By Triantafillia (Rose) Memisaki
Photography by Claudette Tan
For our frequent readers, I’m sure the name "Shelene Atanacio" rings a bell. She was our featured cover girl in August 2009 and now she’s back – hotter than ever! Ever since she received her B.A. in Political Science (from the University of California, Berkeley), this lovely lady likes to stay busy. We’re not kidding. As an actress, author, activist and now producer she’s taking the world by storm. You got a taste of her then. Now it’s time to take a look at just how much more she has to offer.
When and why did you begin acting and writing?
I would say that I began writing as a little girl. I kept tons of journals and my favorite thing to work on in school was writing book reports. My writing stems from my love of reading and being inspired by the stories I read. I was also a shy girl growing up, so writing was the first artistic way for me to express myself, and then came acting. Simultaneously, I began to explore acting in my late teens. I started modeling first and, as a model, I was sent out for commercials and films. This prompted me to study acting more seriously; then I started to really commit to acting and do theater.
What was your first acting project?
If you can call it acting, I was in a BART commercial with Danny Glover, then after that I worked on a play. I think it was the musical "West Side Story" for a college theater. I have experience in dance as well, so that was a fun play to work on.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I interned once as a journalist/reporter on the island of Guam. In college, I debated between going into law, politics, some type of education or journalism. I lived on Guam for a few months and started to write and report news stories for their Channel 8 station, the only news station on the island. I started to really take on the role of a writer.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I'm not professionally trained as a writer, so my style tends to be whatever I am writing for. Again, I dabbled in writing as a journalist, then it became more creative with writing plays for the theater. I also acted as a ghost writer for the business world, where I developed my passion for business. Overall, I would say my writing is very intuitive, as is my acting style. However, for my first book, I was highly inspired by writers such as Hemingway, Colombian writer Gabriel Marquez, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho and the Philippines National hero, Jose Rizal. One of things I love to do as I prepare for a project, whether as a writer or actor, is to read and watch biographies. It gets me in the mood and inspires me for what I am working on. I love to watch the Actors Studio by James Lipton, speakers on Ted.com, the Biography channel, as well as read books. I start to really get in the minds and moods of these people, and – much like I would as an actor – I start to imagine myself taking on this role. This is some of the advice I give in my book. While writing “Act From The Inside Out”, I was really inspired by Marquez' and Coelho's very romantic magical yet real way of storytelling and Joze Rizal and Hemingway's writing in regards to revolutions and starting a movement. This set me up for the type of work I wanted to do for “Act From The Inside Out”.
What about your acting style?
When I first started acting, I studied a lot of Stanislavki. Then I studied for the longest time with Richard Seyd. His work is based on a lot of improv and trigger work, staying in the moment. Recently I've been working a lot with Meisner or Meisner-type techniques; also rooted in being in the moment and working off of your partner. In the end, like my writing and all art, it's intuitive.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Definitely “Bindlestiff Studios”. It’s a theater in San Francisco that nurtures Filipino artists in the community, including actors, writers, musicians, and visual artists. Bindlestiff gave me a comfortable home as an artist to nurture my creativity; which at that time was very hidden. They provide many free or low cost acting and writing workshops as well as a community for support. This was important for me because, as an actress and writer that came from a predominant Filipino upbringing and surroundings, trying to go mainstream is challenging at first. I couldn't relate as well or totally own myself as an artist and actress, until I explored myself creatively in my own culture and the stories I relate to first-hand. Then as I have became more comfortable with this, I've been able to really broaden my range, both as a writer and as an actress. As they say in acting, knowing yourself first is key to being able to play different characters.
Do you see writing as a career?
I feel writing comes secondary to my acting, but yes, definitely part of my career. As much as I love acting, writing allows me to be even more pro-active in the kind of content and stories I want to share with audiences.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
You mean “Act From The Inside Out”? Yes, of course. I'm a bit of a perfectionist this way. I look back, and I've learned and changed so much since writing that book, so there are some things that I probably would change, and I definitely always feel like I can improve on my writing, and even on the way I think about things.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
As I mentioned, reading a lot of books such as "Like Water, For Chocolate", studying authors like Gabriel Marquez, Poelho Coelho, reading plays, watching films, reading biographies, etc. As much as I've worked on so many John Patrick Shanley plays as an actress and student of theater, I am fascinated by his life too. I think that is part of what art is too, knowing the artist and exploring the way they think and see the world. At least for me it is. And I have a natural tendency to want to be the artist as well as be the art. ha ha
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes, writer’s block is for real. So that is a challenge. But as you can see, I think a bigger challenge is narrowing down my thoughts and writing. As my publisher would remind me, I don't have to address and try to solve all the world's problems in one book. That's tough for me. My mind automatically works this way. I see everything as connected.
