For fourth-year women’s studies student Mahaley Hessam, the elusive Holy Grail for actors known as the “big break” came in the form of a call from her agent. The call informed her that she’d been invited by the director of “Easy A” to read lines with Emma Stone.
After a red-eye flight from Georgia to Los Angeles and a 10 a.m. appointment with the studio, Hessam played the waiting game for a week.
“When you get so close to something, you can’t help but think about it all the time,” Hessam said.
Hessam eventually got the role of Nina, partner-in-crime to Amanda Bynes’ religious, close-minded Marianne. “Easy A” centers around Olive (Emma Stone), a high school girl who gets a bad reputation when she pretends to lose her virginity to a nerdy friend.
To audition for the role, Hessam sported a pastel sweater with a matching headband and a crucifix.
“Sometimes you’re just not for it at all and you know that going in. And sometimes you go in thinking “˜I can do this,’” Hessam said.
Part of prepping for a role for Hessam involves calling her long-time acting coach, Lisina Stoneburner.
“We go through the material, make sure that she’s connecting with the material,” Stoneburner said.
“A lot of what we do is making sure that her confidence level with pursuing the objective in that scene (is high).”
Hessam has had the same acting coach since she was in high school and said Stoneburner is one of the first people she calls when she lands a role.
Stoneburner said that she remembers a young Hessam being extremely shy, to the point of not wanting to participate. After over seven years together, Hessam began to see Stoneburner as a mentor, and Stoneburner saw her as an adult.
“The beginning was never frustrating but always funny,” Stoneburner said. “She never gave up. She still showed up. … She was like the little engine that could.”
Stoneburner said Hessam continued to be shy until she started at UCLA and began auditioning for roles. She attributes the independence of being away from home to Hessam’s success.
“She found her maturity and she found her sense of self. I watched (Hessam) find out who she was. … She became an extremely mature person,” Stoneburner said. “I think there’s a turning point for people that age when they become more independent.”
Part of that independence includes balancing a women’s studies major with auditions and shooting. A Georgia native, Hessam attended Emory University for two years as a psychology student before moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA and work as an actress.
“Acting isn’t very conducive for schedules (with strict test dates and assignment due dates),” Hessam said. “You can literally audition for a role on Monday, get it on Wednesday and start filming on Friday.”
Other actor-students seem to agree. Holland Roden, a recent alumna and long-time friend of Hessam said that juggling school and acting can be a difficult balance.
“When you’re a full-time actor and you’re in school, you don’t have a life,” Roden said. “(Hessam’s) very good at time management. She’s the person who turns in a paper two weeks early.”
Roden credits this drive for Hessam’s success, especially after having landed such a big role relatively early in her career.
“I’m really excited for her,” Roden said. “We have several friends who are in this business … but very rarely do you get a nationwide release feature on your first feature.”
As for the future, Hessam has a project on hold, a pilot in the works and an appearance on the season two premiere of Nickelodeon’s “Big Time Rush.”
“Hopefully there are good things to come. … Nothing’s set in stone,” Hessam said.