By Daniel Ford
At 10 years old, I was awkwardly trying to make friends in elementary school.
10-year-old Erica Rhodes was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney.
Rhodes, an actress best known for her work on “A Prairie Home Companion,” has barely taken a breath since her big break (which I guess you aren’t allowed to do when Garrison Keillor is your mentor), and has been featured in everything from a cult horror flick to a viral Web series.
I caught up with Rhodes recently and asked her about her early career, how she gets into character, and why it’s important to be creative every day.
Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?
ER: I can't remember not wanting to be an actress. My Mom used to rent lots of old movies for me when I was a kid. I remember watching the Shirley Temple movies over and over thinking I could do that! But I think the moment I remember best is when I was 5 years old and I modeled a water bed. And I thought, "This is the life."
DF: You essentially grew up while working on NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion.” How did you land on the show and what lessons have you learned from Garrison Keillor and the rest of the cast?
ER: My mom is from the same hometown as Garrison Keillor (Anoka, Minn.). She is a violinist in Boston and asked Garrison to come and do a fundraiser for her Orchestra (the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston). He kindly agreed. They got along very well and she invited him to see me in the Nutcracker (I played a party girl that year). Then we had dinner afterwards and the next day my Mom said he wanted me to be on his show. I had no idea what it was, but the next day I was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney and performing in front of thousands of people. I have learned so much from Garrison and the rest of the cast Garrison has always pushed me as a performer and a writer. He has always believed in me. And he has taught me almost everything I know about comedy and performing for huge audiences. The rest of the cast also helped me every time I performed with them. Sue Scott especially took me under her wing a lot. Allison Janney taught me my first "vocal warm-up." I've also acted with Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen, so I learned how to hold my own with these great performers. I feel very lucky to have had the experiences I had on the show in so many different venues all over the country. It's really where I've felt the happiest over the years. Also whenever I have felt particularly low or frustrated with my career, Garrison has invited me back on the show. He has really been a lifelong hero of mine.
DF: Your career has spanned from cult horror films to award-winning indie films to television shows. Was your goal setting out to have a varied career, or did it just kind of work out that way?
ER: I think in the beginning, a performer wants to perform. So I wasn't very particular about what genre or format. But now I am choosing to go back to my comedic roots and just focus on that. Horror is fun, but can only take you so far. I would like to do more television in the coming years. That is what I am focusing on. Television and comedy.
DF: What’s your acting process like? How do you ease yourself into a character? What things do you think about or do while reading a script?
ER: Man. I used to do so much preparation and thinking. Now I try to think less and act on my instincts more. Because my instincts are usually closer to "right" especially for comedy. Now I just try to be myself and say the words or say my words. Just simply "be" I guess. And listen if it's a scene. And even in stand-up there is a lot of listening that goes on. For funny scenes, I try to find the funny moments between the obvious moments. I try to be surprising and unpredictable.
DF: You’ve been a part of three popular Web series—“Apt. 45,” “Upstairsgirls,” and “Sandy's Channel.” What attracted you to the roles and how was the experience different than working on a television show or movie?
ER: You've done your research! There's actually one more called “FourPlayinLA,” which my sister wrote. Apt. 45, I created with my friend Ileana Chan when I first moved to Los Angeles. I didn't know anyone and she was my neighbor. And we were friends from acting school in New York City. We came up with the idea of a newbie actress trying to get her non-actress neighbor into "the biz." Ileana did most of the work on that. But we co-created it and I starred in it. It actually helped me book “Upstairsgirls” which ended up being a much bigger Web series in the long run. I auditioned for “Upstairsgirls” and my role really wasn't invented yet. They were just looking for a "blonde" girl in her 20s who was good at improv. Sandy sort of evolved into the character after many episodes of experimenting and working off of the other actors. Sandy had a following so the producer, Scott Zakarin decided to have a spin-off channel just for Sandy. I liked working on web series, because I had a close and direct communication with the fans. But now I really prefer television and film, because there is usually a higher production value. Though I did learn a lot from all the hours I spent improvising and experimenting on the Web.
DF: What made you want to become a stand-up comedian and how has it shaped you as a writer and an actress?
ER: Stand up is very new for me. I've only been doing it for about a year and a half. But I am really enjoying it. I've always wanted to try it, but last year I felt frustrated with the audition process. And I wanted to take my career into my own hands. So it propelled me into stand-up. Because I have been performing since I was a kid, I really feel lost and aimless if I can't do it. It's truly what I feel most fulfilled doing. So I had to find a way to do it without someone granting me permission. I am also very lucky that my manager, Bruce Smith, is very helpful with the writing process. He reviews and edits all of my material before I bring it to the stage. I think I've grown so much as a performer and writer since last year. And I find it very rewarding to make something out of nothing. I learn something new every time I get on stage. So I am always growing as a writer and performer.
DF: You’re very active on social media. Do you find yourself using social media to interact with fans, test out material, or just have fun?
ER: I think I use Facebook for letting people know about my shows and maybe a little for fun. Twitter I use more for attracting fans and testing out short jokes. I read an article where Joan Rivers said if she were a new comic today, she would stay online all day every day, because it is such a good way to gain exposure quickly. So I do try to use them in a proactive way. Though occasionally I probably waste an hour or two here and there posting something stupid. Social media is a tricky thing to navigate. I'm still trying to figure it out. I wrote some jokes about it. Like, "My friends think I spend too much time on Facebook to get anything done in my real life, but my Twitter followers know how productive I am."
DF: If you could co-star in a movie with any actor/actress (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
ER: Peter Sellers! He was a comedic genius. I bet I would have learned a lot from him. I love him in every movie he was in, especially, “Being There,” one of my favorite films.
DF: What’s your best advice for up-and-coming actors and actresses?
ER: I always tell up and coming actresses to travel, travel, travel. That way I can have their auditions!
I'd say just make your own stuff as much as you can. Make stuff for yourself, make stuff for other people. Don't be a bump on a log. Do the Artist's Way and write every day. You're a creative being and you need to water yourself daily. So find ways for creative expression. Auditioning is just one way to get seen. Find the other ways, if that's not working for you. Also, it's really hard. Everything is hard. It's hard to get an agent, it's hard to book a job, it's hard to stay afloat. It's really, really hard. Give yourself credit for every little achievement. Don't look to others for approval. Give it to yourself. And mostly, take care of yourself as a person. As a human. Love yourself. Is that corny? Probably. But really. Figure it out. You'll be fine.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
ER: When I was a kid I took a gymnastics class once and I could stand on my head longer than all the other girls. I guess I have a flat head. I won a pack of gum.