Interview With Actress Erin Elizabeth Burns, “Cell”

By Ruth on August 2, 2016 in Interview, movie
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Have you ever crossed paths with someone for the first time and somehow just “clicked?” Well, one of my interviewees introduced me to Erin Elizabeth Burns, and initially, I knew nothing about her except that she was in the new Stephen King film. I am so pleased that Erin recently set aside some time to talk with me about her intriguing journey to become an actress, her stimulating work in Cell, and her committed passion for this industry.


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RH: Why did you decide to become an actress?

EB: Oh wow, that’s the best one. When I was in the fifth grade–oh this was before the fifth grade. I was obsessed with The Sound of Music when I was a kid. My parents raised us on all the great classics. Everything from The Three Stooges to musicals and everything like that. And my mom had done musical theater when she was in high school. She came to me one day–there was an ad in the local newspaper. I was raised in a very, very small town in Atchison, Kansas. It’s barely on the map. So my mom came to me and said, “Do you think this is something you might want to do?” And it was an ad for auditions for The Sound of Music at the local community theater. So I auditioned and played one of the little Von Trapp kids. Ever since then…I don’t know if I had a choice in it. Every time I want to quit, I just go, “I don’t know what else I’m good at.” And there you go. I think this is the path God has for me. I don’t have much of a choice.

I hear you on that. The Sound of Music was like my favorite movie when I was growing up. I had seen it so many times, I had it memorized. 

Oh good. We have that in common.

So then did you go on to do any training?

Yes, I immediately started taking private voice lessons ’cause they found out I could sing. Then I did some musical theater and choir in high school. Then in college, I was a music major. Then I took a couple of theater classes and started working professionally in musical theater my junior year, I think. Then after that, I moved to Nashville for about four years. Nashville’s known more for country, blue grass, and Christian music, but actually they’ve got a great theater scene there. So I did some work there for about four years. Then I moved to New York, and that’s when my real classical training came in. I spent a couple years at the Maggie Flanagan Meisner Studio, and Meisner is a technique of acting. So I got real hardcore into that and continued to take voice lessons along the way. That I knew I could do. But there’s a real difference between doing musical theater and singing along the lines in a certain rhythm and making sure all you’re blocking’s correct to doing film and television, which many times the script is very conversational–just like you’d be sittin’ having coffee with a friend. It’s very, very different. And so that type of training totally, totally changed my life. Any actors should train for a couple of years. Don’t just take an eight-week class and call yourself an actor. You won’t have a career. If you want longevity, you have to put in the time and the discipline.

I was a voice major also. 

Oh my goodness, why are we not sisters!? This is insane!

I was actually hoping to be in musical theater when I was younger. It’s not the way it worked out, but I was a music teacher for many years. 

You know, it’s never too late. If you find your bliss and your joy in that, it doesn’t matter if it’s community theater or it’s Broadway. If you just want to express that and use the gifts you’ve been given, it is never too late. That’s the great thing about theater. There’s always a role for somebody in theater.

Well, at this point, I’ve come back to writing. I had negative people in my life whom I let push me away from my gifts, and it’s only been in the past couple years that I have come back to those gifts. 

You know, we all go through stuff for a reason, and now you know to hold onto that.

So from musical theater, how did you end up getting involved in TV and film?

That was kind of a fluke. I took a business class at the studio where I was studying in New York, and they were talking about regional markets and how Portland, Oregon, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Atlanta Georgia had grown exponentially. And I have family about an hour south of Atlanta, and I thought, “Why am I dragging my laundry in three feet of snow to the laundromat and living this hard-knock life here when I could get a car and get my fried chicken and my toilet paper at Walmart at the same time?” Family and a kind of easier lifestyle led me to Atlanta. And then I got an agent and started auditioning really quickly. But I had done one tiny role in a feature when I was in New York, and it ended up going to Cannes Film Festival, which was kind of cool. But I had little to no on-camera experience. In fact, I don’t even use that scene in that particular film on my reel ’cause I think it’s laughable. I think I’m terrible in it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no training. No on-camera training. A couple years later, now I teach and coach film and TV auditions. I’ve got a lot better handle on it now.

As I was looking through your works, I noticed that you had what was probably a very small role in Allegiant. Is that correct?

