Interview With Alison Wandzura, “Van Helsing”

By Ruth on September 24, 2016 in interview, movie, science history, television
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When I moved back to Washington State, it was news to me that the Twilight saga that “everyone” was reading took place in the town of Forks, and the running joke was that was why I was moving back to the Pacific Northwest. I have made it a point to shun the vampire genre, but thankfully, I had already agreed to watch Van Helsing before I discovered it was a “vampire show.” Determined to go in with an open mind, I was quite excited to have the opportunity to interview one of the stars, Alison Wandzura. Despite my lack of preparation, we had a lovely and delightfully informative chat this past week about her beginnings as an actress, her Hallmark work, and of course, her association with Van Helsing

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RH: Alison, it is so good to get to talk with you. I have just pulled up your IMDB page, and I had no idea you were in so many things. In fact, I didn’t know you had done some Hallmark stuff.

AW: Yeah, I think I have two credits of Hallmark under my belt. {laughs} Hallmark fans seem to be a very passionate and dedicated group of fans. I recently joined the When Calls the Heart Facebook page, and it’s really quite inspiring how connected the fans are. They’re almost like a family.

The Hallmark fans are great to the actors and actresses.  I can’t believe all the support I get from them with doing all these interviews. I have so many who will come and read my interviews whether it’s a Hallmark person or not. 

It’s so supportive, isn’t it?

It’s wonderful! They get so excited that I’m doing these interviews and trying to make them personal. 

It’s always exciting to get behind the scenes. What you see on the screen is one thing, but it’s so cool to get to know the real people behind it. A make-up artist we worked with on Van Helsing–Jenn Kaminski–she did Lori Loughlin’s make-up for a long time on When Calls the Heart. Jenn told me when she was down in LA that the Hearties threw her a tea party, and she showed me pictures. They had “high tea,” and she spent a few hours with them, and they were so welcoming and such good hosts in that city. It was really cool; what a community to have.

She and I have been trying to set up an interview, but she’s so busy that we keep missing each other. 

I know she’s usually on set, and they do fourteen-hour days. What a busy woman. But what an awesome girl. And quite a range. She’s gone from blood and guts on Van Helsing to beautiful period make-up on When Calls the Heart. A very talented woman.

Alison, why did you decide to become an actress?

{laughs} Well, that wasn’t initially my plan. When I was growing up, I always thought I would go into a very academic field. From the get-go, I knew I was going to go to the university because that idea was instilled in me. I was going to do something that would make me money, would make me feel important. And I remember thinking I would go into law or I’d go be a doctor. And I always worked really hard on academics ever since I was in grade one. I was always very focused on academics. But when I was around eight or nine, I got involved in dancing. I noticed on your blog that you’re a single mom, right?

Yes, that’s right.

Do you have one kid, two kids?

I have one daughter. She is thirteen.

Well, I was raised by a single mom too. It was me and my two brothers. My mom put me in dancing, so I did jazz and tap dancing for almost a decade. That was the first experience I had with performing on stage. I’m very grateful that I had that experience. I remember in dance class that we had parent observation night. So this was when parents would come and watch us do a little routine and everybody’s on their best behavior. My mom was sitting there with other parents, and all of a sudden, her head started nodding off, and she fell asleep. And she started snoring in the middle of class. And I remember thinking, “How could you do this to me?” I was so embarrassed. What kind of mother do I have? Look at everybody else smiling and attentive. And I was just like devastated. And now it’s interesting that in retrospect, I look at that and think how exhausted my mom was and how she made time between her job and taking care of my two brothers to show up to the thing. It’s quite remarkable that she invested in me doing the performance activities. I feel really lucky being introduced to performing that way when I was a kid. And once you get a little taste of that, I think you start to crave being on stage and performing for people and feeling a reaction from people. So when I went to the university for business–I actually did my degree in commerce–I took drama as my minor. So I did all that at the university. By the time I graduated, I realized it would be a lot more fun to go into acting than business. So the tide shifted.

