Image Credit: Deante Grey, Robert Nachman
Halfway through the 2020 short film Loving Byron we come across the character of Russ, played by Sherrick O’ Quinn. Puffing away on a cigarette, Russ, unlike the titular protagonist, exudes confidence. During the exchange, both characters discuss their upbringing and current circumstances. As the conversation proceeds, however, the subtle details of Russ’ character are slowly called into question. Is his cigarette a facade for control, or is it a form of peer pressure, slowly infecting the lungs and mind of our innocuous protagonist? He’s far from malicious, yet his slick-talking comes at the expense of his vulnerable, financially struggling companion. Amid Loving Byron’s complicated narrative, this moment posits a fascinating question regarding one’s environment: to what extent is temptation, particularly that of sinful nature, influenced by our circumstances?
In contrast to the devilishly cunning Russ is his performer, Sherrick O’Quinn. Smiling over a Zoom call at 8 am, Sherrick greets us in a cheerful, warm-hearted spirit. Singling out Loving Byron as his favourite production thus far, he embraces his love for characters in morally “grey-areas” that expose the “messiness” of the human condition. But as an LA-based actor, Loving Byron’s question of environmental determinism is also crucial for understanding the trajectory of his career. While the media has often dreamt of acting in the sun-drenched city as a dizzying spectacle (take La La Land), or a cursed and confusing one (Mulholland Drive), we sat down and talked to upcoming actor Sherrick to find out what it’s really like to break into the industry today.
Firstly, Sherrick sets the scene. He reminisces on his childhood in the bustling city of Louisville, Kentucky, and recalls his early fascination with acting: “I’ve always had a big imagination and been something of a storyteller ... I liked to play different characters, and pretend to be somebody else.” Interestingly, however, this was not formed from an experience in theatre, nor did he have any connections with actors. “I didn’t grow up going to t,.he theatre, I was watching movies instead. We’d always watch films together as a family, whether it was going to the movie theatre or going to grab a VHS tape,” he explains. For Sherrick, it was these viewing experiences that catalysed a deeper “desire to be seen” - a feat perfected by the black actors he saw on the screen, namely Will Smith and Denzel Washington. “They felt like mentors to me. Just seeing them on stage, what they represented as black men in these awesome roles. With the level of acting they brought, it was something really fulfilling.”
Ironically, Sherrick’s desire to perform did not come into fruition until college. After stumbling upon an open audition on campus, he decided to take a chance at performing in a production of Boy Meets Girl. “Secretly, I wanted the opportunity to act,” he jokes. Rather hazardly, Sherrick landed the role of a white, 60 year old Jewish guy in a fat suit. Despite the humour of this scenario, it was equally liberating, for the ability to transcend both physical and social convention was something he relished: “I just loved it, being on stage in this small college theatre was amazing.” And so, he began to sign up for acting classes the next semester, pursuing his passion until he finished his undergraduate studies, where he then continued to act in local plays.
A few years down the line, Sherrick found himself at a crossroads. He was working as an educator, while juggling talents in music, sports, screenwriting, and of course, acting. What really inspired him, though, was a quote by Chadwick Boseman, who found himself with “too many irons in the fire.” Like Boseman, Sherrick realised that it was only when he channeled these talents toward a single goal – acting – that he could become the best possible version of himself.
So what happens when you finally take the leap into professional acting? Initially, Sherrick picked up roles in commercials. He then made the drastic decision to move to Atlanta, an often forgotten powerhouse of American film and TV production. “I had no job, and no savings... I went there with 50 dollars to my name.” In the midst of this life-changing decision; Sherrick began to realise one thing: “I wanted to be an actor, not for the sake of acting, but for who I wanted to be as a change in the world.” Yet on moving to Atlanta, he didn’t find his big break. Instead, he fell into a network marketing job. He recalls this in both jest and fondness: “It got me used to rejection, and one of the greatest things you have to deal with as an actor is rejection... I became so much more confident.” When he decided to move back home, opportunities to audition for hit TV shows like House of Cards and Empire started rolling in like clockwork. “[Empire] was my first time going in front of a casting director... When I got a call-back, I had to stand in front of six or seven people who could be the writers or producers of the show.” In the same year, he bagged roles in films starring Mickey Rourke and Jon Voight.
