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Juror in the Spotlight: Lisa Roumain

Lisa Roumain is a professional actress based in Los Angeles. After landing her first role on "Jersey Girl", Lisa went on to appear in independent films like "Go For It!" and in 2007, she began an incredible 2 year journey on a top secret, unnamed film project which became the experience of a lifetime; James Cameron's "Avatar". Lisa was part of the exclusive, Performance Capture Troupe, using her versatility to play multiple characters daily and becoming a part of movie making history on this ground-breaking film.

She recently appeared in "Dating Daisy", "Shadow of the Monarch", TV series "Split", as well as in tens of commercials for famous brands like Nissan, Disney & Mercedes-Benz.

In 2016, Lisa won Best Actress award at the Los Angeles Film Awards, for her role in "Hurricane", and later became a festival juror at LAFA, Festigious, Actors Awards and Top Shorts.

In the following interview, Lisa takes us behind the scenes of her recent projects, and shares exciting moments, challenges and what she would say to women in the film industry and to her younger self.

Lisa Roumain (Photo by Kate Romero)

You were born in Puerto Rico, with Italian, Haitian and Scottish roots. Pretty cool background! Was anyone in your family in the entertainment industry?

Yes, I've got quite a lot going on in my background, but most of us do at this point, which is the way it should be! As far as the entertainment industry goes, I believe I'm the first who went that route, but I think I've started something and I won't be the last!

With Reinaldo Zavarce in CARTEL (Photo by Rob Witt)

Did you always know you wanted to be an actress? Was your family supportive of this decision, or not?

I definitely remember being very young, probably about 7, and seeing a play at my mother's school, and being completely mesmerized by it. My favorite game as a child was to put on shows and re-enact scenes with my siblings. One time, my Dad had some friends over to watch a boxing match on TV, and my siblings and I stormed into the living room, turned off the TV, and broke into a scene from the musical "ANNIE." You can imagine how that went over. I also remember crying in my room after I saw E.T., I was distraught because I was so upset that I couldn't be in that movie. It was all so magical to me. So, yes, I always wanted to be an Actress, but I think that I believed it was an unattainable dream. I lived in Florida, I didn't know anyone in the arts, and I ended up graduating college with a Design degree. I'm sure that my family was quite distressed when I quit my Interior Design job after 2 years to pursue Acting. I certainly don't think that they liked the idea, at all, but they were kind. Maybe they thought I would eventually tire of the struggle, but I am stubborn and absolutely fell in love with the work as well as the journey. They saw that, and they have been incredibly supportive, proud parents. Recently, my Dad called me up, and he was elated because he had googled me and he said "I searched you on the computer, and I can't believe how many projects you've done! I had no idea!" It was hilarious, I said "Dad, what the hell do you think I've been doing all these years?"

As "Elisa Montoya" in RUSH HOUR

Tell us about the experience for the unnamed film project that you started a few years ago… AVATAR with director James Cameron. What were the auditions like? Did you have any idea what the audition was for? When did they reveal the movie's title?

Well, Avatar was definitely a stroke of incredible luck and an experience of incredible growth and beauty. A good friend of mine was on the Production team, and very early on they were looking for actors to come in and do prelim blocking for scenes, in the virtual Pandora. I knew that she was working on a top secret project, and that they were looking for tall actors that could move well. I will always be insanely grateful to her for getting me that appointment, even though I was terrified and tried to think of every excuse not to go to the audition. The reason being, that I had no idea what they would ask of me, I was told that I would wear a mocap suit and be given a sort of obstacle course, where I would need to move in a feline manner. That was it. That audition got me in the door, and weeks turned to months & I ended up becoming part of the main performance capture troupe. I was allowed to read the script about a month in, and my jaw just dropped. Sometimes you have to force yourself to just jump, to move through fear and insecurity to break through to incredible opportunities. Getting through the fear of the unknown at that first audition was key, because you have to be prepared to not know, ever. Even when you are given a script, you have to breathe, then throw yourself in fully to whatever comes.

Shooting AVATAR (Photo by Mark Fellman)

The role you landed was quite challenging- you were part of the exclusive Performance Capture Troupe- therefore you had to play multiple characters daily… very special and versatile. Was this the first time you changed roles on set like this? What was this experience like?

It was definitely a challenge. Firstly, I was on a James Cameron set, which immediately carried a "you better be on your A-game at all times" for everyone, and rightly so. This was the big time, and I truly struggled with the feeling of "I don't belong here, everyone else is incredibly talented and I just squeaked in somehow." It actually took me years to understand that no matter how I got there, that I had to earn my place every day, and that there was a reason that I was there. Now, every time that I am on set, if insecurity creeps in, I tell myself that I was meant to be there, for whatever reason, it was mine to experience.

Having to change characters and create this alien world, was such a gift, because our imagination had to be endless, and we had to adapt to everything. It was truly like children playing. This 2 x 4, is a breathtaking bio-luminescent tree with sprawling limbs. This tennis ball on a stick is the scariest f-ing creature you have ever seen and it's mouth is dripping with saliva. How amazing is that? Isn't that what actors sign up for? It was a dream!

