A cast of CU Boulder alumni are making their mark on Hollywood
Here’s a little story about a little Hollywood movie, and a bigger story about how several CU Boulder alums have forged Hollywood careers.
Back in 2014, a guy named Devon Avery was shadowing a director on the hit CBS television series NCIS. Avery asked actor Brian Dietzen, who has played Dr. Jimmy Palmer on the show since 2004 and is a University of Colorado Boulder alumnus (Theatre, ’00), if he’d be willing to help him make a short science-fiction comedy film he’d written, One-Minute Time Machine.
“In Hollywood,” Dietzen says, “the answer is always, ‘Yes, let’s do it. We’ll suss out details later.’”
After reading the script, Dietzen asked Avery if he could “bring in a friend,” Sean Crouch, also a CU alumni (Theatre, ’96), who had been working as a writer, producer and “show runner,” or the head honcho, for such shows as NUMB3RS, Veronica Mars and Unforgettable.
“I told him (Sean) was good at science fiction,” Dietzen says. “He was cool about it.”
Dietzen soon made another request: Would Avery mind if they brought in his and Sean’s friend Erinn Hayes (CU Boulder, Theatre, ’98)? Again, he agreed. Three Buffs onboard.
Soon, the all-CU cast and screenwriter were joined by numerous professional crew members from NCIS. The team shot the film in a single day for a mere $800. It went into post-production and, eventually, made its debut online.
At once comic, romantic and thought provoking, the six-minute film about two strangers in a park trying to make use of the time-travel gadget became a viral sensation, and Crouch’s screenplay went on to win Best of the Fest at the 2015 Love Your Shorts Film Festival, an annual showcase of short films from around the world.
“It was so much fun,” Hayes says. “You never know with things like that how it’s going to turn out, but they did a great job. It’s really funny.”
And, of course, the three friends got a kick out of working together.
Not that they’re strangers out there in La-La-Land: They and their spouses—two of whom, Annie Haas Parnell and Juliana Powels Crouch, are also CU theatre grads, and a third, Kelly Scoby Dietzen, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from CU—still socialize frequently, and meet up with another CU alum: Chris Parnell (Theatre, ’98). Parnell went on from CU to earn a master’s degree from Florida State University’s prestigious Asolo Conservatory and in July was named co-president of Sony Pictures Television.
“We all still hang out and support one another. None of this is done in vacuum, and none of us can individually claim success,” Dietzen says. “We were really lifted up by a system [at CU] that helped to nurture and foster a creative environment working with other people.”
That kind of teamwork, support and camaraderie reflects the culture and ethic these and other Hollywood success stories say they experienced while studying and treading the boards at CU Boulder.
To outsiders, Hollywood often evokes glitz and glamor, stars and celebrities, riches and romance. But finding success in the film business is a much grittier proposition than the public often realizes, requiring persistence, hard work and, often, the humility and toughness to labor in obscurity, even poverty, sometimes for years.
Only the persistent survive
Eme Ikwuakor (Theatre,’08) found acting success in Colorado after graduation, most notably in the science-fiction film Ink, which was named Best Colorado Film of 2009 by the Denver Film Critics Society.
With that project sparkling up his resume, he decided it was time to take the plunge and head to Los Angeles, where he took a job as a server and began to audition. But his best-laid plans did not exactly pan out right away.
“I don’t think I got paid for a single thing that first year,” says the actor, currently starring in ABC’s new science-fiction series, Inhumans, which debuts in September.
After writing, producing and acting in Chance, a short film about a guy who dreams and fantasizes away his only opportunity to talk to a woman he’d like to meet, Ikwuakor saw himself at a crossroads. He knew he hadn’t fully committed to achieving his dream of acting success, but was afraid to take a leap of faith.
But, having suffered a heart attack at age 21 while at CU and endured hundreds of racist taunts during his youth, the former Buffalo track-and-field recruit also recognized that he had already faced much bigger challenges in life.
“Three weeks later, I quit my day job. I had no money, no savings; I don’t think I could even pay the rent in that moment,” he says. “But I got three jobs in the first month, and now 95 percent of my income is from acting.”