Yes, most of it got cut. If you’re familiar with the Divergent series, everyone is split up into these different factions. I was part of the Fringe faction. But it was the first Hollywood trilogy I had ever been a part of. Just a huge set. Oh gosh, it was amazing to be a part of! I’ve never seen a set this big in my life. We were wearing used costumes from Water World. Maybe they were trying to recoup some of their money that was lost on the film–I’m not sure.  So I thought that was really interesting. So many awesome experiences on that film, and I met a lot of awesome people, too. I had this beautiful, BEAUTIFUL close-up scene that started this big chase scene where the soldiers come in and start to take all the Fringe kids ’cause I was one of the Fringe parents. Me and actually Dustin {Lewis}–he’s like one of my best friends–went to the theater opening day to see it. I was so excited. But IT GOT CUT! And I was like, “You’re killin’ me!”

Recently, I shot a show for the IFC network called Stan Against Evil. Dana Gould, the writer, he’s the creator of it, and we had a beautiful conversation on set. He said, “You know, if you want to act, you’ve got to learn to produce.”  Produce, write, and put yourself into stuff ’cause at the end of the day, we actors can complain that we got cut, but we didn’t fund the project.  We make no decisions on the project. So hush your mouth and quit your complaining ’cause you had no hand in this. You showed up and they picked you ’cause you were lucky. Let’s be honest. So that was a real learning experience.

That was one of the questions I was going to get to eventually–are you interested in writing/directing/producing–but you’ve already answered that.

I don’t know where my path’s gonna take me. I do have a little web series on YouTube called The Adventures of Lizzie Belch. My sister and I co-create that together. She’s kinda my ultra ego. They’re one-minute episodes. So I don’t mind asking people to watch it ’cause if you hate it, it’s not gonna last long. If you love it, there’s a ton more episodes. I love playing that character. That’s something we developed on our own. It’s not over-produced. I mean, it’s a single camera, basic editing, basic lighting. But we’ve got some followers, so we’ll see if I can take that and grow it.

I understand your biggest work to date is this movie called Cell. So how did you get cast in this film?

In the southeast, we do a lot of what’s called self tape auditions. So I taped it just like I would any other audition. I sent it into my agent, and let it go. You have to. You have to forget about it ’cause you’re probably not gonna get it anyway. At that time–this was winter 2013–I was taking horseback riding lessons because a lot of the character breakdowns for Sleepy Hollow–which Dustin has been on–a lot of them need horseback riding skills. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll take horseback riding lessons and add that to my special skills, and maybe I’ll get an audition for Sleepy Hollow.” On my fourth lesson, I fell off the horse and broke my ribs. This was a week before Christmas. So I’m laying up in my parent’s house, and I get a text message from my agent that said, “Hey, you just got a callback for that Stephen King movie. Can you even go?” And I was like, “Yep! Yep! I’m good! I’m good! Not a problem!” I went. My ribs were still broken. Mum’s the word. I wasn’t gonna miss this opportunity. I went in, and it turned out, I was the only actress called back. So I already had it. They just wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy and that I would show up on time and do the work. But initially, the casting director overlooked my first audition. He didn’t even see it. And he sent several other girls to producers for the callback approval, and they said, “Nope. We haven’t found her. Start over.” He went back through the initial auditions, found my tape, and that was it. If that’s not divine intervention…I think all that was supposed to happen for a reason.

That is really great! I know from my other actor friends that doesn’t usually happen. I know of several who are really struggling to get jobs now in the industry.

You know, it’s so tough. I almost think it’s good for us sometimes ’cause we have to maintain a healthy mindset. Becuase if you put negativity out there like, “This casting director never calls me in.” You know what? You’re probably going to create that for yourself. They’re probably not going to call you. Even the superstars–I read that Claire Danes went two years without working before she got Homeland. And this is Claire Danes! You know, everybody goes through that stuff.

And I really like what you said about getting all the training. Even those that have been successful and are going through a dry spell, I think they should use that time wisely. Go back and take some classes and kind of hone your skills because I think if you’re just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, and you’re getting more and more disappointed, you’re getting to that point of despair where you’re desperate for work. And then you project your desperation in the audition room, and they can tell. The casting directors are smart–they’re gonna know.

