#GIRLTALK with actress Tiffany Rachelle Stewart
The gorgeous and fearless Tiffany Rachelle Stewart is a girl on the go! Tiffany has many projects in the works (an upcoming television series, a Tony award- winning Broadway production, and much more). When she isn't busy acting and choreographing, Tiffany is focusing on inspiring those around her and spreading positivity, kindness, and compassion wherever she goes. She's NEXT!
The elevator pitch
I'd say I'm a professional actress of stage and screen and a choreographer. I'd say I'm an artist who believes deeply in the connective human magic that happens inside of honest storytelling; the magic between the artist and the audience, the artist and her fellow artists, and most importantly the artist and herself. This connectivity bond us to other humans and sometimes breathes life into our capacity for compassion, bravery, and perspective.
I'm an artist who believes that everyone at every level of the industry is equally important and deserving of kindness, attention, and gratitude, and I try to live that way inside and outside of anything having to do with the business. I believe my greatest asset to be knowing (and even reveling in the fact) that I'm a work in progress. I have a stubborn work ethic that hasn't failed me yet, and my grounding is to never forget where I've come from. I suppose I've focused my entire life on Art because, for me, artistic expression gets at something about "why" we live, not just "that" we live. Throughout the ages it's the artists whose names we remember, they who tell us how to do this being-human thing with love and strength and openness. I think I was born with a bottomless infatuation with learning about being fully alive, fully human. (Haha... okay maybe that pitch would take a full minute.)
This industry takes bravery. And confidence. And no matter how many times you hear the word "No", you have to have an unshakable belief in oneself. It's okay to fall down in this biz, even feel a bit bruised and lost by the rejection or persistence required... but I believe you must do the work of getting to know yourself and love yourself to be able to pick yourself back up, again and again, and then continue to fight for your dreams without getting lost in the process. To most know and love yourself, I think you have to be curious about why you don't. To face your fears. I spent some formative time as an adult looking over the things from my past, present, and future that I was afraid of. I really looked at them, the several boogeymen I was keeping "under my bed", and I found the courage to walk each boogeyman out in front of me. And then I fought them or hugged them or did whatever it took for them to be seen, acknowledged, healed, and Let Go.
After many years of living this way, a beautiful and quietly epic thing began to happen in my life: I started to find myself free from much of the self-doubt and fear that limited me, plagued me since I was a girl. And I found myself emboldened to face each day with courage and vigor, both in my work and my womanhood, regardless of if there were any guarantees. Many artists biggest fear is not knowing how or when or if they will succeed. At this point in my life and career I have come to accept and even revel in what Pema Chödrön calls the "fundamental uncertainty of life". This process of growth, while full of growing pains, changed everything for me and I'm thankful.
Tell yourself the truth about the industry you're in, where you are on your journey in that industry, and respond as the CEO of a company would. If you know that you need to study your field more, then study. If you know that you need to have a stronger fitter body for the kind of work you want to do, then get stronger. Basically I'm saying that we can often behave as if someone else is going to bridge the gap between us being mediocre and great. Be your own CEO. Wake up. Smell the coffee. Do the work. Swallow the reality that you only have one life to live, only one time to do this. So seize the day. Challenge yourself. Sweat. Get at the bottom of your limiting beliefs, and go past them. Aren't you worth fighting for? Isn't the life you want worth fighting for? The time is now.
Decide not to live up to anyone else's idea of success. Instead, honestly define what "success" means to you. It can be very hard to stay committed to riding the wave of this industry, with all its ebbs and flows, without having a clear idea of where you're going and why it matters to YOU. Just because the other actors you know want to do TV, doesn't mean that's what actually has to matter to you. And this is in terms of any field of pursuit. Identify what you really want most.
