Chattanoogans Hit the L.A. Entertainment Industry
We Chattanoogans rarely tire of dishing about Hollywood films coming to shoot in and around our beautiful, historic location. But you might not know about the men and women from this area who at some point in their careers decided to “take the plunge” and move to L.A. We caught up with five L.A. entertainment professionals who once called our city home. Now a Discovery Channel producer, an actress, a TV show host, a movie producer, and an international recording artist, they’re enjoying illustrious careers “in the biz.”
By Laura Childers
Full PDF here.
T-Ran Gilbert, Music Artist
For international recording artist T-Ran Gilbert, it all started with trying to be like MJ. “Back when I was three years old, I would sing and dance on the table, trying to be like Michael Jackson,” Gilbert says of his early musical beginnings.
Now the Chattanooga native, who attended high school at Center for Creative Arts (CCA), is based out of L.A., where he works as a professional singer, songwriter, musician, producer and motivational speaker. Currently, he’s headlining the second leg of the L.A.N.D. (Live And Not Die) Tour, his first major tour to promote his debut album, L.A.N.D. (The Beginning), which is slated for release in 2013. He’s also working on the video for his second single, “Turn the Lights On,” which is already in rotation on radio.
Ask T-Ran what “genre” his music fits into, and you’ll sense his universal appeal: “I do pop, R&B, gospel, hip-hop and even a little rock,” Gilbert says. “When I was young, people said I didn’t sound black enough or white enough. I just had a different kind of voice that, I believe, was made to reach people globally.”
The Chattanooga native has been performing in arenas for years now—among other stages, he earned a headlining spot on the Coke Stage at Riverbend in 2009. However, the artist says he hit a major career milestone last fall when his first official music video, “Need You Now,” hit 1 million views on YouTube, and began rotating on the MTV circuit and The Gospel Music Channel, among other outlets.
“The best part of what I do is impacting the lives of people who feel they have no power and no voice,” Gilbert says. “I know what it’s like to feel that way. I also know what it’s like when someone comes alongside you and empowers you.”
For his music and his message, Gilbert received the Key to the City of Chattanooga in 2011. In 2012, he returned again to his hometown, where he toured the city with Gandhi’s grandson during the “Season of Nonviolence” event put on by the city’s Department of Education, Arts & Culture.
“I love helping people see their true value. They don’t have to be defined and boxed in by the labels people put on them: the reject, the prostitute, the drug addict. I love that my music helps bring light into people’s lives and their dark situations.”
Rachel Boston, TV and Film Actress
A native of Signal Mountain, Tenn., 30 -year-old Rachel Boston has a résumé loaded with TV appearances in prime time shows like 7th Heaven, Grey’s Anatomy, Crossing Jordan, NCIS, The Closer, Curb Your Enthusiasm, ER, and Castle. She’s also starred in 11 films, most notably the popular 500 Days of Summer starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner.
Like so many young girls, Rachel Boston dreamed of becoming an actress at an early age. Her dream took a serious turn, however, while she was attending high school at GPS. “I had two wonderful, vibrant, and amazing drama teachers,” Boston says. “Suzanne Smartt and Catherine Bolden really encouraged me to follow my heart and move to New York.” At just 17 years old, she took their advice and headed to the Big Apple, where she studied acting at both NYU and Fordham University.
Boston admits she wasn’t totally prepared for the city life. “It took all the courage I could find to continue knocking on closed doors and sharing my heart. It was a deep soul searching time. It grew me as an artist and really prepared me for my first break in LA.”
That big break took the form of the role of Beth Pryor (neé Mason) in American Dreams, a TV drama that aired on NBC from 2002-2005. Since then, other leading TV roles have included Daphne Bloom in , which aired on CBS from 2008-2011, and Detective Abigail Chaffee in In Plain Sight, which aired on USA Network from 2008-2012.
In 2011, she earned critical acclaim for her starring role opposite Noah Bean in the 2011 indie flick, The Pill. Last year she reunited with Bean for Black Marigolds, which will premiere at The Boston International Film Festival in April. She can soon be seen in the indie comedy It’s a Disaster, scheduled for an April release in theaters. Boston has most recently landed a starring role as “Ingrid Beauchamp” in Witches of East End, a new TV series that will premiere on Lifetime in June.
“I find deeper levels of compassion and truth with every role I play,” Boston says. “To have an opportunity to open hearts to what is pure and true on this earth keeps me going.”
Doug McCallie, TV Producer
“I was never interested in TV production. I was interested in traveling and seeing the world.” This is Chattanooga native and five-time Emmy nominee Doug McCallie, now an executive producer for The Discovery Channel and The History Channel.
McCallie’s road to L.A. was filled with wild and exotic travel experiences: from surviving earthquakes in Taiwan to fleeing riots and tear gas in Zimbabwe.
After attending McCallie School in Chattanooga, McCallie graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in ’86, but skipped the ceremony to fly to Taiwan with only $700 dollars in his pocket. He would spend the next three years there working as a tour guide, before heading to Mexico for five months to learn Spanish, and then The University of Zimbabwe for a year on a scholarship from the Chattanooga Rotary Club.
