By Esha Bargate
Indian American actress and singer Sheila Houlahan uses her platform to spread awareness on advocacy in mental health and the AAPI community. In the Q&A interview that follows, we talk to the Seattle native about her passion for acting, her advocacy and how she carries it into the roles she chooses such as her recent supporting role in the Denzel Washington film The Little Things.
Share your story with our readers. When did your passion for acting and singing change into a profession?
Oh, my goodness, where do I even begin? I’ve been singing and acting and performing since I was a baby, but I really didn’t start doing any of it professionally until adulthood. I always approach any endeavor with a “curious explorer” mindset and didn’t commit to this career as a profession until I was making enough money that it became hard to ignore my new reality.
Truthfully, it was just a hobby at first. I remember taking an on-camera acting class in New York while living with one of my best friends; we took it simply because we both love learning and wanted to try out something that initially seemed so bizarre to the both of us. Little did I know that I’d fall in love with screen acting and would eventually make it my vocation after years of doing student films and passion projects. I feel so lucky each day that I wake up and remember that I got to turn my hobby, my passion, my secret dream, into a career!
You are a singer, actor, performer, and educator for mental illness. Would you share the vital keys for mental health? How do you use your platform to educate your audience or people on mental illness?
I think the “keys” to mental health are that we already have the tools we need to help every single person on the planet who is in crisis. And yet, we choose not to. That’s what infuriates me most as an advocate for mental health care reform and as a survivor of prolonged mental health crisis’ myself: we have the systems and tools to make this better and yet we choose not to.
If we adopted the current urgent care system and created a sister system that focused exclusively on folks in crisis, we could help countless people. It would have a ripple effect towards other events we see too often in the news, such as school shootings; if people could have access to emergency care when they need it, if someone out there was able to take their pain seriously and help them find relief in a non-violent way, just imagine what the world could look like.
I mainly use my platform to illustrate the above, share services for affordable and accessible care that folks may not know exist, and to share my personal struggles and journey. I think part of the game is just sharing personal stories so that we can end the stigma. I’m comfortable sharing that I’ve contemplated taking my own life before, even though that information is disturbing to my loved ones. Why? Because maybe there’s someone out there who feels the same way in this present moment, who will read my story and realize they aren’t alone and that things will get better, that this too shall pass.
You played a supporting role in the Warner Bros. feature film “The Little Things” opposite Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto. All of your scenes were with Mr. Washington. Tell us about your role. How did you manage to maintain confidence in your scenes with Mr. Washington?
I played Paige Callahan, one of the women Deke (Denzel Washington’s character) couldn’t save. She essentially is a trauma ghost or an apparition of his guilt, and the role just spoke to me. John Lee is such a compelling writer and storyteller, the words practically sung off the page and all I felt I had to do was let them breathe. Denzel is the sweetest, most humble, and spiritual man. There was no ego on that set. Everyone was in such a pure spirit of collaboration; I truly wasn’t afraid. I just wanted to show up and give voice to Paige’s story as well as space for Denzel to tell Deke’s. Those are my favorite kinds of sets; the kind where everyone upholds the story first and foremost, and all choices are in service of honoring that story.
You’ve taken part in so many projects. Which one was close to your personality?
I work to bring myself into every project I take on, truthfully. One of the reasons I love acting is that it is a way to discover universality in the human experience. A character might seem completely different from myself on the surface, such as an evil villain, but on some level, we have shared qualities. On some level, we are the same. Working to find that humanity is the detective-work that makes acting so exciting. Of course, every character has their own story that deserves to be honored and fleshed out as its own arc, but I try to connect with every character I play, no matter how ditzy, or monstrous, or cold, or really any other quality that I perceive to be different from myself. If I can connect to their story, then I know the audience can as well.
Please share your upcoming projects with us.
Right now, I’m producing a hybrid feature film project, half pre-filmed and half live theatre, for Twitch. It will exist solely on Twitch and is an adaptation of Marsha Norman’s award-winning play “Night, Mother.” The story centers around suicide, isolation, and concentric circles of grief.
My team and I have reset the play to exist as a zoom call during the pandemic; indeed, Zoom is practically one of the main characters of the story. As the mental health crisis caused by over a year of lock down looms in our collective consciousness, I want to start having candid conversations about mental health and the need for improved mental health care access and affordability for all.
I’m playing Jesse, and celebrity voice-over actress and singer extraordinaire Ellen McLain is playing Thelma/Mama. John Lowrie, Ellen’s husband, is set to direct, with Academy Award-nominated Trevor Roach taking the helm for cinematography. The living legend himself, Eli Reed, is doing stills photography for the production. We have many more team members we are slowly accruing because people recognize how important this conversation is. I feel lucky to be a facilitator for said conversation and to breathe life into this particular tale that is so close to home. The show will air late summer/early fall 2021, so follow my Instagram for updates; this is one you won’t want to miss!