Director Kimberly Ann McCullough: We’re In A Period Of Change In The Industry And It’s Just Nice To Be Part Of That

Yitzi Weiner @ Authority Magazine

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The industry is a microcosm of the world. I think it is intensified in many ways because fame, status, and power can conceal abuse or mistreatment of any kind. It gives an excuse to have people look the other way.
So I think what’s happening right now is that the young women I work with are so powerful and smart. I’m just really excited to see those people come up. It’s just going to take time. The changes are the young people who won’t stand for the yelling on set. They will be in positions of power to ensure that that never happens again. It’s all happening right now, and we’re in a large growth period, and it’s just nice to be part of that, in a way.

I had the pleasure to talk to Kimberly Ann McCullough. Kimberly is about to start her fourth season on HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES for Disney+ as a Executive Producer/Director. Last season, Kimberly directed episodes of Amazon’s WITH LOVE, Hulu’s HOW I MET YOUR FATHER, Netflix’s BOO, BITCH, and FANTASY ISLAND for Fox. Kimberly has directed multiple episodes of the Freeform/UTV hit series THE BOLD TYPE and directed many multicams including CAROL’S SECOND ACT for CBS, THE CONNERS for ABC, and ONE DAY AT A TIME for Netflix.

Kimberly is both Mexican-American and Indigenous; her career defines her as a true utility player with a diverse résumé covering hour-long drama, single-cam, and multicam comedies. She is now jumping into features after Orion put her musical, SMILE NOW, into development with Plan B producing.

Kimberly, thank you so much for joining us. Our readers would love to get to know your background better. Can you share your origin story with us?

Sure. I am a ninth-generation Californian, meaning my family has been here since California was Mexico. So my origin is half Mexican from my mom’s side and half Scotch Irish from my dad’s side.

I got into the business because my mom was a professional dancer. She was a Hawaiian dancer who owned her own dance studio, so I was dancing from the time I was born. I was working with some of our neighbors break dancing in their garage because I liked that and gymnastics. I was already on a gymnast competition team by the time I was four. So by the time I was five, I already knew a bunch of tricks, and these break dancers wanted me to be a part of their crew.

And then, shortly after that, we were discovered at a break dancing battle in downtown LA. I was put into the film “Breakin 2: Electric Bugaloo” where I was given my first line. I was a terrible actress, so I told my mom I wanted to take acting lessons so that if this ever happened again, I won’t make a fool out of myself. So we did that. I went to acting class, continued to be a professional dancer, and worked with Debbie Allen. I did Fame. I did Solid Gold. I did a bunch of commercials and just danced. My second audition was for General Hospital, and I got the role of Robin Scorpio, the daughter of two of the most prominent characters on the show, Anna and Robert Scorpio. It just went from there, and then that became my life. For the next 33 years, I was on that show.

So you probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you share one of the most interesting stories that have occurred to you since you began your acting career?

I have two. The first one is when I did Legally Blonde. It’s been playing a lot on TV recently, and the younger people I work with are always surprised to know that A; I was an actress and B; I had this very small part in legally blonde. If you’d blink, you’d miss me.

I remember being on set the first day and meeting Reese Witherspoon; she knew who I was. It was crazy to me because she was this huge movie star, and I admired her so much. She was like, “haven’t we met before?”. Right before that, I had been dating Freddie Prinze. He was my first boyfriend, and it was when he was doing, “I Know What You Did Last Summer .” Reese was dating Ryan Phillippie at the time, and several times, we tried to get together in New York and have dinner. We just never ended up doing it because of scheduling. No other reason. It was funny because we had talked about it so much that she had thought she had already met me. I was like, Reese, believe me, I would remember if I <laugh> had met you. But at that time, Freddie and I were already broken up. So it was kind of weird but so awesome. I remember I was sitting in the makeup trailer next to her. I remember hearing her talking about how much experience she has in the business, how she felt so empowered on that set because she and the director were working hand in hand, and how it was like finally happening for her. I always take that memory with me because she’s so powerful and kind. She just commanded the set in such an inspiring way.

The second memory was that I did a show called The Shield. I was taking some breaks from General Hospital to see what else was out there. I got this recurring role on The Shield and played a bad girl. That was juicy for me. Because on General Hospital, I was just the heroine to which things were always happening. Things are always happening to me. But in this role, I was able to be an instigator and a criminal. That was exciting. Anyway, the director of that episode, Clark Johnson, became one of my most influential directing mentors. I ended up shadowing him on The Shield right after that episode, and I shadowed him on the Sentinel movie that he directed with Kiefer Sutherland and Michael Douglas and several other instances in TV shows. Still, to this day, when something exciting happens, I call him and tell him thank you.

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That’s great. Beautiful story. It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a funny mistake you made when you first started and the lesson you learned from it?

Yeah, I think I’ll speak as a director because I made hundreds of thousands of mistakes as an actor. I couldn’t even begin to <laugh> unearth those.

Being late was a chronic one for me, and I’m still very ashamed about that.