Perhaps success for you means having a healthy body, a healthy mental state, a dog, and teaching position at a university that gives you enough income to travel the world twice a year. Brilliant! Get specific. If Love has to do with you being "successful" in this life, then explore the barriers you may have within you to receiving and giving love. As one of my greatest teachers Wesley Fata once said, "How you do one thing is how you do all things,"
So I'd say to explore honestly what "success" means to you in Life and personhood... and then transfer that level of laser discernment to your career goals. I think that when we really define success for ourselves, we own our own path more. And owning that no one else can walk your path, helps you to know you can't walk anyone else's. And then there is a bit of ease and freedom from constant comparison; the common temptation of humans, especially artists, to look left and right, feeling bad about why our lives or careers don't look like other people's. I really believe that if you've taken ownership of your own dream and your own vision, then you'll also find comfort in standing on your own path. You'll think twice before wanting anyone else's, because you're eager to see what is possible on yours.
Starting out in the world of entertainment can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. How do you stay inspired and motivated to be and do your best ?
Yes! Self care mentally, physically, and emotionally is so important. It's an act of self-love. I meditate fairly regularly. My practice involves simply sitting quietly and focusing on my breath and the feeling of my body breathing; being totally present, and when my mind wanders, gently bringing my focus back to the breath. I'll do this for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes as often as I can.
And even when I get busy, and don't meditate for several days, it is always a practice I can come back to. I've found the app "Insight Timer" to be super helpful! I've even created a beautiful mediation space in my home. I figured how can I expect to create space in my mind and in my life for staying present, if I can't even create this space in my home. So I did--and I decorated it to reflect what peace and beauty feels like for me, and this physical space has made a beautiful difference. I also read books on the poems and sayings of Rumi, as well as anything by Pema Chödron, Brené Brown, Marianne Williamson, and anything else that gives me insight or perspective that could help me live more brave, more relaxed, more honest.
I treat myself to massages when I really want them. I eat well most of the time, but I also let my body enjoy the yummy stuff too. My latest very-Tiffany combination has been a salad followed by a doughnut. And I exercise, typically the kind that zaps me out of my comfort zone. Sweat is a brilliant dopamine rush for the body and soul! Most importantly, I keep myself surrounded by positive insightful people. I have the best friends in the world. And the family members I am close to are nothing but supportive. I've learned that the world is big enough for everyone. If something or someone doesn't feed you and lift you up, let it be. Find the groups of people in this world who give you life and light. I believe that as we are all organic beings, it is important that we stay surrounded by influences that help us to grow. If organic things stop growing, they die. Make choices for life. Stay close to those that are sunshine and water!!
Keeping the faith
My journey as an actor has been a long walk up a beautiful, but tough flight of stairs. Meaning there have been few what-i-call "elevator" moments of success, where I leap effortlessly to some great new height, graced with some huge new level of success without having put in the work. Most actors have to hear the word "No" a great deal, and I'm no exception. (That said, I don't begrudge having taken the stairs. It means the "legs" of my work-ethic, perseverance, and self-esteem are stronger now, and very little can shake that for me.)
Everything I've come to is really because I haven't quit. I'm a Taurus and we are said to be stubborn! I guess my dogged drive has helped me to keep going even when no one was validating me; to make a way even when the way was extremely unclear. One instance of this, that formatively energized the trajectory of my career, was right after I finished my undergraduate training. I left a pretty good BFA acting program, but having had a rather unfortunate time there. I greatly enjoyed my classes but, along with a few other women of color, received little to no production experience while at the school. Actually... let me not sugarcoat it, I was not cast even one time in a production while in my BFA program. I could've taken being passed over for those long four years as a deep blow to my artistic self-confidence, and I did at times, but for whatever reason I decided not to quit.
After all, I felt like an artist in my bones, so how could I let four measly years of rejection take that away from me? Sorting out what my next step would be after I graduated, I went to work in London for the study abroad program I had studied with for a semester while in undergrad. I used my time in London to take more acting classes and see a great deal of life-changing theater, but while I was there I started to feel like I was on a vacation I wasn't supposed to be on. I felt there was something else I was supposed to be doing. I had a few friends at one of the top MFA acting programs, NYU. I began to get very curious about the most highly esteemed training programs the more I heard about them. They sounded extremely hard to get into but, most importantly, like the kind of training that could be really invaluable to an actor. I wanted it. At the time the top three schools I kept hearing about were Juilliard, NYU, and Yale. I was excited about NYU because the several colleagues I knew that were excelling there kept talking about "the greatest acting teacher of our time," Ron Van Lieu. It turned out that Ron would be going over to head the acting program at Yale the following year, so that put Yale and NYU both as my top two dream schools.