As far as the shoot, it...moved...S L O W L Y. There were A LOT of moving parts & never before used technology. Each scene was created in layers, and so 1 scene could take days. It was a marvel to create Pandora in a gray warehouse, and there was so much camaraderie and love that happened there. It felt intimate, and spiritual many times, to become these alien beings, to understand what we were doing in the story.

With Jon Landau, Exec. Prod. of AVATAR

Avatar… certainly a high profile production… It must have been stressful. How do you deal with the pressure/stress of sets like that? What did you do to prepare?

It is definitely daunting to enter such a high profile project, you are keenly aware of the stakes for everyone. This was certainly the biggest profile project I had ever been on, and I was still pretty green at the time, so it was a huge learning experience, and i had a few moments that I cringe at. If you get the insane fortune & privilege of getting invited to be on Jim Cameron's set, firstly, be on your A+++ game. Secondly, if you don't understand something, ask questions, learn everything you can so that you can truly be a part of a team. Thirdly, be grateful, and enjoy the journey, every second. Also, no matter how big or small the set, it's mostly the people on cast and crew that get you through. I made some beautiful friendships on AVATAR, and I got to watch and learn from one of the greatest Directors of all time. As far as preparation, I'm not sure how I could have prepared for that particular project, it was an exercise in showing up every day with an open heart, a willingness to try everything, and trusting that what I had in me was enough.

Lisa Roumain - Dramatic Reel

Did you work with James Cameron directly? if so, what was it like? Any special moments you’d like to share with us?

Absolutely, every day. The motion capture portion of the film was done with a much smaller crew than the live action, so it was an intimate set. He is a marvel to watch and work with, as he is THE most brilliant man. The worst thing you can think of is to have your moment with him, and to not deliver, trust me, I had a couple of those and I still die inside. I also saw such kindness and humanity in him, and he loved to laugh. We had a few comediennes on our troupe cast, the amazing Julene Renee and Debra Wilson, who could bring him to his knees with laughter. He really loves Actors, & truly respects the work . There was great collaboration that I saw between him and Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, and the rest of the cast. Plus, he's been writing bad-ass female characters before anyone was told they better, so clearly, he just totally gets it. I hold him very dear to my heart, we all got to go on a profound journey with him on AVATAR. So did the world.

Still from King Eternal, with David Jay, Joseph Bottoms, Jeffrey Decker (Photo by Michael Helenek)

Are there any directors who you would particularly love to work with one day?

There is quite a list, but the first to come to mind are Guillermo Del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth is one of my favorite films, his imagination is a wonder. What Barry Jenkins did with MOONLIGHT practically made me stop breathing, it was so beautiful. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu...storytelling genius, every time. Karyn Kusama's work on INVITATION just obsessed me. Catherine Hardwicke's work crushes me entirely, and she seems like an amazing human. TV Directors Stephen Gyllenhaal & Nicole Kassell are at the top of my list as well, their work on shows like RECTIFY & THE KILLING is incredibly brilliant.

As "Eva Alduars" in HURRICANE (Photo by Sam Zheng)

For your brilliant performance on the dark comedy Hurricane, you won Best Actress at Los Angeles Film Awards last year. You also recently won an Excellence award in Producing at Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema for the same film. Congratulations on that! Can you tell us a bit about the project… at what point did Christiano Dias bring you on board as a producer? What was is like to produce, production-design and act on the same project?

Thank you so very much, I am so proud of what our team did on this film, and humbled at the attention that we all received. Christiano and I had worked together on 2 projects previously, and we had such an amazing time working together and developed a wonderful friendship. Chris is a dream Director that will be on another Actor's "Who would you like to work with" list one day, and I knew that the first time I met with him. His creativity is a rare gift. He was working on the beginnings of an idea for HURRICANE, and sent over a few pages that included the monologue from "Eva," the character I was to play. It was arresting & so unique, and I would work on anything with him anyways, so I was like "more please!" He is very collaborative, and was so open to ideas, and it evolved quickly into me taking a bigger role. I was hungry to try my hand behind the camera, as I'm a worker and always struggle with just being an Actor. It's weird to sit on a set and wait to do a scene while people are sweating and hustling around you. Getting the chance to get my feet wet on this was game-changing, and I felt so much more connected to the process. I have a degree in Interior Design, & have done lots of house renovation work, so it was like going back to my roots as the Production Designer, but having a new challenge at the same time. That was amazing. I also did the costumes, and I'm thinking that I'll leave that to the pros next time. I never want to go into a costume warehouse again, I felt like "Where's Waldo!" I had done so much work behind the scenes, that when it was time to become "Eva," I had a moment of "Oh Crap, did I even practice my lines today? Am I ready for this? Do I know her enough?" But thankfully, I had the most incredible acting partners, Corey Page & David Jay, who made me quickly calm down and transported me there. It was one of the best work experiences of my life.

With Corey Page & David Jay on HURRICANE (Photo by Sam Zhang)

What were some of the challenges in bringing this project to life (1950’s film - must be tricky)?