“After Zimbabwe, I wasn’t sure what to do,” McCallie says. “I had three good friends from UNC who were film majors who had moved to L.A. that I had visited several times on my way back and forth to China.” He arrived in L.A. to find his friends doing “EPKs” (Electronic Press Kits, or behind-the-scenes stories of feature films). He got a job as a delivery boy for the production company—and then begged them to let him cut a piece. He got his chance when a producer called in sick.
McCallie did EPKs for four years before he got the travel bug again—so he went to Kenya for a year. When he got back to L.A. in 1997, it hit him: he could actually get paid to go on expeditions if he worked for National Geographic or Discovery or TLC.
He started recording travel shows on VHS, and breaking them down, shot by shot. He showed his work to a production company, who let him shoot a 7-minute segment. Then McCallie was hired as a producer for TLC’s Incredible Frontiers.
Today, a few highlights of his lengthy resume include being the executive director of Nor’ Easter Men (2012, History Channel); Out of the Wild: Venezula (2011, Discovery Channel); Man, Woman, Wild (2010-2012, Discovery Channel); and producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer of Survivor from 2001-2008. He’s currently the executive producer for an NBC show with Bear Grylls.
How he feels about his work now?
“Best job I ever had,” McCallie says. “I get paid to go to remote corners of the world and witness wildlife that I fear will all soon be gone.”
Betsy Sullenger, Hollywood Producer
“Few things in life get me more jazzed than a good story well told,” says L.A.-based producer, Betsy Sullenger.
The Hixson native says storytelling is the common thread among her early pursuits, which include creative writing at Hixson High, broadcast journalism at Middle Tennessee State, and theater in Nashville.
In 1990, Sullenger took the plunge and moved to L.A. with her husband Chambers Stevens. There, she met TV comedy writer Bob Ellison, who she would go on to work with on TV shows including Cheers and Wings. That is, until she hit a wall. “I realized I didn’t want to write comedy,” Sullenger says. Still dreaming of movies, she blindly sent out her resume to several film production companies.
“When I put the word out that I wanted to work in features, I got a call from my current creative partner, Andy Fickman, who at the time was an executive at a film company,” Sullenger says. “I got hired there and worked my way up the ranks. I found that I really enjoyed the process of taking an idea from scratch and putting together the team to bring it to life.”
Now, Fickman (whose films as a director include She’s the Man (2006), The Game Plan (2007), and Parental Guidance (currently in theaters)) and Sullenger head up L.A.-based Oops Doughnuts Productions, which “creates award-winning entertainment through a variety of artistic mediums including film, television, theater, and the web.”
In 2010, Fickman and Sullenger scored a hit with You Again, a comedy starring Kristen Bell, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, Odette Annable and Betty White. Then in 2012, the team branched out with its first YouTube series, Internet Icon—which would become the highest rated Google-funded show on YouTube. Today, Sullenger and Fickman are in the process of prepping a new family comedy series for the Disney Channel.
Her goals now? “Mostly to keep doing what I’m doing. I’d love to have a big hit TV series on the air, and I’d love to find a great film franchise. Mostly, though, like any working parent I’d love to figure out the perfect balance between work and family!”
Steve Watson, TV Host
Steve Watson is incredibly good at what he does. If you’ve watched any of his home improvement shows, like Don’t Sweat It on HGTV or Monster House on the Discovery Channel, you know the tireless energy, magnetic personality, and skillful craft that bring in the ratings.
“On a typical day, the alarm goes off at 4:30. I get in an hour-long workout and the crew is already on set by 6. I get on set and we start rolling. We roll cameras all day long. Then we’re off to a restaurant, we get some drinks at the bar, get in bed—and we’re back on set the next day.”
Over the past 10 years, Watson has hosted over 250 episodes of reality TV—most of them requiring both skill with tools and on-screen charisma. “In this business you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice—it doesn’t matter if you’re sick or stubbed your toe or forgot to shave. The cameras have to roll.”
Raised in a blue-collar family from Cleveland, and a graduate of Bradley Central High School, Watson says he learned how to work with his hands early on. He first started pursuing the entertainment industry while living and working as a remodeler in Atlanta.
In 1998, Watson realized he had “reached the ceiling” audition-wise in Atlanta, and moved to L.A. He spent the next five years auditioning, working day-time TV (Days of Our Lives), and doing stand-up comedy—all while doing construction to keep food on the table.
In 2003, he told his manager he didn’t want any more scripts. “I wanted to go do things where I could be myself. I love being myself and entertaining people,” he says. Shortly after, he got word of an audition for a spin-off of Monster Garage. “They needed someone who knew how to build stuff and knew how to be funny and think on their feet. I went into that audition and the next thing you know I’m the host of Monster House on the Discovery Channel.”
Watson’s more recent projects have included Yard Attack on the DIY network, and a new original Travel Channel series about American innovation and ingenuity that is scheduled to premiere later this year. “I plan to keep going and keep going until I can’t do it anymore,” Watson says.