Take2IndieReview Sits Down with Writer, Actress and Voiceover Artist Dina Laura
You were born and raised in New Jersey. At what age were the arts introduced to you?
The arts were introduced to me probably when I was still in the womb! My mom was a pianist as was my grandfather, so music was always in my house. I actually started as a musician (piano, clarinet, French horn), and acting was just an extension of my love for performing. I remember being in a play in the first grade and thinking, “This is the greatest thing ever!” I still feel that way today.
Your parents are both Bronx-born and teachers. What elements from the Bronx and their teaching did they pass onto you?
Oh, I definitely get my sass and spunk from my Bronx-born parents! But I’m also a warm and fuzzy type, so with my sass comes a lot of hugs. As for their teaching, my parents being teachers made me place a high priority on education and learning. I LOVE to learn! I equally love to share what I’ve learned with others. Knowledge IS power, and the more we can spread knowledge around the world, the more powerful we become as humans. I feel truly blessed for my parents and the values they instilled in me.
When did you begin writing?
According to my mom, I was writing books about dogs when I was 5! (No surprise I walk dogs as a side hustle now.) And during lockdown, I actually went through an old memory box and found some of those handmade books with hand drawings of dogs in them. So it really IS true! As for writing scripts, my acting teacher, Matthew Corozine, assigned everyone an original scene to write. My first play On The Rocks was born in that class.
You’re an award-winning playwright. Your plays have been produced on both coasts. What is that experience like for you?
I think the best part of your work being produced is seeing the reaction from audience members and hearing their feedback afterwards. On The Rocks (co-written with Mina Radhakrishnan) was about relationships, and people approached us after the show to literally tell us how the play helped them solve a relationship problem they had in their own life. Knowing that your work is resonating with your audience is thrilling. There’s nothing more validating than that. Okay, that, and maybe hearing an audience laugh at the lines you’ve written!
What is your writing process like?
I’m a big outliner. I think most of my ideas come to me through conversations I have in my life. And I think, “Oo, that might be a good idea for a story!” Once that happens, it’s really allowing myself to daydream and expand on that idea and see where it goes. And then I sit down and outline. Before I ever took a writing class, I was using some form of an outline. For me, it’s critical to plot out my beginning, middle and end, as well as the conflict before I start working on the script. Your outline doesn’t even have to be super formal. And I promise any writer who may see this that if you use an outline, you will spare yourself a whole lot of rewrites down the line! Rewrites are inevitable, but there will be less of them if you just start with an outline. One other important thing to note, I’m a firm believer in art being a shared process. Brainstorm with your trusted circle of people throughout your writing process. You may find that it takes you to places you might not have gotten to on your own.
How did you transition from being a playwright to a screenwriter?
It truly came naturally out of playwriting. I always knew I wanted to make my play On The Rocks into a film. But films are more expensive to make, so a play was a great way to start. Once I decided it was time to write the screenplay, my co-writer Mina gave me her blessing to take the story and make it my own. So I started working privately with a writing coach, D.B. Gilles, (who is also professor at NYU’s film school) and he helped me make the transition from play to film. I’m hoping to make On The Rocks my first feature-length production in the summer of 2023!
Do you prefer one genre over the other as an artist?
I honestly don’t. I started in theater, so playwriting will always have a very special place in my heart. What’s wonderful about theater is the audience chooses what they want to see. They have a whole stage to look at, and they may only focus on one character standing in the corner! You have a much greater opportunity to explore the words and entice your audience with what you’re saying and see how it impacts people differently. With film and television, the camera determines what the audience looks at and as a result, the way you write is drastically different. The camera takes precedence over the words, and bears more of the responsibility for showing the story. Every word counts in film and television, and there’s way less of them! But whether it’s film, television or theater, the challenge is always to create a compelling story that draws in your audience, and I love all of it.
You’re an actress, writer and voiceover artist. Do you feel one informs the other for your craft?
Absolutely! My acting has 100% helped me with voiceover in terms of interpreting copy and adapting my voice to suit the copy. It has also helped me with my writing, because I’m always thinking, “Would someone actually say this? Does it flow right?” And conversely, I think being a writer has helped me break down other people’s scripts much more easily and get to the bottom of what they are trying to say. And that understanding makes it easier for me as an actor to bring someone else’s character to life.
Your first short film, Pillow Talk, is premiering at The Garden State Film Festival in your home state of New Jersey. What inspired you to tell this story?
