By Marchelle Thurman
Welcome to NYWIFT, Sarah D. Ceballos!
Sarah is a producer, writer, and an award-winning actress from McAllen, Texas. She is third generation Mexican-American and is fluent in Spanish. She holds her Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership and routinely conducts research geared toward understanding what can prohibit advancement opportunities for people of color in the workplace.
Sarah considers herself the curious type. She is always asking herself, “How can I help?”
Read more about her creative journey here!
What brings you to NYWIFT?
I was previously a member in the Houston chapter, and I loved my chapter back home. I learned a lot from them and always felt empowered. I did launch my production company last year, so it was time to get involved, network, and learn more about the industry, especially now that NYC has been home for five plus years.
Tell us about yourself. Give us some insight into your creative journey.
I’m originally from McAllen, Texas and I feel as though I’ve been performing for as long as I can remember. However, I got “bit” by the acting bug at the age of 11, when I did Grease at my local Boys and Girls Club. It was the happiest I had been after losing my father two years prior. I continued to act in high school. My college didn’t offer Theatre as a major so I majored in Communication and kept going.
When I graduated college, the economy entered into a recession, and I hated sales, so I went for my Master’s and eventually my Doctorate. During the last year of my Doctoral studies, when I was living in Houston, I started taking acting classes. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is my heart’s true passion. So, I came to the city in 2018 for a summer conservatory at Stella Adler, with two suitcases and nothing else, and by the grace of God I’m still here!
Congrats on finishing your first film, Hero, which has already won awards! What was the story behind it, the journey of making the film, and how has the film festival circuit been so far?
I co-wrote Hero with my director Miguel Garzon-Martinez to really showcase how grief-informed trauma can impact your life and manifest in many different ways. I mentioned earlier I lost my dad when I was nine, and I’ve always known that someday it would catch up to me. And it did. I don’t regret anything, but I have learned from my mistakes. I seemed to constantly meet people who have faced similar struggles like I have, or folks who had lost a loved one. It weighed heavily on me to share my story because I thought to myself, “If I’ve been able to overcome, others need to know that they too can overcome.” After all, that’s why we’re in the arts, right? To normalize what society deems “taboo” and push the world forward as much as we can.
…And the filmmaking journey. Goodness, the number of times I wanted to quit, but I knew this was something I needed to see through. I learned a lot about myself as a person, artist, and filmmaker. I had a great team behind me. My other producer Pete Dorton really advocated for my story to be told. This film wouldn’t have happened without him. I’ll never forget meeting with many directors that turned my script down, but in the end, I found the right one. I was blessed to find Miguel, and I learned a lot from him. My other co-producer Susanne McDonald and I had already worked together on other sets. I knew she would get things done and keep my best interest at heart!
I believe in paying things forward. So, when I can, I like to reach back and pull people up with me. Many of the cast members I have worked with, including Tim Realbuto of Bobcat Moretti, which is now streaming on AppleTV. Tim is also a self-produced filmmaker, and he was a huge inspiration behind this project. The crew came together organically and was primarily female driven. I also wanted to have LGBTQIA members on my team because it’s important that we re-define what inclusion actually looks like regardless of labels.
The hardest part for me was finding the funding for this film, which I did accomplish. But that was also one of the main reasons for wanting to halt production. The “blood, sweat, and tears” were all worth it to see it come together. I can’t give credit enough to my director who was also my cinematographer. He did a great job of shooting it. And once we added the soundtrack to it, it took the film to a whole other level!
Hero is just now in the early stages of the festival circuit, and it’s doing well! It recently won an “Award of Merit,” which is exciting as a first-timer. My film made its NYC premiere at The 2023 New York Short Film Festival.
What inspired you to start your production company 336 Productions?
It seemed like the legal and responsible way to get this film made. I feel pretty blessed that LA came calling early on for it. I actually got an offer to sell my story early on when I was “shopping” around for producers or someone to purchase my story. It is my story, my baby, so I guess you could say my maternal instincts kicked in, and I had to protect it. I wanted to make sure the film that got made was one I had creative control over.
Additionally, being an actor can be rough, and we’re often told to create our own work. So, I wanted to expand my skill set into producing, and I thought well, if there was ever a time to tell my story, this is it.
Also, I wanted to create a company that speaks to marginalized communities. As a Latina, of Mexican-American heritage, I don’t like how my people – or people of color in general – are often portrayed in the media. We don’t talk enough about the real problems women, especially women of color, face or even what being human nowadays looks like. And I feel we need to change that! Especially, if this world stands a chance at healing itself.
What excites you about doing stand-up?
You know, ironically enough I’ve only done it once. It was after the rehearsal I held for a fundraising variety show I produced for the film. The QED Astoria had an open-mic night, and I just got up there and started riffing! There are so many funny things I joked about being Mexican. I think it’s important to not take yourself or life too seriously. Life is funny to me, why not laugh about it? Plus, given what the world is going through, I think comedians are needed now more than ever. I can’t wait to do an open-mic night again and test out some ideas for comedy I have been toying with.
You hold a PhD in Organizational Leadership. What led you down that path and how has that informed your creative endeavors?
Everyone always asks me, “How do you go from academia to the arts?” For me, they’re one in the same. The arts actually came first and then my education. Both of which saved my life while navigating my grief. Perhaps it’s the fact that I am Latina, or that I grew up in a border town, but I was always raised with the philosophy that “education is something no one can take away from you.” It was a way for me to explore the world, and I wanted to learn (still do) as much as possible.
Education and the arts inspire me so much! I love learning something new or from others, especially those who are different from me. The way I see it, education and the arts for me are vehicles to serve, to give back, and leave the world better than I found it.
As I mentioned before, performing has always been in me. I’ll never forget Christmas at my grandma’s house when I was a kid. My two cousins and I would sing songs in front of my family, mostly Selena back then. During my Ph.D. studies though, I really had to get in touch with myself and explore the type of leader I want to be. So, when I was finishing up my doctoral studies, I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m 30, and I’ve done most of the things I’ve always wanted to do except acting.” Acting was the one regret I had in life at the time, so the writing was on the wall. I obviously had to confront it and give it a shot. I get bored easily, so being an actor, writer, producer, and a professor keeps me pretty busy.
What’s the most transformative piece of advice you’ve received?
“If there is something you want in this life, go and get it. No one is going to hand you anything. You have to work for it. Of course, it will be hard, but you make the best of it and keep going.”I got it from my mama!
The other is, “Live every day as if it were your last. What’s the worst that can happen? If you fail, so what, try again,” which I got from my father, may he rest in peace. His advice is probably how I get into trouble, but in the best way possible. Then again, “Nothing great comes from safe places. You have to lose sight of shore sometimes.”
My favorite one is, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
What is next for you?
I honestly don’t know, and for the first time, I’m not overly worried about it. I trust God/the universe will reveal what it has in store for me in time. I am hoping that Hero does well on the festival circuit. I’d love to turn it into a feature length film, or option the many stories I have in mind for a mini-series. I’m ready for Netflix’s call! I’ll most likely start writing my next project very soon.
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