You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas.
Before recently working with a pair of star indie writer-directors – David Mamet, on the new HBO movie Phil Spector, and John Sayles on the coming feature Go for Sisters – she'd previously been directed by Woody Allen (Celebrity), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) and Todd Haynes (I'm Not There).
Ross played the recurring role of documentary filmmaker Dana Lyndsey in season two of the acclaimed HBO series Treme. She's guested on such solid network shows as Third Watch, 24, Law & Order and New York Undercover.
Spector and Sisters come on the heels of her turn as a mother and wife in the well-received 2012 indie feature, Yelling to the Sky, that deals with issues of race, violence, bullying and relationships. It was shot in Queens, NY.
A measure of the esteem Ross enjoys is that both Mamet and Sayles wrote parts for her in their new films. Though she's only in one scene in the Spector bio-flick, which premieres Mar. 24, it's with the great Helen Mirren. Her co-lead role, opposite LisaGay Hamilton, in the Sayles cross-cultural suspenser Sisters marks her first lead in a prestige feature.
2013 also marks Yolonda's writing-directing debut with the short drama Breaking Night, an official selection of the Mar. 6-10 Omaha Film Festival unreeling at the Regal Stadium 16, 7440 Crown Point Avenue. Her dramatic narrative short screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. The coming-of-age story stars Ross as a young woman riding the throes of first love to escape a harsh home life. The film was selected for the New Voices in Black Cinema series in Brooklyn, NY.
Ross is a veteran of workshops at the Sundance Institute's screenwriters and directors labs, where she's worked with her "dear friend" screenwriter-director Joan Tewksberry (who scripted Nashville). The actress filmed her short last summer in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, whose spell she'd already fallen under from her work on Treme, the post-Katrina Big Easy-set drama. She recruited some of her crew from the show.
Fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne served as a Breaking Night producer.
A longtime New York City resident, Ross will be at the OFF screening, where Omaha friends and family will lend support.
Though she hopes Sisters leads to acting offers and Breaking Night establishes her directing cred, she's taking matters in her own hands by writing new scripts for her to direct and/or star in. She's currently penning a feature family drama she plans to direct in Houston, Texas next year. She's also writing a spec pilot. She has more short scripts she'd like to develop. She clearly views Breaking Night as the start of her career as filmmaker.
"It's like one down and many to go. Once I got it finished it was just onto the next one. It doesn't stop at one," she says.
Ross, a Burke High graduate who left Omaha in the mid-1990s to work in fashion, also sings (jazz, R&B) and paints (acrylic abstracts) and thus she views writing-directing as simply two more expressions of her creativity.
"I can do a lot of things. I happen to be one of those people that's gifted in a lot of ways creatively. I mean, that's just how I function. To not be utilizing all the parts of yourself sort of feels like you're wasting yourself ."
Her writing's evolved to where she's confident she can craft her own vehicles.
"I feel as time has gone on my writing has gotten more defined. I know what my voice is, I know I have a unique point of view, I know I see things in a way that I feel are not being seen. Also, so many things are from a male point of view. I find it refreshing to see somebody else's point of view, and you know I'm a black woman and one that I don't feel is stereotypical," says Ross, who's worked with several women directors.
"I can tell a story and my writing has been really going places."
Breaking Night realizes a long-held goal to put her ideas on screen.
"I wanted to get the visions out of my head and see if I can do it, see what I can make, see what comes out of me. I actually had something else written but I didn't feel like doing that so the story of Breaking Night just kind of came about. I had just been up at the Sundance film labs the summer before working on a project and it just made me want to have my own project to work on and to see what came of it with a collective group of people."
Helming her own film proved to be everything she thought it would be.
"It was like an amazing, magical event. Little by little it all came together. It was a four-day shoot. Our last day of shooting was a night shoot that went into morning and the sun came up and we watched the sun rising. We all broke night together and nobody wrecked anybody's nerves. We all worked together, there were no like attitudes, it was just beautiful."
She says the film's story is "a universal one with a different face on it." Her inspiration was the classic '70s rock song "Blinded by the Light," a personal favorite that always conjured romantic and rebellious images for her. She set the story, which all takes place in the space of 24 hours, in the same decade to stay true to the song's roots.
"I tell a universal story of a young person going through problems at home who doesn't have support and leaves home. That's every race, every generation."
In her script the song becomes an anthem for breaking free of shackles that define or limit us. Her choice to infuse an interracial love relationship into the mix was about overturning stereotypes but in the end her film's less about that than it is about finding one's identity and following one's destiny.
"There are definitely images that would always come to mind when I would listen to the song, knowing the time period it comes from, knowing which stations it would be played on and who the audiences would be for it. But in my thoughts it's universal because everybody I know loves that song and rocks that song and I wanted to put a different face on who the characters were in it.
"If a film from the song was made in the '70s when it came out I'm sure those characters would all be white. In TV and film then most times you would see black people either in the city on drugs or selling drugs or trying to get out of the ghetto or in the South trying to flee the South. In this case I wanted to put certain constraints on myself to fit the story and these elements into this seven minute song and tell this story."
She's satisfied she delivered a tale of youthful angst and longing that transcends cultures.
"I feel I've succeeded because race is not the issue at all in it. The story happens to have a black family. What I used as reference were movies like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It's a rural home where the mom, even though it's not said, has like a factory job and she's got a dude she shouldn't be with. He's not a dad, he's kind of living off them and taking advantage.
"The boy the girl is in love with is her escape. He's the only one that understands her. At that age you have that person and he's that person. They both run away. She's got him as protection. That's a young romance, so who knows what's going to happen to it when she gets to wherever she's going."
