TX Studio: Callina Anderson finds her balance

Callina Anderson is a Houston-based actor who recently wrapped On the Exhale at Unity Theatre in Brenham. In September, she played the title role in Medea for Classical Theatre Company and before that, she was Robin in Wolf Play by Hansol Jung at Rec Room Arts. Since graduating from University of Houston in 2006, she has been seen on almost every stage in in the city.​​

I spoke with her about her process, how the past informs today, what it means to be “good,” and the elusive work/life balance, or for actors, what often becomes the work/work balance.

Ok look, when we first talked about this interview, I said I wasn’t going to ask this question but … I can’t not ask this question. So here we go. How did you get into acting?

When I was nine, I watched To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. I was completely in awe of Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo and Patrick Swayze. They each fully committed to their roles as drag queens without becoming caricatures or making fun of the drag or queer community. That movie made me want to believably transform into someone else and live out someone’s experiences just like them. Unfortunately, I was so shy and scared, I could barely audition for plays in middle and high school. When I was deciding on a major, I figured if I put my tuition behind my passion for acting, I’d be forced to audition for plays.

When did you realize you were good at acting?

I first had an idea when I was cast in Main Street Theater’s production of The Revolutionists. It was my first professional show in a cast of four, meaning I’d have a significant role throughout the play. It was the first role where I understood my character–her actions, her jokes, her speeches. Every time I was on stage, I truly became her. I’d never experienced a role fitting me so easily.  That’s when I thought, “Maybe I’ve got some talent. Maybe I can keep going with acting.”

Do you have a preferred style of show?

I thrive on performing in black box theaters with smaller audiences (maybe 60-70 people max), and productions produced in unique locations (I’ve performed in living rooms, in a library of a private residence and on the METRO light rail), with small casts. I want people to have an immersive and visceral experience, and I’ve found the smaller the room and the fewer people, the reciprocal energy that the cast and audience gives to each other throughout the show is stronger.

What informs the choices you make about what roles you take?

Who I’ll be working with is the biggest factor—the theater, the director, the cast. The people in the room cover a multitude of script sins. I also love a challenge. If I think the topic or role will stretch me in any way, I’m generally game to take it on.

What makes you say no to a gig?

I say “no” to a gig when I feel myself needing a physical and emotional break from the grind of day job/night rehearsals and shows. I have a high need for rest and often take regular sabbaticals once a year. Content wise, I try to stay away from controversial or political topics, especially if the story (or the director’s vision) tries to persuade the audience into a particular direction. I don’t want to promote a viewpoint that doesn’t leave room for difference of opinion or an audience’s ability to feel however they feel about the art.

Do you like the “day job / act at night” balance? Would you ever want to be a straight up working actor?

Being an actor with a full-time day job is definitely tough and not ideal. I don’t think I’d want to be a full-time actor as I love left-brain tasks, but if I could work a couple of hours a day creating organizational processes for a company or creating a budget on a spreadsheet, then spend the rest of the day acting, that would be my dream!

Do you have a favorite theater experience?

I recently did a show where an actor’s mother gave the audience flowers, and they showered them on the cast during curtain call. I felt so appreciated as an actor. It was a magical experience that I’ll never forget.

Do you have a least favorite theater experience?

I’ve taken theater roles strictly for money, and they’ve always been the worst experiences. While I ultimately enjoyed the cast and crew’s company, I had no attachment to the work, which made me hate the projects and I struggled to not “phone it in”. Now, if I ever need or want extra cash, I have a rule that I have to find a gig outside of the theater.

Have you ever taken an extended break?

If I know I’ll have a booked year, I intentionally try to take about three months off per year from theater. This work requires us to give so much time and emotional and mental effort, it gets exhausting. Taking extended breaks gives me a chance to rest, but also to grow other aspects of my life that I love, like hiking with my dog, practicing spiritual disciplines and leisure reading, which get neglected because of my acting schedule. I also miss so many events when I’m working, so I use the time to catch up with family and friends.

What’s your favorite type of show to watch?

I love actor driven dramas with emotionally difficult content. One of my favorite plays is The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, by Edward Albee. It’s the story of a husband who is having an affair, and his family finds out. The play is tense with drama as you watch the affair being exposed, but when it’s revealed who the husband is having an affair with, the play explodes. Because it has a small cast, set in one location, the attention is all on the actors and the language of the dialogue. It’s a riveting play.

What’s an example of something you wouldn’t have wanted to do when you were younger, but now you don’t mind?

I grew up in a conservative Christian home and practiced that tradition the majority of my life. I was always taught that certain content was “ungodly” to watch, much less to perform in. I was uncomfortable with cursing or portraying anything sexual, but I might do it, depending on the script. Now, while I still practice my faith (albeit more moderately and with nuance) and am still cautious of gratuitous stories, I’m really up for anything. I believe in the power of storytelling to change people’s lives. That means all sorts of stories, representing all sorts of people, especially those different from my experience.

For REC Room’s production of Dance Nation, there was a scene where the cast had to change clothes on stage. We had an Intimacy Director who encouraged us to do what felt most comfortable to us night to night, moment by moment. Towards the end of the run, I decided to completely change clothes, including a brief nude moment. It was a liberating moment. It was right for me personally and professionally in that production, and was right for that character in that moment. That’s something I never would have done even five years ago.

Are there theater people you look up to? In Houston or out.

Laura Frye’s Dogberry at the Houston Shakespeare Festival this past summer legitimately made me question my talent as an actor. I’m always so jealous at how effortless Philip Lehl makes acting look, while simultaneously being a professional, supportive, and kind member of the Houston theater scene. Most of all, I look up to the working mothers in Houston theater. I see how many sacrifices they make–getting babysitters, rearranging schedules with their partners, bringing their kids to rehearsals–just so they can prioritize their careers and do what they love. This industry isn’t the most accommodating for parents, so when they do make it work, I have so much respect for them. Some of my favorite theater mothers are Shanae’a Moore, Tracy Ahern Owen, Candice D’Meza and Lily Wolff.