Gosh, you are so right! And I know this is something I have struggled with.. Acting can’t be our lives. We need to have a full life. We need to be content in our personal lives, our spiritual lives, our social lives. We need to have some sort of steady, financial income so we literally don’t need the job. I’m in a good place right now, and I think it’s because I teach acting here in Atlanta. And so any extra bookings that I get, I don’t need that money to survive. And I don’t make a ton of money. I’m not super wealthy. But I’m able to live and go to the grocery store and cover life. I really think there’s something to not caring and not needing. Dustin and I take almost every audition together. We’ve got things down to a really healthy rhythm that after one or two takes, we’re done. We’re not overthinking it. We’re not trying to perfect it. We’re prepared. We’ve done the research. We’ve done the work. Obviously, we’re off book. We’re ready to go. We’ve made our choices. We understand the circumstance, the character, and we just go from there. And I work with actors every day and they’ll do it eight to ten to twelve takes sometimes. And it’s just a nightmare. It’s a nightmare! You can’t show up on set and pull that kind of crap. So there’s something to just being confident in your skills, going in, doing your job and going home and having a beer or going out with your friends or whatever you do. And let acting be your job. Don’t let it be an obsession.

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With Cell being your first big feature, what was that experience like for you?

Since it is my first feature, I got very, very lucky that I’m title-credited. So I’m in the opening credits, and my name is on the poster, which is insane to me. I’m very, very grateful. I was on set about five days, and I played the character of Denise, who is the character right out of Stephen King’s book. Anything that I was able to remember from the book, I was able to implement into the character.  She’s tough as nails. She’s a young mother. She’s six months pregnant in the story. There’s this kind of post-apocalyptic world thing created from the Pulse. And when the Pulse happened, everyone who was on their cell phones was turned into these sort of zombiesque kind of killing machines. But they’ve also been brainwashed by the Pulse, as Stephen King calls it. And they’re all being controlled by this thing. When she comes into the story, she’s sittin’ at a campfire holdin’ a rifle–which I love. Sam Jackson and John Cusak are the actors who come in, and we have some really awesome, awesome scenes together. So it was great.

So this film, is it out in theaters?

You can actually rent it on Amazon Prime or On Demand or on ITunes. It’s also been out a couple weeks or so in select theaters.

What has been the response and feedback from the critics and fans?

People are ripping it to shreds, and I love it. You know, any press is good press. People are saying it’s going to be one of those cult-like films–you either love it or you hate it. Having heard some of the negative press, my expectations were not high going in, but I actually thought it turned out a lot better than expected, having heard what I heard. They stuck pretty close to the book. I mean, there’s some changes from the book, and so a lot of those hardcore Stephen King fans are up in arms about it. But you got all your characters from the book. You’ve still got the basic story. There’s some CGI effects that I’m not impressed with. And there are some editing issues, too. But this wasn’t Allegiant. This was around a four million dollar budget. But it’s the same producers that Sam Jackson and John Cusak had for 1408.  And I thought John was brilliant in that. It’s a retelling of a Stephen King story. I’ve been fortunate that myself and my friend, Anthony Reynolds–who plays my partner in crime in the scenes I’m in–we’ve gotten good feedback. Because we’re kind of the supporting characters that come in later in the movie and give some relief to the story. And we’re hardcore Bostonians, so we have really thick Bostonian accents. My character has a bit of an attitude. His character is crazy–like literally insane. So he’s my favorite character in the whole story actually.  So I may be the girl with the attitude from that crazy, cult-like Stephen King movie, but that’s fine with me. Typecast me away. I don’t care. (laughs)

I know about critics and how often they negatively review things. It’s almost like sometimes they go in with the mindset that this is going to be bad, and we’re going to rip it apart. I’m the one who always reviews things with a positive mindset. I don’t like reading all the negativity out there.

Awww, you’re one of the nice ones. There’s so few of you.

I have given somewhat positive reviews to everything I have reviewed because I know there is so much more that goes into making a film or TV show, and being an actor–like you said–you don’t really have control over the final product. So when I watch something, I always focus on the good points, and I consider the audience for which it is intended. And I also go in with an open mind, expecting to see something good.

