Wendy Staton, 45, Philadelphia

When she was a high school student council president, Wendy Staton dreamed of becoming the first black female mayor of Philadelphia. She went to law school, then turned down a lucrative Wall Street job to become a litigator for the city. But the local government was snared in bureaucracy, and morale was low. "It killed my soul a little," says Staton.

As an antidote to her frustration, she got involved in community theater. She'd loved plays since she was a child and had been mesmerized when, in the ninth grade, she saw a great-uncle perform in the roller-skating musical Starlight Express. She quickly landed a role in a local production of Men Talking Women Talking Men. Reciting her lines, "I just felt so free," Staton recalls. Though she was two decades older than many struggling actors—and living in a city not known as a hotbed of stage and film opportunity—she signed up for classes with the best casting agent in town. Then she found a part-time job telling stories of Philadelphia's history at tourist attractions, hiding behind a bench to conjure runaway slave Harriet Tubman or jumping atop it to convey Abraham Lincoln's height. Through that position, she met other actors, one of whom helped her land a role in a historical show. Staton has now graced some of the most prestigious stages in Philadelphia, playing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and the innkeeper (and lead) in a comic Nativity story; she's also had minor roles in the TV series The Wire and the film Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis. In 2011, she retired her law license; in 2012, Staton's father bought her classes with legendary acting coach Susan Batson (who prepared Oprah for her role in Lee Daniels' The Butler). Staton won a scholarship to continue studying with Batson in New York—which she hopes will lead to Broadway auditions. "I worked with a judge in his 90s," says Staton, "who was still so excited about the law. Well, that's how I feel about acting. My mouth waters for it."

Her advice for late bloomers in the arts: "I gave up cable and cut up my credit cards. But I also put aside $500 every year to take a vacation."

The bets thing about her age: "If I'd pursued acting when I was younger and more insecure, I wouldn't have been able to handle the rejection. Now, if an audition doesn't go well, I think, It's not like anyone died."


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