What was the hardest part of writing your first book?
Revealing my deepest thoughts. I think part of what makes me comfortable as an actress is hiding in the stories and imaginary characters. It gives me permission to express myself, but through someone else's story. Especially for my first book, it put me in a very vulnerable position to share my own thoughts, opinions, and stories and to represent myself. The book practically had to be pried from my hands by my publisher. I could be shy this way. ha ha!
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Yes, of course, I'm always learning and continue to have revelations about the process. I continue to learn that people really relate when you share yourself and your personal stories. People like to share your journey. As unique and different as we are, there are some things that are universal. We share the same desires, fears, dreams, challenges, and the best way to get through life and this journey is to do it with others. I've learned that collaboration is best. I don't believe in competition anymore. We all have a place in this world. Writing is a great tool in revealing this journey. Also, artistically, whether it is acting or writing, I learned a similar process takes place for me. It begins with deep contemplation, then starts the process of fleshing it out and digging deep for answers, whether that is the story you are writing or a character you are developing as an actress. And of course, staying with the theme of the book, “Act From The Inside Out”, which applies the art of acting to real life roles, I always see how I can pertain and apply it to my life situations or help others with it. I also learned from my first book to say to myself and accept: I did my best at the time, I am always learning, now let it go, be happy with it and move on the next project. That's for my sanity. Ha ha!
So, word has it that you’re working on a second book. Mind telling us what it’s about?
Yes, well, interesting enough, one of my intentions or passions for my first book and the community outreach work related to it, is to reach out to minority communities – particularly in the Filipino, Latino and African American Communities (underrepresented communities in general) – around education, self-development, leadership, fulfilling our dreams and highest potential, because growing up in these communities I know first-hand some of the challenges and cultural barriers that exist. The interesting part of this journey is that I've been getting a lot of interest and invitations to speak in the corporate world to their diversity inclusion or affinity groups. Many companies have special programs that are aimed at fostering diversity and leaders within the company. So my second book is actually my first book, spun into a business version focusing on diversity, creativity and instincts, in transforming roles in business and leadership. It will cater to the corporate market. Plus my publisher talked me into participating in an intense mastermind weekend, where she guaranteed our book would be done. I didn't want to spend too much time on it, but there seemed to be a lot of incentive and an efficient way to do it. It is done. At least the first draft. It just needs to be fleshed out.
This seems a far cry from the entertainment industry, does it not?
Well, yes and no. As I said, I've always wanted to outreach to these communities, as I am a part of them. This is part of my vision through my acting and films also. However, I also have felt there should be an even stronger connection and accountability between the industry and also taking part in educating, mentoring and sharing in the community. Whether it's through business, our schools, in our homes, or on the streets, the truth is, our culture is highly educated and influenced by the arts and media, whether that is through films, celebrities, news, music, art, reality TV, or otherwise. And unfortunately, whether that is negative or positive education/programming, it’s what's taking place. So, at least in my mind, it's very connected to the entertainment industry. And I believe there should be even more social responsibility for people in the industry and in the public spotlight to see the connection and to take responsibility. What I am doing is my attempt to bridge that gap, and hopefully be a conduit for putting out more positive conscious programming. I was just twittering: It's a sad day when our kids in public schools are talking about their favorites like Chris Brown beating up his girlfriend, Lindsey Lohan back in rehab and so and so's latest sex tape. This is straight out of the mouths of babies, I'm talking 4th and 5th graders. And this is a pretty good school, in a good neighborhood. We can joke, but this is the future that is going to lead our country and take care of us. It's a fine line, because through story I like to explore the nitty gritty too, if there is a journey, and good story behind it, as they say, not gratuitous. But I also like to keep it a just that, a story and feel more of the need to be rooted in good values and integrity in my real life. But the way I look at it, all that happens in the world even with what you might call "negative" programming is an opportunity to hold us more accountable in having open communication and accountability with the people around us especially the youth. I always have to find an opportunity. I think that will be key these days – awareness, accountability, good values, authenticity, integrity and communication.
What is different about this book and is it for everyone?
I would say it is for everyone who is interested in how to combine creativity, arts and instincts in business and leadership.
Do you have any advice for other actors and writers?
Just keep acting and writing, experimenting, being pro-active in putting yourself and work out there. And always be open to learning and improving.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I believe everyone should journal and write their stories. I think it's a great way to preserve your history, to know where you come from but also write with the vision with what you want to create. Also, believe in yourself, take risks, help others by believing in them and it will all come back to you in a good way. And thank you for all the support around my book and projects. It makes the biggest difference!
