Mhairi Morrison, Actress & Creator of series Feathers & Toast, coming to Hollywood from Scotland, Miming, Comedy, & creating Independent Content.
November 23, 2015
I was born and brought up predominately in Scotland. My mother is American; from LA and my dad is Scottish.
My dad always was interested in acting and performed in a variety of amateur Christmas pantomimes in Aberdeen when I was growing up.
When I was 7 he took me to an acting class on a Saturday morning. I loved it from the very first class, and then followed dance classes, (tap and jazz) and at the age of 13 I auditioned and was selected to be a part of Scottish Youth Theater in Glasgow for 5 weeks in the summer.
I performed throughout my teenage years in both school and local children’s theater productions.
I topped and tailed my school years performing career with playing a munchkin schoolteacher in a production of The Wizard of Oz aged 11 and at 16 played Dorothy!
So, there was some sort of progression, which was satisfying!
I went onto Glasgow University for theater and film but found the course too theoretical and not practical enough so auditioned and got into The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,where I attained my BA in acting (3 year course), this was a classical training in theater.
I’ve always been interested in movement and spent a summer in Paris studying mime between my 2nd and 3rd year of college.
As soon as I graduated I returned to Paris and studied at The Ecole International de theatre Jacques Le Coq, where I trained in mime, acrobatics, clown and mask work for a year.
First Job in Entertainment
My first paid entertainment job was in a commercial a few weeks after graduating from Jacques Le Coq in Paris.
I was voracious when I graduated chasing work everywhere, leaving resumes with production companies, mailing letters and headshots, calling casting directors.
This first job came about through someone who had told me that a production company was looking for English speaking actors.
I met them and shot that week. What a learning curve, had no idea how many times we would have to shoot a single scene and how thoroughly one has to be prepared to shoot.
I asked a cameraman that day what his single biggest piece of advice would be to me just starting out and he said “Be nice to everyone” which I have never forgotten.
Especially when it comes to the camera department, as he said they might spend an extra 5 minutes lighting you more flatteringly if they like you!
So many things inspire me creatively. Paris inspired me.
I have always loved visual art and so the very fact that Picasso and a multitude of other artists had been inspired by that city, inspired me.
I’m inspired by great, wonderful actors, people who have carved their own paths, who have taken charge of their own careers and not waited for opportunities but have created them themselves.
Lucille Ball in her comedy and business acumen, especially during that time period where there were even less women in entertainment.
Also, Mary Pickford with her long career and her business sense of taking her career into her own hands, creating United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.
Chanel and all that she created, her passion, her focus, determination and her business acumen.
I am an avid reader of biographies and autobiographies and draw a lot of inspiration from those who have done exceptionally well and pioneered their field.
Buster Keaton and his ability to be flexible, to adapt to the changing industry, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney.
Painting and sculpture greatly inspire me, especially the sculptor Rodin.
Basically brave artists who stuck to their guns and pursued their art relentlessly without compromise and against all apparent odds inspire me.
I am innately curious and acting is an incredible vehicle for exploring other people.
What inspires me to keep going is a burning passion to continue on the journey with my clown, Tallulah Grace, in my show Feathers and Toast.
I feel compelled to tell her story.
I also love the quote “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver).
That quote always makes me think of acting and the wonderful life it is, the opportunity to meet and work with so many talented people and to live such a varied life.
I guess the major change in the industry since I began working has been with the advent and expansion of the Internet.
Having began my career in Paris in street theater, and more recently having performed stand up comedy here in LA, the Internet is a digital form of performance.
Going back to medieval plays and the commedia dell’arte performances where performers came into town squares and did their plays.
They had to deliver or they wouldn’t eat.
At school they said that if your work isn’t relevant or understood by the man on the street then its pretentious.
The Internet offers the opportunity to create and distribute and find out immediately if your work is of interest, if it resonates with people, and that’s an amazing opportunity.
