Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Gabriella Surodjawan Is Helping To Change Our World
Advocating for yourself! — While it’s very important to remain professional, being able to speak up and advocate for yourself is extremely important. It’s important to speak up for yourself on and off set.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriella Surodjawan.
Meet Gabriella Surodjawan, a talented young actress best known for her starring roles in Disney’s Star Girl, Amazon Prime’s “Primo” and as “Stacy” on the massive Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.” Gabriella is taking the industry by storm as one of the most highly sought after young celebrities in Hollywood. Beyond her on-screen charisma, Gabriella is a trailblazer, bravely challenging stereotypes and championing a more authentic and nuanced representation of Black women in entertainment.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
When I was young, the term “Jack of all trades, master of none” was a perfect description of me. My parents enrolled me in numerous things to try to help me find my passion. The list was long…ballet, chess, gymnastics, guitar, Spanish, basketball and lacrosse to name a few. Unfortunately, nothing stuck and eventually I would quit and move on to the next thing. Being average became my norm…always good enough but nothing ever felt “right”–until fourth grade and Missoula.
Missoula was a theater company that would travel from town-to-town inviting students to audition, rehearse and perform in a play at their school. The play they were putting on was “Little Red Riding Hood.” I decided to audition and learned that it would entail singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Performing in front of my classmates gave me a lot of anxiety but I was excited! So…I memorized my lines and practiced my song. I totally nailed it! I can’t image a more prestigious role than the one I had received: Chef #2. Until this day, no one can tell me that this role wasn’t a lead role. I practiced my lines over and over again. I played with the delivery of the lines and tried to embrace my character.
Performance night arrived and I was excited! I, Chef #2, got her first taste of her inevitable passion: performing arts. I blossomed that night–leaving behind the shy girl who was always unsure of herself. While others seemed to experience different variations of stage fright or nervousness…I flourished.
My road to becoming a theater kid had ignited. Chef #2 was followed by bumble bee #8 where I was the tallest kid in the ensemble, but I buzzed my big heart out. Next came my breakout role. A local theater company had auditions for Cinderella Jr. After leaving the audition I remember telling my mom I believed I had gotten the lead role. I was fully confident in my acting abilities, but my mom wasn’t so sure. Maybe it was a lack of confidence in me or her natural sense of protectiveness, but she was preparing me for the chance of being disappointed. I rolled my eyes and shrugged it off because I knew I had gotten the lead–and later that day I found out I was right. Although I was excited for this newfound fame, it had its price. I went from buzzing for 2 hours to having over 200 lines and 6 songs to memorize.
In the years to follow, I played Ariel in Little Mermaid, the Zebra in Madagascar, Dana from Camp Rock, and Julia from Two Gentlemen of Verona, among many others. My entire demeanor changed, and I became a much more confident, articulate, and outgoing person. Eventually this was noticed by one of Hollywood’s top talent agents, Carissa Mitchell, who approached me about transitioning from theater to film. I wholeheartedly accepted her offer and began my path to becoming a working actress.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most enticing parts of a movie set for a teenager has to be the “Crafty”. Crafty is a massive trailer of free food that you can just eat anytime you want. I have heard stories of kids whose parents heavily restricted their eating while on set or in general. Well, my parents did not fall into that category. I hit crafty hard. Sodas, ramen, candy, chips…you name it; I ate it. Well, before one scene I ate several blue Airheads. Unfortunately, the scene was a close up pan over each of us. Right before getting called on set, my mom noticed that my entire mouth was totally blue. I had to go to set and I filmed the scene–but swore I saw people cringing at the sight of me. When the film came out, I was the only one that didn’t have a close up in that scene. That day I realized that little things count in this industry…You have to pay attention to the most minute details!
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Be patient and willing to start small. I started with small plays at my elementary school. In between those experiences, I took advantage of any acting classes I could find. This included improv classes, method acting classes and personal singing and dancing lessons. Prior to getting an agent I booked background roles which helped me learn set etiquette, terminology and the culture of the entertainment industry. Essentially you can’t go wrong if you work on YOU!
