Guest blog by Bob Valleau
A renowned casting director once said, “Cathryn Sullivan is one of the top acting coaches in the nation. Learn from her!”
Cathryn Sullivan coaches children and teen actors and has taught many stars that have included superstars Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and her award-winning son, Cody Linley. Cody is best known for playing the recurring character Jake Ryan on Disney’s TV series, “Hannah Montana,” and getting fourth place as the youngest contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” Season 7, when he was paired with Julianne Hough.
I had the privilege to interview Cathryn recently who offered some insight into what it takes to be a successful actor and an acting coach. She also shared how God plays an important role in her career and how she struggled believing He still loved her after experiencing a personal loss.
BV: Thank you, Cathryn, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for me. To begin, how did you become an acting coach and why?
CS: I had been an actress for the stage for 12 years when I moved over to film and TV out of curiosity and also when I realized very few actors could make it rent-wise in theater unless you are a teacher. Even some of the Broadway actors struggle to make ends meet unless they have been a film or TV star first. I went to the usual places to start in Dallas and found out about someone in town that helped an actor grow. I was tired of being told I was “great” after a scene without any specific feedback that could help me grow as an actor. I needed to make money to afford the classes, so I offered my services to the studio. I began as a receptionist, became the office manager and then the headmaster teacher’s assistant. When he saw I had a knack for this, he asked me to be his partner, and we went on the road on the weekends teaching seminars in the southwest area including Oklahoma and Arkansas. He moved to Virginia, and I got a phone call two weeks later from the sister of one of the agents we had done seminars for. She said she heard I was a great coach to kids. My partner had a master’s degree and talked at a higher level than the kids understood from time to time. I was his interpreter basically to the kids and teens on what he was teaching. That was my first class many years ago. I still am Facebook friends to four of the eight that were in that class and that was almost 30 years ago. I get a high from helping elevate artists and seeing them grow. I love seeing the light-bulb moments when a student realizes something that can take them to a higher level of art in their work
BV: I’m curious. Who has been your greatest acting mentor, and what did he or she teach you about acting?
CS: Boy! So many people have helped me along the way. I have had two coaches that helped me teach what I do that started my love of coaching. When I first started, Laird Mayhew was an acting coach who taught me depth of character and character analyzing and we had a marvelous group of actors who bonded. My best friend now is an actress I met in those classes. Adam Roarke taught me how to use that understanding of characters practically on a set. He was a special coach. He taught me to be brave and go with my instincts, and he helped me learn to get my body involved as the character. Mitchell Gossett, at CESD, has helped me raise stars, so I count him as a mentor as well. I’d get the students ready. He’d put them out in the Los Angeles audition rooms, and we began to make stars together. He has visited my studio for the past 16 years — once or twice a year — to keep my students sharp.
BV: Sounds like you have had many resourceful people to help you along the way. Now, I want to get a little more personal. I know you love the Lord, so I’m wondering how faith plays a role in everything you do.
CS: True fact: I get all of my lesson plans from God. Sometimes, I will have a lesson plan that I want to use, and I will get this burning desire that I need to change it at the last minute to something from God, and I won’t know why. Later that month or year, I will find out that it made a big difference in someone’s audition or even performances in a film or TV show. I try and listen to God on my lesson plans. I don’t always listen to him with my personal life like I should, though, but I am working on that. I was angry at God for a while after one of my sons died suddenly a few years ago, so I was actively not listening to him in my personal life. I just didn’t understand why so many of my friends got closer to God after their child died, and I did not. I wasn’t having any part of it, but I came around. He is persistent and perseveres in trying to love me even when I am unlovable.
BV: I am so sorry for your loss, and I know how much you leaned on the support of family and friends during that time and still do. I’m glad God is consistent in pursuing us! Let us touch on two major celebrities, right now, that you helped coach when they were younger: Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Did you know then that they were special or that they would become as widely popular as they are?
