Tina Fey is not only a regular on the “Saturday Night Live” schedule, with a weekly spot on the show’s irreverent “Weekend Update;” she is also the first female head writer on the decades-old NBC variety show.
Fey (Drama ’92) got her acting roots in Charlottesville. She performed in several department shows and after graduation headed to the Midwest.
In Chicago she enrolled in improvisation classes at The Second City and ImprovOlympic. She worked at the counter at Evanston’s YMCA from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., napped in the afternoon and headed to classes later on.
She submitted sketches to Saturday Night Live, scored an interview and landed a job.
As head writer, Fey works long days to prepare for Saturday night.
Monday, the writers pitch sketch ideas to the host. Tuesday is the big writing day — writers work until the next morning. Before going home to sleep for a few hours, each writer turns in two sketches.
On Wednesday, everyone involved in the show from production, to costume, to set design goes through three to four hours of sketch readings. Fey and the producers then meet with the host to decide which sketches to work on for the rest of the week.
Saturday is hectic. After a dress rehearsal at 8 p.m., they cut the show down to time. The rehearsal ends at 11 p.m. There’s a half hour for last-minute changes, and by 11:30 p.m., the show is broadcast live into living rooms across America.
After graduating in 1995, Amber Husbands made the trek to the center of the American film universe: California.
Husbands (Interdisciplinary ’95) found herself in Los Angeles, jobless but with aspirations to work behind the scenes in the movies. A few weeks later, she landed her first job. Getting that first job, she says to advice-seeking University grads, is always the hardest.
Husbands was lucky. The film company where her friend interned needed an assistant story editor — fast. Husbands was available.
She started at a company called Live Entertainment, which now is called Artisan (the company that released “The Blair Witch Project” two years ago). She read submitted scripts and evaluated whether the storyline would work for the film company.
“It was not to make the big blockbuster movies,” Husbands said. “I had the luxury when I read scripts that I looked for scripts that were good.”
Two years later, she moved to Fox Searchlight, the indie wing of Twentieth Century Fox. There she worked as the assistant to the vice president of production on the movies “The Slums of Beverly Hills” and “Quills.”
“Everyone was working for less money at an arthouse studio in order to make movies that they cared about,” she said.
Although Husbands may have been headed to further success in Hollywood, Virginia called her back. She now is at the University’s Law School, studying litigation. She misses the fun and the sun of Los Angeles, but after seeing the movie industry inside and out, she saw a side she didn’t like too much.
“It’s not an intellectual industry in any way. It’s about who you know,” she said. “I had to go to parties a lot. It’s about who you know, what contacts you have. That’s not what I wanted to be valued for.”
When Davis Kirby arrived in New York City, he made 11 promises to himself. This fall, he fulfills the 11th when he shares the stage with Broadway greats in a musical directed by three-time Tony award winner Susan Stroman.
Kirby (Drama ’93) will dance and sing in “Thou Shalt Not,” a play set in post-world War II New Orleans, where the main characters break all of the Ten Commandments. Based on Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin,” the play begins as a soldier returns from the war, falls in love with a married woman and plots with her to murder the husband. Mardi Gras rages on in the background with jazz legend Harry Connick Jr. providing the musical score.
“It’s all about passion and sex and love and jazz,” Kirby said.
Playing a musician named Sugar Hips, Kirby does principal dance work. Although he didn’t train to be a dancer during his undergraduate days at the University, he learned some basics in student productions.
After graduating, he started dancing intensively in Las Vegas. He later joined four national tours, including “Tommy” and “Cats.”
The Atlanta native said he paid his dues to get to New York, doing lots of regional theater and “clickety clankety stuff.”
Aspiring actors need to get up every morning and treat their role-searching as a full-time job, he said. His hard work has paid off.
“I quite honestly couldn’t be happier.”
Julie Lynn likes movies. So she started her own film company.
The double ’Hoo (Drama and Foreign Affairs ’88, Law ’92) moved to Los Angeles after law school and two years ago started Mockingbird Pictures. Her company recently produced HBO’s Emmy-nominated “Wit” starring Emma Thompson. The film, based on Margaret Edson’s play about a poetry professor diagnosed with ovarian cancer, is up for three Emmy nominations. “We’re pursuing things we’re really proud of and really want to do,” Lynn said.
