On its worst days, Hollywood’s seedier side can make it seem anything but friendly to people of faith. But Catholics are there, striving to create something beautiful and good. And also there supporting them are numerous communities and organizations. What they have to say about the industry and about faith beneath the Hollywood sign just might surprise you.
HOLY WOOD ACTING STUDIO
An acting studio with values
Acting on-camera, improvisation, movement: Acting studios around the world aim to help actors develop skills to help them succeed. But what about the skills required to maintain one’s integrity under industry pressure or the ability to use money and fame wisely instead of becoming corrupted by them?
“If you’re the best actor but you’re not happy,” asks Carlos Espinosa, “what good can it be?”
In 2011, businessman Espinosa and his family opened Holy Wood Acting Studio, which is inspired by Catholic values and run primarily by Catholics. The studio plans to re-launch this year.
Though Holy Wood is structured around Catholic principles and uses clean roles for acting class, Espinosa stresses that it’s not specifically a religious program; rather, it’s “an acting studio with values.” And one need not be Catholic to apply.
The Holy Wood program is comprised of four pillars, Espinosa explains. “First is excellence in acting, then personal growth and development, which teaches you how to love yourself as much as God loves you. Next is leadership—leading like Jesus as a servant, as a steward, as a shepherd. Fourth is health and fitness; that will teach you how to discover your beauty and also keep your dignity as a human being.”
This unique approach was developed to help actors develop not only their acting skills but their whole person. “We show them what wonderful, incredible, and precious creatures they are in the eyes of God,” says Espinosa, “and we show them the potential that they have and how to develop it.”
“We gained such an amazing confidence in ourselves and in what we were capable of, because we knew ourselves better,” says Shenandoah Sierra, 22, a Catholic graduate of the program. “I was able to go into auditions and really know how to present myself.”
Helping students see the good in themselves and leave the program as stronger, more confident people is part of the work of Joe Sikorra, a Catholic, former actor, and licensed therapist who is the studio’s personal growth and development coach. During the program, he sees students twice a week for group sessions, during which they explore personal concerns. “We carry a lot of wounds into our lives, and artists are particularly sensitive, so I think there’s that much more care needed for their souls,” he says. For example, helping an actor who feels very insecure uncover the source of that feeling and begin to heal, says Sikorra, can help build the confidence that can make that actor a better and more successful performer.
Confidence and a strong moral compass are critical when actors encounter rejection, temptation, and high-pressure decisions. Marta DuBois, a Catholic who is an acting coach at Holy Wood and its acting supervisor, recalls a time at the start of her career when, partway through shooting a feature film, she was asked to do a nude scene. She refused. Actors, says DuBois, need to develop the courage to cope with such situations.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have a place like Holy Wood Acting Studio that has given you that, formed it, reaffirmed it, and sealed it,” she says, “it’s much easier to say no.”
Not everyone who attends Holy Wood may pursue professional acting in the long run. Some, for instance, discover that what they were really seeking wasn’t so much a career in the arts as something else that the program provided.
“A lot of people come into acting because they feel like they’ve never been heard,” says Sikorra. As they uncover their voice and their value as a person at Holy Wood, he explains, they might also realize, “I actually don’t have to be an actor to have a voice; I can do this just living out my life in healthy relationships with other people.”
Those who do have a calling to become a professional actor, says DuBois, have a responsibility to take that call seriously. “The dabbler who says, ‘I’m going to give this three months, six months, and then if it doesn’t work out, I’m quitting’—it doesn’t work that way.” If you’re serious about acting, DuBois explains, it’s a lifelong proposition, and something you “live, eat, and breathe”—especially if you want to be great. “Can you imagine Michelangelo pursuing his art skills, his sculpting skills, as a hobby?” she asks. “It was his life.”
Those with a vocation to the arts don’t create because they can, she continues, but because they must. “It is a God-given gift we have a responsibility to fulfill,” she says. “And you do it for the praise and glory of God always. That’s your compass.”
Whatever path Holy Wood graduates choose, they take valuable wisdom with them that extends beyond stage or screen.
“Holy Wood is an investment not only for an acting career,” says Sierra, “but for life.”