While at CU Boulder, Ikwuakor joined the Interactive Theater Project, which presented art and theater as an avenue to social change. Life at CU began to teach him that the experiences with racism that he faced while growing up were not universal.
“Going to Boulder and starting in the CU theater program made me realize that not everybody thinks that way. I had this huge kind of awakening,” Ikwuakor says.
Social justice has remained a major focus of his career and life ever since. Last winter, Ikwuakor accompanied military veterans to protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota.
Of course, all the hard work in the world doesn’t guarantee success. Talent does come into the picture, and in Hollywood, when the going gets tough—as it so often does—only the persistent survive.
‘Pick yourself up, keep going’
Erinn Hayes grew up performing in Marin County and confesses that she chose CU Boulder because she “wanted to get out of California and snowboard. I was lucky enough to stumble into a prestigious acting program.”
Following graduation and a brief stint working in the Bay Area, she overcame her northern-California doubts about SoCal and moved to Los Angeles, in part to be with her boyfriend (now husband), Jack Hayes. She had booked a few commercials and was taking improv classes, just scraping by. Then she took a gig performing part-improvised soap-opera scenes at Disneyland’s California Adventure Park.
“The experience of working there with those performers taught me more about improv than the classes I was taking,” Hayes says.
She then landed a role in a show with the short-lived PAX TV network, only to see the project collapse. But the casting director liked her work and hooked her up with a top talent manager, David Sweeney, with whom she still works. Eventually, she was getting roles in such shows as Desperate Housewives, New Girl and Parks and Recreation. Recently, she was surprised to be let go from her regular role on CBS’ Kevin Can Wait after 24 episodes.
“To have that come up after 24 episodes came as quite a shock,” Hayes says. “Hollywood can be so weird, but you have to learn all these lessons. You have to learn to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep going.”
Hayes is now in New York filming an Amazon series, The Dangerous Book for Boys.
A second chance and a job
Studio-executive Parnell, who grew up in Las Vegas and on Florida’s Space Coast before moving to Boulder and graduating from Fairview High School. After graduate school, he went to L.A. and began taking low-level jobs in the industry.
He spent five grueling years working as an assistant to two Hollywood bigshots, television producer Sarah Timberman and agent Adam Berkowitz (“Loved and feared, Adam is one of the real heavy-hitter TV agents” at Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, Parnell says) before landing his first major gig.
He bombed his first interview with the agent. But he’d worked so hard for Timberman that she called Berkowitz and insisted he give Parnell a second chance. The agent did, and Parnell got the job.
“I spent two of the hardest years of my life working for him,” Parnell says. “But it was like grad school all over again, in the business of show business. Answering the phone for five years and listening to Sarah and Adam, I learned how to read a contract, how television packaging works, and the real machinations of business dealings and how television really works.”
Eventually, Parnell says, “the whole floor at CAA” called on his behalf and he got an “early executive position” with Columbia Tristar, now Sony Pictures Television. He’s now spent 12 years with the studio, and has been a key contributor to the success of such major hits as Breaking Bad, Outlander and Preacher.
Parnell’s career offers a fascinating glimpse into the vital role that personal connections can play in Hollywood.
Both he and Crouch, who is now an executive producer and show-runner for Fox’s The Exorcist, proudly fly their “geek” flags, having been science-fiction and comic fans all the way back to childhood (they recently served together on a panel at San Diego’s immensely popular Comic Con, “Inside the Writer’s Room”).
“My early life was shaped by living on the edge of the space program” in Florida, says Parnell, who as a sixth grader watched with horrified classmates as the Challenger shuttle exploded in the sky above his school. “So, it’s no surprise that I turned into a total geek.”
Way back in 1995, while at CU, Crouch—whose first job was behind the counter at Denver’s Top Notch comics—handed him a copy of a dark, gritty Preacher comic.
“I thought it was one of the coolest … things I’d ever read,” Parnell says. “One of these days,” he told himself, “I’d love to do that” as a film or TV series.
Once in a top position at Sony, Parnell tracked the rights. Eventually he helped get the ball rolling on a new AMC series based on the comic, co-produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
But wait! There’s more!
All the way back in 1996, Parnell shared the stage with a New York actor, Sam Catlin, in Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF). In the ensuing decades, Catlin had gone on to become a writer and co-producer for the wildly successful AMC series, Breaking Bad.
