INTERVIEW: NATALIE DREYFUSS
Before becoming an actress, you were a dancer for many years, and you were quite dedicated to this path. What were your original plans with your dance career?
I discovered my love of classical ballet as a little girl and decided to become a professional ballerina. This seemed like an innocent enough dream, but I took it to the extreme. I took ballet class every single day. I put dance before everything else including school. At 11, I started training during the summer months on the east coast, even at my dream school – American Ballet Theatre in New York. Quickly I had a very different life than the kids around me, and by 15 I had dropped out of school and set off to Pennsylvania to dance full time for a company in Philadelphia. It was terrifying and exciting all at once, but I remained determined to become a prima ballerina in a major dance company.
Dropping out of school and moving away from home as a teenager, what was it like sacrificing so much at such a young age?
It was awful, to be quite honest! I had to leave home and my mom, who I am extremely close to. I was heartbroken the day she dropped me off at the new apartment in Philly. She tried to ease the pain by getting me excited to decorate the place the way you would when you’re off to college, but I was too young to feel so far away from her, from everything I knew. Not to mention the incredible amount of verbal and emotional abuse that goes along with ballet training. After a few months, I had hit an all time low. I pulled a tendon around my achilles and was dancing on it anyway. I was homesick every day. I was being bullied and overworked by the teachers. I started to notice that the dancers just a few years ahead of me, the ones that I was training to replace, were miserable. It was a real shock, to think I had put so much time and energy into something that in all likelihood would never make me happy.
You had quite the awakening once reaching the level of success you dreamed of. Could you tell us about this discovery?
I remember one instance specifically that summed up my feelings about the world I was caught up in. I had just come from physical therapy for my ankle and decided to attend class anyway by sitting in the front and taking notes. Futile in a dance class, but I was desperate to show dedication. The instructor came up to me and said, “All the teachers have a betting pool whether you’re gonna get off your ass each day. Thanks for the 5 bucks.” I was 15. I got up and asked him, “What do I have to do to prove myself to you? The only reason I’m sitting today is so I don’t have to sit for the rest of my career. I’m not the girl you think I am.” He looked stunned and apologized, but it was too late. I threw my things in garbage bags and called mom, “I’m done. I hate this. I’m coming home.” The company begged me to stay but everything I had once loved about ballet was long gone.
After walking away from your dance career, what led you to acting?
When I came back to L.A. I was lost. Ballet was my identity. I couldn’t figure out who I was without it. I ended up working at a preschool for a few years which brought me back to my true self, as teaching always does for me, but I missed performance art. A friend suggested acting and I scoffed. I’d been around that business my whole life. My mom is in wardrobe for TV so I had grown up on set. It never looked glamorous to me, mostly just craziness and a ton of hours. I agreed to try the class for fun and fell in love with the craft. It was the opposite of dance. As much a ballet was about fitting into a mold, this was about breaking it.
Things took off pretty quickly for you in the beginning, with guest star and contract auditions right off the bat. Did you have any insecurities or fears during this time?
My first job was on Burn Notice and shot in Miami. They put me on a plane, flew me first class, and put me up in a beautiful hotel room for the week. I was shocked! I had no idea they treated you like princess just for booking a job. When you’re auditioning they don’t even let you park near the building! It was all very new and overwhelming. However, I felt confident in my work. I always come back to that. I study my crafts very diligently and take pride in constantly achieving growth in my work. The job itself feels like icing on the cake when you’re more focused on doing good work. I have ballet to thank for that work ethic.
The entertainment industry can be harsh on actors, especially actresses. Can you think back to a particular negative situation you’ve encountered?
It’s a brutal industry. You have to be stronger than you ever imagined, not only when you’re struggling but even more so when you are succeeding. On a set, you have to be able to stand your ground especially as young woman. I have had to put my foot down many times when it comes to my body or my comfort level. It’s difficult. It’s awkward. Especially coming from ballet where I never dreamed of speaking up. I choose to be different now because I’m not a little girl anymore and I decide what’s best for me.
What advice do you have for other girls struggling to find their voice when standing their ground?
