Alaskan actor and director Ron Holmstrom started as a folk singer/ ski-bum in Southern California. Spotted performing at Mammoth Mountain ski resort, he was hired to work with a Los Angeles-based musical theater company, and eventually found himself working in film and television. His first film role was over-dubbing trucker voices in the Chuck Norris' film Breaker! Breaker!
Holmstrom came to Alaska in 1992 to care for his ailing father and discovered both a thriving theater community and fledgling film industry. He decided to stay and get involved and hasn't looked back.
Since its inception, Holmstrom has been involved with the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska. In 2009 he was awarded the Jerry Harper Service Award, created to honor people who have been "instrumental in the development and success of the conference".
I first became aware of Ron through my membership with the Screen Actors Guild. At one point I began to wonder how many SAG members were actually in Alaska and every online search seemed to bring up Holmstrom's name. Turned out he is an elected member of SAG's Seattle branch (which includes Alaska) and has an active role in helping working Alaskan actors. A quick stop by the office turned into a pleasant hour-long discussion.
When I recently needed to put together a table-read for a screenplay I mentioned it to Ron and with one email blast he put me in touch with a core group of Alaskan actors.
Alaska might be a small town, but juice is juice.
Holmstrom will soon be directing his first feature film, The Doppelganger Principle, written by local writer Jim McLain and starring Edward Asner. Here he discusses both theater and the newly rejuvenated film industry in Alaska.
Matt Shields: You have been quite involved with theater in Alaska. What did it mean for you to receive the Jerry Harper Service Award?
Ron Holmstrom: My first acting job in Alaska was at the fairly new Cyrano's Playhouse owned by Jerry and Sandy Harper. If it wasn't for me meeting them I would almost certainly still be in Hollywood. Jerry became like a big brother to me, sharing his wisdom, his love of our craft and so much laughter. I was deeply affected by his untimely death. Receiving the award named for him is my most treasured moment. No other honor could ever come close to that evening at the theater conference. I have been blessed by the Harpers' friendship. We often referred to ourselves as the "Three Musketeers."
MS: How do you view the current state of live theater in Alaska?
Holmstrom: Alaska has a theater community that rivals any in the country. I'm forever amazed at the quality of work done here. A great debt is owed Dr. Jody McDowell and the great Edward Albee for their vision in creating the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez. Within a couple of seasons the event was attracting the best and brightest of our country's theater luminaries. Suddenly we were all spending time with Arthur Miller, Patricia Neal, August Wilson and so many others.
MS: I remember auditioning once for the Anchorage Repertory Theater, I think back in the mid-eighties. Were you involved with them? Why do you think they didn't last?
Holmstrom: I too auditioned for the Festival Theater, just before they went out of business. I think they came to depend too much on the largess of the petroleum industry for their funding. When the oil biz slowed down in the eighties there was no way to keep the boat afloat.
MS: Do you have a preference of theater versus film?
Holmstrom: No. Performing in a play there is a never-ending process of discovery and growth. At any point during the run of a play there can be a moment of realization that can deepen one's understanding of the character. In film acting the performance is normally much more subtle. The camera reveals the inner emotion reflected in the actor's eyes, mouth, and in the odd, glorious moment, a glimpse of the character's soul. On the other hand, in the theater one can really blow a scene and fix it the next night. In film you are stuck with the silly choice you made for the rest of your life. Or longer.
MS: You will be directing a feature film, The Doppelganger Principle, this fall. Have you directed film before?
Holmstrom: Yes, but never a feature. Some shorts, industrials, commercials and such.
MS: Do you plan on shooting entirely in Alaska with an Alaskan cast and crew?
Holmstrom: With the exception of Mr. Asner, every single person on this project is one of the many talented Alaskans we are fortunate to have here.
MS: How did Asner become involved?
Holmstrom: A mutual acquaintance got the script to Ed who called me as soon as he finished reading it and told me he wanted to play the lead. When I came to, I realized I now had a major project on my hands.
MS: Any nerves over working with such an established actor?
Holmstrom: Nerves? Directing a legend? Yeah, but when you get right down to it, what a joy! A guy in L.A. once loaned me his Dino Ferrari, a car that will go an honest 160 mph. On a closed section of the 110 Freeway I discovered after the speedometer passes 120 you kind of relax. A little.
MS: Film production is not new to Alaska, but our recently reinstated film office and the tax incentives now being offered to productions that shoot here have caused a flurry of new local activity. Almost like a new gold rush or oil boom. Do you see support for both Hollywood productions as well as local film artists?
Holmstrom: As far as support of local film artists the Alaska Film Office has been really helpful in putting the incentive program to work for us. I think Dave Worrell [manager, Alaska Film Office] is jazzed about this all-Alaskan production.
MS: How about effects of the recent growth spurt on the local film community?
Holmstrom: Concerning our film community, at large... it is a bit factional. In our theater community there is, of course, competition for the limited audience we have, but there is still a feeling of camaraderie. A kind of "we're all in this together." The fledgling film industry here, perhaps in part due to its newness and the looming specter of possible big money, seems to have created what I would think is a temporary atmosphere in some camps of possessiveness, or maybe a sense of entitlement. It reminds me of the Coke bottle in The Gods Must be Crazy. The bottle was this new thing that no one had ever seen before and suddenly everybody in the village needed it. Desperately.
MS: Besides the tax incentive what do you see needing the most attention in order for Alaska to build upon its ability to support a viable film community and industry?
Holmstrom: A sound stage. Training. Ancillary stuff like dollies, cranes, honey-wagons... A whole lot more lighting and grip equipment. Did I mention a sound stage? The incentive, though, is paramount. Having that in place will inspire some people here to buy, build, or import the necessary tools for making movies. Some of our legislators are already trying to monkey with the best tool [Senate Bill 23 film production tax credit. Its extension has been shelved until next year's legislative session] we have ever had to kick-start this industry in Alaska.
MS: Any other projects you are working on?
Holmstrom: We are leading up to producing another script by Jim McLain, who wrote 'Doppelganger'. I'm also involved with a Polaris School mentor-ship program with one of their students, and am consulting with the Alaska Youth Film Project, which consists of young people aged nine to thirteen who share a passion for film. These kids are our future and need to be nurtured.
Of course I will always have my hand in local theater. I am simply the eternal fan. To be able to live in Alaska and still stay busy in this business of "making folks laugh and cry" is just too good to be true.
Receiving Jerry Harper Service Award