Web Series Knockouts From 'ElfQuest' to Jane Austen

The world of web series is home to a slew of appealingly offbeat characters: fierce elfish heroines, washed-up superheroes, thoroughly modern Lizzie Bennets. For the actors who bring these vibrant personas to life, the diverse content and DIY nature of the web offer the chance to gain experience and exposure that's not always readily available in legacy mediums. Here are five talented thespians making their mark on the smallest of screens.

Shannon Nelson, "Alice & the Monster"

In mainstream TV and commercials, Shannon Nelson has played lots of funny sidekicks, kooky best friends, and "sweet though perhaps slightly disturbed young nuns." On the Internet, the self-described character actor is a bona fide leading lady: She stars in and produces the web series "Alice & the Monster," a romantic dramedy about a young woman whose life is upended when she's diagnosed with a brain tumor. "With the web being so wide open, we now get the opportunity to play characters that would never cross a traditional studio's mind," says Nelson. "Alice," which was written by Nelson's frequent collaborators Andrew R. Deutsch, David Nett, and Rick Robinson, is in postproduction, with an eye on a late 2012 release date. In addition to giving Nelson the chance to play against type, working on the web has let her step behind the camera and have a hand in guiding her career. "If I wasn't self-producing right now, I would be climbing the walls and forcing my friends to come and watch me in my seventh production of 'Carousel,' " she says. "The greatest thing about the web is the open playing field."

Julia Cho, "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries"
Julia Cho didn't know what to expect when she auditioned for "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," a modern-day vlog retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" devised by veteran web creators Bernie Su and Hank Green. "I was a fan of the source material and intrigued by the concept, [but] I couldn't have imagined the eventual scope of the show," she says. Imagine her surprise, then, when "Lizzie Bennet" broke out as a runaway hit, racking up 3 million views in its first three months and amassing a rabid fan base that obsessively tweets and Tumblrs its devotion. Cho, who regularly steals scenes as Lizzie's film buff BFF Charlotte, loves interacting with fans online and hopes the success of the show leads to more film and TV gigs. She notes, however, that her "Lizzie Bennet" character has way more Twitter followers than she does: "I get a little jealous, actually!"

Sandeep Parikh, "Save the Supers"

Sandeep Parikh has, in his own words, "gotten around" on the web. He's part of the beloved ensemble of "The Guild," actor-writer-producer Felicia Day's mega-hit about a group of online gamers, and he created and directed popular geek comedy "The Legend of Neil" for Comedy Central. Now he's embarking on his dream project, My Damn Channel's much-anticipated web series "Save the Supers," which he created and stars in. In 2004, Parikh shot a version of the series that landed him representation and pitch meetings at networks -- but no one wanted to buy the show, which focuses on the hardships faced by a group of famous superheroes. "[They] all patted me on the head and said, 'Nice job, wittle guy, but superheroes don't work on TV; send us a spec script!' " he says. "But I refused to go that route and decided instead to keep making [web] shows." Now, thanks to his online successes, he's able to make "Save the Supers" on his own terms. "[Working on the web] really has opened up a lot of doors," he says. "And ultimately it ends up being
kind of like a day job that actually benefits
my career."

Brad "Cheeks" Bell, "Husbands"

When Brad Bell first arrived in Hollywood, he wasn't too keen on the established road for an actor: headshots, submissions, agent hunting. "It seemed to me that everyone was fighting and clawing to get through the same door," he says. "I couldn't help but wonder, Is there a way to circumvent the conventional path?" Bell found his answer in the form of YouTube, where he created the "sugar-coated satirical persona" known as Cheeks. His series of witty videos garnered him auditions, a loyal fan following, and meetings at CAA and William Morris. They also brought him to the attention of prolific TV writer Jane Espenson ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Once Upon a Time"). The duo struck up a friendship and eventually co-wrote the hit web series "Husbands," in which Bell also stars. The show, which focuses on a pair of opposites attract-style gay newlyweds, recently raised a whopping $60,000 in second season funding -- $10,000 above its original goal -- on Kickstarter. And Bell has found that elusive alternate path by creating the role of a lifetime. "The initial goal when I started writing for myself was to create a distinct character, a role no one else could fill," he says. "You know, could anyone but Reese Witherspoon play Elle Woods? Duh. There's so no way. That's how Cheeks was born."

Stephanie Thorpe, "Shelf Life" and "ElfQuest: A Fan Imagining"

A lifelong sci-fi/fantasy geek, Stephanie Thorpe longed to play the powerful heroines she grew up idolizing, the kinds of characters she found in tomes such as "The Lord of the Rings" and comic book series "ElfQuest." "But I wasn't seeing these characters on the breakdowns," she says. Much like the heroines in her favorite stories, Thorpe took matters into her own hands, producing and starring in a series of high-profile web projects with a decidedly geeky twist: the post-apocalyptic sci-fi piece "After Judgment"; the fan trailer "ElfQuest: A Fan Imagining"; and the delightfully foul comedy "Shelf Life," which focuses on the secret lives of action figures. The combined punch of these projects has landed her on panels at nerd mecca San Diego Comic-Con, gotten her coverage in such outlets as the New York Times and G4's "Attack of the Show," and perhaps most important, given her the chance to realize her childhood dreams. "I've been able to start producing in a niche I adore -- sci-fi and fantasy -- and create these strong women characters."
www.shelflifeseries.com and www.elfquestfantrailer.com