by Ben Sack
At her age, many people are flailing about, trying desperately to choose between pursuing their passions and settling down with a stable job and family. These things are usually irreconcilable, especially when one’s passion is a historically risky undertaking, like acting. Yet somehow, Porter has managed to make her life a synthesis of anchorage and auditions, relationships and rehearsal, family and filmography.
I met with the actress at a café in Cambridge. She was jovial and energetic, with a countenance as warm as my coffee, or her smoldering amber hair. Her personality shines through her voice: conscientious, cool, confident.
Porter grew up in Wantagh on Long Island, and went on to study psychology at UMass Amherst. “I knew I didn’t want to work in the field,” she said about her major. “I loved doing research, and I actually was the head of a research project for three years, and I loved it, but I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted. So instead of going into psychology or moving back to Long Island, which would have been very safe choices, I moved to Boston. I had been here once before.”
In true vagabond fashion, Porter found herself couch-surfing in a brand new city at the turn of this century. She eventually found a place to live and some retail work, before adjusting her career trajectory toward becoming a captain of a new industry.
“After working retail, I went to a dotcom and was doing customer service there over the phone. Then they got me involved in analytics, and it’s kind of crazy, I got into this pattern. Someone would go on maternity leave, and they would say ‘Hey, I bet Diana could do her job,’ and then I would, and then that woman would come back from maternity leave and they would promote her and give me her job. So I went from answering phone calls to doing ROI analysis to convince The Sharper Image to stay with our program. You know, negotiating million dollar contracts… and eventually ended up as Senior Business Analyst at Monster.com.”
Then, like so many of the women she had replaced during her climb up the corporate ladder, Diana got pregnant. Her first career ended where most people’s start, at a Job website.
“My husband and I had always felt that one of us would stay home with our child, and that someone was going to be me, because I didn’t make quite as much as my husband and I know how to cook,” stated the actress frankly. “So I stayed home, and I always thought that was something I would want to do, and I would love just being a full time mom.”
However, it wasn’t long before Porter felt like something was missing from her existence. “Around the time my son was 2 years old, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was too bored.” She ultimately found the cure for her ennui in an old passion that had been kept subdued as a hobby for too long.
“I was on a plane coming back from Las Vegas, I had been out there with my husband, and he was there for work. I was on the plane alone, sitting next to a drunken businessman, and he was asking me ‘You seem so happy, you seem like you have your life together, what’s your secret? I’m so miserable. What should I be doing differently?’ and I said ‘Well you need to find what you love and you need to do that, figure out what you’re passionate about and you need to do that.’ And then I realized I wasn’t taking my own advice.” This aeronautic encounter turned out to be a seminal moment for Porter. “When my husband got home two days later I sat him down and was like ‘Honey, I need to go after acting as a career. I’m miserable without it, giving it up to be a full time mom; I miss it more than anything else. I miss it more than the corporate culture, I miss it more than my old paycheck, I miss it more than dancing, I miss it more than everything. I need to be acting.’”
Porter had started acting in elementary school. “I was one of the founding fathers.” she recounted. “My older brother and sister would yank me into productions when they needed a younger child, so I was in Carousel as one of the snow children, things like that. But as I got older I did a couple of films in college, and then around here I did some short films, I did a web series, and I did the Rocky Horror Picture Show for ten years in three different roles.” During all of this, however, acting was a subplot to the greater stories of her life. Now, for the first time, it was her primary focus.
Her first role as a professional was in 2011, in a feature-length independent film called The Final Shift. “I played Alpha, who is a genetically modified super soldier shape shifter. And I was the bad guy. I did three months of fight training for it.” Her first foray into her new career also brought with it the first struggle to keep her previous life intact.
“There are scheduling problems, and you give up lots of weekends.” She lamented passively. “One of the scheduling problems caused my big fight scene, which was scheduled to be the only thing shot that day, it was a very long fight sequence, it got rescheduled and pushed into the last quarter of a day, of a very long day, which was mother’s day. And me and the other person in the fight scene were both moms of young kids and we were both like ‘Awesome, yeah, we don’t mind.’”
Among the obstacles inhibiting Porter’s fledgling career is her location. When I asked what it was like being an actress in Boston, a city that is not known as an actor’s town, she responded bluntly “Almost everybody has a day job.” The acting market in the bay state is improving, however. In 2009, the Massachusetts legislature passed laws to attract movie production companies. “The tax laws they have structured to draw work here, it’s been huge,” said Porter. “It’s wonderful that people do utilize this area, because there’s some great talent here. It’s not as dense as New York or L.A. but we do have good talent.”
In addition to being one of very few people to have successfully combined following their dreams with a flourishing and successful home life, Porter also holds the increasingly rare distinction of having actually completed a new year’s resolution.
“Last year, over the 2011-2012 New Year’s, I made the resolution to shoot something every month. Be it a movie, be it a modeling photo shoot, just get on something. It doesn’t matter if it’s not for money, just do something, keep busy” recalled the actress. “I surpassed it, by a ton. I worked almost every day in July. I got a paid job almost every month. I was turning work down at points. It was incredible. And this year, I had two paid jobs last week, I have a paid job this coming week, it’s been like “Maybe I could work every week.”
Even though Porter doesn’t have trouble finding work, Boston is still no Hollywood. I asked if she would consider moving to L.A. or New York if her career were to pick up. “Yes,” she replied confidently. “My husband and I have discussed it a number of times, most recently when we were picking out my son’s kindergarten. There’s one kindergarten in our town that starts at 8:15 in the morning, and my husband said “I think he should go to that one, because when you’re on location for months at a time, it will be easier for me to drop him off at school.” And I said ‘“honey do you know something I don’t?”’ She paused to chuckle. “But I do have to start thinking in that direction.”
Even though she has a supportive husband and has had a fruitful corporate career, finance can still be an issue for Porter. “The money is not the best,” she stated matter-of-factly. There’s a reason why there’s a screen actors guild to unionize and protect actors; productions will take advantage when they can.” However, Porter doesn’t yet belong to the Screen Actors Guild. “I’m eligible, but in Boston most of the work is non-union… There are productions that are just not going to be SAG. One of the [movies] I have coming up, Devil May Care, I don’t think they’re going to have any SAG actors. I love the script, and I love the director, and the editor is fantastic. And I’m getting to work with one of my best acting friends, he and I have great on-screen chemistry, and I’m so excited about this project, and if I was SAG, I wouldn’t have even auditioned for it.”
In that project, which is about Lucifer trying to get back into heaven, Porter will be playing the role of Death. Other roles she’s played include Satan’s assistant, a psychotic killer, and a vampire. I asked if she saw herself continuing in this vein of characters.
“I’m trying to get more straight dramatic work,” she responded. “This past November I worked on a project that I can’t talk too much about…but the character struck me so deeply. There was a bridge that I had some scenes on, and a few weeks later I was driving over that bridge to meet a friend for dinner and I almost started bawling…As horrible as it is and as exhausting as it is, there is something amazing about touching on those emotions in yourself in a purposeful way and bringing them to life on film. One of the other films I’m shooting this spring is about racism in the black community…and getting to do work that has meaning and purpose and may actually make a point and help someone learn something, that’s an incredible opportunity. I love the entertaining and the fun, but it’s nice to do both.”
As the interview drew to a close, I asked Diana Porter if she had any advice for aspiring actresses. She responded with an anecdote. “There was a day that my son, who just turned five, announced that he wanted to be an actor, and my husband said “Yeah honey, you can be an actor,” and I said “No, don’t do it, it’s a life of rejection.” If you love it, that’s fantastic, do it as a hobby. If you need it, well then you have no choice.”
Without a doubt, Porter needs it.