We had the good fortune of connecting with Kristen Vaganos and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kristen, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I think there is no way to succeed in the path-less, instruction-less, oversaturated entertainment industry without taking risks.
Taking risks certainly feels like one of those pieces of advice that I can remember being told over and over and I always thought to myself “I know that, Im already doing that”. But it wasn’t until I got tired, frustrated, or impatient enough to really begin taking chances, letting go, caring less about the ‘right way’ and forging my own path that I truly started following the advice. Be better than me, start sooner! haha
In my auditioning, I spent a while letting character descriptions inspire me to fit the mold of what I thought casting wanted to see or what the writer had imaged. Once a friend in casting told me that sometimes those descriptions get written ages before a script is even circulated or a casting team is involved, I decided to throw out that method. That method which always left me feeling like I was falling short of something – of some expectation that I didn’t even set. I then started leading with me and my own sense of humor and impression of what was on the page and between the words. It’s so much more fun, more engaging and my characters become full human beings rather than a couple lines of exposition. It’s actually also quite easier but straight out of college, it did feel like a risk to lead with my own quirks, flaws, and point of view! Re-wiring the brain is sometimes so necessary and upon feeling freer, I often wonder where I even learned the first way.
But perhaps risk taking has lended me a larger hand in my work off camera. I was never formally taught to produce a film. I didn’t go to film school, I went to acting school. But over the years, I spent a lot of time on set as an actor feeling an urge to speak outside of my department. Having thoughts like “her bedroom wouldn’t be this clean and girly” or “this marketing campaign doesn’t make sense for a female driven thriller”, I was always wanting to offer up easier or faster ways to accomplish things, kinder and more efficient ways to communicate between departments, and creative input on the script and story arc. I would never want to overstep… I mean we all have opinions! But I felt a true desire for more creative control over the films I was acting in and I knew that I’d need to put in some work to earn that authority.
It wasn’t until covid hit that I found the time to water this interest in producing. The goal has always been to get stories and projects that I believe in off the ground without needing to rely on others or ask permission. Additionally, as an Executive Producer, I’d be proud to ensure that the right artistic bodies and minds be employed behind and in front of the honest lens through which the stories I work on are told. So during covid I began working at a production company as an Associate Producer. I am so grateful for the many practical skills I learned in this position from how to permit a location to how to coordinate talent payroll.
But here’s where the risk taking comes in. I am a ‘say yes and figure out later’ kind of person. This was put to the test when one month out from principal photography on a feature film we were working on, the lead producer and 1st Assistant Director of our film left the company. We were a small hands-on team and an intimate company and so close to filming, this felt world-shattering. Our director spiraled a bit as this was a close personal friendship of his and for a moment, it seemed like we’d have to push production which as you can imagine, would only cost us money, lose locations, lose the availability of our star talent, and upset our investors. I tried my best to keep the train moving and it quickly became clear that if I wasn’t taking on tasks, they simply weren’t getting done. Without being asked to, I stepped up into the position of Lead Producer and Assistant Director on the film and carried it through this portion of principal photography. I taught myself skills and procedures, I leaned on my support systems, I research a ton, and I trusted myself to consider and honor the needs and safety of all departments.
This experience was only a couple years ago and without jumping into the deep end, I wouldn’t now have several films under my belt. Just last week we wrapped production in New York City of a feature film titled Ramona At Midlife which I produced. This is a beautiful female-driven film from writer/director Brooke Berman and one I am honored to be behind!
While there have certainly been bumps in the road, stressful moments and mistakes made along the way – learning on the job with no teacher can be scary – it has all been worth it. At the end of the day, I trusted my guts, my capability, and my intention to carry me and have met such amazing collaborators along the way! I will say the best part is definitely being able to hire, employ, and uplift like-minded artists and friends! I feel so proud of the work I’ve done, the responsibility I’ve taken on, the care with which I’ve handled the artistic pursuits of my collaborators, the speed at which I’ve learned, and the confidence I’ve had to take the risks that have gotten me this far.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I find myself inherently interested in the beauty of individualism. My interactions with a myriad of unique cultures, personality traits, senses of humor, styles preferences, not to mention size, color, shape and gender expression are what excite me in life!