Much of her undergraduate career revolved around theater. She also served on the executive board of University Union, working on the technical side of things.
Her law school experience gave her a passion for free speech, resulting in a stint at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, where she ended up working with several artists.
Then she moved to LA without a job. “Literally, everything I’ve done has been insane,” she said.
Lynn spent seven months this year in Berlin producing “Joe and Max,” the story of heavyweight boxing legends, the American Joe Lewis and German Max Schmeling. The film explores the pair’s complex friendship and will be released in March 2002 on the Starz Encore cable network.
“In retrospect it’s all been crazy, but somehow it keeps working out,” she said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. But it’s working out OK.”
Neveen Mahmoud went to school to study American politics but graduated with a passion that extended beyond the classroom.
After spending much of her time at the University involved in theater productions, Mahmoud (Government ’97) went on to Yale’s prestigious Master of Fine Arts program, focusing on stage management. She now works in New York City as a production assistant on the Broadway musical “Mama Mia,” a play about the ’70s Swedish pop foursome, ABBA.
She spent last summer involved in New York City'’ famed Shakespeare in Central Park festival. Before that she worked as assistant stage manager for the off-Broadway hit, August Wilson’s “Jitney,” which zooms in on the lives of a group of cab drivers in 1970s Pittsburgh.
Stage managing the drama department musical “Hair” during her undergraduate years propelled Mahmoud into four or five different other projects.
“I might be doing this, that or the other with my major but my interest was always after class,” she said. “I was always on the stage.”
In the University’s list of successful drama alums, Emily Swallow’s name is one of the newest.
Although she hasn’t made it big yet, she’s on the way. After throwing herself into University theatrical productions during her undergrad years, Swallow was accepted at New York University’s ultra-competitive graduate acting program this year. In the world’s toughest city, Swallow (Middle Eastern Studies ’01) will learn how to eke out a living in one of the world’s toughest professions. As she puts it: “There’s a million people out there who want to do the same thing.”
Swallow spent her time at the University completing a distinguished major in Middle Eastern Studies while taking drama classes on the side. Not to mention the performances: “Three Penny Opera,” “Into the Woods,” “A Chorus Line,” First Year Players’ “The Wiz” and Spectrum Theater’s multiracial version of “Romeo and Juliet,” to name a few.
“I did lots of drama at U.Va., and it was fun and all that, but I really want to figure out where my strengths are,” she said. “It sounds cliché or whatever but I don’t want to do it for the sake of performance, but really figure out how I can impact society. I want to do that to the best of my ability.”
SEAN PATRICK THOMAS
Sean Patrick Thomas fully emerged on the Hollywood scene starring opposite Julia Stiles in last January’s “Save the Last Dance.” A high-powered teen drama set in urban Chicago, the film depicts an interracial romance that develops with dance featuring prominently in the foreground.
The popular movie was not Thomas’ first flirtation with success. He had smaller roles in “Cruel Intentions,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000,” as well a substantial role as Detective Page in CBS’s “The District.”
Thomas came upon acting by accident. The son of Guyanese immigrants, the Delaware native planned to go to law school, but he tried out for a student production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and discovered his love for the stage.
Upon graduating, he decided to develop his skills at NYU’s prestigious graduate drama school.
At first, Van Zeiler wasn’t too psyched about playing the “geeky dude with glasses” his parents used to listen to.
But heading to the UK to star as rock-and-roll icon Buddy Holly in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” was Zeiler’s break.
Zeiler (Drama and English ’95) did the typical starving actor thing in New York: a few lines on daytime soaps, some off-off Broadway productions and the inevitable temp jobs. Then he answered an ad for an actor who could play guitar.
That was Zeiler. During his undergraduate days he not only dabbled in drama department productions but also performed in an acoustic band called Southern Exposure.
Soon Zeiler was donning Holly’s trademark black glasses.
“I gained a really deep respect for his place in rock and roll and what a sort of ground breaker he really was,” Zeiler said.
He also met his wife. British actress Victoria Stilwell, his stage wife, ended up as his wife for real.
Although Zeiler always had acting in the back of his mind, he didn’t immerse himself in drama during his undergraduate years. He acted in a couple of plays, but not necessarily the main roles.
“I was not maybe taken quite so seriously,” he said. “Which was fine with me because I was happy to play Nintendo and play in my band.”