Give us three "Good-to-Know" facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your fans.
My favorite thing to do besides acting and writing is salsa dancing. I think it's such a beautiful dance that I want to grow old with. It's a great practice, at least for the women, to let go, trust, and follow. Dancing in general is a great way to let go. My most challenging role is motherhood. Ha ha! I have the most amazing active rambunctious little boy, he definitely keeps me grounded and on my feet. Also, I don't watch scary movies. I'm a big scaredy cat. I don't even like to watch the trailers. I change the channel as soon as they come on. Ha ha! So when I decided to work on this horror film in the Philippines, you can imagine the contradiction. Which wasn't bad, because then my fear was real. Ha ha! I had serious anxiety over working on it at first, especially because I was on a remote island on the Philippines. The crew was like, “We should be scared, because you’re the evil one.” I did play the evil one. Ha ha! So that was an interesting experience. But I really felt like I owned my "evilness". Ha ha! That was fun and challenging at the same time. In the end, it did break a lot of illusions for me about horror films. I still don't like to watch them.
What else do you want us to know? Consider here your likes and dislikes, your interests and hobbies, your favorite ways to unwind — whatever comes to mind.
I am a bit sentimental. Sometimes I want to make everything mean something, which can be good and bad. The good is that it inspires me to create. Whether you believe in his politics or not, I don't really like to get into it, as it sparks up heated debates, the truth is, I started writing “Act From The Inside Out”, after listening to Obama's acceptance speeches. He spoke about coming together, taking responsibility and making a change. I was so moved, it inspired me to start this whole movement of creating prosperity and positive change in every area of life with the book, my new endeavor with the VERTE Project and the Prosperity Success Summits. I do believe we all have a responsibility. I don't believe in victims. I believe in that cliché "point one finger, three point back at you" so I believe it's up to us to make a change. Also, through my personal journey of reaching for my dreams, I know the challenges. I want to be part of that movement to keep reaching for my dreams and helping others believe in theirs. I use to do a lot of outreach work in inner city schools in Berkeley and Richmond in the Bay Area, for a program called "Break The Cycle", working with predominantly African American communities. This program ran out of UC Berkeley. You see these naturally talented gifted kids, but they are hidden and in need of a lot of support, mentoring and resources to be put on the right track. Those working memories are what inspire me to join this movement of creating positive change. As an actress, when I would travel with educational theater companies, we'd go from the best and most affluent schools, to the poorest schools where the teachers were scared of their students and it felt like a prison more than a school, to juvenile halls – the discrepancies are sad, that's what drives me to be a part of this movement. Also, for the past 10 years I've seen my mom battle cancer through chemo therapy and before her my grandmother use to sit on a dialysis machine 5 times a week before she passed away. I can't bear to believe that this is how some of us experience life. The movement is based on the belief that we all deserve and should have the freedom to live fully and freely. I do get pretty passionate about everything I do. How do I unwind? I'm a sucker for hot baths, steam rooms and getting massages. ha ha
If you had to choose between writing and acting, which would you choose and why?
ACTING! I think acting encompasses for me everything that I get out of writing and more, because I actually get to put the art on its feet and live it. Writing can also tend to make me introverted. Cabin fever is no joke. Ha ha! The art of acting really gives me permission to get out and fully explore life. Acting always challenges me to master myself through the stories and characters I play. It's so much fun. I'm a lover of life and exploring the human condition. Acting definitely is an art that allows me to do this. Whether you are an actor or not, I think it's good for everyone to go back to that adventurous, curious, playful nature that we all started out with as children. I was speaking to a class of 5th graders about my book and acting, and this little girl basically said, "So your book tells adults how not to be so boring and have fun again like us kids." And i said, “Well, yes. Basically that's it." Ha ha!
How and when did you first realize that acting advice could help people in their daily lives?
