Justin Simien Found Success After Following a Mission Statement: ‘Most Importantly, Do You’

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features intimate, in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy film, television, and theater actors and creators. Full of both know-how and inspiration, “In the Envelope” airs weekly to cover everything from practical advice on navigating the industry, to how your favorite projects are made, to personal stories of success and failure alike. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

“Instead of going into a room as half of yourself or a third of yourself or an eighth of yourself, go into every room as yourself,” advises Justin Simien. “Do the things that you want to do because you are clear on why you’re doing them.”

Those words to live by—for any aspiring or working artist—are just a sample of what the writer, director, editor, producer, and podcaster provides listeners of “In the Envelope” this week. Best known as the creator of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival breakout “Dear White People” and its award-winning Netflix series of the same name (now in production on Season 4), Simien understands the importance of knowing oneself, knowing the entertainment industry, and figuring out how to square the former with the latter to achieve success and creative fulfillment. 

“You should be thinking about the marketplace, you have to.... [But] most importantly, do you,” he says. “The kind of director that I want to be is not the kind of director that you’re going to be. Everyone is different. Even as a performer, as an actor, your path in life is just going to be remarkably different than everyone else’s.”

Simien’s path took him from his performing arts high school in Houston, Texas, to studying film at Chapman University, to working in film publicity and social media in Los Angeles. As with any job that early-career artists take on to stay afloat, there were valuable lessons to learn along the way. (“Anything you do, it can feed you,” says Simien. “My acting teacher always said, ‘Use it.’ ”) Working on that side of the biz taught him how to present the concept for a project and hook audiences. “Especially as a person who is a queer, Black filmmaker, I’m not making things that people are used to,” he points out.

“I’m not making Campbell soup. I’m just not, I can’t, I don’t want to. I have to lay down some track before I put things out. I have to explain to some people, even my target audience, what it is that I’m trying to do before they just see it. Because they may not be accustomed to that.”

Since producing a crowdfunded concept trailer for what would become his hit satire “Dear White People,” Simien has made it his mission to bring typically underrepresented Black and LGBTQ perspectives to the screen. His new horror film from Neon and Hulu, “Bad Hair,” tells the tale of an evil weave and features an all-star cast including Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Usher Raymond IV, Laverne Cox, and Vanessa Williams.

Simien also explains his approach to the many behind-the-camera roles he’s taken on since filming and producing short films. “It is a holistic process in my head,” he says. “I start planning the scenes and thinking about the performances while I’m writing them and I’m still writing them when I’m in the scene, directing the performances.” Through it all, his background in making theater guides his emphasis on collaboration, incorporating different perspectives into material, and practicing humility on set. 

“With ‘Dear White People,’ I’ve gotten so spoiled with having a room of writers who really have the lived experiences of my characters so that those characters aren’t just avatars for me, which is the case for any writer,” he says. “I tend to do that in a kind of community. I like to have a lot of workshops. I like to bring actors in to read the scripts out loud with me and for me.”

And like any great director, Simien has the utmost respect for actors. “I know how ridiculous the ask is. I’m asking you to come in here and pretend like none of this is happening and give me real authentic, unbridled, emotional responses, completely in the present moment, with no safety net.” In terms of the final product, he adds, “The actor is the special effect, always.”

Asked what potential collaborators auditioning for him should remember, Simien gives a reminder: “Some roles are for some people, period. And it doesn’t matter how good you are, how pretty you are, what you look like, where you’re from. It may just not be your role.” That said, what he looks for in a great performance is something surprising, something extra. “I want you to bring some of yourself to it so that it’s a collaboration between my vision and your vision.”

Stay tuned also for our Backstage casting insider segment, where Christine McKenna-Tirella expands on Simien’s thoughts on creating an artistic mission statement. Her casting listings for the week are a remotely recorded audio drama, social videos for a financial services company, and an Atlanta, Georgia explainer video. Check out more advice from a life coach on The Slate here, and don’t miss Backstage’s special edition print issue on the state of the industry today.

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