What makes a great actor?
Cathryn Sullivan, one of America’s top acting coaches to children and teens, answers this question in a candid interview. Cathryn, a longtime Dallas resident, was instrumental in the lives of two superstars when they were younger, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
How did you become an acting coach?
I had been a stage actor for 12 years when I moved to film and TV out of curiosity, and also when I realized few actors made it in theater unless they were a teacher. I found someone in town who helped actors to grow. I was tired of being told I was “great” after a scene without any specific feedback that could help me grow as an actor. I needed to make money to afford the classes, so I offered my services to the studio. I began as a receptionist, became the office manager and then the headmaster teacher’s assistant. When he saw I had a knack for it, he asked me to be his partner, and we went on the road teaching seminars. That was 30 years ago. I still get a high from helping to elevate artists and seeing them grow.
Who has been your greatest acting mentor?
So many people have helped me along the way. Laird Mayhew taught me depth of character. Adam Roarke taught me how to understand characters, practically on a set. Mitchell Gossett, at CESD, has helped me raise stars over the years.
You coached Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato when they were younger. How were they special?
All of my students are special, but Selena and Demi were extra special because I taught then in private classes as well as the normal classes. They were both obsessed with learning about acting. Selena had a work ethic I had never seen in a nine-year-old. She never wanted to take a break even after working for two straight hours. Demi always had that fun, sweet smile and was enthusiastic to try new things.
I never work on a student hoping they will be famous. I take each one and try to grow them as an actor. Some grow and bloom into the most beautiful flowers. Some are beautiful flowers with thorns. Some never see their talent, and they don’t know how to recognize opportunities to help them bloom.
“This business takes a lot of grit to make it.”—Cathryn Sullivan, Acting Coach
I’d say that both of these girls had a natural talent, an impeccable work ethic, great appearance and supportive families. But the most important characteristic these two had that set them apart was grit. They struggled and cried about things they wanted. They came out the other side better because of their ability to keep their head up.
Your son, Cody Linley, is an award-winning actor. He played a recurring role in Disney’s TV series, “Hannah Montana,” and has appeared in several major movies. Was he able to separate your role as mom and coach?
People don’t realize all of Cody’s successes. His first feature film was “My Dog Skip” with Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane and Luke Wilson. He was a supporting lead in that film and booked it over 3,500 kids! The callback was done in Mississippi, and we found out the day before the callback that it was happening. It was an eight-hour trip one way. You have to jump through hoops to do this business, and being a child actor’s mom helped me understand another side of it.
Up until then, I understood the actor and acting coach roles. Now, I learned the child actor mom role—which was different. You have to let them take the reins completely. Cody would remind me of that from time to time.
What advice would you give someone interested in acting ?
Go somewhere so you can grow. It’s important to be around those who have a common goal, especially one that takes as much resilience as this business requires. Have patience. This business takes Olympic-size determination. People come to my classes and say, “I’ve been working at this for two years. I can’t do this anymore.” My advice to them is, “Get out then!” Two years is nothing. Olympians are not made in two years. Learn to take criticism, as long as it is for the higher good.
Bob Valleau is a freelance writer living in McKinney, Texas