Becoming True: Meet Actor Emilie Ullerup

By VFS Web Team, on March 6, 2013

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VFS Acting Essentials and Acting for Film & Television graduate Emilie Ullerup, who hails originally from Denmark, has been working steadily since her graduation in 2005. She debuted in Battlestar Galactica and followed that with co-starring roles in Sanctuary and the television adaptation of Douglas Coupland's JPod. Her most recent role is Astrid in CBC's Arctic Air, which earned the largest audience for a premiere of a new CBC drama series in a decade.
We had the opportunity recently to sit down with Emilie here in Vancouver, where she lives with her boyfriend - actor Kyle Cassie - to hear about her time as a student and her eight-year career.
When did you start thinking about becoming an actor? Why did you choose to come to VFS? Did you know about the school before you moved to Vancouver?
Emilie: I learned about VFS kind of by fluke. I had moved to Canada from Denmark and was attending UVic. I was planning on doing a bachelor's degree in theatre. However, one semester in, I realized that I didn't care one bit about all the electives you are forced to take, which have nothing to do with your career path. So I went to a fair of some sort and there was a booth with people from the Victoria film school. That piqued my interest, so I researched what was available in Vancouver, because that was where the industry was really alive. And voilà, VFS! I didn't know much about it, so I definitely took a chance. Best chance ever.
What was your experience like at VFS? What was the hardest thing about it? What was the best thing about it?
Emilie: It was intense. There were times when we spent all night there. It was every day, with no real breaks. I did the full-year program, but I also did [the four-month] Acting Essentials [program] before that - so, I was there for a year and a half. But it was more emotionally exhausting than it was exhausting time-wise…. Because even when you went home, you couldn't get away from all the things that you were processing. It was all-consuming for a year and a half… If you wanted it to be.
The hardest thing about it was also the best thing: I learned how to let go. They helped me figure out when control was needed and when it was important to let go of it. That helped me learn how to manage my interior life, to express it correctly according to the role. Sometimes, I resisted what I was being taught - I questioned certain classes, for example - but once I got out there working, I realized how important it was to be prepared for anything, and VFS really helped me with that.
There's a lot that you have to go through before you can become true. The things that people have to confront in class are often the things they've shied away from their whole lives, and then, all of a sudden, they have no choice, they have to confront it, and they find themselves every day for a whole year in over their head with it, and I think that's super scary for a lot of people.
Was it scary for you?

Emilie: There were some things about it that made it scary, but I didn't really have as much to sort through emotionally as some others did. Some people say that you should have dark experiences to make you a better actor. That was my biggest struggle throughout my study, I was thinking that I had to experience something meaningful enough to make me dark and hurt… and then I realized that it's all relative: just because I haven't actually lived terrible experiences, doesn't mean I can't still find the heart of that experience; I can still find my own truth about it. You know, I like to believe that I don't have to go shoot heroin on the street in order to become a good actor.
Well, that's good.
Emilie(laughing): Yes, thank goodness.
So are you saying that acting is as much about communication as it is about your own interior experience?
Emilie: It's about understanding what goes on between human beings. It's about the things we cannot touch - that we can only feel, really. And I think that, especially with new actors, they forget that it's not all about them. You know, they might say, "I'm listening, I'm feeling, I'm exploring", which is awesome, but when you get on set, it is about so much more than just you. You are a tiny part of a huge machine. And you learn it's good to make it about something other than just you, because it's uninteresting to watch if you're just self-indulgent.
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What is the relationship between what you learned at VFS and what you learned being on set?
Emilie: I read a great quote the other day from an actress who said, "You don't learn to act, you learn how to control your emotions and your feelings". And I think that VFS lines up with that - it doesn't teach you how to "act", it teaches you how and when to use the tools you have. Of course, we're all incomplete. But VFS gives you the capability, if you're willing to go there, of using the different human aspects of yourself.