I love that. I don’t know if you know who Dr. Wayne Dyer is. He was an author who passed away, I believe last year. He was a New York Times best-selling author. He talked a lot about how your thoughts create your life. He was a swimmer, and he was gonna go swim in this glacier lake. His wife was like, “You can’t do that. You can’t swim in that kind of water. It’s way too cold. You’re gonna get sick. Blah, blah, blah.” Everyone else who went in and swam were shivering, but he said, “I told myself ahead of time–this is going to be a wonderful experience. I’m not going to experience the cold in my body. I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be memorable, and I’m going to enjoy this experience.” And he said, “Wouldn’t you know it? I went in, and I was never bothered by the cold. ” It ended up being a wonderful experience. But everyone around him was tense and afraid because they had already decided for themselves, “This water is freezing. No way can I do this.” I try to listen to stuff like that every single morning. If I go through something tough in my personal life or with acting and career stuff… I’ve been that actor who says, “Gosh, who do I have to sleep with to get an audition with this casting director?” Which I would not ever. That’s not me. Just jokingly it’s like, “Geez, what do I have to do? They never call me in.” And wouldn’t you know it? They don’t call me in. But I bet if I change my mindset to, “You know, they’re very specific. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been in this business way longer than I have. They just don’t know me yet. Once they get to know me, they’re going to call me in all the time.”  I think it’s very important to have the right mindset and put it out there–“This is how my day’s gonna be. This is how I’m going to perceive this person that just hurt me in this relationship.” We have more control over our brain and over our thoughts than we realize that we do.

I actually put that into my teaching too. The other day, I lovingly  “chewed out” one of my students. She got up to work and she said, “Oh, I just hate this monologue. I can’t do it. Blah, blah, blah.”  And I looked at her and I said, “If you’re ever gonna be a professional actor, you’ve got to drop this stuff, and you’ve got to drop it now. Because no professional actor gets up to do their job and goes, ‘Oh gosh, I hate this! Oh, I can’t do this! Booyah!'” I said, “You’re not going to be able to compete. And you’ve got to stop saying those things out loud ’cause you’ve already failed, and this monologue is going to be a waste of time for everyone today.” And she was like, “Whoa!” But she knew what I meant. And I was right. And she knew it. And she changed her attitude. And she ended up doing some pretty good work.  Gosh, this way of thinking is relevant for everybody, I think.

So do you have any other upcoming works you can mention?

I might be playing a lead in a feature soon. It’s pending, but that’s the only thing I know of that’s coming up. And I just got a callback for a comedy, and I feel really good about that. We’ll just wait and see.

Well, even if the critics don’t like Cell, maybe it opened up a few doors for you.

Yeah, it really will. There’s some PR stuff going on here. I was able to do the local NPR station here a few weeks ago, and that was amazing, and I think that’s going to open some doors. And just having those scenes on your demo with Samuel Jackson and John Cusak. That’s a real blessing.

I think it’s really great that you are teaching acting classes. Even though that’s giving you income, you’re still impacting these people’s lives. (pause) So if you have any free time, what do you like to do?

I still like to sing. I work out a lot. I like to read. I like to get a scene for one of my students for class. So as much as I preach acting not being people’s life, many times, it is mine. I like to spend time with my family. I’ve got a four- and five-year-old niece about an hour from here. I make sure Sundays is my day to go spend time with my family. That’s really important to me. I’m kind of in a transition period right now. I may be going between Atlanta and New York to make some more contacts there. So I’m kind of in a waiting period. Not trying to push or manipulate too much in my career, but just being aware and allowing things to come when they’re supposed to come. I’ve known in my own life that if the timing isn’t right on something and you push it, it’s not gonna work.  Gotta make sure that the timing is right. Working on me is how I spend most of my free time. (laughs)

It sounds like you still have that balance if you’re making Sunday your family time. Sure, acting takes up a lot of your time, but you still have things you do outside of that. (pause) And I had not realized that Atlanta was one of the big regional markets for filming. 

In 2008, I think, Atlanta passed an entertainment tax credit bill. And ever since then, it’s just blown up. Pinewood Studios in England–they did Star Wars and other major stuff–they’ve opened a studio here. That’s how big it’s getting. We are one of the biggest markets behind LA.  LA’s the biggest usually, but then we go back and forth between Atlanta and New York being second. That’s how big it is.

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Who would have known that she would be a singer, and furthermore, a classically-trained singer whose favorite musical growing up had been The Sound of Music?  Again, this was a divinely-destined “meeting,” of that I’m sure. I only wish that I could have infused her infectious enthusiasm and joi de vivre into this interview, but just know that excitement practically dances off of Erin’s tongue, and her eyes emit an enthusiastic glow that gives her such a beauty and aura about her. Add to that her dynamic personality, her dogged determination, and her self-imposed obligation to educate herself fully in this world that has grasped a hold of her heart, mind, soul, and emotions, and refuses to let go. I know she has the drive to prevail, and something tells me that in the end, her persistence and positivity will conquer all. In the meantime, please follow this future starlet at all the links below so that you will know every tantalizing step she is taking on this arduous but thrilling journey towards her goals and dreams.

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About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
43-year-old single mother of an active 14-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

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