As I was acting and modeling to help pay for college, at the same time I desired a career in law, politics, education or journalism. I found the work I was doing as an actress helped me tremendously in my personal and professional growth. I started to really uncover many hidden parts of myself that helped me be a better communicator, more confident, a better leader. And there are infinite ways to use it in your personal life. It is a powerful tool for personal and professional growth. Employees can cultivate more leadership and authenticity. Management can foster empathy, compassion and communication. Parents can explore creative ways to approach their children. Husbands and wives can have more fun, build more love in exploring each other in different ways. ha ha! I can go on and on. As for advice, well, as with the title of my book, “Act From The Inside Out”, I would say take the inner journey of creating a mindset of openness and inspired thinking, where you are open to seeing the world through different eyes and perspectives. This sparks your imagination and brings back that natural creativity, desire for adventure and curiosity we once had when we were kids. Also, I use to believe I had to fit into the world a certain a way, through qualifications, labels, even race. Our society tends to make us want to do that, especially for me, as I deal with it daily in this industry, as it's so based on looks and stereotypes in general. But I've also learned, and this is a common question I get from the corporate diversity groups in how to fit into company leadership roles or having others start seeing you in the way you really feel you are, and my response is: “Start to redefine for yourself what your roles are and just be it and live it. Take initiative to create the opportunities for you to live into this redefinition.” I am constantly going through this in life, and again in this industry, and yes I still have to experience that… of fitting the role, the type, etc… But also in addition to that, my best response is to create a new project or opportunity for myself, whether that is through acting, writing, speaking, in my personal or professional life, or in motherhood. I think now more than ever, we have the opportunity to be change-makers in the roles we play.
So would you like to tell us what some of your other current projects are?
Well, it varies daily. I still audition. I am asked to be a part of projects, and I create my own. I worked on a commercial a couple of weeks ago. Last month, I worked on an independent film in the Philippines called "White Lady". I think it's set for international distribution, not sure what they are doing for the U.S. It was actually a Canadian producer. Also, I have been asked and have plans to work on a few action films, all independent. And I'm in the process of producing a film, with my production company, Adoracion Films, in collaboration with more seasoned veteran producers in the industry. Adoracion Films is definitely a new endeavor which is named after my grandmother. Also, my production company is producing a series of DVDs based on the prosperity summit we just had in San Francisco. It was a success! I will start to work on planning the next success summit. I also am finishing up my second book. Most of my projects are done through collaborations and team work, so I'm not working alone, that's for sure. That's how I manage to do everything. Also, I will be part of a new book coming out "A Pho for Life: Melting Pot of Thoughts" published by 13 BOOKS. We are having a book launch in December and I debut my poetry. It's a compilation of different writer's work and a tribute to love.
I hear you love to travel. Where have you been so far?
I love to travel. I've traveled around Europe – France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, England, Denmark, Austria, Belguim (mmmm… where they really do have the best chocolates!) Germany. I grew up going to Hawaii a few times year. I've spent time on every island. Different parts of Mexico, the usual tourist areas. Australia & New Zealand. This past couple of years, France, Spain, China, Singapore and to the Philippines a couple of times. I love to explore the histories, culture and stories of different places. There was a time I was into reading James Michener novels. He writes a lot of historical fiction about the histories of different countries or places through fictional characters. It would inspire me to travel and visit these places. When I was spending time in Hawaii, I read his "Hawaii". He explored the history going back to the original tribes from the islands of Tahiti. It even followed the migrant workers from the Philippines, which I can relate to, because my grandfather was born in Hawaii. Then I read his book "Mexico" before I went to Mexico. I read a lot of Paulo Coelho when I traveled to the foot of the Pyrenees mountains that separates France and Spain. Another favorite thing I like to do is collect original art from these places. Especially in the Philippines, you can buy original art by these unknown artists, that are so beautiful, inexpensive and reflect so well the culture and time of where you are visiting. Again, I'm sentimental so when I read or look at art, work on something, visit some place, it always sparks a story, a history or a meaning. You can see my son has a tough time with me. He always reminds me, "Don’t think. Just play". There are some words for life: "Don't think. Just play." Also, a saying in acting. Ha ha!
Did you go for business or for pleasure?
Mostly pleasure, although I've been to the Philippines twice recently for business, doing some media interviews for my book. I've also been working on getting my book distributed there. The film I worked on, the horror movie, was shot on Samal Island in the Philippines. Very beautiful, the people so kind and hospitable, yet very remote. Traveling can also be a humbling experience, it reminds you of how lucky we are to have what we have.
What is your favorite of the places you have visited and why?
There are still so many places I want to travel to, and I love so many, but I would say Spain. There's something very familiar in Spain to me, yet different that I take in so much. I think it has the best of all worlds. I am familiar with the language, there is a very romantic mystical feeling about it, the people are friendly and family oriented, but I guess I get that from a lot of places I go to. I love the parts of it that are small-town quaint European cities with the narrow brick streets that you would find in other parts of Europe, old churches, historic architecture, flamenco dancers and, of course, they still have salsa dancing there. I love the art that comes out of Spain. And it could be that I always think of the Paulo Coelho book, "The Pilgrimage," where he goes through the northern part of Spain on a pilgrimage. Also, I'm always fascinated when I go back to the Philippines. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and most of my immediate extended family is in the States. I do have some extended family in the Philippines, but when I go back, I always think back to how my grandparents, their parents and the rest of my ancestors lived. There so many stories I would like to explore and tell coming from the Philippines. It's hard for me to pick a favorite place I've visited.
