Mary Helen Schmidt’s love of acting began when a director told her to sing the ABCs like she was really excited. Then, like she was really angry.
She was too young – 5 years old – to know what she was doing. She didn’t know what a play was, or what it meant to try out for a part. But her mother had the idea of bringing Schmidt to audition for a role in Cheyenne Little Theatre Players’ “A Christmas Carol,” and she nailed it.
“I don’t think I fully even knew what was going on,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t know what I was trying to get out of this, I just thought it was a fun thing, that we were playing … it actually kind of embodied what I love about theater the most. When you’re in a cast, everybody matters. It’s kind of like a family, but not a community where everyone needs to conform. Everyone is different – everyone is weird – and that’s great.”
The Albin/Cheyenne native was recently nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Short Film at the London International Filmmaker Festival, which will be Feb. 8-15 (in, fittingly, London). Schmidt was nominated for her performance in the multi-award winning short film “She Is Mine,” written, directed, produced and edited by Schmidt’s co-star, Sena Tunali.
Schmidt now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s been a resident since late 2012. But it was her experience growing up in Wyoming that she credits for giving her the drive needed to become a professional performer.
After her first role in that early production of “A Christmas Carol” (they added another Cratchit child character to have her in the cast), Schmidt’s interest in theater only grew. As one of seven children, she had plenty of peers to help her write and produce plays that the family would perform for ticket-buying neighbors in lawn chairs.
When Schmidt got older – she guesses she and her two sisters were around the ages of 9, 11 and 13 – she started learning to sing songs in three-part harmony with two of her oldest siblings. The trio performed a capella at Cheyenne’s Stars of Tomorrow talent show several times, and not long after, they started booking larger gigs and competing regionally. There was no turning back – the performing arts were her passion.
However, Schmidt never once thought she would perform professionally.
“Growing up in Albin, of course being a professional performer of any kind is like a fairy tale,” she said. “It’s not part of real life … When I got into school and became a music major, I decided (because) I had a music scholarship, that’s how I was going to get school paid for, but I didn’t think I could get a job in that.”
Schmidt had a plan. She would go to college, double major, do Teach for America, go to grad school, find a viable job and probably never perform again. But that all changed on a trip to New York City.
She was a music and biology student at Bethel University near Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the time (after studying at Laramie County Community College for three years), and her vocal teacher asked Schmidt to accompany her on a work trip to New York.
“I was like, ‘Yep, I will never perform once I graduate, so this is my last chance to enjoy it,’” she recalled. “I went and saw the industry from the inside in a way that broke the myths I had. I thought that pursuing a career in the arts was something you did if you were only a little irresponsible and a little unrealistic – you have to beat all these odds. Who can do that? … Then I went there and saw that’s not what it is at all, everyone is really different. It’s more about knowing exactly who you are, then working really, really hard. There is room for everyone to make a living.”
After seeing professional performers in action, she realized she could do it, too. So, she didn’t take the spot she was offered in Teach for America after graduation. Instead, she joined a traveling musical theater group. She spent her first post-graduate summer performing all over the U.S., and when she got back to Minnesota, she took a job at a biomedical device company.
She spent her days doing grant writing and article submissions, and at night, she was rehearsing for shows or auditioning for new ones.
Fast-forward a few years to 2012, and Schmidt found herself wanting to do something wild: move to Los Angeles and pursue on-camera work. She loved musical theater, but wasn’t getting roles as frequently as she used to, and she’d already landed some camera roles here and there. It was time. She didn’t really like L.A., but she knew it’s where she had to go.
“Being from Albin and Cheyenne, I didn’t feel like L.A. was my scene,” she said. “I didn’t know how it would feel … but when I actually moved here, I realized I love it. There’s a lot to do here, and it really does fit.”
She landed several commercials and other small roles before stumbling upon an online casting call for “She Is Mine.” The role of the quirky best friend attracted her, and Schmidt didn’t think twice before submitting her reel. The director loved it and didn’t even have her audition – she was hired, and the experience was nothing but positive.
“Things I’d done (previously) were more heavy, so it was a comedy, and I got to be funny and I loved that,” she said. “And I love that it is female-made. I love a girl boss anywhere I can find one! I love that (Tunali) was like, ‘I am going to do this.’ She saved up the money and financed it herself. She’s a real go-getter, and she’s ambitious, and she’s kind, and I love when people are like that, (then) I want to help them do their thing.”
The film has now won so many awards from various film festivals, Schmidt can’t keep track. But she’s grateful to have been part of the work, and it reminds her how far she’s come from those days of running around a stage with her fellow CLTP actors, blissfully unaware that she was learning to perform.
Those experiences made her the artist she is now, and she said growing up in Wyoming also helped her learn to persevere in an industry where rejection is constant.
“Wyoming is a harsh environment. We’re descendants of people with so much tenacity and so much grit, and that’s exactly what’s needed to be successful in this,” she said. “It’s kind of a pioneer thing. There isn’t a set path – going out trying to be an actor is like trying to find your way west. The trail hasn’t really been blazed, everyone’s gone a different route specific to who they are … My voice teacher told me I’d struggled so much, but she never worried about me because I had the most grit of all her students.”