I find that there is something really lovely about being the actress that the crew loves to work with. I love to be easy going and cheerful. Everyone is working hard, tired, away from their family. I like to be the person that is a team player and tries hard to make things as pleasant and smooth as possible. This is a great attitude to have, but there comes a time when you have to speak up. I’ve found the best way for me to express myself is direct but kind. I’m always quick to make fun of myself and be lighthearted about things while still remaining clear about what I need to get my job done. People respect that and they tend to respond graciously when someone is being reasonable and honest.
Being in the public eye at a time where social media and the internet provide endless opportunities for opinion sharing, do you experience any public scrutiny or negativity for what you do?
For the most part I haven’t had a ton of negativity come my way…yet. I know it will. It comes with the territory. So far my career has been relatively steady but I haven’t had a ton of overexposure. I change my look a lot, experimenting with different hair colors and styles, so people on the street rarely recognize me from my work. One day that will happen and that will come with its own set of challenges, but at this point I try to be grateful for the success I have had and the anonymity.
Over the years, you have created a pretty peaceful relationship with what many see as a tumultuous industry and city. What exactly is your outlook, and how have you managed to maintain this mentality?
Giving back has been my saving grace. I love sharing my craft with others and watching them grow and succeed. All my own ups and downs are very much out of my control. Being an actress is a lot like gambling for a living. You just roll the dice and hope for the best! Rolling very competitive dice is important, but in the end the decision on who books the job comes down to the most meaningless things. You’re too tall or too blonde or not famous enough on Instagram. If my self worth was caught up in any of that I would be a very unhealthy, unhappy girl. Instead, I focus on becoming better at what I do and sharing the tools I’ve learned along the way with others.
You really emphasize the importance of constant creation, whether it’s related to acting or otherwise. Why do you think it’s so important for people to always be making and doing?
It’s hard to make things. We judge ourselves, we judge the outcome, we never feel like it’s enough. Time changes everything. One day you will want to look back and see the beauty that you were once too uncomfortable to notice. I want to make a mark on this world. I want to put a stamp on this moment of existence because there is only one of me that will ever be throughout all of time. I will always encourage people around me to create. Judge it if you have to, but do it anyway. It’s valuable.
We talked about how easily one can get sucked into the entertainment industry, dedicating every thought and action to it. Why isn’t this mentality for you?
I did that already. I gave everything to ballet for many years and in the end it didn’t make me happy. I thought even if I was miserable during the process, the end would be worth it. What a huge disappointment! I would never make that mistake again. I enjoy what I do but it isn’t who I am. It’s not my identity. I’m an actress but I’m also a teacher, a yogi, a voice over artist, a great listener and friend, a lover of going out to eat at restaurants, and a self proclaimed baby whisperer. There is so much more to my life than my job and that keeps me from becoming consumed by the extreme ups and downs of this industry.
What advice do you have for other girls, actresses or otherwise, pursuing a career in an intimidating and unstable industry?
My best advice is to study. Take all the classes. Read all the books. Confidence comes from knowing you are bringing your best, not what others think of it. This business is based on something subjective. Everyone is going to have a different opinion about what is “good”. You have to decide that for yourself. I have found the the more simple and clear my work is, the more it affects the audience. If it’s fun and feels good you’re probably on the right track. When I started my coaching company The Acting Toolbox, I knew I loved it because it never made me feel exhausted. I could coach for hours and time would fly. Watching the students growth makes me so happy, it never feels like work. It’s always inspiring and motivating. Find the thing that doesn’t feel like work, but passion.
L.A. Lady Culture
Favorite neighborhood in L.A.? East side! I’ve lived EVERYWHERE, it’s the best. Great people, food, and PARKING.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? Petit Trois
Menu item we must order there? Anything honestly, but the steak with herb butter is insane.
Favorite happy hour? Alcove, Los Feliz
Favorite weekend activities in the city? I love going to the movies. The smaller the theatre the better.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? Musicals! Les Miserables has gotten me through many 405 nightmares.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? The Getty Center. Somehow I’ve never been!
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Shopping at American Apparel. Must. Stop.
-Natalie Dreyfuss, Actress & Owner of The Acting Toolbox