Ross has the girl she plays cross paths with a posh black couple out on the town getting their disco down. The couple represent to the girl a sophistication and life far removed from her own.
"It's like they symbolize to the girl that she can become that. So then she does take her life and her future into her hands and makes a decision. She's not going to be a person who gets run over and taken advantage of, she's not going to allow herself to be in the same kind of situation as her mom."
An actress who never looks the same from part to part, Ross deftly plays both the ingenue and the ethereal disco mama.
Ross shot and edited the encounter to indicate the disco couple also see in the girl the possibility of something she'd never seen in herself. The girl becomes empowered by accepting a knowing look from the woman and a kiss and a business card from the man. All affirmation of her worth and emancipation – that her time has come, that her path will be different.
"It's like, 'This fabulous couple sees something in me? OK, I'm out of here.' The kids don't know where they're going, they're just running away, but now she's going wherever the disco man's card says he from. It's that kind of feeling."
Ross went after a late '70s-early '80s Pop style look for the film, which plays like a good music video. She doesn't mind the music video comparison but is adamant the story stands on its own.
"It has the aspects of a music video to it but it really is a short film because without the music the story is still there. I would like people to understand that there's a lot actually happening there. All those frames in it have meaning."
The visual palette changes as the drama plays out.
"It's got three parts to it. It starts off light and kind of generic but once you get into the home it gets dark, it gets more real because it's a messed up situation that happens. Once she's out of the home that night it goes through a kind of surreal take. It leaves you wondering did this really happen or did she dream it."
In one shot the two young lovers have a kind of out-of-body experience while making out and to convey that feeling Ross wanted a visual effect she recalled seeing from that era. But she couldn't find an example and she didn't know what to call it.
"That was like the hardest thing," she says. "In describing seeing that thing on TV or in videos in the early '80s I could not find anybody who knew what that thing was. I finally found somebody to actually do it for me. It's called a trail."
The ending unfolds in an other-worldly rural idyll flush with Spanish Moss trees. There's a sumptuous quality to the imagery throughout, even the gritty parts, that she credits her director of photography, Justin Zweifach, with.
"My DP was amazing. He literally came on a week before us shooting because my original DP dropped out and it was a blessing because he understood everything that was going on in my head. I made storyboards and there's a full script but him asking me certain questions about the feel of things, the feel of characters, how I saw things, that was way more helpful in him capturing how it looks. It's above and beyond what I expected. I mean, he shot it beautifully."
She says crew embraced the project because with its minimal dialogue and luscious images their work can be readily seen on the screen.
Others who helped ease her through the first-time filmmaking process were executive producer Tim Mather and associate producer Sasha Solodukhina.
About Mather, she says, "When you've got somebody who's got your back and understands the whole production part of it to guide you through it's a lifesaver because there are so many little things. I come from acting, so I know about emotions, I know about all that kind of stuff. Before I did this i really didn't even know the difference between a gaffer and a grip. I hate to say this but I didn't know what the jobs were, but now I know. I know in front of, I know behind, I know these things now.
"And Tim is great dealing with people and places you need to have connections to to get better deals and to get things done."
She says Solodukhina was "like wonder woman because she got me so many people. She knows everybody."
As for having Payne's imprimatur on the film, she notes, "What can you say? How can that hurt? I'm glad that our friendship made him come on and contribute. I still have to show him the film though."
With the likes of Payne, Mamet and Sayles in her corner, she knows her work is getting noticed by the right people.
"It's like how I feel most of my career has been, you just do your work and a lot of times you don't feel anybody's paying attention or whatever but then you get these offers from these great directors, so it's amazing who watches and who does think of you."
The offer from Sayles came while she location scouted for her short. She knew him from auditioning for his Honeytrippers, losing a part in it to her Go for Sisters co-star, LisaGay Hamilton.
Sisters is the fictional story of childhood best friends whose different life paths have separated them for 20 years until events reunite them as adults. Ross is the newly released from prison Fontaine, who finds her old friend Bernice (Hamilton) assigned as her parole officer. The street wise ex-con becomes a lifeline when Bernice's son is captured and held for ransom by drug dealers in Mexican border towns. Edward James Olmos becomes the third amigo in this search party that courts danger at every turn.
The low-budget, guerrilla-style shoot in Mexicali, Calixico and Tijuana required a huge number of locations in a short number of days, which kept cast and crew hopping.
"It was fun but just different logistically for me," says Ross. "It was sort of like you wake up and you just go. You don't even look around. You're like, OK, who am I? What are we doing? It's almost a road movie because we're on the move so much. The story takes you on a nice trip. There's lots of familiar faces in cameos and it's fun to see who you come across next."
About the enigmatic Sayles, she says, "Pretty much he gives you the blueprint and you do it. He has said, and now I see it, that his directing is choosing the right actors,. He lets us do our work." By contrast, she says Mamet "is more verbal than John. I think he's really funny, I really like him a lot. The one way they are alike is they both tell stories while working and they both have people around them they've worked with before, so there's a level of comfort with the crew."
She's excited to see who next notices her work. though she says she's been around long enough to know that some filmmakers "go after the same people or who they think are hot or whatever," adding, "You can be talented all day but that has nothing to do with them hiring you." She says if box office performance is the arbiter then she'll always be at a disadvantage because the small indie work she does rarely makes much of a splash or a profit.
"It's unfortunate. The rest is just all crazy business stuff, which makes no sense. That's why I'm writing."
Ross is also part of a March 9 panel, Actors on Acting, at 3:15 p.m.
The Omaha Film Festival is a curated assemblage of narrative feature films, documentaries, live action and animated shorts as well as workshops and panels. Now in its eighth year, the fest has a track record of bringing film artists with and without Nebraska ties to discuss their work. For schedule and ticket details, visit www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.