A major source of spiritual support for Catholics is their home parish, and that’s no different for Catholics working in Hollywood. One such parish is St. Monica’s Catholic Community. Its welcoming environment and convenient location in Santa Monica (near many post-production houses) are just two reasons it’s the go-to parish for many industry professionals. Celebrities also know they can call ahead to arrange special Mass seating so that their worship (and everyone else’s) is undisturbed by paparazzi. The parish has numerous ministries, periodically offers an entertainment ministry fair, and has unofficial ties to Family Theater (introduced in part one of this story), since two Family Theater priests—Father Wilfred Raymond, CSC, and Father David Guffey, CSC—are in residence there.
“St. Monica’s really gives me my spiritual base,” says actress Peggy Miley, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at the parish. “You can sense that the Holy Spirit is there, because there’s a sharing among the community. I think the stability of it for actors, whose lives are a slippery slope under the best of circumstances, is important.”
Father Bob Gallagher, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, opines that parish life provides a sense of meaning and direction. “The people who live out here live in a world where they’re bombarded by different ideas all the time,” he says, “so they’re trying to work out their own faith in a setting that gives them some sense of meaning.”
At the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, parish of actor Mark Wahlberg and known in Hollywood’s golden age as “the church of the stars,” Monsignor Thomas Welbers says many of his young adult parishioners are seeking “a deeper involvement, a deeper engagement with Church.” The parish seeks to provide this through its regular ministries as well as re-launching a monthly fellowship group for entertainment professionals in the near future.
“I think that there’s a great benefit, if you’re looking for support and spiritual guidance, to have a group such as this to be there for you,” says The Chevalier, Richard Winter-Stanbridge, a producer. He is currently assisting actor Jonathan Roumie, a fellow Good Shepherd parishioner, to launch the group. “You’re with your peers; you can share your feelings about your business and how you deal with it and where God is in all that.”
Such groups can be a challenge to sustain, say those involved—not only logistics-wise, but also when aspiring Hollywood professionals become overly eager to network with more established members of the group. Some professionals, says actor-producer John Kelly, choose instead to gather informally after Mass, discussing questions like “What did you do in that situation?” or “What do you think about me in this situation? Am I doing the right thing?”
Whatever form such community takes, it provides valuable support.
“Spiritually, I think it has helped to be part of a community that says it is A-OK to be here in Hollywood,” says Elena Ruddy, an actress who was involved in the entertainment fellowship at St. Monica’s. “People are trying to find a support team, just meeting other like-minded people in the entertainment industry who have similar values.”
Delis Alejandro, a pastoral associate at St. Monica’s, says she hopes to help revive the fellowship in some form, perhaps in partnership with a faith-based entertainment organization.
St. Victor Catholic Church in West Hollywood is one parish that has taken a partnership approach. At 8:00 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, it plays host to Catholic Underground (CU) Los Angeles, a cultural apostolate of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Catholic Underground, which is active in several cities, serves as a meeting point between faith and culture, offering gatherings geared toward young adults that consist of prayer, Adoration, optional confession, socializing, and artistic performances.
Jessica Rey, an actress (her credits include Power Rangers) who is on the core team for CU Los Angeles, says that the community CU provides for young adult Catholics can be especially important for those in the entertainment industry.
“There’s so much nightlife going on,” she explains, “and sometimes people think, ‘Some big director will be out at the club or the bar, so that’s where I feel like I’ve got to go,’ and then people get involved in that lifestyle. Catholic Underground gives them a place to go for good, clean fun.”
“I think a lot of these groups help people realize that it’s not just a vacuum—your faith can be part of your relationship with your industry and your art, and you can still be successful,” says Kelly. The people Kelly has met at church and through organizations like Family Theater have helped him make better career choices through their guidance and support. “I know they’re watching me,” he says. “I’m not just going to do something for a buck.” CD
Part One of this story is found in the November issue of Catholic Digest.
Julie Rattey is a writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the Catholic press. Her work has included conducting celebrity interviews and traveling internationally to write about pilgrimage sites and the work of Catholic charities. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth: Take a Trip Back to the Time of Mary, Joseph & Jesus, available at 23rdPublications.com.
More Catholics in Hollywood
Many media companies and groups in the Hollywood area have a Catholic connection. Various religious orders minister there as well. Here are just a few places to continue your exploration: