By: Michael D. McClellan | Meissa Hampton is one busy lady. A product of the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Hampton is equal parts brains and beauty, with a healthy dose of social conscience thrown in for good measure, but such a description only scratches the surface of this high-octane virtuoso. Hampton is a fearless and relentless force of creative energy, out of which pours a mix of edgy poetry, smart film direction and inspired acting performances. Heady stuff for sure – and a full plate for most. And if that weren’t enough, Hampton is also an accomplished model, with gigs ranging from Ralph Lauren to Tory Burch to L’Oreal, not to mention hosting turns on QVC and ShopNBC. All of which begs the question: When does Meissa Hampton find time to sleep?
“I don’t think I sleep much at all these days,” she says, laughing. “And sometimes I wonder if it’s not a flaw – some might describe it as perfectionism and choose to look at it that way, but I hope it isn’t the case. Perfectionism can go to extremes and come with some negative connotations. I think that my energy and passion comes from a genuine interest in the arts.”
Hampton’s drive – and her creative streak– began at an early age, and included an assortment of outlets. She was drawn to athletics, immersing herself in individual sports ranging from swimming to skiing to fencing, not to mention team sports like basketball and softball. She biked. She hiked. She rock climbed. And, of course, she found the relentless gravitational pull to the performing arts impossible to ignore.
“I was very active, with a lot of interests,” Hampton concedes. “I was in a pre-Olympic camp for competitive swimming. I had a brief adolescent ambition to swim in the Summer Olympics and downhill ski in the winter ones. I keep it on my to-do list. I started playing piano when I was six years old. I also started dance at around the same time. I think being well-rounded in the arts and movement has really helped me as an actor. When it comes to creating a character, I think it’s essential to have rounded life experience to draw upon.”
With more than thirty independent film credits on her résumé, the creative foundation laid during Hampton’s youth has served her well. She is an award-winning actress, bringing home top honors at Indie Fest 2011 among others, and her nuanced turn as Isabel in the Brian Ackley film Uptown helped to stamp her as a darling of indie cinema.
As I sit down with Meissa Hampton, I can’t help but ponder the significance that awards play in the careers of professional actors, and the doors that open as a result of being recognized for their work in front of a camera. Christoph Waltz, winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as an insidious, multilingual Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, promptly signed with Sony – for big dollars – cashing in to play the villain in the critically panned The Green Hornet. Even established A-List actors like Matthew McConaughey can expect to see more doors open following his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. Does Hampton see the same things happening from her vantage point inside the indie world?
“Absolutely,” she says quickly. “Actors are in a perpetual state of searching for the next role, or trying to land the next project, or hoping to convince a director that they can bring a character to life. We endure a tremendous amount of rejection, and there is so much uncertainty regarding our work schedule, so anything that can help open a door or gain an edge certainly helps. And it is gratifying to be recognized for your work. It’s not why I’m an actor and it’s not my motivation – I don’t step onto a set with the goal of winning an award – but it provides a measure of validation for what I’ve put into a performance.
“I’m a movie fan like everyone else. I get very excited when award season comes around, because I love all of the buzz that is created at that time of year. The Golden Globes and The Oscars are the big two shows, of course, but as a member of the Screen Actors Guild I have a voice in the outcome of the SAG Awards. It’s a fun time. They solicit your vote and invite you to so many advance screenings. And then you start receiving DVDs to screen, free tickets to movies, things like that. So for me, Christmas starts in September.”
While Hampton’s main gig today is acting, her first real passion was poetry. A collection of her poems, titled One Pair of Shoes, was published in 2009. Her poetry has been awarded by the American Academy of Poetry.
“I wrote a lot when I was younger,” she says, “I was totally into poetry during my first two years of college, writing up to four and five poems a day. I was super prolific. It was very much a spiritual process for me, and also a cleansing experience in many ways. It allowed me to explore who I was as a person. But at some point during my junior year I realized that I really couldn’t make a living writing poems – it was the wrong century for that [laughs].
“I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger. I was totally into poetry during my first two years of college, writing up to four and five poems a day. I was super prolific. It was very much a spiritual process for me, and also a cleansing experience in many ways. It allowed me to explore who I was as a person. But at some point during my junior year I realized that I really couldn’t make a living writing poems – it was the wrong century for that [laughs].” – Meissa Hampton
“I look back fondly on that period of time in my life. Poetry provided me with an outlet to purge myself of thoughts and concerns, especially those on a social level. Consumption is a good example. It takes a look at the world of consumer culture, which I think remains deeply problematic and leads to a host of environmental issues – and is something that remains a significant problem today. The poem also flips it around and looks at how these issues impact the individual, and how it can lead to things like anxiety, inadequacy and depression. Consumption is one of my favorite poems. I suppose you could call it a personal form of angry ranting.”
Reading One Pair of Shoes, Hampton’s ability to confront a broad range of topics head-on is clearly evident. Her poems are organic, alive, part of an atmosphere we all live within but seldom take the time to discuss and dissect. Was such sprawling subject matter, from the consumer culture of Consumption to the love anguish of 555-3005, a part of the plan?
“Most poetry books have a thematic thread, but that wasn’t entirely the case with this collection,” Hampton says. “When I put the poems together, the only thing they had in common was that they were some of my favorites, then I collated them to create a thematic movement. It was an important process for me to go through, because I hadn’t written much poetry in recent years. I wanted to remember my roots, and recognize how essential it has been to my development as an artist and a human being. It was important that I didn’t let that body of work just drift into my past.”
The transition from poetry to film was seamless for the versatile Hampton, in part because of her willingness to take chances. She was a self-supported teen and hopeful, but struggling young artist before she scraped together the funds to study at Brooklyn College where she received a Ford Scholarship and graduated with honors, before moving on to Stella Adler. The Education of Meissa Hampton didn’t stop there, however; inquisitive by nature, she insisted on learning as much about the technical side of the business as its creative side. It was a follow-your-gut strategy that clearly played to her strengths.
Hampton: “I initially got into acting as a film student. I wanted to understand theatre’s contribution to film, and to better understand how to work with actors. It’s only when I started studying it that I found that I had a knack for acting, and I fell in love with it.
“I initially got into acting as a film student. I wanted to understand theatre’s contribution to film, and to better understand how to work with actors. It’s only when I started studying it that I found that I had a knack for acting, and I fell in love with it.” – Meissa Hampton
“But I also learned that film school is very expensive [laughs]. It takes a lot of money to make the film just to get into film school, let alone pay for film school. Acting was more immediately accessible, and it allowed me to gain valuable experience as a filmmaker. Every time I was on a set I did my very best to understand everyone’s role and their contributions. If there was an opportunity to help someone – working with sound or light, for example – then I would jump in and learn more about that person’s contribution to the process.”
That macro-level perspective would set the stage for Hampton’s most ambitious project to date: A Social Cure, a documentary film about the HIV/AIDS crisis and how influencers and everyday citizens can use new networking technologies to encourage positive social change. The film is focused in South Africa, home to the largest HIV epidemic in the world. In researching this project I learn that an estimated 17% of the South African adult population is living with HIV, with the disease disproportionately targeting underprivileged and minority communities. In South Africa, as little as 11% of the population own home computers, but cell phones have an astounding rate of penetration, with the number of SIM cards in circulation actually exceeding the country’s total population. This puts connective technology in everyone’s hands, and Hampton feels that this can be a frontline tool in the battle against HIV.
“It’s a great project and I feel really lucky to be able to do it,” Hampton says proudly. “I started my production company, OPoS (One Pair of Shoes), with the intention of focusing on meaningful projects. There are so many issues that I would love to be able to tackle in my lifetime, but the reality is that I’ll probably only get the chance to deal with a few of them. I felt that HIV/AIDS was starting to lose focus at the most crucial point in its history, because we are so close to a future free of this terrible disease. We’re really starting to harness the capability of ARVs (Antiretroviral medications), which not only helps facilitate long, healthy lives in people who suffer from HIV/AIDS, but also reduces the likelihood of transmission of the disease. The goal is to normalize the illness, much like diabetes, getting to the point where, if you take your medication daily, you can live a normal life.
