Sherry Hursey: A Spark of Light
Because of my enchantment with Sherry Hursey’s sparkling performance in Lilly’s Light: The Movie, I wanted to know more about this wonderfully creative singer, actress, dancer and songwriter. Happily, she graciously agreed to the online interview below. What a fantastic life and showbiz background she describes for us!
Question: When did you first know you wanted to be an actress?
Hursey: My earliest performance memories include singing “How Great Thou Art” at my Grandmama’s Baptist church at 10 years old and impersonating Nancy Sinatra singing and dancing “These Boots Are Made for Walking” for my elementary school talent show in Columbia, South Carolina, where I lived. Shortly after, I auditioned for the musical, “Hansel and Gretel”, at the Town Theatre, also in Columbia, and was thrilled when I was asked to play the part of Gretel. That was the beginning of my love affair with the theatre and led to one of my favorite stories. The academy award-winning director, Delbert Mann, was a friend of the director of “Hansel and Gretel” and he came down from New York to see the play. I remember him speaking to my mother after the show and telling her that I was a natural born actress! Boy that felt good, even then! Cut to some 10 years later, after moving to California, I found myself in an audition for the very same director, for a role in a TV show and told him we had met in SC years before. Delbert said, with no hesitation, “My darling, you had braids!” I couldn’t believe he remembered me and he not only cast me in that TV show, but also cast me to play the bride in an NBC live telecast of “The Member of the Wedding” with Pearl Bailey and Howard Rollins Jr. Since the play was set in the south, Delbert even asked me to be the dialogue coach because of my southern roots.
Even before the acting bug, I loved to dance. My mother was a dance teacher, so I started tap and ballet at a very young age, but I do remember, like it was yesterday, wanting to pick up my head inappropriately and smile at the audience while in the ensemble of Swan Lake.
Question: Do you have a musical background?
Hursey: My Grandmama played the piano and she and my uncles loved to sing, so I grew up imitating their distinctly different styles. I started playing the piano and even writing songs when I was very young. My Granddaddy bought me my first piano and I still have some of my earliest compositions in the bench of my piano today. I never thought I was very good at writing, I just have always had lots of ideas and lots to say! I have always been inspired by music and had song ideas just pop into my head every so often. I would hum little tunes into a recorder or jot down a line here and there. You should hear all the voice memo song ideas on my phone right now I truly sing my way through life. Music is healing for me. My life is a musical! I can sing an affirmative song and feel renewed and centered. More than just being an actress, I consider myself a song and dance gal! I always chose music and dance classes and learned to sing harmonies in choir and madrigals. I studied voice for years with Lee and Sally Sweetland and I’ve voice coached, directed choirs, and youth musicals. I am currently a music director at my Spiritual Center in Thousand Oaks.
I never really considered that I had any viable songwriting talent, though. I’d worked with some of the greatest songwriters of all time. I felt I was first and foremost an actress and singer. I had been in musical productions my whole career and was blessed to work closely with Randy Newman on “The Education of Randy Newman”, a musical about his life and music. I did William Finn’s “In Trousers” in LA and New York and had my favorite composer, Leonard Bernstein, waiting in my dressing room after the show to complement my voice and performance!! I was over the moon! I did the musical “Lunch” written by the dynamic songwriting duo of Steve Dorff and John Bettis and worked with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on their musical “Lovin Feelin”. Working with and being inspired by all these musical icons and geniuses, I never even considered playing in that sandbox. I thought my ideas and songs were simplistic and unsophisticated. I wrote a few songs for special occasions like my nephew’s birth and my sisters wedding, but it wasn’t until my husband, Rick Cowling and I got together, that I discovered my songwriting wings! Writing songs with him was magical. He’s such a talented musician and inspires me every time he sits down to fiddle on the piano or guitar.
Question: What are your top favorite movie musicals?
Hursey: Can’t answer this one. I have too many! I don’t think there is a movie musical I don’t like.
Question: Where did the idea for Lilly’s Light come from?
Hursey: The whole idea came through one afternoon when I was having a dark night of the soul. Just to give you some history, life had been very challenging for me as a child and by my teens, I realized I was in trouble. I found the need to seek help, both professionally and spiritually, to keep me from heading down a dark path. I had abandonment issues, self esteem issues and was uprooted and living far from the folks I loved back in South Carolina. I was at the top of my game professionally when another series of dramatic events took place, so I had asked God, or that Divine Spark of Love in the depth of my being, a powerful question, “Why had so many disappointments, losses and abrupt changes occurred in my life at that time?” and I got an answer. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear and I just grabbed a pad of paper and started writing. My life long friend and co-exec producer, Melissa Wohl, said I wrote Lilly’s Light: The Movie about my life. I guess she’s right. All the characters were created from key people in my life. Although the names are different, their influence and love is reflected in the on-screen relationships.
Question: Why did you decide to co-write this delightful screenplay?
Hursey: When I went in search of a “professional” writer, I met with several talented folks, but each one had very strong directions in which to take the idea, none of which felt right to me. I was so torn, because I didn’t think of myself as a writer, but felt the idea had been given to me and it was my responsibility to guide and birth it. The question I kept asking myself was, if I let someone else run with this, I will never feel at peace that I gave the gift that was given to me, wings. Philece Sampler, who became my co-writing partner for the screenplay, was a very close friend and tremendous talent. I had worked with her as an actress and she knew me well and we worked well together. I asked her to help me, and she said yes. We worked beautifully together to create the dialogue and the first pilot script that eventually turned into the movie.