“Sam is so subversive,” Parnell says. “He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever had a chance to work with.”
So, he connected his old CSF colleague—who had a deal with Sony thanks to his work on Breaking Bad—to the producers, and Catlin is now executive producer and show-runner for Preacher.
Connections to CU can also catalyze a successful career in Hollywood. Consider Gabrielle Miles Hill (Theatre,’09), who has worked as an animation producer for Dreamworks, Paramount and Mattel, Inc. (where she produced a lucrative series of DVDs based on the company’s famous Barbie doll) and now works as an adult animation producer for Seth Green’s Stoopid Buddy Stoodios.
Hill grew up dancing and acting in Los Angeles and originally came to CU to study musical theater. Eventually, she decided to pursue a double major in journalism and theater. The summer after her freshman year, while working as a tour guide at Universal Studios, she inquired about possible future internships with the studio.
“They said, ‘We’re looking for an intern in the IT department immediately—when can you start?’” she recalls.
But there was a hitch: she could only take the internship if she received college credit, and she hadn’t set up anything like that. She called then-department chair Bud Coleman in a semi-panic, and he worked swiftly to establish some requirements, including a paper, so she could take the job for credit.
That turned out to be the first of a string of top-notch industry internships, including stints with NBC, Walden Media and even living in London and working on the set of the reality show Big Brother.
“Bud Coleman was absolutely instrumental in my film career,” says Hill, who is married to David Hill (CU Boulder, Theatre, ’08), a post-production coordinator with NBCUniversal Media who also has worked at Fox, ABC, CBS and TVLand.
Despite her success, Hill, too, has endured the slings and arrows of capricious Hollywood fortune. She was thrilled to be working on major new animation projects for Dreamworks and Paramount when, due to changes at the top, both were canceled.
“Projects can be so fickle,” she says. “From one day to the next, all your funding can go away, or the studio can turn around, and the project’s dead.”
But, Hill says, the experience she gained working on major projects for major studios only burnished her resume, and her skills. At Stoopid Buddy she’s worked on irreverent adult animated series such as Hot Streets, a new animated comedy about two FBI agents who keep stumbling upon supernatural situations, for Adult Swim, an adult-oriented programming block on Cartoon Network.
“It’s its own kind of fun,” she says. “But it’s light years away from Barbie!”
Coleman is not the only CU Boulder faculty member who has influenced some of CU’s Hollywood success stories. Others mentioned include Associate Professor Emerita Lee Potts, Senior Instructor Lynn Nichols and former faculty member Sean Kelly, who is now at Roosevelt University.
If you see 14-hour days as normal, you are a step ahead of your competitors.”
“Sean Kelly said he’d never seen a ballet dancer finish his or her training and go sit on the couch and wait for calls,” says Dietzen, who forced himself to spend at least 40 hours a week working on his career and craft when he first arrived in Hollywood, whether or not he was working.
While part of CU’s BFA acting program, Dietzen attended classes every day, did scene study in the late afternoon and early evening, rehearsed until perhaps 11 p.m., then went home to complete homework.
“We were pulling 15- and 16-hour days all the time. Coming out of that program, you viewed that as normal,” Dietzen says. “Out here (in Hollywood), there comes a time when there’s a dude who looks just like me, is the same age and has the same training, and a lot of times the X-factor isn’t necessarily who is a better-looking guy, but who’s going to bust their butt more. If you see 14-hour days as normal, you are a step ahead of your competitors.”
And while big-name stars might be able to get away with being prima donnas or treating people “beneath” them with contempt— think “Batman” actor Christian Bale’s infamous, expletive-laden excoriation of a crew member, caught on camera in 2009—Kelly constantly taught his students to be decent people.
“My general tip to people who want to work (in Hollywood) is, ‘Don’t be a dick,’” Dietzen says. “Be an easy person to work with. Because another huge consideration is always, ‘Can I spend 14 hours a day on set with this person?’ Sometimes ‘fit’ isn’t as important as being a good human.
“People in Colorado like Bud Coleman and Sean Kelly really shaped that viewpoint in my life,” Dietzen says, “and I’m eternally grateful to them.”