One of my favorite things about Off Camera is hearing from each guest about the moment when their career came into focus. For some, like Matt Damon, the dream of being an actor became a reality when he found himself on his first set [Mystic Pizza] and fell in love with that environment. Judd Apatow wanted so badly to be part of the world of comedy that in high school he created his own radio show so he had an excuse to interview his comedic heroes. Tony Hawk was focused on the sport that became his career even earlier, practically living at Oasis skate park in San Diego as a third grader. Sarah Silverman knew when she dropped out of college to work in comedy clubs that there was no going back for her. I find myself at odds with most Off Camera guests in this regard – I never really felt one true calling. That’s probably why I find talking to these folks so intriguing; almost all of them knew their calling from a young age, and pursued it with complete conviction.
My path has not been so direct. I’ve made several course corrections in pursuit of a creative career, and in some ways am still figuring it out. When I first discovered photography, I was in college – my second college. My first attempt to find my true calling as a freshman at Gonzaga University was aborted when I realized that no one serious about skateboarding could live in Spokane, Washington. I came home and spent a year goofing around at two different junior colleges before finally enrolling at California State University Fullerton, which was in the heart of the skateboard scene. I bounced around in different classes and majors, testing out art and English while I pursued my real passions: skateboarding and playing guitar in a band. I was working during the summer as a camp counselor at the YMCA and had a crush on a lifeguard there named Molly, who also attended Cal State. She refused to go out with me, but mentioned she was going to take Introduction to Photojournalism as one of her elective classes. Not being a total dummy, I signed up for the same course that afternoon and did my best to elicit surprise on the first day of class. I think Molly knew exactly what I was up to, but was flattered by my efforts nevertheless.
As we all bumbled around in the dark learning how to develop film, I developed a rapport with Molly, and we started dating. As it turned out, her father owned a recording studio – score! I started spending a lot of time at her house, and a lot of time in that studio. But photography stayed with me and got under my skin in a way that surprised me. I enjoyed both the process of finding images out in the world and learning how to master darkroom techniques. I took more photography classes and found myself at the Daily Titan, the university’s newspaper, and yes, it was daily. A bunch of college students with a full load of classes somehow managed to put out an 8-20-page newspaper every day mechanically, meaning we used a cut and paste paper layout, an analog photography process, and a printing press. And we won all kinds of awards, beating prestigious schools like USC at intercollegiate competitions that were the equivalent of March Madness for journalism geeks. I loved it.
I became the Titan photo editor and under the tutelage of the great Jay Berman, learned the joy and camaraderie that comes with the fast-paced, deadline-based world of print journalism. I took pictures, wrote stories, record reviews and op-ed pieces, and even got to interview members of some of my favorite bands – Exene Cervenka of X, and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. I’d stay late into the night with hardcore co-workers like Dan Whitcomb, Andre Meunier, Shauna Snow, Phil Metzger, David K. Li, Larry Nista (sorry I threw your Yaz tape out the window) and others. Google them – they are all respected journalists to this day. I had so much fun that I temporarily thought my calling – after professional skateboarder and rock star, of course – might be photojournalism.
I landed a gig straight out of college with the Associated Press. This was the big time – a giant building in downtown Los Angeles filled with reporters and photographers who covered the biggest stories in the world and won Pulitzer prizes for their efforts. I threw myself into the work and glommed on to many involuntary mentors as I learned the ropes. For a while I was making the daily 45-minute drive from Fullerton to L.A., but after working 20- and 30-day stretches without a break and falling asleep for short stretches at the wheel of my 1981 Honda Accord, I decided it was time to make the move to Los Angeles.
I rented a loft in a rough, undeveloped neighborhood at the corner of 7th and Santa Fe with my friend Scott Maginnis. In 1990, that was no man’s land, or more accurately, homeless man’s land. But to me, it was heaven. We had 1,500 square feet of space that filled with diesel smoke every time a truck exited the I-5. I rented a rehearsal space down the street for my band, and would skateboard between the two buildings. My skateboarding soon took a back seat to my crazy work schedule and the band,who had all committed to relocate to L.A. to “make it.” I tried to keep up my skateboarding skills, and am not proud to say I once successfully ollied a sleeping homeless man on the way to band practice. Downtown L.A. was my proving ground, and I was determined to make my life into something great. Little did I know I was less on the path to success and more on the path to self-discovery. Yes, it’s a long story, and I am going to stop here, so I can talk about this issue’s subject, Jessica Chastain. But in true serial fashion, I will continue this story in our next issue with Will Ferrell.
Jessica Chastain didn’t bounce around trying on different career hats, attending four colleges, attempting three majors and questioning her passion every step of the way. She knew at age seven that she wanted to act, and was unstoppable in her pursuit of the profession. How a small town girl with no connections landed a Julliard audition is beyond me, but from the moment she stepped on that stage, her talent was undeniable. She faced road blocks with a dedication and confidence unparalleled by her peers. If she wasn’t auditioning any given week, she was performing parts in plays – by herself, alone in her apartment. Well, the world has caught up with what Jessica has known her entire life: she was born to act, and we in the audience are all the better for it.
– Sam Jones, March 2015