“Part of accomplishing this is eliminating the stigma surrounding HIV in all cultures. The stigma prevents us from getting tested, because we don’t want to be the one with HIV. We don’t want to be the one who’s perceived as being immoral, or dirty, or whatever the case might be. And this is where media comes into play. It has an extraordinary way of changing our minds about issues. There is a connection that occurs between the audience and the individuals onscreen, and it creates heroes. We see the person on the screen differently than if we’d passed them on the street.”
As Hampton speaks, I’m drawn to the passion in her voice. She expresses the need to make medication available to those who can’t afford it, and she is convinced that this film, coupled with the use of existing technology, can become a medium for change.
“HIV/AIDS remains the one of the world’s worst pandemics,” Hampton says. “And Africa remains the epicenter of the disease, where as many as one in five people – twenty percent – are infected with HIV. And if you go into some of the low-income communities, it’s as many as half of the population. That’s an extraordinary amount of people living with HIV. Continent-wide, that translates into an estimated 23 million people who are currently HIV-positive.”
“HIV/AIDS remains the one of the world’s worst pandemics. And Africa remains the epicenter of the disease, where as many as one in five people – twenty percent – are infected with HIV. And if you go into some of the low-income communities, it’s as many as half of the population. That’s an extraordinary amount of people living with HIV. Continent-wide, that translates into an estimated 23 million people who are currently HIV-positive.” – Meissa Hampton
Was tackling such weighty – and oftentimes grim – subject matter difficult to keep in the proper perspective?
“When I set out to make this film, I wanted to make sure that it had an uplifting message and that it didn’t wallow in despair. A lot of documentaries have a way of making you feel horrible, because you see these great tragedies but not a lot of hope. You finish watching, and you’re just wrenched inside. I wanted this film to be different. I wanted to look at a community that has this incredible problem and focus on their resilience.
“During my time in South Africa, I discovered a cultural and social response to the epidemic that I believe can serve as an example to the rest of the world. I was privileged to get to connect with some of the most heroic and buoyant people I’ve ever known. They were courageous and generous enough to share their most personal and optimistic stories of living with HIV, stories that normalize and humanize the HIV pandemic.”
Hampton’s ability to shift gears is one of the qualities that makes her so unique. From poetry to independent film to socially-minded documentaries, Hampton is constantly challenging herself and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be both artist and advocate. Her poetic side was featured in VH1’s Lyrically Speaking, where she dazzled with a staccato recitation of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go“. Hampton’s interpretation of the lyrics by the late Joe Strummer showcases her talent as a poet and an actress.
“I’m drawn to projects that challenge the imagination,” she says. “Especially when the project involves film in some way, because that’s where all facets of the arts come together – literature and theatre are film’s foundations for example. And what is film without a soundtrack? You also have makeup, wardrobe, and special effects, there’s even a sort of dance/choreography – movement is essential. In film, all of these elements convene. And sometimes you get to add poetry into the mix, which was the case with Lyrically Speaking.”
Hampton has also hosted Architectural Digest’s Home Design Show. She’s spent time on the MIT campus as a visiting artist. And if that were enough, she’s also heavily invested in New York Women in Film and Television. NYWIFT supports women calling the shots in film, television and digital media, and seeks to energize the careers of women in entertainment by illuminating their achievements, providing training and professional development, and advocating for equity. Hampton is a passionate champion for the organization, and for the advancement of women in the arts as a whole.
“It is an exciting time, isn’t it?” she asks, smiling. “When you think about it, women are reaching new heights every day. We are assuming powerful positions in business and finance, for example, as well as helping to shape politics and society in general. It hasn’t been easy. Women are not a minority as far as population, but ironically face challenges as a minority class and it has taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice for us to progress. As a girl, I remember thinking I could be anything I wanted to be. Looking back now, I realize how much progress has been made since then, and how much farther we still need to go.
“When I became a professional actor, I quickly learned that women remain a significant minority in filmmaking. But there have been strides. In front of the camera, we’re a majority – most actors are female, but the lead parts are still predominantly male. But even that’s slowly changing – and it makes you wonder what took so long, because women are interesting, damn it [laughs]! We’re messy and complicated, and we make fantastic, intriguing lead characters.
“When I became a professional actor, I quickly learned that women remain a significant minority in filmmaking. But there have been strides. In front of the camera, we’re a majority – most actors are female, but the lead parts are still predominantly male. But even that’s slowly changing – and it makes you wonder what took so long, because women are interesting, damn it [laughs]! We’re messy and complicated, and we make fantastic, intriguing lead characters.” – Meissa Hampton
“Behind the camera, the percentage of female directors is ridiculously low – I continue to look for women filmmakers to work with, but they are very hard to find. It doesn’t stop there. Granted, there are a lot of crew positions that might be more attractive to men, things that involve a lot of lifting, or maybe a lot of work with electronics. Gender composition is still common from set to set, as you might imagine – you’ve got your women working in wardrobe and makeup, and everything else seems to lean toward the males. Hopefully that will start to change. Being an active member in NYWIFT gives me a platform to advance women’s causes in filmmaking.”
Which brings us back to Hampton’s other contribution to women in filmmaking – her production company, OPoS Productions. How did she arrive on the name ‘One Pair of Shoes’?
“It’s actually the name of a poem I wrote many years ago,” Hampton says. “The name implies making do with what one’s got and marching on. Independent film is very much that way, that’s just the nature of it. The inspiration behind OPoS is a focus on making films that make a difference.”
One project currently is the works at OPoS is her screenplay, Amnesty, Texas. Very much like The Social Cure, Amnesty takes a hard look at a controversial issue and faces it head-on.
“It’s an issue that’s very personal and very close to my own heart,” Hampton says cautiously. “I’m really hesitant with how much I want to talk about it. It’s semi-autobiographical, in that I’ve had personal experience with gun violence, loss, and being faced with examining the death penalty as a workable form of justice for the victim’s family. There are also questions as to whether it provides any true solace, and whether it benefits us as individuals or as a society. And then there are questions about how it fits into the process of grief and recovery. Amnesty is close to my heart, and I’m really working hard to perfect the story. I want to be unbiased and understand all the points of view on this issue, and fully explore whether capital punishment is working for us as a society.”
Hampton balances the heavy lifting of projects like A Social Cure and Amnesty with her successful modeling career, and it’s easy to see why: She is a strikingly beautiful woman with hypnotic eyes that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Whether it’s posing for Ralph Lauren, Tahari or Tory Burch, Hampton knows how to captivate – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that modeling is her favorite gig.
“I came across modeling entirely by accident,” she says. “I was just starting out as an actor, and it didn’t take me long to learn that the head shot is your calling card. There’s a vanity aspect to it that I don’t care for, but it’s a necessary evil and part of the business, so I can spend half the day looking at photos of myself, trying to decide which shot is best or which shot is the prettiest, or whatever the case might be. It’s just part of what we do.
“The truth is, it’s very difficult for me to get comfortable in front of a still camera and do any kind of posing. Put me in front of a movie camera and I’m at home – that’s my world, and I’m completely at ease. But when you put me in front of a still camera I lock up. I’ve never thought I was very good at modeling, but a girl has to pay her bills.”
One look at Meissa Hampton and it’s hard to reconcile this self-doubt with the photos in her dossier. The camera clearly loves her. Her appeal lies in her having a natural, wholesome quality that seems as autonomic as breathing.
“Modeling is much harder than it looks, I will tell you that. People take it for granted, and think that you just sit around having people do your hair and makeup or whatever. It’s work. And then there’s the world of fashion modeling – when it comes to the runway, you have to learn how to walk in an entirely different way. The only thing harder than having to learn something from scratch is having to re-learn something you’ve done your whole life. I never felt I was very good at it, but I love fashion. It’s definitely an expressive art and something that most everyone enjoys.”
Whether she’s posing in front of a camera, walking the runway or acting out a scene, Hampton’s eyes are impossible to ignore. Does she fully grasp their magnetism?