While he describes this period as “God opening a door,” Sherrick’s revelation came not in the form of a life-changing role, but as a humble realisation: that he would need to return to education. “I knew I had talent, but I didn’t have the technique and the craft to support it.” And so, he accepted a place on the prestigious MA acting programme at the University of Southern California, taking him to the sunset boulevards of Los Angeles. This wasn’t an easy feat. As one of the top acting schools in America, the program requires a set of multiple auditions. Meanwhile, the course itself is known for both its physical and mental intensity. “For 3 years, acting is your full-time job,” he explains. The rigorous 10-hour rehearsals are matched by the main goal of the programme, which is to deconstruct and reconstruct oneself. “There are so many things you bring into the course. Personal experiences, trauma, your own life story... They get in the way of your talent,” he says. “While you’re learning how to perform a character, it’s teaching you how to be you.”
In this sense, the theatre productions, improvised moments, and overall performance offered a safe space in which one could bare their most human elements without judgement. “It’s like being shaken up,” Sherrick jokes. Alongside this self-construction is the course’s equally challenging group element: “You’re trying to figure out yourself, but you’re also trying to figure out the other people. It’s a really amazing and chaotic process.” In the final year of the MA, these challenges unravel in a three-play repertory: “You prep for about four months in rehearsal almost every day. Then we did 24 shows in five weeks. It was a phenomenal test for me.” So intense, in fact, that Sherrick considers surviving the final academic year as one of his “greatest accomplishments.” But those who complete the course are rewarded with an immense personal and professional transformation: “You come out of it a better actor, but more than that, you’re a better person.” It’s for this reason that Sherrick highly recommends passionate students to consider an acting degree: “You don’t have to be an actor. I didn’t grow up in theatre, but I put in the faith, work and time to do it. It’s a great opportunity.”
On this note, Sherrick provides tips for those wanting to network in the industry. While he admits that a lot of the hard work is done by managers and agents, he stresses that finding your own community is just as important. “Once you start going to auditions or getting involved with theatre companies and performing arts groups, you start getting these connections, ”he explains. “You never know who that person will be in the future – they could end up being the director on the film who remembers working with you.” Sherrick recommends being proactive in meeting others as well, whether that’s going to a Zoom workshop or an in person event. The work itself is often a ticket to getting your name out there: “Just by being in a play or doing a solo performance piece, people will see you – they might want to work with you, or catalog you in their mind for a future role.”
Of course, Sherrick is constantly navigating the industry as a graduate himself. “My ultimate goal would be to see myself on a billboard, that’s my shooting for the stars. If I don’t hit it, I don’t hit it. But that’s what I came to LA to put myself in the position to do.” Although this is ambitious, he acknowledges the reality of having to put food on the table. “My daily life right now as an actor is working at a 9-5. I juggle that with teaching and supporting myself doing Door Dash. At the same time, I’m auditioning, writing scripts and doing small projects.”
With that being said, Sherrick retains a glass half-full mentality: “LA can be whatever you want it to be. As long as you have the tenacity and the will to be here, you can make it work.” And it’s this same mentality he wants to share with others. Speaking wisely, he reveals his most important piece of advice: to believe in oneself. “Your belief has to be bigger than your inner critic will tell you. The people who surround you might not see that vision until it’s manifested.” Still, Sherrick advises on being humble. “Acting is a marathon. Go into the process knowing that it’s a journey. There’ll be lots of ups and downs, but it’s a really cool one if you’re up for it.” It’s these words that make Sherrick a striking inspiration not just for aspiring actors - but for artists everywhere.