By Josette Keelor
Film actor Christopher Clawson, who grew up in Berryville, said it's important to do what you need to do to follow your dream.
He left public school in Clarke County to finish high school at a boarding school near Charlottesville. Woodberry Forest School specializes in theater, and the stage where he performed "was like Broadway caliber," he said.
Now 29, Clawson lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and recently won a best supporting actor award at the Dreamland International Festival for the independent film "Brilliant Mistakes."
He's planning to attend screenings of the film at the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville June 22, with matinee and evening gala showings.
Clawson plays Elliot, a troubled young novelist who gives a plot line heavy with tragedy and regret much-needed breaths of comic fresh air.
"Elliot's basically this affable trust-funder," Clawson said. He enters the movie about 40 minutes in, introducing himself at a grief support group. Elliot makes a quick connection with protagonist Marcus (Daniel Dambroff), a young English teacher whose girlfriend is paralyzed from a car accident in the film's opening scene. Marcus decides to stick by her side even though her doctor tells him she will never walk again and may never talk again.
First time director Paul Brighton developed the idea after watching 2011's "American Idol" contestant Chris Medina talk about promising to marry his wheelchair-bound girlfriend Juliana, saying, "What kind of man would I be if I left her now?"
Marcus says the same thing in "Brilliant Mistakes," which Clawson recently called "art imitating life."
On a visit to Berryville this month, he and girlfriend, actress Stephanie Nicole Kelley ("Cry Wolf" -- 2005"), talked of following their passions to places unexpected.
Clawson said the best supporting actor award caught him by surprise.
"It was very cool to get that," he said. He thought co-star Cheryl McMahon would win for her portrayal of inefficient grief counselor Janet Hayes, "but it never really occurred to me that I would win." He was one of the last to hear of his win -- on Facebook.
Facebook also is how he found out he got the role.
Clawson and Kelley said acting is a journey, and they both take what roles they can get.
Clawson's first break was playing a soldier in "Gods and Generals" - his death scene was cut from the movie, and he later played Robert Pattinson's brother in "Remember Me."
He recently finished filming the short film "Death & The Red Dress."
"I just did an episode of 'All My Children,'" he said.
"In this day and age you almost have to make your own opportunities," Clawson said. "So I don't know what's next."
There's no one right way of getting anywhere in show business, he said.
"Casting directors don't care where you go or where you went, unless it's Juilliard," which Clawson called "the gold standard."
"I think that the key to being a successful actor, in New York anyway, is having the financial freedom to be able to wait for the right opportunity to come along," he said.
Struggling actors who graduate with a pile of debt, "That's never going to work out," Clawson said.
"I think that the person who makes it is the person who sees the opportunity," he said.
"They say if you could be happy doing anything else, to do that."
For Kelley, "The next project is always the favorite. You're always working on something."
When not acting, she runs the not-for-profit Yellow House, which she founded in 1998, straight out of high school while living in Richmond. That's also where she met Clawson 5 1/2 years ago at the Barksdale Theatre, his first professional Actor's Equity theater gig. In 2010, when the couple moved to New York, Yellow House moved with them. Clawson is on the advisory board.
Yellow House, Kelley said, gives grants to professional artists to finish any new project and to rising high school seniors and college students to help pay application fees for theater projects.
"Anything dealing with the educational portion of the arts," Kelley said.
The theater business is difficult enough without money standing in the way, she said.
Clawson agreed, "It wasn't all apple pie and ice cream being in theater."
Though TV shows like "Glee" have encouraged rising theater students to express themselves publicly, it's still a journey marked with long stretches of ridicule, something even thick-skinned teens and young adults will find challenging.
The problem is, "you can't do anything else," Clawson said. "Or you could, but you just wouldn't be happy."
He said bullying was a reason fueling his choice to study at a private theater program, and though that was nearly 15 years ago, when asked what he would say to today's high school students, he said the answer doesn't come easily.
"You got to go where things happen," he said, referencing a scene from the film "A League of their Own."
"If that's your dream, then make it a reality," he said, "but don't expect it to come to you."
And don't expect it to get any easier, he warned.
"They say that Hollywood is high school with more money."
But at least he's in good company. In Brooklyn, he lives in the same neighborhood as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Patrick Stewart.
He's worked with Ben Affleck, who looks normal in film, "but he has the biggest head," Clawson said. And Lucy Liu, though beautiful in the show "Elementary," filmed in New York City, is even more gorgeous in person.
"So it's funny what the camera does to people," he said. Watching himself on screen also is unsettling when he thinks about all that goes into one short scene.
He said the hotel in Connecticut where he stayed during the filming of "Brilliant Mistakes" is haunted.
"Both Dan and I didn't sleep at all the night before," he said. In a scene they filmed the following day, it was supposed to be lunchtime, so he needed to appear wide awake, but "I literally had not slept in 24 hours."
The whole experience, he said, "It almost doesn't feel real either."
It's been two years since he filmed "Brilliant Mistakes." Last year the film made the rounds along the festival circuit, and he has a box at home with DVDs he ordered from Amazon -- his movie.
"My name's on a freaking DVD," Clawson said. "It's so weird."
Screenings of the film "Brilliant Mistakes" will take place June 22 at the Barns of Rose Hill, 95 Chalmers Court, Berryville, and will benefit the Barns and Yellow House in New York City. Times are yet to be decided. For more information, call the Barns at 540-955-2004 or visit barnsofrosehill.org. "Brilliant Mistakes" is available on Amazon.com. For more information, visit brilliantmistakesmovie.com. For information about Yellow House, visit yellowhousenyc.org. For information about Christopher Clawson, visit christopherclawson.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org