Following Your Passion
Acting can be a brutal occupation, and it gets harder the further away you veer from the standard ideal of beauty. But in Canada, where I grew up, I was ridiculously lucky. After I graduated from theater school, I starred in three films—all written, remarkably, with Asian leads. I knew it was tough to be a minority in the business, but the future seemed limitless.
At 24 I moved to Los Angeles and confidently auditioned for any part—white, black, Klingon. All I wanted was a shot, and if people didn't like what I did, that was fine; rejection was part of the business. But the casting directors didn't want to see me, despite my agent's best efforts. A friend of mine was asked to try out for the movie, and I couldn't figure out why she got an audition and I didn't. Confused, I called my agent. "Listen, Sandra," she said plainly. "They won't see you because you're not white."
I'd heard this message before, of course, but this time it hit home and jolted me into clarity. I'd always known that I worked in an industry that blatantly excluded people based on their race, an industry in which people would calmly say, "We're going white." But I'd believed, naively, that I could break through those barriers if I just worked hard enough.
I could have given up. But I thought about the fact that my parents, traditional Korean immigrants, had urged me to go to college instead of pursuing an acting career. They had tried to lovingly discourage me from embarking on a path that they believed would hurt me. If I valued my work enough to go against the wishes of my parents, then I certainly wasn't going to be stopped by anyone else. Since then, my only guiding light has been my desire to be the best actor I can be, no matter how daunting the process. I still have to squeeze my way into auditions, because people often can't imagine that someone who looks the way I do could play a certain role. It doesn't occur to them—but I know I can make it occur to them, if they just give me a chance.
During the summer between seventh and eighth grades, everything changed—or at least it seemed like everything at the time. We'd become teenagers. Kids were rapping along with Vanilla Ice and mastering yo-yo tricks. I was the boy who liked to sing his own songs at talent shows, and I was suddenly officially uncool.
Every day I lugged my backpack through the halls, waiting for the final bell. Then I'd race home and hole up in my room, playing the drums and the piano, composing music. I felt claustrophobic and terribly lonely. I had so much to express but no way to express it.
At the end of our eighth-grade year, a friend gave me a brochure for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts—an audition-based public school where you study academics for the first half of the day and dedicate the second half to your chosen art. I had no formal training and no idea what I was getting into, but I was desperate for something other than the status quo. I auditioned and was accepted.
On the first day, I had to perform a monologue in front of the class. Afterward I was red with humiliation. I thought it went horribly. As I was leaving, a group of kids approached, and I wondered if this school would be even worse than the last—maybe instead of being ignored, I'd get picked on. Did people get beat up at art schools?
"Your monologue was awesome," one said. Another asked me to join him for lunch. As I walked to the cafeteria with my new friends, I could breathe. I had gotten to this place by doing what I loved, even when it meant I felt different and alone.
Since then I've been confronted with a lot of pressure to compromise. When I feel confused or depressed, I remember back to junior high and I silently repeat, "This, too, shall pass." Because I know that life is a journey I must accept and that pain and confusion are temporary. I know that if I follow my heart, it will lead me where I belong.
When I was a freshman at Villanova University, I signed up for a class called Introduction to Peace and Justice Education. The professor: a 6'2", 65-year-old ex-marine and priest named Father Ray Jackson. On the first day, he assigned us a paper on our heroes. I wrote about Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Gandhi. After Father Ray read my paper, he called me over to tell me that most of the class had written about Lee Iacocca or Madonna.
Father Ray became my mentor. I spoke with him every day, and we often had lunch together. Thanks in part to his influence, I decided to become a human rights lawyer, and I was well on my way when, in my junior year, I took an acting class. The minute I performed my first monologue, I fell madly in love. But I wondered: How can I break it to Father Ray?
"I'm thinking about not going into law," I said. Father Ray and I were having lunch in the cafeteria, empty except for a few kitchen staffers. "I'm thinking about going into acting." Then I went on about how I doubted I could ever help the world as an actor. He smiled and waited for me to finish. "You serve best by doing the thing that you love most," he said. "Follow your bliss." Father Ray died shortly after I finished school, and I went to New York to pursue my dream.
Father Ray's advice changed my life. I even named my son Jackson after him. But as I started to write this essay, I had another breakthrough: I didn't really know Father Ray. Had he ever had his heart broken? What was his favorite childhood memory? He gave his love and counsel unconditionally. I took these things from him, but I was too busy sorting out my own life to try to know their source. Suddenly, at the age of 38, I understood that giving your time and attention to those you love is the greatest thing you can do on this earth.
Life goes so fast, and there is so much to do. But the moments that have enriched my life the most came when I slowed down and connected with the people I care about. I could go on and on about this, but my 4-year-old wants me to help him build a fort with the boxes piled up in our new living room.
It was rough being dark. I got heat from my own people more than anyone else. I remember going to my mom and saying, "Why am I so black?" And she said, "Because I'm black. You just gotta always work harder than the average bear." She taught me that if you give your best, you can always walk away. You won't have to worry about how well you did. You'll just think, I did my best.
