Regardless of our awareness, we all get glimpses from time to time that we are more than our physical body, mind, emotions, and thoughts. We often try to define a part of ourselves that is infinite in nature, and as a result, we are unable to fully comprehend who we are from our finite physical perspective. But when we soften our physical faculties by using whatever tools we have at our disposal, we go within and begin to experience the world from a wider perspective, reaching beyond our body, mind, emotions, and thoughts.
Ellen Hollman, an award-winning actress, writer, and producer, who stars in Warner Bros’ action thriller The Matrix Resurrections, says, “I believe that no one can truly define themselves. We’re all just really a bundle of possibilities. Within those guidelines, I suppose I would love to see myself as the possibility of presence, the possibility of courage, and the possibility of joy. However, I have not yet achieved all these things in perfect harmony, but I assure you, I’m working on it.”
All our physical faculties assist us in experiencing the physical realm from the place of self. This unique vantage point that all of us are born with makes it a beautiful world with so much variety as there are living beings in it. As we navigate through the infinite pool of possibilities, we observe and compare to make preferences. The comparison stimulates us as a starting point to want more so we can experience more. Eventually, stimulation can turn into inspiration for us to have a fuller expression of who we are becoming.
“Contrary to many beliefs I once had, competition is real. It is just as exciting as it is a harsh reality. And those who say that they are only in competition with themselves have their heads lodged in between two crusty seat cushions,” says Ellen.
“Imagine you’re watching the Olympics and each performer is competing solely against themselves. What a bore that would be! You wouldn’t have the same levity; it wouldn’t have the same gravi toss. I must confess that I’ve failed more times than I’ve ever succeeded and will continue to do so. However, that’s what separates me from the herd.
Serena Williams didn’t achieve her accolades because there was no competition—competition sets a parameter. So, you must have guidelines and a standard by which to measure your progression.
“My athletic background is in track and field. I had been a competitive runner for years and was en route to college with a scholarship, but unfortunately, an injury rendered that possibility useless. So, in that particular arena, measurements were essential. If someone is a fraction of an inch further than you, they declare themselves the winner. That’s the way the game is played. You cannot argue with that, you cannot refute that evidence, and you can’t take it personally. That person didn’t accidentally excel; they bled, cried, and perhaps crushed their spirit more than you did, and they have achieved where they are as a result.
“There are two ways to look at it. First, you can compare who you are as a person to that. In that regard, comparison is a thief of joy. Second, you can merely take away your emotions, look at the science behind it, look at the numbers, and say, ‘Well, they put in more time; they fit a specific bracket.’
“Regarding the entertainment industry, I may appear too similar to the other lead character they have during the audition process. It’s not personal. Perhaps there could be a myriad of reasons why I don’t get a specific role, but it is never personal. And that, in my opinion, is how I’ve managed to stay in this highly competitive industry for over two decades,” Ellen shares passionately.
Actors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the character’s experience and explore various perspectives. Ellen brings her athletic experience to many of her roles, enhancing her craft as an actress and living it to its fullest potential.
Ellen reveals, “Many years ago, I had a role in a show called Spartacus, where I played a female German gladiator named Saxa. The woman who was supposed to double me went on to double Charlize Theron in Mad Max. So, I was left without a double. The creator of Spartacus, Steven S. DeKnight, was like, ‘Well, you can change your weapon of choice (it was a reverse grip, double daggers), and we can find a double for you. Or you can do it all yourself because we don’t have anyone who specializes in that weaponry. And I asked him, ‘How much time do I have?’ Steven said, ‘Not too much, maybe a few weeks.’ I turned to the Spartacus stunt team and told him, ‘Show me what I have to do; I don’t care. I’ll be the first to show up and the last to leave. I don’t care about bruises, cuts, scrapes, exhaustion, I will do it.’ And because of that, there was no cutting around, it was all me doing everything. That increased my admiration for the incredible men and women who are stunt performers.