Literally a loud crash in my apartment in the middle of the night. Queens may be loud, but it’s not THAT loud – at least not in my apartment! So I called my mom, and a film was born. As they say, write what you know!
Pillow Talk takes place at the height of the pandemic. The film explores a Jewish mother/daughter relationship. You play opposite Karen Lynn Gorney (All My Children, Saturday Night Fever). How did Gorney get cast as the Mom?
Karen and I did a play together in NYC in 2017 – From Silence – so we already knew one another. When I decided to shoot Pillow Talk, my producer Tessa Faye asked me who I thought could play the role of “Ma” and without skipping a beat, I said “Karen Lynn Gorney”. And lucky for me, Karen said yes!
What was it like working with her as an actor?
Oh, it’s a dream! Besides her integrity and professionalism, I actually went to the movie theater when I was a kid to see Saturday Night Fever MULTIPLE times – the PG and R rated versions! I remember thinking, “I want to be like her!” And now, knowing her as a colleague and friend, it’s amazing. She’s just so fun AND funny. I truly feel honored to work with her, and we both want to work together more in the future. In fact, Karen wants me to write a sitcom based on Pillow Talk. Just imagine the adventures of Lauren and Ma on a weekly basis!
The two characters speak on their phones in separate households. Were you together for shooting the scenes or did you stay completely separate?
We were in separate bedrooms in the same apartment. So we were kind of both – together, but separate! But when you see us on FaceTime, that was actually real! We really were talking live over FaceTime while filming. It worked out really well. And it was nice to be in the same apartment, so we could chat in between takes and discuss what was happening.
The importance of connecting and needing space are dual messages in the film. What was most important for you in telling this story?
Definitely the need for connection. I think the need for space is important with or without the pandemic, but connection? That gained a whole new level of importance during these last two years. We’re talking epic proportions in terms of its significance.
Your short film No Place Home tells the story of a chance encounter between a teenage boy and homeless woman. Currently in pre-production, tell us how this story came to you and when you plan to begin filming.
I’ve had that story in mind for years. An old coworker told me about how he skateboarded as a kid next to a tent community that arose after the housing collapse of 2008. He recounted stories about the people he met and I was riveted, especially because living in New York City, I had my own stories of people living on the streets. I originally thought it would be a play and I even have recordings of my conversations with my coworker. Years went by, and nothing happened. And then the pandemic happened. And I decided it was the perfect time to bring this story to life. And here we are, two years later, gearing up to film in July with Jaret Martino (Love Wins Productions) as Co-Producer and Tessa Faye Talent as Casting Director.
Your pilot She/Hero was written with the Sundance Collab. What was that experience like as a writer?
Working with the Sundance Collab is like gaining an instant community of caring artists. I wrote She/Hero over the span of two different classes. The first class is where I developed my outline (told ya I love my outlines). And in the second class I took that outline and developed the script. Both teachers (Angela LaManna and Thania St. John) were amazing, and so were my two advisors (Vanessa Matsui and Liza St. John). The great thing about Sundance Collab is your instructors/advisors are working industry professionals – so you’re learning from people who are working in writers rooms themselves and/or producing their own projects. I’m currently working with my adviser Liza privately, to refine and finalize the script. I’ve also been fortunate to develop strong bonds with several of my classmates, and we’ve continued to support one another in our creative pursuits post class. Sundance Collab is definitely the place to be if you want to surround yourself with people who are truly interested in making a career out of writing.
Tell us more about the story behind She/Hero and what your plans are regarding casting/filming.
She/Hero is another story I’ve been thinking about for a while, because there aren’t enough compelling stories for middle-aged women – i.e. people like me! And two middle-aged women, one transgender, who suddenly gain superhero powers? Well, that’s even less! After the script is finalized, the plan is to pitch it to studios for further development. And if it somehow works out that I can play one of the middle-aged women – well that would be a dream come true!
What’s next for you?
There are always a million things I want to do, but sadly there are only 24 hours in a day. It’s definitely been a busy two years, and I think it might be time for a vacation! In terms of what else is in the works, Connection 365 is a huge project that got underway in 2021. I spent all of last year talking to a different person every single day over Zoom – 365 days, no days off – It’s true. I did that! The goal was to explore connection with different people – friends, strangers, and everyone in between – on a daily basis, without the help of mass social media posts to find my connections. I managed to hit all seven continents – including Antarctica! It was truly astounding what I discovered about other people and equally important, myself. Now I’m in the process of writing a book about my experiences – my first book. Let’s do this!