A Fil-Am actor’s life: Sharon Leal
(Fifth of a series)
LOS ANGELES—She played Michelle Morris, who replaced the troubled Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” stars in the series “Instinct” and “Supergirl,” an untitled Jenny Lumet TV movie, and the new films “Traces,” “Shot” and “Amateur.”
Sharon Leal, whose mom is from Pampanga, hopes to play a Fil-Am someday.
The actress, who was born in Arizona but lived in the Philippines when she was an infant until she was 7 years old, told BET: “My mother is Filipino, so I definitely have that cultural influence growing up. There were a lot of Asian customs, Asian foods and my mother has a very thick Filipino accent. She is a big personality within my life. I think somewhere down the line, maybe there’ll be something [acting-wise] that will let me unveil that [Filipino side] a little bit.”
Sharon’s mom, Angelita, is a Kapampangan, while her father was an African-American military policeman.
After they broke up, Angelita married Jesse Leal, who was also a police officer stationed at the Clark Air Force Base. He adopted Sharon. She remembered eating mangoes and going to the “street market.”
In the US, Sharon grew up in a Filipino household and was raised in Pinoy values. With her penchant for performing, she loved singing along to karaoke songs.
After auditioning in Tucson, Arizona, Sharon scored her first professional acting job—on Broadway, no less—in “Miss Saigon.” It’s her first and only Asian role so far.
The Fil-Am performer also landed in “Rent” on Broadway and the national tour, and appeared in the 1999 cast recording of “Bright Lights, Big City.” With these musical credits, Sharon bagged her first major role in “Dreamgirls.”
The big break led to movie and TV roles. “The more we conquer roles, win and succeed at performances and prove our viability, the more opportunities will spread to the minority,” Sharon said about being an actor of color.
Excerpts from our talk:
How would you describe your journey as an actor so far? My road as an actor has been a slow and steady one. I don’t question the master plan. I’ve learned so much from every job. I feel fortunate to have been able to do what I love.
How do you prepare for an audition? Any good luck rituals? Auditions are quite unpredictable. I try to not overprepare. The main thing I do is familiarize myself with the material. Get off-book to the best of my ability and stay malleable. If I overprepare, it winds up being a hindrance.
As all actors know, pilot seasons become chaotic and you’re thrown into so many different directions. Half of the time, you’re completely wrong for things so, mentally speaking, it works as an advantage to work hard, but not too hard, unless it’s a role you love to death.
Film auditions tend to be a lot more fun and more collaborative in the room, which every actor benefits from. Those auditions feel like mini workshops and promote better results, in my opinion.
What is the most frustrating part of trying to land roles in Hollywood? Politics. The end.
How do you handle rejection? On the rocks, with a splash of whiskey. No (laughs). Like a tiger waiting for its next prey. No. It sucks. But you move on.
Have there been times when you almost gave up? What motivated you to keep trying? I have asked myself on enough occasions: Why am I putting myself through such an unstable situation? The love [for acting] is bigger than my practical mind.
As an actor of color, do you feel that opportunities for minority actors are improving or getting worse? There are challenges that seemingly will never change, just as there are challenges to being a minority in this country.
The more we conquer roles, win and succeed at performances and prove our viability, the more opportunities will spread to the minority. It’s an uphill struggle, but we have to look forward.
What’s your stand on whitewashing—or the casting practice in which white actors are cast in nonwhite character roles—in Hollywood? How much time do you have? I don’t like it. It’s infuriating. It’s counterproductive and denies us of so many of our right to compelling characters. It’s hard enough without taking us out of our own stories.
What do you look forward to about your new TV series, “Instinct?” Steady work! We’ve got a stellar cast. I’m back in New York, where I always feel like the best version of myself. It’s rich and soulful, full of energy and variety.
How do you choose your projects, because your recent ones seem wonderfully diverse, from “Amateur,” “Shot,” “Traces,” an “Untitled Jenny Lumet Project” to “Bella’s Story?” I love changing. It’s hard to do that as a person of color. I like to be challenged. I also want to work with amazing people.
To be honest, that’s why I have reps—people I trust to help make decisions. I’m still finding my footing and proving myself. Still growing. I don’t have the luxury of turning everything down. I’m thankful for every opportunity.
To people who are planning to pursue acting, what should they prepare for? Hell. Pure hell. OK, sorry this is serious. This business will chew you up and spit you out. It’s how you recover from all the rejections. It’s how thick-skinned you can become. There are so many variables.
I’ve had such lottery-like experiences with certain jobs. Every time I book work, it feels like a huge accomplishment.
Work typically, hopefully begets work. You have to stay vigilant and faithful. But at the end of the day, there are no promises. When you get there though, nothing is sweeter.
(To be continued on Sunday)
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