I knew I wanted to study with this man. I also knew I was not interested in auditioning for anything except the top programs. And this was for one very clear reason. After the years and years I'd had of not being validated, I felt that I needed to play my whole hand, I needed to go big or go home. I basically wanted a sign from the universe that I should stay on the path to my dreams. an industry moment But I had several obstacles. Living in London at the time, I had no money to fly back to America to audition! I also had no reason to think that these top schools, who only accepted a handful of applicants, (less than ten of whom are women and even fewer of whom are women of color) would accept me when I had literally nothing on my resume after my undergraduate experience.
To tackle the financial part, I could think of only one way I could make this happen. I had one very close friend from high school whose father was a very successful business owner in the Southeast. I sent him a business proposal from London and I asked him if he would invest in me. I told him about my desire to fly back and audition for the best acting programs, and I explained to him that it would cost a few thousand dollars for the flights and the hotels. A week after I sent him the business proposal his wife called me and asked for my account number. They were willing to completely fund my trip back to audition. I then spent several months preparing for those auditions, mentally putting aside the doubt I carried after undergrad. I auditioned. Months passed. And then one day I got a call from the head of NYU offering me a place in their MFA program. A week later I got a call from Ron Van Lieu himself offering me a place at the Yale School of Drama as well. It was an incredible moment; the enormous sign I needed from the universe that I was right to have kept going. I took it as a sign of great things to come and a reminder never to quit in the future no matter how hard it got.
An industry moment
As in every part of life, communication is everything. Ultimately, I'm a big believer in "who cares what people think as long as you are walking through the world with generosity and kindness." However, when it comes to business dealings, I learned early on that ultimately people are just people, and they often have a little guard up--even the people you might be thinking have the power in the room. You can't assume people know your intentions. A lesson on this hit me when I was meeting with potential agencies after my time at Yale. I remember having a meeting with a pretty big agency, wherein I felt that I was warm, I felt that we connected, I asked them lots of earnest questions, and I left the meeting feeling like it all went very well. But my managers at the time called me few days later and told me that the agency did not want to sign me.
I was confused, why not? I was told that the head agent actually felt disconnected by my question asking. I was shocked. Ultimately my manager let me know that basically everybody has their insecurities, and it perhaps rubbed the head agent the wrong way that I wasn't forward-footed about complimenting them and assuring them that I'd heard great things about the agency and was eager to sign with them. All those things were true, I just didn't know I needed to say them. I felt like they were the ones with the power in the room because I wanted them to sign me! So I learned a big lesson from that interaction that you really can't assume anything. You have to let people know, especially in this industry, that you are happy to see them and think very highly of who they are and what they do. I've learned more and more that people need to hear that, and so I now always lead with an awareness of putting people at ease when I first meet them. It's a mature act of generosity, and when it's coming from a genuine place, you can cut through many barriers this way.
Standing strong against bullying
I was bullied quite a bit for a period of time when I was a teenager, and it was such a hard time. I relate to those going through it. What I would say to anyone being bullied is what I wish I could go back and say to my younger self, for I KNOW these things to be absolutely true now. I'd say: You are not any of the negative things anyone says you are.
You are not deserving of any of the despicable ways you've been treated. You are innately worthy and undeniably valuable. That is a fact. You are talented, beautiful, unique, and precious. And one day (and this is also a fact), the people who bully you will unfortunately find that their hate has turned inward and weakened them, whereas you will have become stronger. Nothing good comes to people who try to destroy others. Many years not too long from now you will be living your dreams surrounded by people who love you. And the people who bullied you will be stuck in the same place.
