“To thine own self be true” with Helena Grace Donald

I made my way to a lovely Fairfax apartment where my friend, a British actress and an author, Helena Grace Donald lives. As soon as I entered her apartment, still in yoga clothes and feeling very hungry (we ended up going to our favourite spot, Sweetgreen…no this isn’t an ad) , she said we have to go get a coffee. “It’s a National Coffee Day!”, she explained. So off we went, and I luckily got to refuel after a very intense 90 minutes of having my body bent in unnatural positions in a Yoga class. The minute the caffein kicked in, I turned the recorder on and this 23 year old bubbly actress, and self-proclaimed coffee addict, told me more about her personal and professional life in LA.

 

Me: I know you moved to LA around 2 years ago. How was the transition from living in the UK to suddenly being in LA?

Helena: I was really lucky because I got to go back and forth between the UK and LA before I moved here full-time. So I feel fortunate in that I knew where I was going to live before I got here. And I had friends to welcome me, which made a huge difference! I don’t know what I would have done, as a young girl, arriving to LAX with  just two huge suitcases if I had no idea where I was going to live or without knowing anybody. Because you know how it is, there’s so much stuff that needs to be figured out when moving to a new country.

ME: And work-wise?

Helena: Oh, that was scary as hell (she laughs about that)! You just have NO idea. You come out here with a bag full of dreams, just hoping and praying that it’ll all work out. I just had so much self-determination and self-belief at that point that I was like: “I’m gonna do this!” I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else. I was in love with LA. I felt like LA was where I was meant to be. So I was really excited to get my visa and move over here. But there were things that happened that you can’t even plan when you move. Like I didn’t really have any idea what it was gonna take to settle in LA (I went through this too, so I get it!). Learning to drive, getting your licence, all the paperwork, finding your way around. I was just so overwhelmed by everything.

Me: Moving here at such a young age, do you feel like moving to LA was this kind of transition between childhood and adulthood?

Helena: I think becoming a woman is the best way to put it. Hm, yeh. When I look back, going thought those things the first year that I had to go though to settle in, it  definitely helped me grow  up, for sure. Sometimes things would happen and I totally felt like I was being tested on how much  I really truly wanted to be in LA. I really had to be like: “I’m going to stay! I’m going to make this work! Everything will be OK!”.

Me: How difficult was it for you to start acting here?

Helena: It takes a while. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I learnt. It doesn’t happen over night. I thought when I got on that plane: “Oh my gosh, there are endless possibilities there!” And there are, but you know, it’s not going to happen straight away and you won’t  be in a movie studio the very next month, unless you are INCREDIBLY lucky and it all just clicks. It takes ground work. It takes a while to find the right management, it takes a while to find the right acting teacher for you, it takes a while to actually be ready to step into the audition room in LA and feel like a pro. It’s a whole other ball game. Going in for auditions is like skill in itself. I think until few of those things clicked, that was when I started to get a momentum.

Me: How long did that take?

Helena: In the beginning, I did a couple of commercials and I had a really good commercial agent but it wasn’t until I signed with my management company that things took off. I started auditioning much more. The biggest thing for me was booking my first movie over here. Because if felt like all the ground work and the sweat and tears you put in…it felt validated. That was a great feeling.

Me: What was the first movie you got booked for?

Helena: I recently played a supporting lead in The Hellraiser re-launch. It’s been produced by the Weinstein Company. It was a great crew, great actors and I loved the role that I played in it. I can’t really say much about the actual plot but she’s a really empowered female character and I just love the fact that that was my first movie role here because it just embodies so many things for me. She was a badass and I like that.

Me: You recently did a Shakespeare adaptation, McDeath!, which I saw and very much liked. Was it in some way significant that you got to do a Shakespeare play here in LA? Was it an advantage for you that you are British?

Helena: I do think that in some ways being British out here has some benefits. When they are looking for roles that they need British people for, you’re in a smaller pool of people. Sometimes they are auditioning roles here, looking for Brits, and they aren’t even auditioning for the roles back home. But yeh, it definitely helped. In the play, the director was British and the company that I was working for was British as well so it had its advantages. And I was playing Lady McDeath (the play’s alternation to Lady McBeth). I’ve been studying Shakespeare since I was a little girl in school so I absolutely loved doing it. It didn’t feel like learning a foreign language. Not that I think that it does necessarily to Americans either, but it just does feel like it’s a part of my blood and heritage.

Me: Was it easier for you to learn the script, knowing the “archaic” English?

Helena: Yeh (she is really thinking about this). I think it was. I mean, I studied English literature at school and I have done Shakespearean plays before so I felt like I enjoy discovering how to use the meter and the verse (that makes at least one of us) and diving into these rich characters. But there were great American actors in the play that I feel like had a great grasp on it as well. It actually just felt so good to be back on the stage after having focused on film acting for a while.

Me: You mentioned that you really like Shakespeare plays and you have done a few of them before. Is there a specific Shakespeare play that you haven’t done yet and would love to?

Helena: That’s a really good question! I have never done A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that is one of my favourite plays. There’s one role, Titania, she’s a queen of the fairies that, I would really like to play. I saw that done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and I was blown away. And again, I think she is  amazingly empowered, intelligent female character and I’m obviously drawn to those roles (she is laughing because she knows I know that about her). And then I have done some really random stuff. I was in an all female cast and I played Othello. I think in school I got most of the male roles because I was tall so I would play men quite a lot. And maybe that really helped me as well because I had to completely embody a very different kind of role. That was a really great learning lesson. I’d put on my dad’s shoes and walk around the house practicing to walk like a man!