“If you ask me how often I hear that, the answer is not enough,” she says laughing. “Thank you. I think the eyes are so essential and very much where the truth comes out, and the essence of acting is telling the truth in a story that isn’t your own. There is so much in acting that is all about dialog, and being able to be truthful in the way you use your voice, but I think the truth is in the tiny moments between the words. You find it in the slightest expression, and the eyes play a huge part in that.”
With those 30+ film credits under her belt, I can’t help but wonder about the process of auditioning for a role, and whether or not it’s as nerve-wracking as I’ve been led to believe.
“It’s awful,” Hampton says quickly. “I give the worst auditions that you’ve ever seen. Most people don’t realize this, but the audition is totally different than the actual performance. You’re typically not working with the actor, or with wardrobe and makeup, so you don’t completely become that character in the way you will on set. Some people are very good at it, and can sit in a room across a table from a complete stranger and put themselves into the character’s shoes. For me it all comes together when I’m on set and in the character’s skin – her clothes, her home, her hair, holding her favorite mug…”
And with all of those auditions, rejection is certainly a natural byproduct of laying it on the line in the spirit of landing a job. Sylvester Stallone tasted rejection on a daily basis, and was nearly destitute when his big break came in the form of his screenplay, Rocky. William Shatner ended up homeless after he was beamed off of Star Trek, living out of the back of his pickup, under a camper shell. Bottom line, acting is a tough business. What does Hampton think of rejection? How does she handle it?
“As actors, we all know it’s part of what we do,” she says. “It’s part of the trade, and we have to develop a thick skin. The old adage is so true, in that you have to do a hundred auditions just to land one part. The only thing that helps with rejection is rejection. It’s the only way you’re going to get used to it.
“Acting is a difficult profession. You could hit on three auditions in a row, and then go three years without landing anything at all. There’s not an actor I know that hasn’t been through this process. Actors tend to be fragile in so many ways, because most of us tend to be sensitive people, but at the same time, some of the strongest and most confident people tend to be actors. We are truly complex, and we are paradoxes in a lot of ways, with deep insecurities counterbalanced with those extraordinarily high levels of confidence.”
“Acting is a difficult profession. You could hit on three auditions in a row, and then go three years without landing anything at all. There’s not an actor I know that hasn’t been through this process. Actors tend to be fragile in so many ways, because most of us tend to be sensitive people, but at the same time, some of the strongest and most confident people tend to be actors. We are truly complex, and we are paradoxes in a lot of ways, with deep insecurities counterbalanced with those extraordinarily high levels of confidence.” – Meissa Hampton
Landing the part, of course, makes it all worthwhile, and Hampton has clearly had her share of success. Which begs the question: Does she ever go back and watch something that she’s acted in?
“Yes and no,” she says quickly. “The truth is, I hate to watch myself onscreen. I have a rule that I always watch once, usually at the premiere, and I look to see if I communicated what I intended to communicate, and if my vision for the character was realized, and then I walk away from that character.”
What’s next for Meissa Hampton?
“With so much of my attention focused on A Social Cure, I feel like it’s time to refocus on acting. I’m looking at several new projects – I’ve been asked to write a script, and I have another that’s currently in development and close to moving into pre-production. I’ll be spending more time in Boston as a visiting artist at MIT. There’s always the possibility for more modeling. And in the midst of it all I started writing a narrative book that I hope to finish in the next couple of months. So I have a number of things on the plate – it’s a busy time right now, to say the least.”
A whirlwind of activity for the rest of us, but for a talented, driven virtuoso like Meissa Hampton, it’s just another day at the office.
Editor’s Note: Can’t get enough of Meissa Hampton? Neither can we – check out the links below!
Official Web Site: MHAMPTON.com
OPoS Production Company Site: www.onepairofshoes.com
One Pair of Shoes – A collection of poetry by Meissa Hampton: http://www.amazon.com/One-Pair-Shoes-M-Hampton/dp/0578016222/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396905064&sr=1-1&keywords=one+pair+of+shoes%2C+M.Hampton