Cougar News spoke to Theater Professor Gail Cronauer, about her recent honor as one of five featured guests of The Waxahachie Convention and Visitors Bureau’s “Crossroads of Texas Film Festival” and her experiences as a professor, actor and director. Read on to find out what it is like to work with stars like Matthew McConaughey.
Why was it an honor to be part of the “Crossroads of Texas Film Festival?”
It’s always an honor to be acknowledged in your own backyard! It’s easy to take the familiar for granted. It’s also easy, especially when you’re not working or questioning your life choices and accomplishments, to forget what all you have done in your life. I’ve spent over 30 years working in the motion picture industry in Texas, doing it all: big studio features, low budget indies, pilots, series, shorts, student films, web series, films that were written up in the New York Times, made “10 Best” lists, and films that no one ever heard of or saw. During that time, I was raising and caring for a family and, for 25 years, teaching at Collin College. It was gratifying to hear people say, “What a wonderful career you’ve had!” I’m usually too busy working or living to realize that! It’s also valuable for those beginning their careers to realize what’s possible: the gains — and the demands — made on you as well. I suppose I’m always looking for how I can use what I’m doing in my life for my teaching.
I understand you were also part of the festival’s “Trailblazing Texas Women in Film Panel.” Tell us a little about that experience.
We were asked to think about our accomplishments as well as the obstacles we’ve had to overcome. This conversation with Anne Rapp, award-winning screenwriter; Hillary Pierce, documentary filmmaker; and Mindy Raymond, head of the Texas Motion Picture Association, was both exhilarating and frustrating. There were so many unpaved roads 35 years ago. You needed to get a “film headshot”—but what exactly was that? I remember my first really successful film shot and the doors that opened for me and others. Today, you go online and find thousands of examples. You wrestled with how acting on camera differed from acting on stage (my background). I struggled to figure that out—and now I teach it. Acting studios and YouTube tutorials abound. You wondered if it was possible to have a career if you weren’t in LA. I drove to Austin and beyond for years to audition and was cast over LA talent on several projects. Today, casting directors routinely accept videotaped auditions, and the answer is a resounding Yes! I am proud to be a part of that legacy. We also talked about the future. It was wonderful to hear how these trailblazers are supporting the careers and efforts of thousands of other women in the industry through mentoring, teaching and hiring.
Please regale us with a story about directing.
I just watched a video of director/producer Jill Soloway at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. She created the hits “Transparent” and “I Love Dick.” She said that directors are politicians — so true. Any show I direct requires that I have a point of view about the material, a message I want to communicate. Selecting a show to direct is very challenging for me. I spend ages looking for a subject, a writer, a play that I want to live with for the requisite months of research, preparation, design conference, casting, rehearsing and performance. I select a show that I believe will affect, move, arouse, entertain and enlighten the artists and audience. Last fall, it was “ANON(ymous),” a reimagining of Homer’s “Odyssey,” which dealt with issues like immigration, the refugee crisis, worker exploitation and cultural differences. This year, it will be Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which is what many of us are holding on by. I’m looking forward to exploring this classic with the Collin community.
You have many awards, which one means the most to you?
For me, it’s the little things: film producers sending you flowers after shooting a particularly difficult scene; a director at an audition telling you, “You’re a tall drink of water.” The USA film fest did a lovely tribute to me a few years back, and I was thrilled to show up on several critics’ “Best Actress” lists for my work onstage in “Master Class” at Lyric Stage.
As Ma Newton in The Newton Boys you played the mother of Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich. In Walking Tall: The Payback you played the mother of Kevin (“Hercules”) Sorbo. What is it like playing the mother of these actors?
Working on The Newton Boys was an actor’s dream. I was doing a show at the Dallas Theater Center at night and flying down to rehearse with Rick Linklater and the “boys” during the day. They were all young and at the beginning of their careers. It is so interesting to look back at them and that film now. I remember Matthew’s very “laid back” way, Skeet showing up to set with a cousin and new dog and Ethan questioning everything that was going on in his life. They were all fantastic on set: loose but professional. I remember a moment at the family dinner table when Skeet tossed a napkin before a line to create an interesting piece of action and give the editor a reason to cut to him when editing — very smart, I thought. Kevin was further along in his career and had a kind of ease, an elegance almost, about him, and he had so many fans. I got letters about him and that project for years!
Why do you love teaching at Collin College?
Teaching keeps me on my toes. I am constantly questioning what I do since I am passing it along to the artists and citizens of the future. There are so many hungry and eager students from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds at Collin. I love that.
What classes do you teach and what will students gain in your classes?
I teach Acting I, which is both an introduction to acting and a crash course in tools for creating your life. Acting 2 is a more serious exploration of how you apply those tools to monologues and scenes: it is a more traditional acting class for students who are seriously exploring the art and business of theatre and/or film acting, directing or writing. Acting 3 is Acting for Film/TV and explores how the trained actor develops the skill to move from stage to screen and back. Each medium offers its own rewards and challenges, and many actors want to have that flexibility. We study what makes video work as well as how to work in video. I also address the business side of it — auditioning, headshot and resumes, marketing tools, networking, etc. We finish up the semester with a visit to a Dallas talent agent which has allowed several actors to launch their careers. Collin student Gustavo Hernandez took the class a year ago, signed with the agent and has shot several commercials and landed a recurring role in “Queen of The South.”
What sage advice would you offer aspiring actors and directors?
Do it because you love it. Love doing it. Train, study, read, work—always! Know that it’s hard work and work hard. Take chances and take care — of your mind, body, voice and spirit. Find people who will support you — and be honest with you. Remember to have a life as well as a career. Be nice.