Actress Helen Highfield stars on I Ship It, a series that first aired on CW Seed. The show gained such a following that the network decided to air the second season on television. As for Highfield herself, she’s determined to create a different narrative about female characters on television and movies. We chatted with this funny, free-spirited talent to discuss her hit television series, whether or not she has any regrets, and if there are any dream roles she wishes to take on.
Cliché: First off, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions. It is greatly appreciated! Now, from what I gathered, not much is written or known about you. So, if you don’t mind, I would like to use this interview as a way for people to get to know who Helen Highfield is! Let’s start with your upbringing. You’re from Ithaca, New York. Would you say you had a relatively normal upbringing? Tell me about that.
Helen Highfield: Of course, thank YOU! Well, I was born and raised in Ithaca, NY – a small liberal university town with a bumper sticker that reads “Ithaca: 10 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality”. And, of course, there’s the more famous one: “Ithaca is Gorges” (cause we have quite a few). I’d say I was pretty lucky to grow up there because there’s a ton of support for the arts and a big mix of people who live there because of Cornell. We Ithacans have a lot of hometown pride.
How did you get bitten by the acting and performing bug? Was it a particular show or film you saw that resonated with you the most?
I always loved going to see theater and watching movie musicals like Singing in the Rain but I was mostly focused on singing for a long time. I sang in several choirs and I got into acting by doing all the school musicals starting in 8th grade. In high school, some friends told me about The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca, a local acting class they were in, and it sounded absolutely terrifying but I gave it a try and fell head over heels in love with it. I was always a bit of a perfectionist and I remember leaving that first class thinking “this is the first thing I’m willing to be bad at and I think that’s important.”
Tell me about your time in school. Did you ever feel out of place? Were you ever bullied? If so, how did you overcome that and what advice would you give to kids who are going through the same thing?
I was very lucky in this regard cause I had a couple of besties who had the same interest in theater and music as I did and that’s all that really mattered to me. I was never really worried about joining a certain group and preferred to get to know people individually. The best advice I can give is: focus on finding your people. Your people will be kind and laugh with you at the same dumb stuff and share your interests. The mean people aren’t your people.
Since beginning your acting career, you’ve guest starred on a number of highly successful television series such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, and Rizzoli and Isles. Which means you got to work alongside some pretty powerful actors such as Mariska Hargitay, Joe Mantegna, and Angie Harmon. What lessons did you learn from these people in particular that you have taken with you in your life and career?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have scenes with those folks – though I fully geeked out at Chris Meloni (a fellow alum of The Neighborhood Playhouse) on my way to set! I think the main thing I took away (and continue to marvel at) from those first few jobs was the overwhelming sense of community that comes through on set. It’s so exciting to experience how everyone there is happily focusing their job so it can all come together. I think it’s an important lesson to understand that it’s such a collaborative effort and your acting is only one part of a much bigger machine.
In 2016, you began portraying Ella on I Ship It. What drew you to the project and the character of Ella? How do you see yourself reflected in Ella?
I’d actually randomly stumbled upon Yulin Kuang’s (creator of I Ship It) YouTube channel a year or so before I auditioned and I loved her work. When I auditioned, I had this weird feeling that I somehow recognized the character but I didn’t make the connection till the callback that this was the series iteration of her short film by the same name. I loved how messy and determined Ella is. And of course, was really excited about singing in a show – it was my first time recording! There’s definitely a lot of me in Ella. We’re both ambitious and can get kinda intense when we’re going after something we want. We both feel a lot of feelings. Though I think Ella is a lot more impulsive than I am. I think that’s part of what I loved about playing her.
The first season aired on CW Seed and was so popular with audiences that the show has graduated to airing on television? The premiere date is April 10th. Why do you think the show resonated with viewers the way it did?
Yes! Starting April 10th, it’ll be available for 2 weeks only on CW Seed before it moves to broadcast later this year. There’s a lot of fandoms out there but not a lot of content about the fandoms themselves so I think Yulin tapped into something special with this show. Ella is a fangirl who writes fan fiction and in this season, our show takes place in an alternate universe (a popular fan fiction trope) so we get to play with the musical genre in a whole new way. No more nerd rock, just full on musical moments. Our composer, Brian Grider, did an excellent job and I think the music in this season is even better than the last!
According to your website, you say that a career goal of yours is to “play smart, sophisticated, sexy women who have fun with language”. Elaborate on that? What does that mean for you personally?
Haha, yes! I’ve just seen way too many parts for women that aren’t very dynamic or interesting – they just ask the male characters “what do you mean?” to propel the plot. All the women I know are WAY more interesting than what’s largely been portrayed in TV and movies so it’s really exciting to see the shift that’s happening in Hollywood. My current obsession is Pen15. Those characters are so beautifully written and acted and I see the complexity of my female friends in them. I just want to work with great writers who write multifaceted female characters! That’s another reason I loved playing Ella – she’s so honestly ambitious, a quality we still sometimes vilify in women when we really shouldn’t. And as for the “sexy” part… I like the idea of playing women who are at home in their bodies in a way that doesn’t need to be their one defining quality as decided by the (often) male writer. Sexy is just a confidence in oneself.
What is the most surprising self-realization you’ve had?
Oh man, they’re all surprising! But let’s go with the realization that my perception of things is the only thing I can truly control and so I get to have a lot of choice in how I see my life. It’s pretty empowering to realize that I get to choose how I react to life’s ups and downs.
What’s one thing you did in the past that you really wish you could go back and undo, or do differently?
Oh man. I think I’d go back to 18 year old me who’d just moved to NYC to go to acting school and was low key terrified and I’d give her a hug and tell her to breathe. Not sure she/me would listen, but it’d be worth a try!
Finish this sentence: I am most fulfilled when ______.
I’m able to find balance and create boundaries. I’m guilty of putting other people’s needs ahead of mine a lot but I keep learning (and re-learning and re-learning…) the lesson that when I make time for self-care, I’m a much better version of myself to everyone around me. I now literally set alarms to remind myself to eat because I can get the suuuuper hangry!
Are there any particular dream roles that you see yourself portraying? Why do you see yourself in those roles?
When I saw August: Osage County on Broadway, I got really excited to act for a long time and get to play some badass ladies like Barbara. I’d love to play her in that play someday.
Finally, what kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind? What kind of message would you like to get across when all is said and done?
Oooooh this is deep. Ya know, I don’t feel like I have any big ambitions for changing the world purely with my acting. Of course, I’d love to be remembered for a large body of inspiring acting work, but mostly I think we influence the world in much smaller interactions. I think we can all spread kindness daily and inspire those around us by offering ourselves compassion. I was introduced to the Marianne Williamson poem “Our Deepest Fear” when I was in acting school and I just love this line: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
Thank you so much for speaking with us!
Thank you for having me!
Be sure to catch I Ship It airing right now on CW Seed. It will remain there for two weeks before moving to the CW Network later this spring! To stay up to date on all things Helen Highfield, follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
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Actress Helen Highfield Talks About “I Ship It”, Regrets, and Dream Roles: Featured Image Credit: Sela Shiloni