I remember standing on the roof of a Manhattan apartment building on a warm, breezy summer evening, looking out over the city lights.  As I gazed out into the vast starry night sky, an idea caught fire and spread throughout my body.  I felt inspired.  I immediately called a dear friend, Richie Bencivenga, with whom I share a long history.  Richie is a writer who had helped volunteer for my father.  He has been a tremendous source of support for me and my family.   As an extremely passionate actress, I love bouncing ideas off him, and collaborating on projects.   I told Richie my idea, “I have to make a movie about my father’s heroic struggle, surviving ALS.”

Fast-forward about 5 years.   I had driven across the country to Los Angeles, with my father’s encouragement and blessing.  L.A. was my chosen destination to fulfill my passions, and evolve.  Late one evening, a friend randomly received an email containing information she felt I needed to see.  It was information on a movie called “You’re Not You,” about a woman, played by Hilary Swank, suffering from ALS and the friendship she builds with her college-age caregiver.  Immediately, a rush of emotions surged through me.   The movie I was inspired to make 5 years back, was in preproduction.  I had 11 years experience with this disease that took my father’s life last year.  It would be an outlet and a dream come true to contribute to the expression of such a similar story… I had to somehow be a part of it.

I began my research.  The casting director information was not available, so I called Hilary Swank’s production company, to find out more details.  Of course, they were not in a position to share any names.  I called my manager, and I happened to have a meeting with a theatrical agent that day.  Between the two of them, I got the information I needed.

My manager submitted me for a role in the movie, but I knew that was not going to be enough- I needed to somehow get in front of them.  I did more research and found out that the casting director was doing a workshop 3 weeks from that day.  I immediately signed up.  I found an appropriate script, got it approved, and began my preparation.

I envisioned myself booking the role, and to be honest, got quite emotional.   I thought of my father and how proud he would be.  I thought of all of my hard work paying off and my dreams coming true.  I took out a note card from my business, Creations by Julie, of my favorite drawing called “Dream Big.” Against my manager’s advice, I decided to write a heartfelt but professional introduction to this casting director, expressing why I look forward to his expertise.  I felt, if nothing comes from this, I would rather put 100 percent into the effort knowing I at least tried everything possible to achieve my goal.  I need to stand behind who I am.  I literally sent that card off with a kiss and a prayer.

3 weeks later, I am driving to the workshop.  Thoughts are racing through my mind.  Did he read the card…did he even receive it?  What do I say if he didn’t?  Will I have time to say anything at all?  I brought an extra card just in case.   This film wasn’t just an acting opportunity for me, it had purpose.  Once I arrived, the Q&A began.  I was so excited I felt myself tearing up with a huge smile plastered on my face.  I absorbed all of his expertise and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to perform.  I could tell right away, this casting director had a huge heart, and things would work out fine.

We all left the room and I waited in line for my turn to meet with him one on one.  I knew the material cold, and focused on my energy level and breath for a good 45 minutes until I was called in.  “Julie, your turn!” I walked in, checked out the room, asked the reader to stand, positioned myself, connected up, made some direct choices, and began the audition.   I felt him lean in, and could tell he was absorbing my performance.  I finished, and had mixed feelings about what I shared- moments I felt could have been stronger, but knowing it was solid enough.

He proceeded to give me feedback- feedback that exceeded all of my expectations.  He said I reminded him of Amy Adams, as we have a similar internal emotional life, he loved my hair :0), my unique choices, that I was confident and “owned” the room. He then said, “you know you are an amazing actress.”  If he were to make changes, he mentioned that he might have redirected my approach to the ending, but that, perhaps, it wouldn’t even be necessary since I brought a lot to the table for him to work with.

I thanked him for his time, and asked if he had received my card.  He did!  I felt my arms do my original “happy Julie” dance!  Not only that, but he reiterated what I had written, and asked who it was in my family who had the disease.  I told him it was my father, and if possible, I would love the opportunity to somehow contribute to “You’re Not You.”  He shared his empathy and with a smile, agreed to check the breakdown for any uncast roles.  I felt ecstatic, looked at him, and, with all my heart, expressed,” Even if there are no more roles, I would be honored to contribute in any way you would need.”  He said absolutely!  I could barely contain my bubbly excited self, and couldn’t resist giving him and the reader a huge hug goodbye as I fumbled for the door flustered and giddy.  I didn’t know what to do with everything I was feeling!

Two days later, I wrote a thank you card, along with a portrait I drew of him, and against “the rules,” decided to walk it down to the casting director’s office.    I wanted to be careful, not to take up too much of his time or do anything “wrong.”  I wanted to avoid coming across as too intense or eager.  At the same time, I needed to follow my intuition.  I walked into the office and as I handed the card to the secretary, I heard a kind voice say, “come in, come in it’s okay.”  I turned around to see the casting director.   I couldn’t resist giving him another hug as I handed him the note.  He proceeded to tell me that he loved my performance last Saturday.