You’re not the only actor I’ve talked to who has some marketing education in their background. I would think that would be helpful especially this day and age ’cause it’s all about marketing yourself.

wp-1474599835939.pngOh definitely. And I did have years of experience in the corporate world doing marketing. It was for swimwear, but the same principles apply. It’s definitely more uncomfortable to market yourself when you are the product. All of those inner voices come in like, “Who do you think you are?” “You’re being self-indulgent.” “Narcissist.” You start to feel like that, and I think it’s just constantly reframing it like, “Okay, this is a product. I am trying to sell a product.” It really is a business. Actors, I think, who are serious about it are entrepreneurs. I really did invest in some shameless self-promotion however. I moved to Vancouver, and everywhere I went, I would design these posters, print them up, and send them to all the casting directors. You know, “Watch me on Supernatural.” And I’d write a little note to them. I pumped those promo pieces through. I just thought, “I’m not gonna wait around until someone notices me.”

I think that’s a smart approach. I think you have to do that. I have had to learn that myself. With interviewing you, this was all set up for me, but that isn’t always the way it works. I have to go out and ask the actors over and over again, and sometimes I feel like they are so tired of hearing from me. Sometimes it takes seven or eight months to get a response from an actor about an interview. And the fans even step in to help which is really cool. Kind of like when your fans step in and ask the studio to cast you in this or that rather than you tweeting to do this or that. 

Right, and it’s not always comfortable, is it?

No, it’s not, but I think like what you’re saying, I’ve kind of learned to do that myself. In fact, I had just published an interview this weekend where the interviewee had this really nice comment about me, and I thought, “I really should take this out of the interview. That should not be in there.”

{laughs} Yeah, that’s our first reaction. We wonder how it will look.

Yeah exactly. But then I didn’t want her to feel bad since she had taken the time to write this, so I left it but put a sort of disclaimer in parentheses that said I didn’t pay her to do this. {laughs} And nobody thought anything of it. 

Right, I bet not one person thought, “Wow, Ruth is really on her high horse. Look at her putting that out there.” {laughs} Why wouldn’t you put that in? I don’t know what it is about us that we have this fear of letting the light shine on us. One of my favorite quotes is “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” It’s a famous quote, but it’s something I have to keep reminding myself of because so quickly we go into that self-shaming thing like, “Stop making a big deal of yourself. Don’t be so indulgent.” We are own worst critics in that area.

Oh, definitely. I hear ya on that. {pause} So I noticed that one of your early credits was Supernatural.  What was that experience like being on that show?

Well, that would have been my first real film and television credit in Vancouver. Before that, I had been in Calgary, Alberta, a prairie town, and you don’t have a heck of a lot of film and TV there. And I was coming from a theater background. And I had gotten here and gotten established with an agent. When I got that call–I remember I was still working in the corporate world at that time to make a little money on the side–I was in my office and I got the email saying, “You booked the EMT on Supernatural.” Oh, and I think I probably cried and was crumpling like, “Thank you, God! I booked a role! They love me! They want me!”  And I can still remember the pure joy of getting picked to do something and thinking, “I am really a player in a professional television show.” The ecstasy and the high of that feeling–it’s unforgettable. That eventually does fade, but you always do remember those days. Sometimes you look back fondly on those days–you got to do the tinest little roles, but they meant the whole world to you. And then eventually, you work for years and you start thinking, “Well, I need bigger. I need bigger and better.” And you don’t have that same innocent gratitude. And so it was my first Vancouver set experience. I couldn’t believe the food was free. I had two lines. The camera panned past me quickly. And I remember telling everybody, “I’m gonna be on TV tonight,” assuming it would be a big, dramatic close-up of the paramedic. All my backstory as a paramedic playing out on the screen. And what it ended up being was basically a voiceover where they panned past me. So that was a bit of a reality check. I was like, “Okay, I guess this isn’t a show about paramedic number two.” {laughs} But at the time, you don’t know. You don’t really know how the story works. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot more about storytelling and how each role has its purpose.

wp-1474599879692.pngI’ve heard from so many actors how they go and they film–even seasoned actors–and they do all this preparation for it. And it comes time for the show to come out and their part’s practically been cut. 

