Written by Cathy Carroll
When Katie O’Grady’s daughter was eight years old, she told her mom she wanted to learn how to act. It was around 2008 in Portland, and O’Grady, a television and film actress, was coming up short. She wanted to find a program for children that emulated hard-working, professional acting, not just acting for fun—so she created one.
Since launching The Studio Northwest, O’Grady has not only become known as a go-to source for young talent in the region, having trained hundreds of students, she created her own production company, was declared “marvelous” by The New York Times as the lead in the 2011 film “Rid of Me” and has been collaborating on film projects for companies such as Nike, stop-motion animation studio Laika and the Portland Trail Blazers. It was her reputation for coaching child actors that prompted the NBA team to bring O’Grady on to direct “Growing Up Rip City,” a fiftieth-anniversary television spot which earned her an Emmy in the male-dominated field.
At the same time, she held her studio together when the pandemic struck, following the sudden death of her father. She brought the studio online, initially to simply offer kids a connection to their artistic community and secondly to continue developing their acting skills. Celebrated actors such as Fred Armisen, of “Saturday Night Live’’ and “Portlandia” (O’Grady appeared on “Portlandia” for eight seasons), joined an online class, encouraging students to nurture their passion despite the global crisis.
Adding a digital dimension yielded the unexpected—her classes grew as kids around the country and abroad discovered the studio, named for more than just its location. The fifth-generation Oregonian brings a distinctly Northwest philosophy to her approach to everything from coaching and teaching to screenwriting and mothering. One hallmark: skip the star system for collaboration, not the least of which included the Trail Blazers piece.
“How I won the Emmy was with their team, hands down one of the best production teams I’ve ever worked with,” said O’Grady, who oversaw multiple camera crews and teams for dozens of vignettes with scores of actors edited together for the segment. “There wasn’t one person that was a star of that show.”
She’s also discovered that her coaching style, honed from years of working with children, translated perfectly for hyper-focused, performance-oriented sports stars with zero time to rehearse and handlers allotting a precisely timed fifteen minutes to nail the spot.
“They need information quick and clear, whereas a well-trained actor, maybe you have to navigate the dark, back corners of their mind to help them see where they need to go, but athletes are like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and they do it,” she said. “They are so prepared, they are so dedicated and yeah, they would come in and you get minutes—minutes is a luxury with the athletes I work with.”
Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Ndomukong Suh, Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles are some of them. Since the acclaimed Rip City spot, she works frequently with the Trail Blazers, having filmed some of their Black Lives Matter messages and clips played on the Moda Center jumbotron.
“She has an incredible ability to direct actors in a way that feels authentic,” said Billie Olson, the Trail Blazers’ director of production, who’d brought her on for the Rip City spot. “We then decided to see how she could do coaching our players at our yearly media day at Portland. Keep in mind that these are young men with no acting training and hate trying to perform on camera. Katie was able to get them to relax and, for the first time, look comfortable on camera while reading a teleprompter. She has brought a great deal of professionalism and experience to our productions.”
For O’Grady, a high point was feeling she was a part of the organization, having overcome an initial sense that she of being out of place—a petite artist directing towering players. “I like the collaborative, sweet kindness that those guys have, and it’s cultivated by their staff and production team, for sure,” she said. “You can feel it. I’m very proud of it. It breaks my heart, every time I see it (“Growing Up Rip City”), to be just so proud to be part of Oregon and proud to be a Blazer fan.”
Part of the secret to her success is the Portland culture that embraced her while she blazed her own trail as a working mother carving out a niche training children to act. “Everything leads back to that, to be honest, because this place is—it’s got a heartbeat,” said O’Grady. “In this city, you know, if you’re looking for a kid actor, you’re going to call me.”
Her Medford roots, growing up hunting, camping and escaping to the family cabin on Mount Hood, guide her in advising students and their parents.
“I don’t wish them to be a star in L.A. or New York,” she said. “I don’t wish them getting up at four o’clock in the morning and working their tail off all day and not seeing any other kids and getting schooled in between takes, learning lines and not being able to go have fun. What I tell parents is, ‘What I wish for your child is that they get dirt in their hair and that their feet freeze from the river and the ocean wave knocks them on their butts in the sand and that they get broken up with, and that they break up with somebody and they go to prom and they put a corsage on a girl, and I wish for them that feeling of love and loss and life before they have their career.’”
In the meantime, they should be training, discovering what it takes to be a working actor. “My goal isn’t for these kids to be, you know, stars, but artists for a lifetime, and what does that mean to invite art into your life,” she said. “What does it mean to take care of it.”