There’s a way to create and have a direct conversation with the audience, without filtering through agents/managers/contracts, which is exhilarating.
Much easier to interact with fans and throughout the past 2 years of doing Feathers and Toast have been able to ascertain what resonates with people so have developed the show and characters based on what was relatable to the audience.
So, I have found it to be an incredible vehicle for development.
Career Differences between the USA & the UK
The USA is so much bigger, so many more people here in LA pursuing creative careers than in the UK.
I wasn’t aware of networking so much in London or in Paris as I am here.
I have created all the opportunities I have had in LA through meeting people whereas in London I was more reliant on my agent and simply auditioning and booking, whereas here I feel it's more entrepreneurial.
I love, in America, the encouragement, the enthusiasm to make it happen, do it bigger, and have a big dream and go for it.
The energy here is palatable and I think that’s got a lot to do with the fact that LA is still relatively young compared with London, so there’s a sense of the Wild West, of creating your own luck.
A Day in the Life
I start my day with meditation, yoga and reading. I think it’s important to set the tone for the day in the morning, first thing.
On a Sunday I set out my goals for the week and then I plan my days meticulously.
Time can slip away and I need to focus, to be really precise with how I’m spending my time in order to keep on track.
No day is ever the same for me; it depends where I am with the show.
I shoot a vlog once a week, am working through the 4th draft of the half hour version of the show Feathers and Toast, so my days are a mix of promotion of my work through social media and of writing the script, planning who to send it to.
Recently, I have been talking on panels and have just arrived back from NYC where we were featured in Women in Fashion and Film festival.
I also write and voice the audio description for a variety of TV shows.
In one week I may write and voice 1 or 2 episodes or as many as 6 so that impacts what I am doing each day!
In the evenings I attend a lot of events.
I’m a member of Women In Film and go regularly to screenings, talks, etc. I also go to as many plays, comedy performances and other events as I can to meet people and also think it’s important to see what other people are doing.
Embracing New Media
I was performing stand up comedy when a friend who works at Paramount Studios took me for lunch and suggested I create my own half hour show for TV.
It took me several months to create a character that then formed the base/foundation for the whole show. I spent another few months writing and developing with my producing partner Holly, season 1, which is 6 episodes.
I had originally intended to use the ‘season’ to animate a pitch for the half hour show; I had no intention of putting it out on the Internet.
I really knew nothing about digital.
Then I met someone who had been an agent at CAA, and then at that time, was working with Fullscreen, who suggested that I put the show out on YouTube and start to cultivate an audience and then take it to TV.
So, we put the season out on YouTube and got some books out of the library on Twitter and began to work out what was what on the Internet.
It's been integral to how we went onto develop the show in season 2, as we knew from the audience, we had what bits they liked in season 1, so were able to write season 2 based on some suggestions from viewers.
Basically, the whole expansion and growth of the show is thanks to the Internet.
What I enjoy the most about new media is the freedom to create and distribute without waiting for a green light.
I love the community that we’ve found throughout the world of like-minded content creators.
I have made genuine wonderful friendships through social media.
For example, Holly and I just spent 5 days in NYC as we were apart of Women in Fashion and Film Festival. We stayed with a wonderful content creator who we had met through Twitter and shot an interview with a production company we had also just been in contact through Twitter.
The ability to connect with artists from around the world has been exciting and also, I think, essential as you create pretty much on your own.
I’m fortunate enough to have a producing partner, but our water cooler moments happen via social media and that’s both inspiring and also integral to grow and see what else is out there.
My advice to anyone entering acting is to spend some time really asking themselves what they want to do.
At the Ecole Jacques Le Coq, they were big on driving home that you’re in charge of your own creative journey.
Create your own work.
Acting can be very disempowering as you wait to be allowed essentially to do your art. That can be difficult mentally to handle, so I would say be clear about what you want to do and make your own work.