You will then be so strong that you'll actually have compassion for them. Do your best now to speak up about what you're going through and get help if you need it. You are not alone. That we are helpless and alone is a lie we tell ourselves; one that can push us unnecessarily into too-dark places. There are people who love you out there. I am one of them! So get help and remember that only You decide who and what you are. No one else. This too shall pass. You are bound for greatness dear one.
Room for change
Almost all of the artists I've ever worked with are incredible people, whether they've been in the theater or in film and television. Just amazing, stand up, humble, generous people. But I guess if there was one thing I could change it would be for all people to be treated equally with kindness and respect, and for all artists to be compensated financially as they ideally should be when working very hard. There are many actors who work extremely hard and get paid hardly anything.
There are people in every industry who work very hard and get paid hardly anything, and even worse, get et treated as less-than. You can't tell me that it's fair for one human being to receive more respect, more smiles, more money and better health coverage, because he puts on a suit and takes the elevator to the top floor. You can't tell me that he innately deserves those basic dignities over the man who works the same long hours as a janitor for that same building every single day of the year. The custodian deserves just as much respect as the CEO, and he definitely deserves to be able to take care of his family comfortably.
I believe this about the entertainment industry, but also just about the world. I don't think it makes sense that certain people are given so much adoration and income for what they do, but teachers and nurses and waitresses are so often ignored and underpaid. My idea of equality extends past race and sexuality and religion. It has to do with believing that every single person really does deserve every single good thing.
I AM A FEMALE OF STYLE. HEAR ME ROAR!
What do you have to say those who call us Emotional / Sensitive / Weird / Extra/Sarcastic / Difficult / or Moody?:
I'd say that what they call emotional and sensitive, I call being an emotionally mature adult. Emotional bad-ass-ness, if you will. It takes a strong person to feel, and an even stronger person to be able to thoughtfully and bravely communicate their feelings. I'd say what they call weird, I call original. People who embrace being weird know that their uniqueness is an asset, a strength. What can be better than reveling in the details that make you one-of-a-kind. Rare things are the most precious. So anyone who thinks being different is a bad thing, probably finds their own uniqueness a weakness and clearly has some soul searching to do. I will not allow anyone's lack of self-esteem to bring mine down. I'm not desperate to blend, I'm desperate to be my most authentic self. Some people may fear their most authentic selves, I don't. I think she's beautiful and flawed and fantastic. Lastly, I'd say that what they call difficult or moody, I call forward leaning. If I perceive something isn't working in my life or relationships, I'm going to talk about it. If there is a problem that can be solved through honest awake communication, I'm not too scared to raise my hand and begin the discussion. I lean in. It gets shit done.
100 pairs of shoes and only 2 feet! What was the last thing you bought for yourself? How would you describe your style?
The last item I bought for myself was something I ordered off of Etsy--a beautiful dark Padauk wood case for my iPad Air. It's super chic, classic, sustainably sourced by an incredible company called KOVERED, and I got it because it's simple and unquestionably original. My personal style in terms of makeup, accessories, and the way I dress reflects a similar aesthetic. I love classic, elegant, slightly edgy, timeless, feminine styling. I don't like too many patterns or too much makeup. I know Coco Chanel said it famously, but I've always practiced on my own the act of looking in the mirror before I leave and taking one thing off. I always seek to be revealed and highlighted by simplicity, not hidden by over-adornment. I wear alot of black, grey, and white. I love clean lines, and ofen will only let one thing on me stand out... my lip color, a peek of midriff, or perhaps nothing needs to stand out. I'll let myself stand out!
Guilty Pleasure: If your cable package supplied only one channel, which would it be and what would you watch?
Hmmmm.... that's a great question! Maybe HBO for the combination of brilliant television shows and documentaries. I've always had an insatiable appetite for documentaries, as they are a direct window into other people's humanity. I love seeing and learning about how everyone lives. I also love a good binge on a superbly acted series!! The last series I adored was an Australian show called Wentworth. If you haven't seen it yet--run don't walk.
Keep up with Tiffany!