Me: You keep on talking about how you love playing empowering characters. I know you just completed a book about a related topic. Can you tell me more about it?

Helena: So I just finished writing a book called “Learning to Love the Girl in the Mirror” with the subtitle being “A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Leading a Happy and Healthy Life”. It was a story that I had to get down. It’s about my own personal story of overcoming an eating disorder. It’s packed full with very personal and loving tools for girls to learn to really appreciate who they are and build a positive relationship with themselves. I think the relationship you have with yourself is the most important relationship you will ever have. Because boys and friends will come and go, but the person you’re always left with is yourself. I really struggled as a teenage girl to love and accept myself, especially my body. And I think eating disorders don’t just develop because you don’t feel “skinny” enough.  I think it develops from a lot of unexpressed emotions, confusion and from a need of control. So in the book I’m brutally honest about how I overcame that but it’s also packed full with inspiring tools. Women in today’s society have a really hard time loving and accepting who they are. We’re constantly bombarded with images that make us feel like we aren’t good enough and we often compare ourself negatively to others and that has an affect on a very impressionable teenage girl. So if I can help any young girl not to feel the way I did when I was a teenage girl, then this has been worth it.

Me: When is the book out?

Helena: It’s coming out in late October! Finally! It’ll be an inspiring Christmas gift for any young girl out there.

Me: Did you get a closure from finishing the story?

Helena: Oh my God, absolutely, one hundred percent! It was very cathartic to be able to express what I went through and put it in writing. Writing a book itself was a journey for me. It was painful as well because it reminded me of what I put my body through. But it was also empowering to use it as a vessel to help other people. That was an amazing release. Finishing the story ultimately helped me to forgive myself.

Me: You also have a website, right?

Helena: Yes, it’s called Hey, Wise Girl. The content isn’t just about eating disorders. It’s about all kids of stuff, from learning to accept yourself, relationships and normal day to day things teens deal with. Anything that has come up for me that I wanted to express.

Me: How did you come up with the name of the website?

Helena: I actually remember where I was when I first thought about this. I was home in England and I was sitting at the kitchen table and I guess I was telling my mum (she tells me to spell mum with “u” because that’s the correct British version) that I wanted to start a blog.  It just came to me in a flash and I was like, hey how about this? I honestly don’t remember ever wanting to call it anything else. I really wanted Wise Girl to feel like the voice of a big sister. When I talk with the readers of the blog, I am like: “Hey fellow Wise Girls!” I want us all to deal with our issues together. It’s supposed to feel like a collective a movement where we empower and motivate one another together. Girls can be like: “Hey, I am a Wise Girl too!”

Me: You also have an Instagram account connected to this blog. What kind of feedback have you been receiving, for both the blog and the Instagram account?

Helena: I have just started the Instagram account and I’m still learning how to market my brand through it. It’s such a powerful tool to connect with people like that. I even have had older women following the account and commenting. They say that we all need to hear this, it’s not only for teenagers.

Me: Why do you think your audience should listen to you? Do you consider yourself an expert?

Helena: I wouldn’t call myself an expert. I say that on the website, I don’t have all the answers. I’m still figuring this out. But what is important to me is that I can relate to teen girls and hopefully inspire them that there’s a positive way of thinking and feeling. I was recently a teenager and I went through what they are going through not that long ago. And because I discovered this new way of thinking and  feeling about myself that changed my life in so many ways, I feel like I have to get this message out. I wouldn’t be staying true to myself if I didn’t get the message out. So it isn’t that I’m an expert, it’s more that I just want to share what I have learned. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a medical expert, I’m just someone who has lived through it.

Me: What do you do to feel good about yourself?

Helena: I used to be very controlling. When I was younger, I would wake up and weigh myself and if I put on half a pound it was a bad day, if I lost half a pound, maybe it was going to be a good day. I had everything listed. I knew exactly what I was going to eat the whole day and I went from diet to diet. I was miserable. I hated myself! I put all my energy into it. Now, even though it took me a long time to get here, I don’t control things anymore. I listen to my body in a healthy way, I stopped counting calories, I will never go on a diet again, I don’t weigh myself, I eat what I want. I’m happy to treat myself (prior to the interview we wanted to order pizza). I’m passionate about food now and how to nourish myself from the inside out.  And damn, I feel so much lighter! Physically and emotionally! Exercising is really good – it’s kind of like my therapy. I don’t do it to lose weight. I do it to let go and enjoy myself. I love pilates, yoga, spinning, anything that gets me out of my head and into my body. And coming back to the book, which has the title “Learning to Love the Girl in the Mirror”,  for a long time I wasn’t even able to look into the mirror. But if I’m having an off day or I’m not feeling so positive, I just get myself in front of the mirror and I will do some affirmations. Say something to myself that is empowering. I use this technique, it’s called “tapping” and when I feel off and I’m on phone with my mum who is a therapist, she will be like: “Have you done some tapping?” Even though I sometimes get annoyed at her always asking, I can’t deny it’s been an amazing tool to keep me centered and feeling happy and healthy.

Me: What would be your message to people who will read this?

Helena: Pressure on (she laughs)! I will wrap up with my favourite quote that my mum would tell me when growing up, and it’s Shakespearean so hey maybe it’ll  round things off nicely! “To thine own self be true”. Basically I try to live everyday by asking, “am I staying true to myself?” It helps me tune into my gut instinct, which has never really ever been wrong.  By staying true to yourself you also stay true to those around you and I think that is very important in everyone’s life!

 

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