I think one of my biggest mistakes when I started out as a director, was I thought I had to get everyone to like me. I felt I had to walk on set, and everyone there had to be supportive of me, so I would work hard to ingratiate myself with every crew member. Quickly I realized that as an episodic director, which is basically a guest director, that is energetically impossible. If you make that your focus, you’re inevitably going to be disappointed because there’s always going to be someone who either doesn’t like you, doesn’t support you, has had a bad day, or whatever. You can’t control how people feel about you. That was a leftover from being an actor and a people pleaser. Because you know, most of your acting job is to get hired. You feel like everyone has to love you.

You have been blessed with great success and a career path that could be challenging. Do you have any advice for others who may want to follow a similar path but are intimidated by the prospect of constant rejection?

There absolutely is rejection. Acting and directing are eerily similar. When I was an actor and dreamed of being a director, I thought, “oh, I’m gonna be in control, and I’m gonna have agency, and I’m gonna understand why I don’t get a job .”You know, I don’t know. I was living in fantasy land. But it’s, it’s similar in the sense that a lot is still out of your control. I think that’s sort of what the essence of rejection is. It’s that you’re not the one making the decision. So it just brings me back to what I am in control of. I may not be in control of whether or not I get that job, but what am I in control of? I’m in control of how I conduct myself during the interview. I’m in control of how I react to that rejection. I’m in control of continuing to get better at my craft. So treat each rejection as a reminder to go back to yourself, think about how you can be better, and use this time to continue growing. Then it’s almost like it’s buying yourself time. I always say I’m so happy that I didn’t get my first directing job before the moment that I did because I may have blown it. But I was super duper ready by the time it actually came.

Every industry iterates and seeks improvements. What changes would you like to see in the industry going forward?

The industry is a microcosm of the world. I think it has intensified in many ways because Fame, status, and power can conceal abuse or mistreatment of any kind. It gives an excuse to have people look the other way.

So I think what’s happening right now is that the young women I work with are so powerful and smart. I’m just really excited to see those people come up. It’s just going to take time. The changes are the young people who won’t stand for the yelling on set. They will be in positions of power to ensure that that never happens again. It’s all happening right now, and we’re in a large growth period, and it’s just nice to be part of that, in a way.

Interesting. You mentioned, mentioned yelling on set. Can you maybe give an example of what you mean?

Well, you know, it has been happening since I was young. Men and women would get away with stuff, directors, producers, and other actors. I think that anyone that’s ever been on a set knows that it’s like this, this whole other world, this whole other family where you worked these hours, and it’s so intense. It’s like a pressure cooker. So I think that part of the reason I moved to Ojai, away from LA, is because I knew that to continue dealing with that type of intensity when I wasn’t working, I needed to be in nature. I needed to feel peace because it’s so hard for any sensitive person, many of us who are artists, to stay calm.

I’m not making excuses. I’m just saying that this is the environment. So over the years, people have blown up and created even more tense energy on the set and gotten away with it because they’re in positions of power. Now the people around them won’t stand for that. They’re either there right now, or they’re coming up. So those things are happening less and less.

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Kimberly, you have such impressive work. Can you share with us some of the most exciting projects you’re working on now and what you hope to be working on and releasing in the near future?

Right now, I think I’m most proud of High School Musical season three, on which I was a Co-EP. I directed half of the season that is airing. I directed episodes one, two and seven, and eight. So hopefully, people will tune in and enjoy those.

I have a movie in development, and let’s just say it’s based on where I grew up and a part of my culture that I want to celebrate. So that’s all I can say about that right now because it’s not green-lit yet, but hopefully it will be!

And I have a couple of other movie projects I’m working on now that are still in development. So I’m looking forward to doing a pilot and my first feature this next year.

Before you mentioned Legally Blonde. As you know, that’s become a cult classic. It’s become one of the most popular comedies of all time. What do you think captured people’s attention and imagination about the film?

Gosh, well, Reese Witherspoon, for one! It’s funny, quirky, and corny in places, but it’s also really smart. It’s a nice underdog, fish-out-of-water story. I think it’s just a really fun movie to watch.

What are the five things you wish someone had told you or told you when you started?

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others. That was a hard one.
  2. Trust yourself.
  3. Be present. be in the moment.
  4. Don’t be late. <laugh>
  5. In regards to directing, always have a plan c… and z.
  6. And always be the calmest person in the room.

Kimberly, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire movements that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be? You never know what your idea can inspire.

Well, what I try to do in my work and personal life: I think if every woman on earth could support another woman emotionally, spiritually, and practically, we’d be a lot better off.

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Is there person, any person in the United States whom you would like to have a power lunch with? Cause we could tag them and see what happens. See if you two can connect.

Ron Howard. Because he was my hero growing up, I would always say if Ron Howard can do it, I can do it.

Okay. Wonderful. So what’s the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Probably Instagram. I’m at @Kimmeabreak

Okay. Amazing. So I want to thank you so much for your gracious time. These are really thoughtful, insightful stories, and I wish you only continued success in your great work.

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Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine's Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. Yitzi is also the author of five books. In 2017, he created the popular, “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series that highlights the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. This series has inspired a mini-movement among writers, with scores of writers worldwide profiling inspiring people to share their positive, empowering, and actionable stories. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

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