When you get on set, you learn how to use those tools in the best way, because VFS is a trusting and honest place, which is what it needs to be, since you're all like fresh chicks that have just hatched, new and exposed and vulnerable. You learn how to stay centered while there are a million things happening around you - people in your face, placing wires up your shirt and down your pants - and still be able to say what you have to say and do what you have to do.
At VFS, if you give everything you've got, then you leave there with a very strong sense of yourself, and with confidence. Because your teachers will give you everything that they can, if you are willing to do the work. And I feel that I walked out of there feeling prepared. I felt supported and applauded and challenged the whole time that I was there. And I wouldn't have felt that way going into auditions if it weren't for VFS. I would have been much more insecure and unaware of what this world is all about.
Did you have a preconceived idea about the kind of roles you would be doing or be suited to? Did you think you might be an action hero, for instance?  
Emilie: When you're in school, there are no limits to what you get to play: you play grandma, you play mom, you play a lot of different roles, but then you come out into the real world, and it sees you in a very, very specific way, whether you like it or not. I didn't know how I was going to be seen, I didn't have any expectations, all I knew was I wanted to act. I had no clue about "me". I knew about my emotional and psychological range, but I had no idea how I was going to be cast.
The first thing that I did was for Battlestar Galactica. I played a mother. And at 21, this was a surprise to me for my first role ever. And then I did both Sanctuary and JPod within a couple of months of each other, which were two very different kinds of roles. So, I had no idea how it was going to go. There's been a range between "nice girl" and "killer girl", which is great. I've been very lucky that casting has not seen me in just one particular way. However, I don't think that I'm strong in everything. So I pay attention to what comes up in the way of auditions and work extra hard on the ones that I don't feel strong in.
It's easy to become jaded sometimes by bad material, especially during pilot season when you have seven auditions in one day, and you're like, "this is pushing me to just read off the page". But I can't just phone it in. I have to spend some time on it. I have to know what I'm saying. And then, particularly in LA, they'll be surprised - "you know all your lines!" But I have to do that because the discipline was ingrained in me while at VFS. I think that's the sign of a great school: they set the standard high, so when you go out there, you want to represent that high standard. They give you a strong discipline. And you need it, because when the day comes that you arrive on set and they tell you, "well, we've actually changed the script and you're going to do a full monologue now and it's three pages … are you going to be ready in 10?" — then you are ready to do it.
What was it like when you first graduated? 
Emilie: Bill  [Marchant, Head of Acting for Film & Television] was great, he made a call right away, and I met with Tyman Stewart at Characters. Finding an agent is tough — especially nowadays. I didn't have a work permit at the time, because I'm from Denmark, so Tyman said, "Come back when you have a visa" — which I did, and I've been with him ever since. And it's all because Bill spoke to Tyman and trusted what he had to say about me. Of course, passing my first audition certainly helped — and from then it's just been wonderful.
It's funny, Bill always said, "As an actor, you can never feel like you've landed" — because that's when you get complacent. There's always more to learn and there's always more to do. That really stuck with me. I feel that way in my career. A lot of people coming out of school might look at my resume and say, "That's all I want, to work as an actor".  That's what I said when I first got out there - if I don't have to have a second job, and can just work as an actor, then I'll be happy. Well, that's where I'm at, but now I want more.
A lot more people are taking production into their own hands, rather than waiting around for something to come to them. Luckily my boyfriend is also an actor and we are writing something together now. He has a great creative mind and will make a great director once we're up and running — and me, with my control issues, I will make a great producer! (laughs)
A lot of graduates speak of how, when they run into fellow graduates, there's often a bonding moment over sharing the VFS experience. Does that happen to you?