“Eventually, I developed an appetite for it. And that’s when my journey to becoming a mixed martial arts practitioner began. To this day, I now find myself training with my husband’s stunt coordinator, Stephen Dunlevy, and his world-renowned stunt team 87Eleven Action Design, and who also coincidentally did Matrix, the John Wick film franchise, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Fast and Furious, to mention a few. So, I’ve learned many other tricks over the years and have become a seasoned jiu-jitsu practitioner. I managed to achieve my purple belt recently under Hugh Fitzgerald. And then Chad Stahelski, the director of the John Wick franchise, is one of my mentors. So I’ve married the two essentially, the ‘xy’ worlds and acting.”
Ellen has been a jiu-jitsu practitioner for nearly a decade, but she is also a co-instructor for Gracie Academy’s Women Empowered Program. Ellen describes self-empowerment as “essentially self-efficacy.” She also says, “You can train a person for hours, weeks, months, or years; however, if they can’t do it on their own, then how empowering could that possibly be? Self-empowerment: It’s being able to stand up on your own two feet and feel confident in your own skin. And the reason jiu-jitsu specifically stands out from the rest of the martial arts is that it does not rely on size or strength; it relies on skill. So, to teach these women how to choke out a grown man in seven seconds, you are showing them these skills of self-defense that they will carry in the real world. I don’t have a vigilante story about fighting off twenty guys in an alley in the middle of the night; however, I can say that I walk a little taller, with my chin a little higher, knowing what I’m capable of achieving. And that’s really the foundation of empowerment, in my opinion.”
Not only are we most natural when we are included, but also when we are inclusive. Often, we relinquish our power by waiting for others to see us, to include us, when the only inclusiveness we can fully control starts with ourselves. Accepting who we are becoming in its entirety enables us to serve as an inspiration to others.
“To me, inclusivity means being without discrimination. Your ability to work, perform, and excel is not predicated on your color, nor is it predicated on your sex. I believe that now, more than ever, women and minorities have a greater voice. But since we haven’t had the same opportunities as our male counterparts, who are still incredible mentors, it means we lack the same potency of experience. So, when you’re given these opportunities, you almost have to work harder because you haven’t had these experiences previously. I now find myself producing more than I ever had before. With open arms, I recently shadowed Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick franchise, as well as produced Don’t Suck with RJ Collins and Jamie Kennedy, where I spent each day behind the monitor assisting with shots, dialogue, and coaching actors. I became part of the team eventually. It wasn’t, ’Oh, who is this woman producer?’ It was, ‘You’re part of the team.’ And a lot of that is based on trust. There is currently a massive movement to include these minorities and women. And because of that, we have to really make up for the lost time, which can be a significant burden to carry. It’s a real sink or swim scenario, and I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into it,” says Ellen.
Speaking from the perspective of representation as actors, more and more people are telling stories that are not particularly within the context of race, sex, or culture, but simply stories happening to human beings. Ellen exclaims, “Exactly, and that is something we’re growing into. I don’t want to be given a title because I’m a woman, and a lot of that is happening right now where you do have to meet a quota. And then there’s the locker room talk where it’s like, ‘Oh, she just got this because they needed to fill in that box.’ But at the same time, I’m showing up, bringing solutions ten times faster, and being the last person to leave after resolving all your issues. Are there people with a greater resume from a production standpoint? Sure. However, they’re not me. And I’m just going to work just as hard as anyone else who could fill the slot, if not harder.”
How does it feel when we rely on the opinions of others to validate our worthiness? When we look outward, we first observe the variety around us and compare to make a preference, which is part of experiencing our physical existence. When we look inward, we only can love, which is part of experiencing who we are in essence. We are the blend of outward and inward perspectives, both equally valuable, always connected in an inseparable dance and eternal movement between looking out and looking within.