One time when I was about 5 years old, I was sitting on my mom's lap watching Ed Sullivan with her, and she was crying. What I didn't know was that she had breast cancer. She would lose both breasts and wear a prosthetic bra. She took care of all of us kids and her mother, and so many others, though she was sick herself. And she never told a soul.
So we're watching Ed Sullivan, and he calls out Bill Cosby, who starts doing this routine about Noah's ark. And my mom started laughing and crying at the same time. When I saw this, I started laughing. And when Cosby was finished, I looked at my mom and said, "Mom, that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna be a comedian, so you never cry again."
I became the storyteller of South Side Chicago. I used an old Kiwi liquid shoe polish as a microphone. I'd go around the house interviewing everybody, telling stupid jokes, doing voices. I was good at keeping my mother from crying. And I stopped crying, too, even when she died, because I was 15 and that's how I thought it was done.
When I hit my 20s, I struggled to make it. I got married at 19, and my daughter, Je'Niece, was born a year later. I worked blue collar jobs during the day and comedy clubs at night, and I was earning about $25 a year doing stand-up.
One day, when I was selling beer at Soldier Field, I fell down a flight of stairs. The way I fell, I should've been dead, so I went home, even though I really needed the $150-a-week paycheck. I sat in the apartment worrying about the light bill and the rent and wondering why I was wasting my time and energy in those clubs. And then I started thinking about my mom and what she taught me. I heard her words: Always give your best. And I wept. It was the first tear I'd cried over my mother's death, and I couldn't stop. I cried until my head hurt.
After that, whether I was playing to one or 1,000 or 10,000 people, I gave them everything. I wanted to be the best that I could be, first for myself, then for an audience. I love to see a smile on somebody's face, like I saw on my mother's that night. If I can tell someone a story that makes them bend over and laugh, that's bigger than anything else.
The summer of 1994 was the summer of my extreme discontent.
Only weeks after I'd gotten married, I was asked to join a group of stand-up comedians on a national tour. I couldn't say no to such a great opportunity, so I quit my job as a marketing executive, kissed my new husband goodbye, and embarked on a four-month odyssey across the country, performing at colleges in 30 states.
What I believed would be a spectacular work experience swiftly revealed itself to be a series of thankless performances in such splashy venues as cafeterias and dormitory lobbies. No lights, no stage. Sometimes no microphone. To top it off, I was traveling with two male comedians I barely knew in a van that smelled overwhelmingly of sweat socks. I was miserable.
My anguish reached its peak in a crappy motel room in rural Pennsylvania. As I sat there sniffling into my cheese curls, I remembered how my husband believed in me, so much so that he sent me off into the wide world with the words "This is your dream. Go for it." I thought about disappointing him. I thought about disappointing myself. After so much hard work, would I give up just because the road had gotten a little rocky, the van a little stinky?
I considered my idols—Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg—all of whom had overcome much more than a few surly audiences. I wiped my nose and stopped feeling sorry for myself. That night I got back onstage and did what I love to do. And it felt great.
Nothing really worth having is easy to get. The hard-fought battles, the goals won with sacrifice, are the ones that matter. I had to give up so much to do those awful college shows. But what I gained—the knowledge that I could do anything I set my mind to—was greater. What I learned in that shabby hotel room with the moldy shower curtain and the iron burns on the carpet was that I had what it took to go all the way: pure, unadulterated bullheadedness.
Early in 1999, speculation was growing that I would enter the U.S. Senate race in New York. In fact, reading the newspaper or watching television, it seemed that the only person in the world not convinced I would run was me.
But there were so many things to consider. And so many obstacles. No First Lady had ever before sought public office. And I had never run for office myself. Sure, I'd campaigned all over the country, for my husband and for other candidates. But I was used to getting onstage and talking about the virtues of someone else. Would I be able to earn the trust of New Yorkers? Would I make a good candidate? Did I have what it takes?
It was an incredibly difficult decision, and I needed a push. Fortunately, I got one. In March of that year, I went to New York City to join Billie Jean King at an event promoting a documentary about Title IX and women in sports. (Lucky for me, athletic ability was not required for entry to the event.) We gathered at a local school, joined by dozens of young women athletes, all of us assembled on a stage beneath a giant banner that read Dare to Compete, the title of the film. A young woman named Sofia Totti, the captain of the girls' basketball team at the school, introduced me.
And then something unexpected happened. As I approached the microphone to say a few words about the importance of giving girls every opportunity to grow and reach their potential, Sofia grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear: "Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton," she said. "Dare to compete."
I was stunned—genuinely caught off guard. Late into that night, I was still thinking about what she'd said. I started to ask myself questions that had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time. How can I give in to my fears and fail to do something I have urged countless other women to do? Why am I so hesitant about taking on this challenge?
All of us struggle to be the best we can be. All of us wonder at times whether what lies ahead is too difficult or too challenging. In truth, sometimes our most fearsome competitor is ourself, as we face our own doubts and fears on the way to reaching our potential.
Daring to compete isn't always easy. But Sofia, in her optimism and enthusiasm, in her spirit and drive, reminded me why it's so important.