Are there any new places you would like to explore in the future?
Yes, South America keeps coming up for me. I have many friends from there, but I haven't visited. I'd like to get fluent in my Spanish and Tagalog. I'm working on it.
Has there ever been a place that you visited that just triggered an idea for a character or a plot in you?
Yes, too many. My mantra is focus, focus, focus. Ha ha! But again, the Philippines triggered me to collect stories from my grandparents and their generation, during their time in World War II. It sparked a character of a grandmother recollecting her experience and the loss of her family during World War II in the Philippines. I wrote and performed it for theater, and had the opportunity to perform it at the Kennedy Center Theater Festival, but I'd like to work on it again for film. Also, I'd like to explore going even further back in history during the Spanish Colonial days of the Philippines. I've been inspired by Jose Rizal's work. I've mentioned him a couple of times. And he, himself, is such an interesting character. I think he mastered like 22 languages, was a poet, architect, writer, educator, revolutionary leader, and much more. His books were originally written in Spanish, as he was educated in Spain. He did so much for the Philippines, yet died so young. I think that is an interesting time in the Philippines with the influence of Spain. There's a new movie out, “Amigo” that depicts this time.
Mind if we switch to talking about your role as a producer? How is that a different experience to acting or writing?
Well, it's very new for me, so I can't fully answer. However, for me, being a producer means putting on a business hat; being more proactive in creating and hopefully funding projects that I really believe in and want to share.
Is there a reason you do all these things instead of only doing one of them?
Yes, it's a battle I have constantly, but for me it has been working all together. I do have to work hard in keeping focused and organized. As I learned from my business coach, you just have to create a system for working. Luckily, again, I don't work by myself. I am blessed to have created different little teams and partnerships that help and support me, and vice versa. And honestly, I feel like I'm just following God's plan for my life. I'm just an instrument and everything else, knock on wood, seems to fall into place. When they don't, they are big learning lessons, and I go back and re-strategize Ha ha! I definitely have a vision, but I also have learned to take it one step at time. One of my role models is Oprah, however, I would like to lead with the acting, and have the other things I do come after. I feel a lot of the community work and producing I do challenges me to stay aligned with the message of my book, create your roles, combining business and creativity. For me, as much as I want to master the art of acting, I also want to explore and transform my role as a business woman while practicing and sharing leadership in the community. Plus, we are in a new economy – diversification is good. Ha ha! No, really, I love acting, but it's a personal endeavor that I find can be a bit self-indulgent and narcissistic at times. I wanted to create fulfilling outlet to balance it out and give back. There is SUCH a great feeling in helping people realize and fulfill their dreams. I get why Oprah does what she does. I'm afraid I'm a complicated one. Ha ha!
Are there always specific messages in your work? A type or theme or motif perhaps that characterizes you?
Live your dreams, create the roles you want to play. I always say: "Quiet the mind, listen to the heart and soul". Live life to the fullest in faith and freedom. Every moment is an opportunity to create. The art of life is to create it. You can choose.
I think I’ll end this interview on a random note. If you suddenly somehow gained one million dollars, what would you do with it?
I would retire my parents, let them travel the world, send all the kids in my family (there is a lot of them) to college. Give them what they need to support their dreams. I'd buy all organic and hire a personal nutritionist so that we can all eat and live healthy. Of course, before all of this, I'd invest my money in businesses and investments so it will grow. Invest in my creative projects. Invest in education. I'd love to see a school built from scratch in the poorest area of the Philippines, based on prosperity principles. Wow, a million dollars doesn't get you too far these days. I'd hire a good investment advisor. Ha ha! Go to a spa, sit in a steam room and get a massage in the middle of Spain. Ha ha ha! My other favorite things to do.
Thank you very much, Shelene for your time. These have all been very interesting answers from an especially interesting individual. Shelene is going strong, and more popular than ever, you’ll be able to say you got to know her in the early stages; these humble beginnings. So keep your head up, your eyes peeled and your ears perked, coz this definitely isn’t the last you’ll be seeing of the wonderful Shelene Atanacio!
Before we go, Shelene would like to extend a big ‘Thank You’ to her brilliant photographer, Claudette Tan, for the wonderful job on her snapshots, and to make-up artist, Cheri Santiano & DMK Cosmetics for their exceptional work.
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