You know, it makes you want to burglarize the editing suite and steal the footage so you can put it on your demo at least. You’re like, “Hey, that’s mine.”  But it’s on the cutting room floor.

That’s got to be a very difficult thing. Maybe it becomes somewhat easier, but I can’t think it would ever be easy to look forward to your part, and then it’s cut. 

I don’t tell friends and family anymore until I’m sure it’s gonna happen. Wait till the next day and ask, “Did you see I was on? You did? Oh good!” No, I don’t think that’s ever easy to have your part cut, wherever you are in your career.

I had a great deal of respect for actors before, but with all my interviewing this year, I have learned so much. At one time, I considered being an actor, but after interviewing so many actors, I really don’t think I have the kind of temperament needed to do it.

You’ve made peace with your new direction.

Yes, I think I already had but it’s more a confirmation. 

It takes a certain resilience that not a lot of us realize we will need when we get into it. It sort of becomes a slow, burning realization. When you audition and you don’t hear back. You realize the reality of the career and for every happy picture you see on the red carpet on the IMDB page, just imagine months of not working. Tons of auditions that just didn’t pan out. And constantly trying to get work. I know the public sees that glamor side of it, but behind every red carpet picture is a lot of sweat and blood. You have to give yourself pep talks ’cause you don’t have a boss. You don’t have a supervisor giving you biannual reviews like, “Here’s how you can do better.” You have to motivate yourself. You are the one-man or one-woman show.

For Hallmark, I noticed you were in Hitched For the Holidays and Garage Sale Mystery: All That Glitters.

My history with Hallmark is interesting. When I did Hitched For the Holidays, I played the wife of a rabbi. It was one day, and my only lines were contributing to a group song–can’t remember the name of the song, but it’s the most famous Hanukkah song. I remember in my trailer in the morning before I got called, the third AD came out to my trailer and handed me some lyrics and said, “Okay, so this is the Yiddish song you’ll be singing.” And I’m Ukrainian !  And I’m like, “What?” It was in Yiddish! And I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a problem.” The majority of the actors around me were Jewish, so they knew the song. They were loud and proud. Rob LaBelle was playing my husband, and I said to him, “You sing very loudly beside me so I can lip synch what’s happening here.” That was the scene. It was us gathering around the menorah. The big joke was Joey Lawrence was just pretending to be Jewish and he couldn’t sing the song either, but really it was me who couldn’t sing the song.

And the other time I worked for Hallmark, I played a bad guy. The joke is I sometimes don’t feel like Hallmark material because I don’t play typical roles on Hallmark movies. The only other thing I’ve done for Hallmark, I was holding up a jewelry store by gunpoint. So I’m allowed to do Hallmarks but I have to be singing or holding a gun. {laughs}

Well, you have to have someone play the bad guy. You have to have that conflict in Hallmark. The Hallmark films that don’t have conflict, I often lose interest in them. Not overpowering conflict, but I want there to be some. And you never know, Hallmark might come along later and use you for something else. 

What I would like to do is play–you know how there’s always a rival to the lead? Sometimes it’s the girl who’s already engaged to the guy and they’re not really meant to be together and the lead girl ends up with the guy at the end. I should be like the rival.

I could see you doing that. 

Like I say on twitter, “I’m a lot nicer in real life than I am on TV.”

Isn’t that just the way it is? All these bad guys we see on TV, they’re really nice in real life. 

They’re always the sweetest people in real life.

I learned that with Brennan Elliott, who played the bad guy in Cedar Cove. I used to think he was like his character, but I found out he was really a nice guy in real life.

I always say that people who play bad guys and bad girls, we get our fix of animosity and hostility out on screen. So then we can be nice in real life. And talking about Cedar Cove reminds me of an actor’s career. You look back at the work you did five, ten years and go “Oookay.” It was a learning experience. Just like a series, I guess. You look back on that and see how you and your character have grown over the series.