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
There’s a multitude of individuals that have impacted my life. The support I have received and continue to receive from my parents, my acting coaches, and my agents have all been factors in my success. I would like to focus on one individual who gave me a chance long before starring in Netflix’s Stranger Things or on Disney’s Stargirl. There’s a small theater company in Albuquerque, NM called Hold the Applause. I met Natalie Shields, Director of Hold the Applause, when I was around 12 years old. After auditioning for Cinderella, I came home and told my mom “I think I got the role of Cinderella!” She didn’t want me to get too excited…honestly we were all just hoping I’d get any role in the play. I look back and am so grateful that Natalie gave this little Black girl a chance at being “Cinderella”! This was the first time I had a large amount of lines, songs, etc. My self-esteem skyrocketed! Cinderella was only the beginning. Over the next few years Natalie cast me in multiple other lead roles. She believed in me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. There will always be a special place in my heart for community theatre.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
I honestly feel like I’m at the very beginning of the journey we call “success.” In my mind, I’ve always had an activist mindset but wasn’t sure where to start. I began volunteering with several organizations that focus on community clean up projects and assisting with the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program. My goal is that as my career continues to blossom, so will my ability to help my community and the people around me.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
My brother is two years older than me. He’s been one of my biggest role models since I was a kid. As I was growing up, my mother was a special education teacher and heavily involved with a program called Unified Sports. Unified Sports promotes social inclusion between student athletes and others with physical and mental disabilities through shared training and competition in sports. My brother volunteered for this program throughout high school and college. I watched him make genuine friendships with individuals who were the exact opposite of what you’d consider to be the “popular crowd” in school. Witnessing the effects of my brother’s empathy on these kids and their families was profound. I personally watched individuals become more empathetic after volunteering with Unified Sports. I feel like empathy is something our culture as a whole is lacking. I’d love to use my platform to promote similar work being done by Unified Sports. Programs like Unified Sports and Big Brothers / Big Sisters are the types of programs I am proud to be involved in!
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
As I thought about this question, I honestly had a hard time finding someone that was directly impacted by me. My father’s friend is a social worker and asked me if I’d be willing to have lunch with one of his cognitively disabled clients. I agreed to meet her (thinking in the back of my head “why does she want to meet me?”). After seeing the smile on her face and feeling the genuine excitement from her, it almost meant more to me than to her. In my head, her impact on me was more profound than my impact on her!
Are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Get involved with your local Unified Sports Programs or volunteer with the Big Brothers /Big Sisters Organizations. There are Unified Sports programs on both the high school and college level throughout the country. If there isn’t a program in your area, there are contacts and resources to help you start a program at your local educational institution.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”.
1. Advocating for yourself! — While it’s very important to remain professional, being able to speak up and advocate for yourself is extremely important. It’s important to speak up for yourself on and off set.
2. Make the Character Yours! Early on, My focus on my auditions was totally wrong! If I didn’t get my lines right verbatim I would start over regardless of how good it was. As I did more auditions and worked with my acting coach, I began to focus more on making the character mine. It’s more important to focus on “becoming” the character than getting lines perfect.
3. Patience! I had no idea how much downtime there is in between scenes. I also had no idea how many times a scene had to be filmed and from numerous angles. Being ready for long breaks on set is key!
4. Beware of crafty! Being on set can really test your willpower if you’re trying to eat healthy.
5. Treat it like a job! — Acting is not like your typical 9–5. Preparation for being on set should start weeks before you even step one foot on set. It requires research and studying. People in the industry remember you and they talk! You will develop a reputation for your preparation or lack thereof! I didn’t realize this until I was working on Disney’s Stargirl. Several of the scenes were dance routines. I had to go to rehearsal for several weeks before filming of the movie. I was working with other actors that had a deep background in dance which required me to practice several hours outside of my rehearsal time. Despite being sore and tired, the extra time made the filming of the scenes go so much smoother.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Growing up with a mother who was a special education teacher and super involved in the Unified Sports program, I watched individuals become more empathetic after volunteering with Unified Sports. I feel like empathy is something our culture as a whole is lacking. I’d love to use my platform to promote the work being done by Unified Sports. This empathy for individuals with disabilities will carry over to all other facets of our culture.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
When I was in high school, I loved to “borrow” one of my brother’s shirts. The quote on the shirt was very short but had deep meaning the more thought about it. “I never lose, I either win or learn” — Nelson Mandela. In sports, auditions, and life in general, I try to keep this quote in my mind. Life can be compared to a roller coaster and I know there will be times that I don’t “win.” If I can find something that I’ve learned from a particular situation, that experience helps me grow.
We are grateful that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
In my first semester of college, one of my assignments was to read a book called “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. This book really started my passion for African American literature. I know that she has long passed but I’d love to have a discussion with Mrs. Hurston about her experiences as an African-American woman living in the pre-civil rights era. Dubbed “The Queen of the Harlem Renaissance” she was artistic, intelligent and proud–and I adore her quote:
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Gabriella Surodjawan Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.