CS: Well, all of the students that come to me and become master students are those whom I love. I see them as my kids, but Selena and Demi were extra special because they were the few I took on as “private classes” as well as normal classes. They both were obsessed to learn about acting. I love students like that. Selena Gomez had a work ethic that I had never seen before in a nine-year-old. She never wanted to take a break even after working for two hours straight. Demi always had that fun, sweet smile and was enthusiastic to try things she was scared to try. Those are two things I look for in my students. I try to grow the things that look like strengths in my students and work on the weak areas, too. There has to be a balance there. One is there to remind us that there is something we are great at and one that we need to keep working on. Did I think that my students would be this famous? No. I never work on a student hoping they will be famous or even look to see if they are going to be famous. I take each one and try and grow them as an actor. That is what I do. I help actors to bloom. Some grow and bloom into the most beautiful flowers in the world. Some are beautiful flowers with thorns. Some never really see their talent and they don’t know how to recognize opportunities and so they do not bloom at all. You see, this business is always full of two steps forward, two steps backward, four steps forward, two steps forward and ten steps back. The student must have grit to go through the “ten steps backward” phase and many do not in this day and age. Some students want things that they can get easily without too much work. I’d say that both of these girls had a natural talent, an impeccable work ethic, great appearance and supportive families, but the most important characteristic these two have that really sets them apart is that they have grit — the ability to struggle and cry about things they want, work through those struggles and come out on the other side better because of their ability to keep their head up.
BV: Sounds like you really love and care for your students. So, how do you help actors grow? How are your classes structured do do this?
CS: If you look under “Classes” on my website http://www.cathrynsullivan.com , you will see that each important skill is taken as a seven week session just to make sure each actor has the basics. If they do all of those and begin as a master, I know that they must love acting. This program is designed to get rid of people who just want to be famous. This program is serious and one must really care about growing as an actor to stay here. I know that probably almost all of my best students have hated me at some point, and I don’t really care. My attitude is, “I’m here to get you your dreams, not to be your best friend.”
BV: I’ve been to your website, and it looks like you keep a busy schedule. I can imagine that what you do takes up a lot of your time. But when you do have some free time, what is it that you like to do? Also, was there ever another life choice you wanted to pursue besides entertainment?
CS: Back in the day — besides loving acting — I loved music, playing the piano, photography, reading every book I could get my hands on and journalism. I sang in the top choirs and always had parts in the musicals at church and even sang at six weddings in one year as a soloist! Those poor people. I didn’t think I was that good. God gave me a decent voice, but I didn’t care about working at getting better at voice, but it was fun entertaining. I enjoyed photography, which helps me with the action pictures I take every day at work, and I was on the newspaper staff when I was going to school. I loved it all and use those skills now that I learned back then! Free time now? What is that? But if I am honest, my free time is spent with my husband whom I am madly in love with. My boys are grown now, and since they are located in various states around the country, I just get to see them six or seven times a year. I still love to read, and when I really want to relax, I go to a beach in Aruba and just sit on that beach all day and read and look at the waves.
BV: Hmm. I may have to put that Aruba idea on my getaway list. Tell me, what is one fun fact most people would not know about you?
CS: I’m a pretty good cook, and I feel most free when I am on the back of my hubby’s Harley riding around in the country.
BV: How interesting and exciting! Now, getting back to the topic of acting, I notice your son, Cody Linley, is an award-winning actor. He played a recurring role in Disney’s TV series, “Hannah Montana,” and has appeared in several major movies. How hard was it to coach him when he was younger? Was he able to separate your role as “mom” and “coach”?
CS: People do not realize all of the success that Cody already has in his life. His first feature film was My Dog Skip with Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane and Luke Wilson. He was a supporting lead in that film and booked it over 3500 kids they saw throughout the country in a search! The callback was done in Mississippi and we found out the day before the callback that it was happening, and it was an eight-hour trip one way! There are hoops you have to jump through to do this business, and Cody and I were willing to jump through those together. It takes a team effort to have the drive, determination and resilience with the team of Child Actor and Mom. Being a child actor’s mom, it helped me understand another side to this business. Up until then, I understood the Actor and Acting Coach’s role. Now, I learned the Child Actor Mom’s role which was very different. You have to sit back and let them take the reins — completely — and he would remind me of that from time to time. When he was on that set at eight years old, I wanted to complain about something that this set was doing that was against SAG rules, and Cody took my face in his hands and said to me, “Mom. You’ve always said to tell you when you need to be reminded that this is my career. Well, this is my career, and I don’t want you complaining about this. Stop saying it could hurt my career and not to do it.” I was shocked, but, mostly, I felt proud that my son said how he felt! I did as he asked. People don’t know that Cody got an Audio Award for playing “Jesus” in a Bible audio dramatization called, The Word of Promise, that Jim Caviezel put together. He got three months of work on that and he and the director would pray everyday before working on this important task. For some who may not know, Jim Caviezel has many films credits. The most notable one is where he played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ.
BV: Did Cody have a natural gift for acting?