The next day, I received a call from my manager.  “Julie!!  You have an audition for You’re Not You!!!”  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I was in the middle of the mall jumping up and down squealing with joy.  Tomorrow came…it was Halloween and the day of my audition.  Right before I left, I checked my email and noticed another message from my manager.   I was amazed with what I read.  They asked me to come in for a reading for “You’re Not You,” with Hilary Swank, Josh Duhamel, Emmy Rossum, and director George C. Wolfe!  I couldn’t believe it!!  I jetted out to the audition, and with the help of my wonderful acting coach, Jen Krater, I felt prepared.  I walked in the office, handed out Halloween candy like I normally would do, and performed.  On my way out, I saw the casting director again…and with open arms, he already knew I was going in for a hug.  He told me he loved the picture I drew, and I expressed my appreciation for all of the opportunities.   He said that, even if this role doesn’t work out, he is trying everything he can to get me in this movie; and that the reading will be a great opportunity for me to meet the director and share my talents.

That evening, I dressed up in my Little Mermaid costume, all ready to go out for Halloween.  Instead, with the help of my buddy Richie, I wound up staying in all night reading the script, as a mermaid of course, in preparation for the very next day.  It was completely worth it!

Morning came, as I drove downtown to the production office where the reading was being held.  By accident, I walked through the wrong entrance, and was told I was not allowed in.  I was running out of time, and didn’t want to be late for this very special day.    In my heels, I jetted around the block, trying to find the entrance, hoping to get there early as planned.  I couldn’t find it.   I felt tears welling up in my eyes, just in time to see the doors appear in front of me like a light beam glistening down from the heavens.  A burst of excitement ran through me once again, as I made my way through the entrance.  I was taken to a room full of producers and other actors who were helping out for the day, or already cast.  Then, in walked the director, Hilary Swank, Josh Duhamel, and Emmy Rossum.  They came around to shake our hands, and I briefly expressed my gratitude for being there.  It was an honor.

We began the reading.  It was still sinking in that I was getting to work off of an academy award-winning actress.  I felt her connecting with me in the scene; I felt her energy from across the room.  It was magnificent!  There were three characters I was reading for, Cynthia, the aunt, and the mother.  As the reading went on, I felt extremely touched by this story.  There were many moments of lighthearted laughter, and then it became more dramatic.  We approached the lines for the mother, and, as I began reading, the story brought up memories of my father during his fight.  Watching him choke, trying to help him with the cough assist machine, running out of air supply, seeing his face turn blue/ grey-  screaming his name, discussing options – morphine, tracheotomy, ventilator – and his will to live with love and dignity.   No one knew my story and how I connected to the script.  This day was not about that, or me.  It just felt so real and personal, and I was so lucky to be a part of it.  A few of us had tears in our eyes as the reading was coming to an end.  The director called out for a 5-minute break and came around to shake our hands once more before he dismissed us.  I went to say goodbye to Hilary Swank, and gave her a few of my drawings/note cards as a gift.  I told her, “ I donate a percentage to ALS in honor of my father, and I am so grateful to you for doing this film.   I just want to say thank you, and I think you are brilliant.” And then I got the hell out of that room.  Silly me, I brought the rest of my sandwich.  Who was I kidding…the catered food was just too good to resist.

I wrote one last genuine thank you card to the casting director, for the reading and other opportunities.   Now, I don’t really know what is next.  As much as I would love to get cast in this film, it has already been a win, and I have been celebrating every step.  I feel fortunate that this casting director had such faith in me, and responded in such a kind and generous way.

Part of what makes my recent experience so rewarding, is because this industry is tricky.  I don’t always know “the rules,” or if my approach is too forward, or intense.  I would think, as an actress, a healthy balance of that enthusiasm is a good thing.   This industry tends to challenge one’s self worth at times, with all of the rejection, time and money spent, lack of stability, and sometimes unacknowledged effort.  It could be quite the emotional whirlwind.  How is one really supposed to stand out among so many others floating in the same boat?  How can we afford to sustain and support our goals in this process, when we work side jobs that don’t even cover expenses, which we often are expected to drop for last minute auditions?  Auditions we are ecstatic to receive, nonetheless.

What I have learned, through experience with Dad, the business of the arts, and various other struggles, is that a life lived with passion, love, and dignity is a good one.   Art fulfills me and gives me purpose.   It is a part of myself I can use to share and inspire, and a creative outlet without which I could never live.  It is my water and air, and it completes me.  If I feel the instinct, I will intelligently and openly go after an opportunity with every ounce of my being.  This is who I am, and it is important to get to know and stand behind one-self.  As I remain open to growth and feedback throughout this process, the right people will respond.  And those who don’t… well, perhaps they are not the right fit.  So far, I am grateful for what has come of my life, this outlook, and the supportive individuals I have met along the way.  Dad always said to be who you are and enjoy the journey; I always thought he was a pretty smart guy.

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