. It killed me. As an actor, I’ve trained myself to be open and vulnerable and so when things like that happen, it can really crush me. It can really kill me. I’ve had to develop a really strong assurance that those opinions don’t matter. It does not matter what people like that think. All that matters is how I feel about myself, how my family and the people I care about feel about me and how my Heavenly Father feels about me. I have to remind myself that if I feel good about what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.
What are the challenges of being LDS and an actor?
I’m constantly learning about who I am as a Mormon in this business. I’m learning how to represent myself. Recently, I really struggled to find something modest to wear for a film premier. Let me tell you there are no fancy modest dresses where I live in L.A. I drove all over the city for two weeks and couldn’t find anything. I ended up wearing a sleeveless dress. I learned from that experience that I should just hire a stylist to go out and get my dresses for me. So, I’m not perfect but I am doing the best that I can.
I know some of the people in my religious community think, “How could she be a good Mormon and be an actress?” I don’t think the stereotype that it’s difficult to be in the career that I’m in and be a good Mormon is true. I think many people still have this idea that the business is evil or it’s a bad influence. Being an actress doesn’t mean I get tempted more than any other person. I was talking with a friend of mine who works as an accountant and almost every day at work they ask him to go out and get a drink. Everybody is going to get tempted at some point or another to do something they know they shouldn’t do. When difficult choices do come up in my career, I really feel like Heavenly Father is looking out for me. A few times I’ve felt a bad situation coming on, and I haven’t been quite sure how to handle it. I worked on a show once where I was supposed to do a love scene and they told me, “You’re going to have your choice of being in a camisole or a bra and underpants.” I was really nervous about it. I had never done that before. I don’t expect every character I play to be perfect; I will always have opportunities to play characters who are nothing like me and who make bad choices. That’s just part of the art–you’re supposed to convey that. If I’m playing a character who is drinking I’m obviously not really drinking, and if my character decides to sleep with someone, I don’t have to literally sleep with that person. Still, I was so stressed about this scene, and I didn’t know what to do. Then I found out a short time later that my co-star wouldn’t do love scenes of any kind and wouldn’t take his shirt off. This had all been worked into his contract, so I had nothing to worry about now. Hallelujah! I know that when those kinds of situations are creeping up, and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do, Heavenly Father steps in. I really feel like He blesses me in that way.
What are the advantages of being LDS and an actor?
It seems like people in the business are generally okay with who I am as a Mormon and are generally very respectful. I did have an experience not too long ago when I was working with someone who was not nice to me about my faith, which made it really hard. Luckily, I was surrounded by many other wonderful people on the project, and so I just gravitated towards them. Overall, there are a lot of great people who work in this industry. It’s like any other job in the sense that not everyone at work has the same religion or culture but that doesn’t make it bad. I’m blessed to work with representatives who respect me and know that I’m LDS and still like me and want to work with me.
I really think there’s so much opportunity for good as an LDS actress. I feel like I’m in a situation where I can share the gospel and be a good example. With certain films I try to bring my spirituality into it if I can. Sometimes that approach isn’t always appropriate–there is a time and a place for everything. I think what’s more important is being a good person. I’m always willing to talk about the Church if people ask or if it comes up. I don’t share the gospel like a missionary in the sense that I teach gospel principles and tell them about Nephi. I prefer to show people about Mormonism–show them that you can be Mormon and normal and cool. Some people still think Mormons are like the characters on the TV show Big Love. They think Mormons are polygamists or confuse them with the Amish. I was talking with someone once who said, “So, do you have electricity?” I said, “Yeah, Salt Lake City did host the Olympics not too long ago.”
I would say that being in this career has also made me more inclusive as a Mormon. I think I look at the gospel a little bit more open mindedly than I used to. It’s funny because I think a lot of my Mormon friends think I’m this crazy liberal now, while there are a lot of liberal people in Hollywood who probably think I’m this hyper conservative. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I love going to church in L.A. because I love how the gospel is approached a little bit more openly. There are a lot of people in my ward who are in the entertainment business so I kind of feel like I’m part of this special niche of people. There’s a film editor in my ward and other actors and producers and writers; we’re all trying to be good Latter-day Saints in a city where there are not very many Mormons.
Have you had any spiritual or testimony building experiences while acting?
Recently, I shot the film Heaven’s Rain about a man trying to come to terms with his parents’ murder and ultimately forgiving the murderers. I really feel like I was meant to be in that film for a specific reason and that everyone who was involved in that film was supposed to be there. There were a lot of people on the set who were from different faiths, and we all came together to share this very spiritual experience. It was really inspiring to work with so many people who shared a common believe in God and a common belief in this beautiful message of forgiveness. In a way it strengthened my testimony. Not every project does that. Most of the time things like that just don’t happen because making a movie is such a puzzle. There are so many elements that go in it: you shoot scenes out of chronological order, sometimes you’re not even looking at the person you’re interacting with, sometimes you’re looking at a different mark. It’s actually kind of a miracle that movies come together in the way that they do when you consider all of the different elements involved.
As I continue in this business I am constantly growing and learning about myself, about my testimony, and about being a member of the Church. I know that the talents I have are from my Heavenly Father, and I want to share them. I love being in this business for that reason: I can share my talents while being a missionary. I never really know who I might be a good example for. I’m really grateful to have the gospel in my life. It’s a very secure and safe thing that I know will always be with me. I love my Savior and my Father in Heaven. I know that they’re always there for me. I think sometimes I get so busy and caught up in my life that I forget that they’re there to help me. I’ve had a lot of really wonderful experiences in my career where it has been hammered into my head to remember that they’re always there and that I need them.
At A Glance
Erin Chambers McKay
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marital status: Married
Children: I have a lab boxer named Ellie Mae and she’s 4.
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University class of 2002—majored in Acting and minored in English.
Favorite Hymn: “For the Beauty of the Earth”
On The Web: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0150326/ and heavensrainmovie.com
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Photos used with permission.