CS: Cody has always had a natural gift of acting, but I didn’t see it at first because he was so shy. Until then, I thought only extroverts and outgoing people could make it in this business. I didn’t think he would do well because he was an introvert. I remember when he was four years old. I went to the studio to pick up my check one day and there was a casting director who was casting something at the studio where I was working in Nashville, Tennessee, at the time. She saw Cody and asked me if he could try out for something. I said, “No. Cody isn’t interested in doing that.” And then Cody spoke up and said he wanted to try out for it. She looked at me and said, “Looks like he wants to.” I said, “Ok, I guess.” He booked it, and when we moved back to Texas, Cody began booking movie after movie that were filmed in Texas. One of those was Miss Congeniality. He plays the bully at the beginning that gets hit by a young Sandra Bullock. Some others: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Where the Heart Is etc. We stayed in Los Angeles during pilot season, and he started booking more films including a film called Hoot where the three leads were Brie Larson, Cody and Logan Lerman. He booked Hoot in LA, but it was filmed in Florida — mostly in the Ft. Lauderdale. We hung out in our hotel rooms, visited the beach as often as we could, and, while there, we were caught in Hurricane Katrina when it was a Level 1 storm. We survived the hurricane with Brie and Brie’s mom, Heather, those few days. They were scary. A hurricane Level 1 is scary! I can’t imagine how bad Katrina was as a Level 4. Then, Cody booked a recurring role on Hannah Montana. He still stayed in public school in LISD (Lewisville Independent School District). When he missed too much school, I pulled him out and put him in a private school in Burbank, California. We just did whatever it took to keep him ahead in his studies while he kept trying for his dreams. When he graduated, he moved to Los Angeles two months later with two buddies that were in his acting class — Logan Henderson of Big Time Rush and Josh Blaylock. Cody surprised me when he became the youngest person on Dancing With the Stars, Season 7. He was paired with Julianne Hough, and they got fourth place. He had never danced a day in his life! I’m amazed at how far he has come in his short life. He works hard on his craft of acting. We believe in education always. In December 2017, he was taking classes from three different acting coaches and a voice-over coach so he can absorb what he can about acting and different approaches. He just showed me some of his work with Larry Moss, a famous acting coach that has even been mentioned during an academy award speech by Helen Hunt. I’m proud of Cody’s search and thirst for learning as much as he can from as many sources as he can.
BV: Cody has quite a lot of acting experience! Does he also share your desire to help others become the best actor they can be?
CS: I am so proud of the acting coach Cody is becoming. A lot of time, people take Cody’s classes because he has been famous, but they realize that he is a very good coach and is getting better every year as he becomes more experienced. He just told me he’s become harder on his students than he use to be. He wants to always show kindness, but, sometimes, you have to push the student for them to get what they want.
BV: What is the greatest thing one of your students has said after taking your classes? Or what has been the running theme of some of their comments after the completion of your classes?
CS: One of my teacher aides, Caleb Pierce, said this recently:
“Cathryn Sullivan. Where do l even begin? This lady has invested in so many lives of young dream-chasers and has been pouring into my life for the past ten years. Being at her studio not only equips me to chase those crazy God-given dreams but also gives me a family in Lewisville to grow with, laugh with and chase dreams with. Got to see her and Alex Yonks (ohhh wazzup writer on “The Big Bang Theory”) yesterday and my heart was reminded of God’s faithfulness and goodness — giving us incredible people to do life with is just one of the things He loves to do, and these are some of the best!”
Caleb is such a sweetheart, a big help at my my studio and I’m one of his biggest fans. He was a recurring character in the TV series, Roommates, The Real O’Neals, and Astrid Clover. And, he just booked a ten day guest-starring role on an award-winning network show.
BV: Well, congrats to Caleb, and what an amazing tribute by him! I’m sure there are acting students who are reading this interview article right now. What advice would you give them to encourage or inspire them?
CS: Go somewhere so that you can grow as an actor and artist. If not my place, somewhere! Like Caleb said, it’s important to be around those who have a common goal, especially one that takes as much as resilience as this business requires. Have patience. This business takes Olympic-standards with acting. I’m not kidding. People come into classes and are like, “I’ve been working at this for two years. I can’t do this anymore.” My advice to them is, “Get out then!” Two years is nothing. Olympians are not made in two years. Learn to take criticism, as long as it is for the higher good.
BV: Well-said! I am sorry to say our time is up. Again, thank you, Cathryn, for doing this. I hope whoever reads this interview will be encouraged to continue pursuing their passion. I’ll be adding your social media sites to the article, and I invite everyone to visit them. It truly has been a pleasure.
CS: Thank you, Bob!
Bob Valleau is an award-winning Christian writer. He has authored four books. His debut novel, “Mystic Dreams and Dusty Roads,” is in development with DBM Films and scheduled for release in 2019.