At one point or another, just about all of us dream about being a movie or television star. Country Day alumna Danielle Gross `07 has made that dream a reality. Danielle recently completed a small recurring role on HBO’s Perry Mason and is a recurring guest star on the second season of Heels, an original series on STARZ. We recently caught up with Danielle to find out more about her Hollywood experience and how her time at Country Day led her down her career path.
Tell us about how you got your start in acting.
As a film and TV production major at New York University, they basically section you into small groups, hand you equipment, and send you off into the unknown. I remember one day I was in this professor’s class, we were watching my classmate’s project, which I had acted in, and he said, “Danielle, you are very good. You should keep doing this.” His confidence in me reminded me of my days at Country Day, where I had such special relationships with teachers. All it takes is one teacher saying, “I see that you’re good at this.”
My first professional job was in a short film opposite this big New York comedian, Chris Gethard. The script was maybe nine pages long, but the film ended up being on the front page of the website Funny or Die, which was a big deal. So that became my first demo reel that I sent around to people and then a month after graduation I moved to Los Angeles and hustled. I had some success in commercials and then in the last five years, I finally broke through into the theatrical side.
What is it like to work on these big productions like Perry Mason and Heels, which have some big stars as part of their cast?
When I first started getting into commercials, a few of them were opposite big actors and I remember feeling major impostor syndrome and thinking, “Do I belong here?”. But now I really feel like I have worked my way up and paid my dues; the small victories over the years have led to a growing comfort in working with big stars. I finally feel like I am at a place where I feel like I belong and I'm comfortable improvising with anyone on the call sheet, but that has taken time.
Was there a moment where you thought, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life?”?
So, the theater director at Country Day when I was there was Thom McLaughlin and I like to say that he is the reason that I’m an actor. I had just started at a new school and had not really done a lot of theater before, but he saw something in me that I had not yet. Every time a new show came around, he would ask, “You’re going to audition, right?”. I think his encouragement over the years is what led me to believe that I could be a professional actor.
What was your favorite movie, TV show, or play when you were growing up?
I just rewatched the movie Twister the other day. I was so obsessed with that movie growing up; I would watch it, rewind it, and watch it again. I loved Helen Hunt’s character because she is one of the boys; she is out chasing tornadoes. I always felt inspired by her fearlessness…and it’s also just an excellent movie.
What’s the most challenging part about being an actor?
The downtime between jobs and the self-doubt that comes with that. Certainly, everybody loves to talk about the rejections, but generally, it is the feeling of “Am I enough? Am I talented enough? Am I smart enough?”. But I have worked hard to have the experience to feel like I belong, and I am deserving.
What is the most rewarding part of your career?
Being an actor is very personal work. Being vulnerable in front of a lot of people did not come naturally to me and I feel like being an actor has made me a better, more well-rounded person. It has helped me get in touch with who I am and be more willing to connect with people.
Were there any lessons you learned at Country Day that helped you get to where you are now?
The value of community and leaning on that community in tough times, because what is a film and TV set if not a community of like-minded people? Also, my work ethic. I try to be the most prepared person and have a great attitude. Those are all things that Country Day really drilled into me. One of my favorite things about Country Day was how much the teachers spoke to us kids as though we were adults, and I felt like the mutual respect that was shown to me there as a student made me want to act like an adult. I have certainly found myself doing that at work as well – you treat the executive producer the same way you treat the production assistant; you treat everybody with respect.
What advice do you have for any current Country Day student who is thinking about pursuing a career in acting?
I don’t think you need to major in acting to pursue acting. Some of the best acting classes I took were standalone classes I took when I moved to Los Angeles. My advice is to explore all avenues in regard to acting. Being a good actor is being somebody who has an interesting life, who is well-rounded, who has experienced heartbreak, who has traveled the world. Allow yourself time to experience the highs and lows.
Do you have any final thoughts about your time at Country Day?
Not everybody gets the opportunity to talk about their high school experience in such a positive way, but I feel so lucky and grateful I got to go to Country Day. I feel like I’m part of the press team whenever I talk about it!