Oh yeah, I was even looking back at some of the interviews I did earlier this year and thought, “What was I thinking?” At the time, I was thinking they were good, but I’m sure glad I’ve moved beyond that.

If we never go through that start-up stage, we never get to the really good stuff. There are growing pains in any craft.

wp-1474599447843.pngSo moving onto Van Helsing, I just set up to record the series. And I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it as the the next few weeks, there are all these new series coming.

Yes, they launch a lot of new series in the fall.

And I have so many new series to watch because once I connect with an actor, I do my best to watch them in everything I can.

Oh, to see them in a new light, a new role. See a different side of them.

Yes, so I usually have a long list of things I’m supposed to be watching.

I can imagine. You probably have a comprehensive cable package.

Almost! But I am looking forward to seeing Van Helsing. How did you get involved with this new series?

It was just the traditional route of auditioning for the show and being given a part. And one of the cool things about Van Helsing is it’s almost exclusively Canadian actors. Mind you, there’s some incredible names in this show. Christopher Heyerdahl, David Cubitt, Vincent Gale–some of our top Canadian talent. So we were very lucky to have them as part of the ensemble. One of the things I’m super proud of is the Canadian cast.

In the beginning, my character was written to be in just the first episode. And then I was supposed to be no longer at that point, but then I got written further into the series.

Well, that’s always good when that happens. 

You know, for all the times that you feel, “I should have been cast in that,” and didn’t, once in awhile, you get a bonus. So it makes up for the ones where you felt like you got short-changed. So it was really a gift. And what a gift to work with this group. I think the plot and the story and the show aside, what I will always remember from this experience is the family of this cast and crew that we worked with. The producers were the most laid-back group I’d worked with. They treated us like family. The cast was like a family. We’d watch movies at each other’s houses and have dinner parties and things together, and I never have had such a family ensemble like that.

It’s funny. I watched the pilot and thought, “Oooh, it’s so dark and sad and tragic and scary.” But when I think about my experience with the show, it’s strange to see that because what I really think about is how much fun we had on set. It’s such a contrast to what experience we were having on set versus what translates on screen.

Wow, I was looking over the cast list. That is an amazing cast. 

Isnt’ it? Jonathan Scarfe, who’s no stranger to Hallmark. It’s cool to see him suited up in army gear. Different than seeing him on bended knee proposing to the lead in a Hallmark movie. Something a little different for him.

Actually, the last Hallmark movie he was in, Dater’s Handbook, he didn’t get the girl. He played this stuck-up, stuffy businessman who was stuck on himself. It was so different ’cause we’re used to seeing him as the nice guy who gets the girl. I remember saying I was so impressed because I wasn’t sure he could handle that part. For me, his role was a major highlight of the movie. 

You know how they often have the archetype on Hallmark where they have the girl with a guy at first who’s really stuck in their job–he played that kind of role?

Yes, that’s who he played.

Oh, interesting. And the girl ends up leaving him for the love of her life, right?

Yes, that’s right.

He would be a fascinating guy to interview. He spent a year or two sailing around the world with his family. But I think he is one who values his privacy and has a really rich life in addition to his acting career.  But if you thought it was interesting to see him play a different kind of role on Hallmark, you’ll find it very interesting to see him on Van Helsing.

I was noticing there were other Hallmark actors in the show. Laura Mennell has been on Hallmark. And Rukiya Bernard has done Hallmark stuff as well. 

Yes, she has done several funny best friend roles. It would be great if they watched it. But Hallmark fans are going to have to brace themselves for this one. We definitely appreciate an open mind.

It’s amazing. There are lots of Hallmark fans who are open to watching other things. Kind of like with me. I love watching all the Hallmark stuff and kind of turning my brain off for a while and just enjoying the story. I don’t have to worry about my daughter being in the room. But there are times I want to watch something that challenges me. I like watching things that cause me to step outside my comfort zone. Vampires are something I don’t necessarily watch. Not that I have a problem with it. I read a book series that dealt with vampires and even reincarnation that was called Her Dear and Loving Husband. I was surprised I enjoyed it, but the story was so well done.