Emilie: It does happen a lot that I will run into someone in the industry, in whatever role, who is a graduate of VFS. I feel like there are a lot of VFSers out there working right now. There are a couple of us on Arctic Air [Acting grads Adam DiMarco & Tanaya Beatty, as well as Writing for Film & Television grad Derek Thompson], and I just ran into Sara Canning [Acting for Film & Television grad]. A lot of the people I run into were either in classes before me or after me, but there is still that kind of recognition, where you feel like you get each other a bit more. There is always some excitement when we discover one another. That being said, after the recognition and understanding that we all went through something similar together passes, then of course it's all about the quality of the work — it's a level playing field.
I think for students coming out of VFS that humility is the number one important trait to have. Be humble. Graduates of VFS, whether they be actors, directors or whatever, may all see themselves as being above the line, and they have good reason for seeing themselves that way, but no matter how good you see yourself as being, you may discover rather quickly that other people don't necessarily see you that way.
How do you think new graduates can best prepare for that reality?
Emilie: Find your people — that is very important. But before you find your people, you have to learn to keep things close. Don't talk about other people, don't gossip. Don't give your opinion on how well somebody is doing, regardless of whether you think they're amazing or horrible. People's positions and influence shift in the business, and it is very important to keep that mind. Someone you said something bad about could end up in a position of influence over you and your career. So be careful. It's a small world, this business, and everybody knows everybody else, so be humble and be happy to be where you are. And don't give it all away — don't give yourself all away… have your secrets, have your mystique, they like that.
It's important to stay true to your craft and to what you think is a good way of life. And it's also important to fight for your character.
What does it mean to you to fight for your character?
Emilie: Especially on a TV show where you have a longer time for the writers to get to know you, there's a chance for a great collaboration between the actor and the writers and producers. If I think of where Astrid started out on Arctic Air, for instance, and where she is now, that is a good example of that kind of collaboration. This is the first time that I have really felt confident and comfortable enough with my character that I am able to speak on her behalf. Of course, that is reinforced by the support that everyone gives in response to my suggestions or my sense of the character. But I think that kind of feedback is only possible to give when you know the kind of characters you can play, what your strengths are, and how to best bring what you know to your character.
Does Arctic Air represents a bit of a departure for you?
Emilie: Yes, I never thought that I would be the "comedic relief". Although Astrid also has her poignant moments — and in the coming episodes you will see her character grow more. That is a great thing, to have a role that the writers allow to develop a lot, while still staying true to the core of her character. And I feel much more relevance between myself and this character. I don't see myself as the sexy action hero. I never thought of myself that way, until I found myself in a leather outfit that I could hardly breath in. So, this is a really cool role for me. All my other roles were great too, but I truly think that, playing this part now, I feel the happiest I've ever felt. You know, you never know until you're there …. And even then… (laughs)
I realized, doing Arctic Air, thinking about that expression "the grass is always greener", that the grass is really green where you water it. In this work, and in any work, as long as you are waking up happy to go in and face the challenges you have to face, then you're good. I think that's even more important than the "end product" itself. Luckily for me, Arctic Air is great, and it's doing well, but even if it weren't, the experience has been so good, I would be happy with it knowing that.
Do you still use the techniques you were taught at VFS to analyze your characters?
Emilie: Absolutely. I have carried those techniques with me all the way through my career. For instance, I learned from VFS to link everything about a character to my real life. I have to make their situation real for myself. So I do a lot of substitution work, to link to my own emotional life, and work that into my character. If I hadn't gone to VFS, I probably would just base it on what other people do. But because I had a whole year to just explore that and figure it out, it's given me something to always work with.
Would you ever like to teach acting?
Emilie: I don't know if I could. I don't know what it takes. I don't know if I'd be that nice. Maybe that would be good. I have many friends who teach, and I admire them. I've always said that I'd love to come in and do a class. Maybe do a workshop. I think I might have something to offer, especially to young women, which would be the honest truth of my experience. I could perhaps help them navigate through the not so pretty aspects of being in the industry.
Thank you very much Emilie for your time.
Emilie: You're welcome. It's been great talking with you.
You can catch Emilie Ullerup in Arctic Air on CBC on Wednesday nights — check local listings for times.