Through my art, I find myself quite curious about society’s tendency to ignore the simple truth that we can all be happiest when we are all treated equally and valued for our individuality. Society fears what it doesn’t understand and protects the safety of conformity. Art doesn’t need to be safe though. Art can show us our best day – the utopian what-if world that I dream about and it can also illustrate my darkest nightmares… which politically, seem closer than they should these days. And most interesting, it can show us the subtleties in the middle.
In my life, I am specifically interested in the strength of women and of LGBTQIA+ folks. I have found myself acting as a therapist to friends of mine my whole life. They always tease me but it feels like my secret plan to empower the women around me to ask for and expect more. To portray women who can set the tone and inspire young ladies to know their worth has always been a specific motivator for me.
Speaking more broadly, I want to hear from voices I don’t hear in my day to day life. I want them to tell me stories that I otherwise wouldn’t know, wouldn’t feel. Art is my way of stepping into shoes I’ve never worn and of honoring the body and spirit who walk in them regularly. In a word, Empathy. Our world needs more of it and in watching film, television, or live theatre, we are encouraged if not forced to empathize!
When I can be of service and embody a character that a part of me deeply understands, I truly feel I am achieving my purpose by influencing our culture the best way I know how.
It is not always easy to promote this kind of art, especially in an industry that focuses on, hires, and puts marketing efforts behind projects based on factors like international sale ability and the fame of those involved. But I do believe that compelling, purposeful artists make themselves heard. There is such freedom and expression in indie film, where I’ve worked a lot, and if it were up to me, I’d live and play in that collaborative space forever! I hope to help bring attention, respect, and worth to that space where creators are truly in charge of their art.
I’ve blabbered. I suppose the biggest thing for me is intention. Green-lighting a project or hiring a person to fit a quota or meet a statistic doesn’t exactly empower as we hoped it might. But we’re getting closer. Heads are turning. We will stay loud. I stay inspired!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Los Angeles has really grown on me. I am an East Coast city gal who came from a loud Greek family in Philadelphia and went to college in NYC. So I was nervous for LA. And when I got here, I just wanted everyone to move faster. I had more to get done in a day and I wanted to use my commute time to run lines and put on makeup like I was used to. A couple fender benders later and I learned my lesson and stopped doing that… most days.
But upon finding my tribe and learning to embrace quiet sunlit mornings on my patio with a cup of coffee, I have been able to appreciate all that LA is. Everyone you meet is a potential collaborator and while I do long for the individuality of NYC sometimes, I appreciate how creative everyone is in Los Angeles. Everyone is working on and for and toward some vision.
So that’s where my suggestions begin. Go watch and enjoy and listen to the artists here.
Listen to a band perform at the Echo, the Troubadour, or Harvard & Stone. LA has an amazing indie music scene!
See a movie with the Rooftop Cinema Club.
See a standup show at Largo or an improv show at UCB. If you go to UCB, eat at Sushi Stop beforehand and get ice cream at Vanleeuwen afterward! Both right next door. You’ll be living my typical Wednesday night from pre-pandemic times 🙂
Visit the new Academy museum… and tell me how it is, I still haven’t been!
Enjoy spectacular art and also amazing views of the city up at The Getty Museum, which is free!
And when you want to get outside, walk around the Silverlake Reservoir or hike the Solstice Canyon Trail in Malibu for a brilliant view of the coast.
And when you get hungry, get tacos from Guisados, some authentic KBBQ in Koreatown, or a glass of wine (and the warm bread) at Mirabelle Wine Bar!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
With any opportunity I am given, I will gladly thank my family for not only their love, support, and encouragement but for paving the way and making a life that allowed me to follow my dreams and offer my superpowers. My grandparents came to America from Greece with no prospects awaiting them and for one of my grandfathers, with no shoes. They are all self made. My father’s father opened a restaurant and with his wife who taught herself English and to drive, raised two boys who went on to become cardiologists. My mother’s father fed his family during the war and upon arriving in America, educated himself so much so that he ended up working for the Naval Air Development Center on top secret inventions for the government through the Cold War. With his wife, he raised my angel of a mother who graduated from Swarthmore and UPenn and is my biggest cheerleader.
The American Dream looks a lot different now than it did when my grandparents immigrated but hell if they didn’t accomplish it and set our family on a path of self-realization, hard work, and high hopes. My Dream focuses more on Human Equality and less on a person’s Alma Matter but because of the efforts and determination of Vaganos’s before me, I can chase my Dream proudly and for that, I will always be grateful.
Emerson Niemchick, Zachary Kemper, David Muller, Erica Everett