This is the fifth in a continuing feature at IndustryCentral profiling "The Working Actor".
William Shakespeare said "There are no small parts.....". William Shatner may have said it too, but the longhair with the tights was first, or so the reports go. In this feature we will explore what it really means to be an actor working in Motion Pictures and Television.
Broad public acknowledgment may have eluded some who find their way to these pages, or perhaps they may have brushed against what is referred to as stardom by virtue of one or more remarkable performances. However for many, the rewards of plying their craft in a field which has allowed them to earn a living may exceed the burdens of public acclaim. Given the chance, some in this clan might prefer the longevity offered by anonymity over the potential for short lived fame.
These individuals, either by design or fate, have managed to sustain a career by crafting performances which rendered them a good casting choice. They are usually thought of as a face you recognize, but you just can't get the name past the tip of your tongue.
Most of these folks have spent countless hours on stage in theaters ranging from 20 seats to 2000, building characters from the works of Ibsen, to Eliot, to Williams, to yes even Shakespeare, and so many of the modern Playwrights. They have rounded their skills doing drama, comedy, & musicals. Their work is a serious venture.
These people have given us screen performances which quite often were the catalyst that brought an Oscar or Emmy to another and yet they continue to work as "Characters" or "Co-Stars" without the trophies and plaques adorning their mantle.
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Barbara Niven is commited to acting classes and doing theater when she’s not on location shooting her current role on Pensacola: Wings of Gold. She loves taking risks, playing "out there" characters. "I never want to play it safe. I like being afraid… if something scares me, I’m going to say YES and then figure out how to do it." She has an independent film Anoosh of the Airways coming out where she plays eight different characters, and says it was freeing because there were no limits to where the characters could go. She’s also currently onstage in Los Angeles starring in a John Patrick Shanley play, Psychopathia Sexualis, playing an outrageous Texan named "Lucille" who stomps around the stage in a wedding dress and cowboy boots! She says, "I find that you can play anything outrageously… as long as you play it from an absolute core of truth. I learn something from every character I play, and carry part of them with me from that moment on." She says that Katherine Hepburn and Jessica Tandy are her idols. "You follow their careers and you watch the evolution of two human beings over the course of a lifetime. Age just made their work richer. It takes living to be a good actor. For me, it gets more exciting all the time. I can feel my instrument and my work getting better and better, and can’t wait to see where the journey takes me."
For now though she says she’s got one of the roles of a lifetime playing Kate on Pensacola, the owner of the local bar where all the fighter pilots hang out. Niven even studied with a local bartender when she got the part. He gave her lessons in bar tricks, which she paid for by washing bar glasses for him - lots of them. Dishpan hands were worth it. Although she says she still can’t flip those bottles around like the good ones do. She’s broken a few trying though!
Fortunately, Niven brings other skills to her Pensacola role, including acting talent and fascinating life experience. And, the actor revels in playing "a grown-up woman", who is much like herself. "This character is the closest to my personality of any part I’ve ever played", Niven emphasizes. "Kate loves being a woman. I designed her to contrast with the military women on the show; Curly hair and a flirty persona. But it works because she does it all with a wink and a sense of humor. She’s fun, uses the years she’s lived, loves to put people on and make them blush, and can be both sexy and mothering. Kate’s not afraid to whack the Nuggets on the head when they need it. She’s truly a woman who’s been there, done that, and knows it, so there are no limits to what she can be. She’s a great broad and a great role model."
A native of Portland, Oregon, Niven’s upbringing hardly suggested the career she chose to pursue. She dreamed of being an actress and writer - and loved being the center of attention as a child - but Niven was also decidedly a tomboy, hunting and fishing for fun (she still carries her duck call in her handbag and blew it at the first Pensacola cast dinner). She married at a young age and had a daughter, of whom she’s very proud. "One day when I was at home with my baby, I realized I was sitting back and not going toward any dreams," she recalls. "I decided I didn’t want to wind up wondering 'what if'." Despite being told it was impossible without a degree, she talked her way into a news internship at Portland television station KGW and sold her first story to network. But she realized she wasn’t suited for news and discovered acting. "Other than being a mother, acting has been the best thing in my life."
While in Portland, she appeared in more than 2500 radio and television commercials and served as spokesperson for a number of companies. She also won her first dramatic role, opposite James Garner and James Woods in the Emmy-winning "Hallmark Hall of Fame" telefilm The Promise. She subsequently won recurring roles in such series as Pacific Palisades, The Bold and the Beautiful and Silk Stalkings, as well as guest-starring spots on Love Boat: The New Wave, Mike Hammer and Wings. Her telefilm credits include The Rat Pack (in which she stars as Marilyn Monroe - "My dream come true" to play her favorite icon) and Breast Men, both HBO productions, and the offbeat comedy I Married a Monster, a remake of the classic that she describes as "David Lynch meets Norman Rockwell with lots of special effects."
Niven’s feature credits include the independent black comedies Anoosh of the Airways and Serial Killing for Dummies. She’s also got a cameo in the upcoming Latino film, Luminarias. And like many other up-and-coming actors, she’s got some quirkier titles in her resume, including Roger Corman’s Humanoids from the Deep and Psycho Cop II. Laughing, Niven notes "I’ve had more monster movies than anyone I know. And I still can’t go into an empty elevator" after being chased around in the latter title. In addition to acting, Niven recently completed her first screenplay, the romantic comedy "Bet on Love," which was recently optioned.
Now, as she fine-tunes her vision of Pensacola’s Kate, Niven continues to do her homework, acting and otherwise. She has learned a lot about the military since she started the show, and sends out a big salute to all our military men and women, past, present and future. "We need to show them how much we appreciate what they do."
Often, real-life officers visit the series’ set, and she poses for pictures with them. "Then I hang the photos around The Bucket, so I can remember them. These people are all about courage, honor and commitment. They’re chasing their dreams, too."
Barbara Niven's advice to the aspiring actor:
Barbara Niven's Credits (partial)
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