So it’s got a good story behind it and not just the blood and gore?

There was violence on occasion, but because the story was so good, I was hooked and it didn’t even bother me. Twilight was never my thing.

wp-1474599397171.pngNo, I’m not into that either. And actually, Ruth, I’m like you. I never really bothered with vampire stories or zombie stories. I find a lot of them to be gratuitous. I tended to stay away from that genre. But with Van Helsing, I was really pleased with the quality of the story and the meat of it. On the surface, maybe you have some disturbing imagery, a lot of heightened panic and circumstances. But it’s really about real people. And that’s what I love about this show. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Neil LaBute, but he is one of the most prolific American playwrights. He’s written famous plays and excellent works. And he really taps into the darker side of humanity. And he’s definitely woven those themes into the show, but there’s way more depth to the characters so with each person, you can relate in a way. What happens when you are fighting to survive? What would you do? And what would you become? There’s no room for the “nice guy” really. Simon Barry, one of our executive producers (he created Continuum), he said something in an interview about Van Helsing being a metaphor or a parallel in a way to civil war and occupation. And I thought that was very interesting because essentially we are refugees from the vampire world because the vampires have taken over. We’re just trying to protect ourselves and reestablish ourselves in this new world. So it has deeper themes and I think people will find themselves relating to the characters more than you might to something like Twilight or Vampire Diaries. Those are just a little bit more of a spectacle in a way.

Well, it’s really good to hear you say that. I was going to go into it with an open mind because it has such great talent, I want to give it a chance. But to hear what you said was what I was hoping for. I was hoping for a really great story. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s a really great story with depth, it can be a really dark story. And if it has relatable characters, the other stuff doesn’t bother me. 

Right, it there’s more to it than violence and gore…I understand. I’m not into that kind of thing either. That’s why I’ve usually shied away from that genre. But this is different. And one thing I think you’ll find particularly interesting and convincing is the plight of our lead actress, Kelly Overton. She plays a person who has special abilities when it comes to her interactions with vampires–which you’ll see. And her plight to find her daughter. And it’s a real motivation she has. What would you do if you wanted to find your child? If you wanted to reconnect with your child? And really, I’m happy that they have such a strong female lead. And Kelly as a character and as a person is a very, very grounded, authentic person. And that definitely translates to her portrayal of Vanessa Helsing.

Well, I’m glad we happened to talk about this. 

wp-1474599545789.png{laughs} Now that I’ve set the stage.

And I think this will be good to bring this to some of my readers who may not have considered watching this show or genre. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the pilot.

When it premieres, both episodes one and two will be shown. So be sure to stick around for episode two ’cause that will go into flashbacks and the background of these characters. Kind of pre-Apocalypse. So I think you’ll get a way better sense of where everyone is coming from.

In addition to Van Helsing, do we have any other works that we can be looking for from you?

One thing I’m excited about is a Lifetime movie we’re filming this weekend, which is Kyra Sedgwick’s directorial debut. What I always think of when I think of Kyra Sedgwick is the series The Closer. And her husband, Kevin Bacon, is going to be in this movie too. It’s gonna be really neat to work with her ’cause just knowing what I do of her from interacting with her at my audition and at the table reading with the cast, she is just a glowing ember of positivity and a really empowering individual. She’s such a ray of light and support. In an audition, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcomed or so appreciated. So I’m really looking forward to working with her. And Lifetime has a new program. It is a specific program to further the careers of female directors, producers and writers. It’s called The Broad Focus–a pun on “broad.” So this film is part of that program. Every time I get to work with a female director, I just think that this is the way things need to go, and it’s always such a great experience.