Ellen reiterates, “This circles back to who I see myself as. And again, I believe you should really hone in on the possibilities of who you are as a person rather than lock yourself into that true definition, which will inevitably lead to disappointment. As I previously stated, comparison is the thief of joy; you should allow that to fluctuate and keep judgments away from yourself. Besides, you can’t change other people’s opinions of you. Believe me when I say that there are some pretty colorful opinions about me out there. And that’s fine. I sleep like a baby at night; it doesn’t impact me at all. Because for every negative thought directed at me or whispered behind my back, there are hundreds of supportive thoughts. It is very challenging to look outward for validation, especially in this world of social media. So, you really have to bring it down to the basics: make no judgments about yourself and learn from your mistakes.
“Valerie Morehouse, a singing coach I had many years ago, once told me, ‘Treat people how you want them to treat you.’ So, if you’re beating yourself up, guess what? The world’s going to get out of you. The world is watching how you carry and treat yourself. That’s not to say that you should place yourself on a pedestal. Don’t beat yourself up.”
There are many techniques for actors to explore the process of becoming someone else. It is fascinating how actors get to experience a story that is not theirs, which brings so much expansion as they tap into the context of the character’s actions—each actor creates their own inner process for that.
“I know that some performers, whether they apply the techniques of Stanislavski or Meisner, have a plethora of wonderful ways to practice and to get into their character. However, each character is different. The way that you would approach a comedy is much different than how you would approach a drama, and then there are the action comedies, action dramas, and dark comedies, where there’s again that element of levity with each character, each persona, so regardless, you’ve got to do your homework. In particular, if you’re taking on a character who once existed, you better watch every shred of evidence on that person you can get your clutches on. Additionally, this holds true for professions. If you are playing a trauma surgeon, you need to know what bradycardia is. If you have to play a lawyer, you need to know how to confidently give a closing statement in front of an entire room of people. So, I must exercise due diligence, complete my homework, and show up overprepared and familiar with the action world in which I’ve found myself for nearly 20 years now. Each action sequence tells a story. So, I need to know where the beginning, the middle, and the end is. And then I ask myself, ‘Are there funny beats I can infuse in there? Are there dramatic moments when the protagonist is nearly suffocating and needs to return from the dead to take on the antagonistic?’ There are so many different methods, and I’ve been trained in all of them.
“The Meisner method, which Is taught at Nina Murano’s studio in New York City, is about responding to the other person’s behavior as opposed to what they’re saying—almost identical to what we do in real life. But, you know, there is no right or wrong way to do It. Just like in multi-cam comedy, you don’t go into those depths. Over the years, one of my teachers, who is now one of my partners, has produced incredible performers, ranging from Amy Adams to Zooey Deschanel. You cannot approach multi-cam comedy the same way you approach drama because it needs to be at a certain pace, every period needs something, every comma means something, and you have to learn how to dissect the beats. So, there are endless ways to approach a character,” shares Ellen.
One of Ellen’s brilliantly portrayed characters is Echo in The Matrix Resurrections, the sequence of the science fiction film series that started with The Matrix, originally written and directed by the Wachowski sisters. The Matrix Resurrections is currently available in theaters all over the world.
About the process of being part of the project, “This next installment in The Matrix Resurrections has been defined as a return to a world of two realities. One is everyday life, and the other is what lies beneath it. And when people ask me, ‘What is it about?’ I just say, ‘Well, it’s an indulgent and nostalgic treat for the senses. So, just come hungry and with a mind ready to be filled.’ I believe that a large part of it is due to Lana Wachowski’s decision to cast people not only based on their ability to perform but also on who they are as a person.
“I never actually had to audition for this role. I thought I had to and I was ready to. I loved Lana when I first met her. She was looking for someone very specific. She was very specific about the person’s physical qualities, features, energy, and ability to perform all of her own actions. Lana didn’t want to double for this role she wanted. She wanted the performer to be able to do everything. On that day, I didn’t realize how challenging that was going to be, but I was ready for anything. What I thought would be an audition ended up just being an hour of heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul conversation, a lot of which Wachowski and I had so much in common.