There was lots of research, which was also very interesting and had lots of parallels to what was currently happening, so it was fascinating. Location was challenging, we had a minuscule budget. We were building an addition to my house at the time, and had raw walls, so we converted that one room to our location, which gave us interesting parameters to work with, as it was a modern glass room. Challenges are the greatest way to feed creativity.

Over the years, you appeared in many commercials for famous brands like Nissan, Disney & Mercedes-Benz, and you also modeled for Coca-Cola, Verizon, Wells Fargo and such. Do you find the commercial world to be very different than the narrative film world? At the end of the day, I assume you give your best performance anyway. But.. is there anything you do differently, or asked to do differently?

Commercials are a huge part of my career, and it seriously is like winning the lottery every time you book. They have literally auditioned hundreds of actors, and then a Director, Ad Agency, and a team of Clients have all decided that you've got the job. Sometimes, you know it's because you truly nailed the scene, and sometimes it seems completely arbitrary, that perhaps you just wore the right color shirt to the audition. It's crazy. What is inherently different about commercials, is that you are pretty much just you, you're not typically creating a character, you are hired because you innately represent what they need to sell the product. Auditioning and working in commercials is an incredible way to stay fresh, in the moment, and on your toes, as there is a huge amount of improvisation. You have to walk in an audition room and be confident in who you are, not try to be anything else but that, and make quick, strong choices about what you want in a scene. Then hope you win the lotto.

Still from STRAYED

Your career is very successful, you’re very busy… yet you were able to find time for maybe the most important role of your life- being a wife and a mother of two artistic daughters. On sets, you performed as a mom before. Did this prepare you for the real deal?

Well, my family is the core of everything, my biggest inspiration and the place that so much is drawn from. Being a mother, and loving my Husband, have opened up wells of insight, compassion, and understanding in me that are instrumental in my work. They are also a refuge from what you're asked to do emotionally at work. Both work and family fuel each other in different ways. Every day is a juggling act for all parents, no matter what they do. Both my Husband, Greg, and I have creative careers, but we also have really strong work ethic, which is everything. You have to show up for what you love, every day. I feel proud of the fact that my daughters see an example of parents who love their work, and I see them throwing themselves into the things that they are passionate about and it's incredible. Things can be quite chaotic with schedules, but we work it out somehow! My girls have come with me to auditions since they were babies, to them, it's normal that Mom is dressed like a cop one minute, then an Attorney, then changing in the car into a nice dress & heels. It's never dull.

What is your dream character/dream role?

Probably anything that immediately scares me, I want to be pushed. I'm also really drawn to characters like Sarah Linden in THE KILLING. I love 1 hour drama.

As "Judge Macy Collins" in THE POISON OF GRAPEFRUIT

You were recently invited to be the lead judge on the Actors Awards. How was this experience like? Were there any big surprises? What were some of your considerations, when reviewing the finalists?

I've been so honored to be a part of the Actors Awards and Festigious, it's an incredible way to see other indie films, and to get inspired. There is nothing more exciting than discovering an incredible new actor, Director, Cinematographer, etc. Artists who's names you don't know yet, but are out there fighting for their art and breaking through. I've found a couple of Directors that I'm dying to work with through judging. Hopefully they will remember that I chose them for an award if I audition for them one day! LOL!

You recently booked roles on: WESTWORLD, THE CHANGE, and THE POISON OF GRAPEFRUIT. Tell us a bit about your roles in those/ about other projects coming up?

Firstly, I had an intense happy cry when I booked the first episode of Season 2 WESTWORLD, as I am OBSESSED with the show, and the cast is epic. I can't say anything about it, but it was an INSANE ride and I worked with actors that I have incredible admiration for. I'm still pinching myself. Season 2 is on its way soon.

THE CHANGE, Directed by Soma Helmi, is a pitch for a series where I play the lead character, Malena, who thinks she is going through one transformation, but is actually becoming something entirely different. It is super cool, empowering story about bad ass women. Perfect timing.

THE POISON OF GRAPEFRUIT, Directed by Fletcher Crossman is a crime thriller where I play "Judge Macy Collins" a spitfire of a character who thinks she's about to have a "typical" day in court and chaos ensues. The script was top 10 on the Blacklist, and I'm so excited to be a part of it.

At DATING DAISY screening at Dances With Films Festival

If you could talk to younger Lisa Roumain, maybe Lisa before she landed her first role on Jersey Girl - what would you say to her?

I would tell her that it was ok and right to have this dream, that she was worthy and good enough to own it. That telling stories was valid and the most important thing to her, and to not be afraid of her voice. And that perfection is a lie, she just needs to be the best human being she can.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I would say that women, in this industry, and in the rest of the work force, are going though an incredibly painful but beautiful and empowering time. It's a golden opportunity for us all to expand our humanity and get all of the stories we can out there, to see each other as what we truly are, regardless of gender, color, background, & sexual orientation. That none of us should have a target on our back to be exploited, and none of us should be quieted to make others feel bigger. Shout your stories from the rooftops, teach your daughters and sons that we are all equal and that their stories are valid. I am excited to see where things will go now, as we knock down so many walls and show truth.


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