I then went to SCETV in South Carolina and asked them about being my presenting station. Polly Kosko took me under her wing and mentored me and suggested I reach out to Dr. Gordon Berry, a well-known child psychologist to consult with about the script. I sent Dr. Berry my first draft. He was on board from the get go and gave me so much support and help refining the story for our age demographic. Dr. Berry was another valuable piece of the Lilly’s Light puzzle. Every single contributor brought his or her own magic and love.
Question: Did you ever consider anyone else for the role of Lilly?
Hursey: Nope! I “Am” Lilly. And I’ve had to do a lot of inner work to live up to the role and I’m grateful for all of it!! Lilly is who I aspire to be everyday!! To embrace the world with a blanket of love and to shine my inner spark as a beacon of light.
Question: How did you go about obtaining directors, cast and crew?
Hursey: Kismet!! I use the word “wings” a lot, I noticed, but it’s really because I feel that I was being carried on angel’s wings every step of the way. So here again, angels were at work with the casting and the directors and producing partners. I had known Daniel Carrey from working with him on two other movies. We were good friends. He assisted me through the process of development and was very savvy as a producer and more than qualified to jump into the director’s seat. I felt relaxed and confident with him by my side. The same thing happened with Andrew Ceglio. We had worked together on a musical production in Northern California along with Steve Dorff, and I loved his passion, style, talent and way with people. When Daniel wasn’t available to shoot the additional scenes, I asked Andrew to step in. We worked long and hard together with the rest of our Turning On the Light Entertainment team and our new friends and partners at Eye Q Productions and LightForm Productions, Jenni Ogden and Bill Lae, who both contributed so much to the overall look and magic of the film. Another synchronicity or “boogie boogie”, as I call it, was that Bill Lae, his wife and his adopted son, Bodhi, were in my first PSA for the Lilly’s Light pilot that aired on PBS stations around the country in 2010. When I met Jenni Ogden, owner of Eye Q Productions, who by the way, also fostered and adopted her daughter Jacara, we decided to join forces for the movie. I had no idea at the time that Bill Lae was part of her team. This is more evidence of how the universe illuminated the path for me.
Meeting LeRoy White, who plays Uncle Fitz, was yet another magical event in my life. We were both invited to perform at a Season for Non Violence concert in Dayton, Ohio and I saw him dancing and singing a song he wrote while the kids in the audience were on their feet! I felt his glowing light and radiant love beaming off the stage. I went up to him after the concert and gave him my card and said, “You may think I’m nuts, but one day I’m gonna’ call you to be in a movie” and I did. All the actors were special and while we chose them for their talents, their beautiful hearts came shining through! We offered the roles to Mindy Sterling and Fred Willard because they were written for them both and we were ecstatic when they said yes! I am truly blessed to have made so many friends in this business over the years.
Question: What is the most satisfying experience you had while filming?
Hursey: The whole experience was deeply satisfying, educational and enlightening from top to bottom and there were so many magical moments I could share, but there is one special memory that will forever be etched in my heart. It was the magical night I met Art Klein, my executive producer, partner and dear friend. Art had heard about the project from a mutual friend and was planning a business trip to San Diego from the Bay area. He offered to meet me, so I drove down and shared my vision and my heart with him. He shared that he had always wanted to give children the same gifts of empowerment, nurturing and love that I did. There was an instant Spark, a kindred Spirit recognition between us. I loved this man’s heart immediately. After he left our meeting, I drove over to the Hotel Del Coronado to wait for traffic to die down before heading back to LA. I was floating on air with the feeling that something wonderful was happening. Moments later as I sat on the deck behind the Hotel sipping hot cocoa, there was a Christmas tree lighting ceremony taking place and a choir of children started singing and yes, even fireworks lit the sky. It couldn’t have been any more beautiful! I got chills and felt overwhelmed with gratitude and in that moment I knew Art was the one to give “Lilly’s Light” its wings. A second later, he called me from the plane saying he had read my proposal and heard my songs and he wanted to be my partner. I owe so much to him! He not only believed in me, supported my dream and vision but he has uplifted me and gifted me with his tremendous love for years now. He is my family and there was a deep trust between us from the start. Something I had never experienced in my life before.
Question: Which musical number from the film is your favorite and why?
Hursey: “Spark of Light”-- I love both versions: the opening message of hope and the ending message of hope. It was also the first song Rick and I wrote together.
Question: What is the most important message from Lilly’s Light?
Hursey: ”You have the power to change the way you see things.” The lighthouse philosophy is truly “Life Is Full Of Possibilites," “Nothing Is Beyond Your Heart” and “There Is A Spark of Light” in everything, you just have to look for it and be open to receiving it.
Question: What is the most important thing you want our readers to know about you and Lilly’s Light?
Hursey: Lilly’s Light: The Movie is a total labor of love! It has my heart’s mission: to nurture children with positive affirmative songs and messages of love and hope; and to spread awareness for the challenges facing foster and displaced youth. My dream is to make it “cool” for every traditional family to consider opening its doors to a child in need and to unify this beautiful diverse world by helping everyone see that we are all one family.