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Interview: Marissa Tiamfook: Entertainment Lawyer Turned Actress

MarissaheadshotMarissa Tiamfook made a major transition from working as an entertainment lawyer…to entertaining. After two years at a corporate law gig representing entertainment clients, Tiamfook took center stage and became a full-time actress. But she hasn’t left her legal roots behind altogether, since she still manages to find time for plenty of pro bono work.

Tiamfook enjoyed practicing law, and credits her legal training with building her confidence and instilling within her a strong work ethic -- the kind that motivated her to tackle her new career with gusto - attending up to five auditions a day, browsing newspapers for opportunities, sending out cover letters, posing for head shots, preparing resumes and doing mass mailings. She also credits her career counselors at Celia Paul & Associates with helping her determine her priorities and conclude that it was best to leave law and pursue her childhood dream of being an actress.

Click below for our interview with Tiamfook.

Q: What are you currently doing?

A: I’m an actress and I do everything from commercials to film to plays. I’ve been auditioning a lot and just finished acting school in June, which I went to for two years. I’ve been really committed to auditions. I love acting although I don’t enjoy being a “struggling actress”.  When you’re an artist, it’s just a part of who you are.

Q: How did you get into acting originally?

A: I acted since I was a little kid and always wanted to be an actress.  But I was also scared, so ended up going to law school as a way to try something else -- and it was fine. I really enjoyed being a lawyer, but I just knew that I always wanted to be an actress. Even while I was in law school, I volunteered at a theatre. I would do things at a non-profit theatre like house manage, help build sets, and help stage manage. And while I was a lawyer at my firm, I used to take acting classes on Saturdays just for fun.

Q: You said when you decided to go to law school; it was partly because you were afraid to pursue acting. Did you also have an interest in the law?

A: Yes. I really wanted to do international human rights work. I worked at the UN after my first summer in law school in Switzerland for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) as a legal aid intern. I worked for International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism. It was great! But I also decided that I might also want to try Entertainment Law, which was another big interest of mine. So that’s what I ended up doing -- entertainment law at my firm where I used to work for two years in its corporate department where they had a lot of entertainment clients…sports clients, music clients.

Q: How did you conclude that you were ready to change your career direction? What helped you move to that next step?

A: My first day of work at the firm was September 10, 2001. It was a really hard time to be in corporate law. And then the second day of work, we got evacuated.  After, I was still busy, but not busy enough and I got really nervous. My summer associate class was 81 which is pretty typical for this firm and then the summer class after 9/11 it was 40.  And so I was really worried that I would get laid off -- and eventually I did, after two years. My last two months at the firm I had very little work and a lot of free time. So, I was online a lot and I started looking at acting websites. I decided that I was going to apply to get my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts). You needed a head shot for the application. So I went and got a head shot taken. The day after I took my head shot, I got laid off. And two days later I picked up the shots. So I started auditioning instead of looking for new legal work. I didn’t really know where to begin as I had never before professionally pursued acting. I started picking up “Backstage” and auditioning, and looking at the newspaper and websites…and I got [acting] work really quickly. I ended up not attending an MFA program because of that.

Q: When you were making that major jump from law into acting, were there any support figures, colleagues or mentors who were particularly helpful to you and had an impact on this transition?

A: While I was at my firm, I was very interested in entertainment law. And I did some pro bono work for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. And I had two clients that were small non-profit theatres.  I learned a lot just about theatre management and about starting from the ground up in terms of being an artist. So they were really helpful for me. One was a musical organization and the other was a theatre in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Q: How have your support systems impacted your transition into this field?

A: I’ve actually started an organization with a friend. We met doing a play about three years ago and while we were in rehearsals, found out we went to the same law school (NYU). And she had also made a transition from law to acting. And so together we decided to start an organization called “Creative Lawyers”. We have meetings monthly, which consist of all lawyers who are now in the arts; most of us actors, but some are playwrights and producers. We get together and schmooze and network and try to figure out what each of us wants to do. Some are still lawyers who haven’t yet left law to pursue acting.  So we all try to support each other.

Q: At what point in your transition did you come to the career counseling firm Celia Paul Associates?

A: I was referred to Celia Paul by my former law firm. Counseling was helpful in putting together my resume and in putting together my priorities. And I think that helped me to decide to finally leave the law. I never applied to another law firm. I originally applied to some non-profits but then decided to do pro bono for Legal Aid. 

Q: Was there anything else that was memorable to you about the counseling process?

A: I remember going through writing out priority lists and being completely honest with myself about what I wanted. When I was a lawyer, I probably wasn’t being honest with myself about what I wanted to do.  It never occurred to me to think of jobs besides legal jobs. So this made me think about jobs that might not be legal.

Q: I realize that these are two very different careers, but are there any skills you feel you developed as a lawyer that you were able to transfer over to the career of acting?

A: Confidence. One thing about being a lawyer is you have a certain level of prestige and expertise in a very [narrow] area. And people accept that you’re an expert. So I had a higher confidence level from that, and found that really helpful for acting [since] I’m selling myself and am my own instrument. So I have to be completely comfortable with everything I do.

Another skill I was able to transfer over from law was a work ethic on the business side. What most people don’t realize about acting is that there is a huge business side to it because there are [many] people who want to be actors and only 100 who can earn a living at it. I myself got work immediately. And that’s because I kicked myself and made myself go.  There was a point I was going to five auditions a day. And it’s a lot of work. But to get the work takes a lot of proactivity. So I would get up check out websites, check out newspapers, send out cover letters, send out head shots and resumes and do mass mailings a couple of times a week -- and then go out on auditions. Just getting an audition is really hard. So the work ethic just to put myself out there is important. In law, I was used to working really hard and for really long hours.

Q: And you did pro bono work?

A: The first year after I left my firm, I volunteered at the Legal Aid Society in the Juvenile Rights Division. And this experience was really great. I had my own clients and my own office but I was doing it Pro Bono, and because of this, I could come and go whenever I wanted and needed to - like when I had an audition.

I did it for about a year. I received an award from Legal Aid for it. I put in a lot of time and learned a lot about family law, which I was really interested in. I was working with representing children in foster care. I still do pro bono work at the Bar Association as a member of the Committee on Children and the Law. I also volunteer one night a week at the Monday night law clinic for people who need advice or need to decide if they need to get a lawyer. Since I’m still a new actress, I deal with a lot of small theatres and a lot of small films, and I do a lot of the contracts. I did a show at the Classical Theatre of Harlem which is an amazing Off-Broadway theatre. They were applying for a grant and needed a lawyer to go over some of the contracts. And they ended up getting a $125,000 grant. And I’m doing an internet show right now. I believe I’m getting in-house counsel credit for it because I’ve gone over the contracts so much.

Q: Is there anything else you feel would be helpful for others going through a career transition or thinking about a career transition to know about that you’ve gained from your experience?

A: I feel that if you’re even thinking about a transition, then it’s probably the right decision for you. A lot of people are so scared because law is such a stable career and an easy-to-stay-in profession. That’s great, but if you’re having dreams of something else it probably means that you need something else. It’s very scary --but being a lawyer is always there.  People are going to applaud you. Everyone at my five-year law-school reunion this year was congratulating me.

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