It’s empowering, it will open doors and you regain control of your career and essentially of your life.
I would say day-to-day career building is working on relationships. Building and maintaining them.
Everything that has happened in LA is thanks to relationships.
My producing partner Holly and I met through Women in Film and first set up a weekly goal group together which developed into a working relationship.
My lawyer in LA is also a friend from Women in Film, who has come out to see my stand up and supported my work for years and now represents me.
In a profession that can be notoriously fickle and self-serving, it has been integral to build up true relationships built on trust, which makes for a more stable working relationship, in my opinion.
It takes effort to keep in touch, but I am fastidious about it! I send thank you cards to people I’ve heard talk in workshops. I keep a spreadsheet of who I meet and where and try to keep regularly in touch.
It’s important to nurture a relationship and offer yourself in service to people before you need to ask them for something.
I voluntarily taught a monthly acting workshop at Women In Film for years, as I believed it was important to create a supportive workshop environment, essentially a community for actors.
I think it’s important to be generous and offer your services to your profession before you ask of it.
Features & Toast
When heartbroken mime turned web cooking show host, Tallulah Grace, has an on-air meltdown, inadvertently saving the life of a viewer, she develops a delusional messiah complex which no lack of ratings, threats of cancellation or serious doubts from her macho Argentinean cameraman Diego can dampen.
Screwball comedy Feathers and Toast is a show within a show featuring desperate 30 something Tallulah Grace, who presents herself as an inspirational chef but struggles to pull off anything more ambitious than a scrambled eggs.
As soon as her cooking demo ends and “that’s a wrap” is called Tallulah turns to Diego for moral support and advice on her lost love in France while railing against producer Holster and her attempts to boost ratings by booking a motley crew of special guests.
What I have created and produced so far is 2 seasons of the show, a very condensed version of what the half an hour show will ultimately be.
It's what I could afford to produce on my own, so it basically serves as a mini version of what I would like to do with the half hour.
It took me 5 months of character development on Tallulah, finding my inner clown essentially.
I developed the character by filming, writing, collecting photographs, costumes, and basically building a character from the inside out.
Gradually, I started talking to Holly about the character and filmed and sent some improvisations to 3 directors I had worked with and asked for notes.
I wanted to create a character that could sustain 7 seasons of TV, so I wanted someone of depth; who teeters on the brink of tragedy within her comedy.
We worked with a brilliant director, Barbara Stepansky, in the first season, who suggested that we have another character off camera who interacts with Tallulah.
That was a major turning point as the character Diego (played by the actual cameraman Diego –Holly’s husband who is a Director of Photography) talks to Tallulah.
Their banter became one of the favorite parts of the show and so for season 2 we added more characters and more 'behind the scenes.'
We have been in the official selection of Sunscreen Film Festival, Hollyweb Festival, Digital Hollywood, and I have been nominated as Best Comedy Actress ISA Awards. We received an honorable mention from Women in Fashion and Film Festival.
I also perform live as my character Tallulah Grace with Cabaret Versatile in their residency at Riviera 31, Sofitel Hotel, Beverly Hills. I host the show, mime, sing in French and even make a ham sandwich on stage!
Holly and I are working on the 4th draft of the half hour show and will begin pitching in the New Year.
The difficulties, in this career, are realizing that there are ups and downs, and that it’s not a linear trajectory as other professions might be.
I worked so hard at getting work right out of drama school and began to ascend the career path and had a couple of years of almost constant theater, TV, and film work.
Then all my film and TV work was delayed in coming out, which was super frustrating and totally out of my control.
Despite older, more experienced actors, telling me that that was simply par for the course, it was hard to handle as in this profession you can go from being very busy, with a lot going on, to nothing at all happening in the blink of an eye and that’s challenging to manage. On all levels, financially and emotionally.
I went back into theater for a few years before moving to LA and getting involved in stand up comedy, that ultimately led to creating Feathers and Toast.
