October 5, 2016

SCA Alumni Stories: Cheryl Rodes

By Eileen Kwon

Ready to “set the world on fire,” Cheryl Rodes ’12 tells honest stories that champion the complex everyday lives of women. Acting since age six and raising herself from age fourteen, Rodes has been a storyteller all her life. With an MFA in Writing under her belt, she hopes to utilize the power of storytelling “to embrace, explore and showcase the complexity of women, who they are, and what they have to deal with.”

Describe your journey leading to USC. How did you decide to pursue an MFA in Screenwriting? Early on, writing was a therapeutic outlet. I’m the type of person who has an entire bookshelf full of journals. I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve been acting since I was six-years-old and I’ve always enjoyed building and developing a character, and then seeing it through to screen. In that way, my acting and writing went hand-in-hand. As I got older, the roles became less diverse, I realized that, in order for me to have a stronger, better-heard, creative voice in the industry, I really needed to get behind the camera. That’s what brought me to SCA.

Could you talk about your experience transitioning from in front to behind the camera? What prompted this change?  As a talent, your primary focus is to be true to the character—to find your voice in your own portrayal of the character you’ve built and the idiosyncrasies that you align yourself with in the role of that specific character. In other words, you paint one tree in the forest of a story. But, there’s so much more to a story than one singular character. I wanted that opportunity to have my own creative voice so I could paint the forest, not just one tree.

As a 30-something woman, I knew that I would have greater longevity in entertainment behind rather than in front of the camera. Now with years of acting and a lot of education under my belt, I want to help create a more dynamic future for other women in this industry. There’s a great opportunity to effect change by shifting the camera and focusing on the complexity and diversity that women have to offer in their daily roles and use those as tools of empowerment.

Share about your journey, thus far, of discovering your creative voice. In my personal opinion, being a creative means always being on a journey of discovery. Finding my voice is a continuous journey, and it’s a different journey when I’m producing, directing or writing. For now, I look to what resonates with me the most, what I enjoy writing about the most. Staying true to what excites me and makes me hungry to sit down and write pages.

My first year at SCA was completely focused on screenwriting. My second year, I had the opportunity to learn more about the business of the industry. Learning to understand directing and producing showed me where the holes were in my writing and brought greater focus to my career. I took classes at the Marshall School of Business. Believe it or not, those classes also contributed to my writing. I was able to better understand the world in which I was studying and about to work in. I think to be a writer in the entertainment industry is one component, whereas to be an active participant of the business aspect is really a different beast.

What are your thoughts on feminism in the filmmaking world? I don’t classify myself as a feminist. I think that the feminist genre in itself can be very separating and stereotypical. I don’t think everything associated with the word is negative, but my personal connotation of it doesn’t necessarily conjure up the power of being a female advocate.

I support women and I support men. Fighting for equality is one thing. Fighting for superiority or for special permissions or allowances is another. I don’t want to be considered special because I’m a woman. I want to be given the same opportunities offered to men to prove that I’m equal or better than anybody else in that category.

That being said, I think that the industry is definitely a boys club. So do we create a girls club to balance or off set that? I guess so. If that’s the only way to rock the boat, then let’s do it.  Currently, I’m working on a project, that is going to have an entire female crew, and one could consider that reverse chauvinism. However, if I can throw some rocks on the other side of the scale, I want to, as a woman, I feel like I have to.

How do you see yourself influencing the way women are represented on screen? I think it’s a screenwriter’s job to be true to the story and to be true to the characters. And that’s the beauty of storytelling. With independent movies claiming more and more real estate within the industry, I think it’s evident that as a society, America is growing as an audience. People want to see more honest portrayals of human complexity and diversity in characters on screen. So it’s my job as a producer, director, and screenwriter to champion those kinds of stories in my work. I want to help shift the focus from the male dominant storyline to the female one.

What are you up to now? I’m working on a short titled “For Gina.” It’s based on a true story of a young couple in the aftermath of the death of their three-year-old daughter. We’re in pre-production now: getting the team together, applying for grants, and trying to find funding. We’re hoping to be in production by the end of this year.

The story is based on the lead actress and my dear friend’s parents tragic experience. In the early 80s, they had two daughters, six and three. Their youngest was diagnosed with leukemia and lost the battle in three weeks. After the funeral, her mother goes into the bathroom in complete shambles. She stays in there for a little over eight hours. When she comes out, she’s a different woman.

For me, this story is the exploration of what happened in that bathroom.  You have a young mother, married to a doctor, who has to deal with one of the hardest, most challenging devastations a person can experience – the sudden death of a child. I explore the idea that in the bathroom, she confronts the five stages of grief so she can come out and still be a mother to her six-year-old and a wife to her husband. I admire so many things about women and I want to see their untold stories on film. I want to embrace, explore and showcase the complexity of women, champion them - who they are, where they’ve come from and what they’re dealing with.

How do you hope your work impacts its audience? I want to set the world on fire. I want the audience to leave the theatre and think. I want the film to stay with them. There’s that quote about not walking into the grave unscathed, but sliding in broken and saying, “Holy hell, what a ride.” That’s the kind of experience I want my audiences to have. I want them to be profoundly and deeply affected. I want them to call their moms, sisters, aunts and thank them for all that they do.

What’s your advice for SCA student and alumni? There is no out. You’ve dedicated yourself to the cause – give it all you’ve got, fall in love with it again and again. That’s it.

How can people get in touch with you? I’d be delighted to hear from any fellow Trojan – they can email me directly of course at cherylrodes@me.com.