“We talked about family, life, depth, and how all of these things are the same. It was a really empowering conversation. I’ll never forget my friend Jess Henwick, who plays Bugs in The Matrix Resurrections. We actually worked together on a film called Love and Monsters. Jess was on the training mats behind Lana, which took place at 87Eleven Action Design, my husband’s stunting facility. Lana just hugged me and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ And I remember looking at Jess over Lana’s shoulder and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’ I was fangirling so hard to keep it together, calm, and cool. And that’s when the adventure began. It was a pretty surreal moment. In fact, fitting the entire checklist across the board was such an honor and a privilege.
“The Matrix Is arguably one of the biggest pop culture phenomena and not just of our lifetime but previous lifetimes. It raised the bar and, in my opinion, is often imitated, never duplicated. I just tell people once again that it is indulgent, pure nostalgia, and that it will expand your mind through all of your senses. You’ll want to be part of this so much that you want to taste it. So, just be ready to be taken for a ride.”
Another ride we all will enjoy is Ellen’s upcoming dark comedy Don’t Suck, which she produced and stars in as Stephanie alongside actor and comedian Jamie Kennedy. Ellen says, “We all are multi-talented and aim for fuller creative expression in all of them. Nowadays, more and more people are taking their passions to be expressed through many creative avenues, enhancing each and every craft they choose to immerse themselves in.”
“I have to tell you; I was in tears while shooting this. I mean, we were all behind the monitor, nearly crying every day. Comedian and actor Matt Rife is such a wunderkind; he is so brilliant. And Jamie Kennedy, I don’t even know what comes out of his mouth; it’s like he’s from another planet—and just the two of them back and forth. In fact, most of the time, I would collaborate with RJ Collins, the film director. So I often put two cameras on them because whatever they would come up with was gold. It was great fun. I’ve done plenty of comedy in the past. However, I found myself in the action genre for the past few years. It was so refreshing to come up with different new ways to make people laugh as opposed to different ways to dismember them.”
Then Ellen continues sharing about her experience on the film behind the cameras by saying, “Nearly twenty years have passed since I first stepped foot in this industry, and I always had my heart set on being a performer. I just always wanted to be an actress. Not because I’m growing up, but because I’ve been in this industry for a while, and whether you realize it or not, you’re learning how things are lit the moment you walk onto the set. Also, you are learning how things are shot and that every single cog in the wheel is absolutely essential to make the final product. Not one person is more important than the other, which is one thing people don’t realize. The actor is not the most important cog in the wheel, nor is the director; you can have the most brilliant performance directed to perfection. If it’s not lit well, guess what? It doesn’t go in that little black box. If the sound isn’t done well, you’re going to have to re-record the whole thing in ADR. So, many things have to happen to create a piece of art. And the moment you start taking a single department for granted, that is when the wheels start coming off the bus.
“I believe that after so many years in the industry, I understand how every department operates, I understand hair, makeup, wardrobe, and how to coach actors. Moreover, as a producer and director, I have to understand all these things and learn how to deal with those personalities. I can yell, ‘Action!’ during my own fight sequence and then run a production meeting all within 20 minutes. And that is the next challenge. So, whether I ever perform again isn’t where my next goal lies. I love the complexity of the world that exists before action is even called for. Spending hundreds of hours in the editing room has taught me more than I could ever express. Producing is my new love.”
When Ellen was asked about what she thinks is her best quality and what she loves seeing in others, she responded, “I think my best quality is honesty. You will never get the scenic route for me. I will give you that same straight answer every single time. Because, in my opinion, let’s say there is a bomb that’s about to detonate and cannot be stopped. You can’t pick up the pieces unless the bomb detonates. And that’s very much the truth. The truth is this: it’s this cancer that lurks behind the scenes that, if not brought to the surface, can cause a slew of other problems in the long run. And whether that’s truth upfront or truth in small doses over time, that has always been the way I’ve wanted to live my life, because I’ve always honored and respected those who were honest with me. So, if people know that I will be honest with them, then when I give them accolades or praise, they know I mean it with every fiber of my being. That is the same quality I love in others.”
Being honest, as Ellen does, is honoring the divine part of ourselves. What feels best to you: pretending and numbing yourself or embracing your true nature?
Photography // The Riker Bros