What has become integral to remaining balanced is yoga and having a more integrated, holistic, idea of life and releasing a maniacal grip on the outcome!
I love my show because I am loving each part of the process, it's satisfying, exciting and built on what I believe in.
I use social media mainly for my show and it has been essential in finding and developing an audience.
Favorite Memories in Entertainment
Working on the feature film O Jerusalem. The first day I was on set, on a beautiful location on the Greek Island of Rhodes, Ian Holm playing Ben Gurion gave a rousing speech and watching him work was incredible and so inspiring.
Performing a play, Low Life, to sold out audiences in the theater festival at Bogota, Colombia.
My first ever stand up comedy show that was exhilarating and terrifying in a way I had never before experienced.
Shooting season 2, 8 episodes, of Feathers and Toast in 1 day with 4 other actors and a cat. Basically we shot an episode every 45 minutes, the structure of each episode was written but the dialogue was all improvised.
Performing as Tallulah with Cabaret Versatile and singing a solo in French when my whole life I had been told I couldn’t sing! I had spent months working on the performance and to pull it off was incredible and a huge personal achievement!
What is something about your career that people might not know?
I think sometimes people can look at the shots on the red carpet and assume its all glamour, but that’s about 1% if that, of the profession.
The rest is non- stop work.
Whether its writing, auditioning, promoting through social media, working out the next steps, juggling other freelance work to pay the bills, and keeping yourself mentally strong, as there are no guarantees in this business.
There are so many balls in the air it can be challenging keeping them all in the air. I don’t think people understand how much work goes into even shooting and putting up a simple YouTube vlog….adding the CC, making the artwork (the thumbnail) etc., and then the time you spend promoting the video…its endless!
You have to be completely passionate about what you do as it consumes so much of your time and perhaps not everybody realizes that unless they’re in the profession.
Current Career Goals
My focus is on selling the 30min version of the show and working on it next year.
If You Had Only Known
I wish I had known how important it is to work on yourself and to keep yourself grounded, as you can feel so much of the time as though you are on shifting sands in this profession.
You have to find your own inner peace, balance and satisfaction instead of relying on the work to deliver that for you.
I have a monthly, weekly and daily planner that I do use but also have to allow for some flexibility as things change daily.
I may suddenly have an audition or TV writing/VO work. Events suddenly crop up.
Like today for example, I have dinner plans but this morning got an invite to a happy hour with a new production company looking for female comics to work with, so of course I have to go!
Which has now eaten into my schedule, but I think meeting people is so important when I get the chance I always try to go.
I had a classical training, BA in Acting, a masters at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Le Coq.
I’ve been fortunate to have had several wonderful mentors: My first was Mr. Bett who was my drama teacher during my teenage years. He was very encouraging.
My acting teacher at The Royal Scottish Conservatoire, Joyce Deans, who also encouraged me to go to Paris and study at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Le Coq, which fundamentally changed my view on acting and has been integral in my career.
Des Hamilton, a casting director who believed in my from the beginning of my career, even paying for my plane ticket to fly back to Glasgow from Paris for a call back for a movie he was casting when I was totally broke.
He has always given me brilliant advice across a wide spectrum of areas; from how to dress for auditions, how to act on camera and business advice in terms of agents and navigating this profession.
Murilo Pasta, one of the first directors I ever worked with, on a commercial in France, who consequently became one of my best friends and always reassured me with his words of “Don’t Panic!” whenever I would descend into anxiety over the bumps in the road.
We have shot and work-shopped many short and feature films together and he has been a lynchpin in this profession.
Gideon Lockspeiser, my dear friend from Paramount, who first talked to me about creating my own show and who simply said “I just want to see you succeed,” which has sustained me throughout this process of Feathers and Toast.
Feathers and Toast.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Surround yourself with a community. Give before you ask. Keep your eye on the ball.
Let go of the end result and keep smiling and never, ever, panic!