Women in film is something I have become very passionate about. I went to my first film festival this year–the Artemis Film Festival–which celebrates women in action. And through them, I connected with Majo Aro, who is not only a stuntwoman, but is branching out to produce her own independent work. And she’s been researching Amazon women and writing an adult graphic novel about them.

wp-1474599645527.pngIt’s refreshing to hear someone doing something about Amazon women. It’s nice to hear about projects that are focused on women that are not your usual mainstream female characters. Because the problem I find is that even when certain producers are introducing certain female characters, they’re saying, “Hey, look, we put a bunch of females in this!” But they’re still featuring them in a way that is not the best. Just by default, when a woman produces something or writes something or directs something, you’re doing it from the female perspective. It’s not someone else’s idea of what the ideal woman might be. Only a woman knows what it’s like to be a woman. So we need to be writing our own stories.

I agree. But then it’s cool to see some of the guys who are very supportive ’cause I’ve talked to some men who really do seem to understand women. In fact, the film that I saw at the Artemis Film Festival that was most exciting was called Never Let Go. It is not in distribution yet over in the U.S., but they are releasing it in the UK ’cause that’s where the director is from. The director, Howard J. Ford, did an amazing job of writing this story from a female perspective. It is about a mother whose child is kidnapped while she is on vacation in Morocco. The woman who played the mother–Angela Dixon–is unbelievable. 

That’s so cool. He must be very intuitive. That sounds great. I should check that out. There’s a director named Xavier Dolan. He’s from Quebec, and he’s a writer as well. He wrote an independent feature that has done so well, and it’s called Mommy. If you get a chance to check that one out or even look up the trailer, it will blow you away. And I think he was like twenty-six when he directed and wrote this film. And it features this woman who is in her forties and her teenage son, and it features her and her best friend, another woman. And you think, “Wow, that came from the mind of a twenty-six-year-old man.”

I am so glad that it worked out for me to talk to you today.

Me too, It’s been a lot of fun talking to you.

It’s funny. Sometimes my best interviews are when I don’t put a lot of time into preparing for them. But you were such a good interviewee. You were very engaging from the beginning. That was nice for me.

Well, thank you. I’m really happy to hear that ’cause this whole PR thing is relatively new to me. I haven’t even done over ten interviews. I’m challenging myself to enter a new realm and to become more comfortable with it, so it’s great to hear that.

Well, you are doing a great job. You seem very well-spoken, and you put your thoughts into words very clearly. 

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As I assessed this phenomenal chat Alison and I had earlier this week, I found myself thoroughly dazzled at the depth and volume of topics we discussed. From the get-go, Alison was genuinely interested in me, and she had done her homework (unlike her interviewer). While I often speak with benevolence, fondness, and respect for the people I am honored to interview, Alison is featured prominently as one who made this process effortless. She was consistently composed, engaged, witty, and responsive. I believe we both granted complete permission to each other to be ourselves and to speak from our hearts. Not everyone is so willing to do that, and I savor and treasure every ardent and sincere word that Alison and I shared. Moreover, the way in which she spoke of Van Helsing was so eloquent that if I weren’t already planning to watch, I can assure you that she would have convinced me. As far as I am concerned, not only is Alison a woman of boundless energy, fathomless talent, and deep intellect, but she has discovered the secret of life that some people still refuse to acknowledge when they close their eyes for the last time. She not only knows and understands who she is; she embraces her individuality and voluntarily shares herself with others. She is determined to do what is necessary to accomplish her dreams, but she will not deliberately shatter the dreams, egos, nor spirits of others in the process. Be sure that you watch her new show every Friday night on the SyFy Channel–Van Helsing (if you missed the premiere on September 23, be sure to check out when it may be rebroadcast or check it out online or on demand). Additionally, please follow Alison at all the links below so that you will be one of her informed viewers as well as a recipient of her sunny outlook and her delightful sense of humor. 

FOLLOW ALISON

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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

2 Comments

  1. Geri Sandoval September 24, 2016 Reply

    Great interview, you don’t realize how hard it is for an actress or actor in the begin. Wass’t planning on watching Van Helsing tonight. Thank for the awesome interview enjoyed reading it.

    • Author
      Ruth September 24, 2016 Reply

      Thanks Geri for stopping by and commenting. I feel like I keep learning so much too.

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