Four Trinity graduates working in the epicenter of the entertainment industry share their stories
When Kristine Belson ’86 received a 2014 Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category for her role as a producer of The Croods, the honor represented a remarkable personal achievement. Her nomination for film’s highest honor also represented a sign of Trinity’s burgeoning presence in film, television, and entertainment.
How does one go from a small, highly competitive liberal arts college on the East Coast to a career in “the business”? The Trinity Reporter sat down in Los Angeles with Belson and three other alumni currently involved in the field to talk about the ride that took them from coast to coast. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.
Meet the cast
- Kristine Belson ’86 is a producer at DreamWorks. She executive produced the film How to Train your Dragon and produced The Croods. She is currently working on the sequel to The Croods.
- Chris Hogan ’85 is a TV and film writer, actor, and video producer. He has acted on stage and in a number of television shows, films, and commercials. He is currently in production on an animated comedy pilot he co-created and co-wrote for Fox Television.
- Billy Lazarus ’93 worked in casting and public relations prior to joining the United Talent Agency in Los Angeles, where he is currently a talent agent representing film, television, and stage actors.
- Will McCormack ’96 is a writer, producer, and actor. He co-wrote the Sundance film Celeste and Jesse Forever, which he also produced. Currently writing another film, he is also producing a new television show called A to Z, which premieres on NBC this fall.
Q: Where are you all from? How did you end up at Trinity?
BELSON: I am from Los Angeles, California. I moved around a lot as a kid, but I went to junior high and high school in L.A. It felt very different when I first got to Trinity. And then I sort of found my people, and then I loved it. It took me a while to find my people.
MCCORMACK: I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and my sisters Bridget [’88] and Mary [’91] had gone to Trinity, and I just visited them a lot when I was a kid–they’re much, much older.
MCCORMACK: They were these superstars in our family. Bridget was a philosophy major and a religion major, and then she went to law school and now she’s a Supreme Court justice in Michigan. And Mary had gone to Trinity and had done very well in the performing arts as a singer and as an actress and had a very successful acting career. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else.
LAZARUS: I’m from Great Neck, Long Island. I ended up [at Trinity] because my father went there. I went for a children-of-alumni weekend. And what was the name of the a cappella group?
HOGAN: The Pipes.
LAZARUS: The Pipes! I totally wanted to be one of them.
HOGAN: I’m from a town called Eastchester; that’s in Westchester [outside New York City]. I’m one of eight kids, and I’m the first in my family to go to a non-Catholic college, so that appealed to my rebellious side.
Q: What did you think you’d be doing when you left Trinity?
BELSON: I didn’t think I would be doing this, at all. My father was a screenwriter. I just thought, “No way am I going to do that.”
LAZARUS: I knew I wanted to be in something in entertainment.
MCCORMACK: When I graduated from school, it never even occurred to me to do anything else. It wasn’t even a choice I made. I remember my theater professor at school saying to me, “So what are you going to do?” “I’m going to act, man.” It took 10 years to feel like you have some sort of standing in the business. And then it takes another five to make a name for yourself. I just turned 40 this year, and I just feel like with every step of the way, you build a career, but it does take a long time. And I think that if I wasn’t so insistent upon doing it, I think I would have quit.
BELSON: [To Chris] What did you think you were going to be?
HOGAN: I thought I was going to end up in New York, working at an auction house or in a bank. Yeah, I love art. Crazy for art.
Q: How did you get into entertainment?
HOGAN: My dad, an original Madison Avenue Mad Men guy, wanted me to go work for his ad agency. I said, “No, I’m gonna paint houses on Cape Cod.” So I paint houses, then we start this little company, hiring a bunch of people. And then we started another company. And I thought, “This isn’t what I want to do.” My dad calls his best friend, who is John Cusack’s father, Dick Cusack, who used to be in advertising [and says], “Would you talk him into it?” Instead, Mr. Cusack told me, “You have a facile imagination. You’re a creative person, can’t you see that?” He’s the first person who ever spoke to me like that. “Come to Chicago, live in our attic. Study with the Pivens. What are you going to be, 24 years old and look back on your life and say, ‘I could have done something?’ ”
BELSON: Your dad was like, “Thanks.”
HOGAN: My dad was like, “Not quite what I was hoping.” So I moved to Chicago. I fell into this crowd of Northwestern [grads]. We started just tearing it up and did a show there called The Chris Hogan Show, a stream-of-consciousness improv show.
LAZARUS: Well titled!
HOGAN: Fox came to see it and flew us to L.A. We got signed by ICM by all these agents, and it was this big, crazy, weird ride. We had a deal with NBC; we had a show on E! I had a good career. And then I got kind of bored. And I decided to try something else. Two other guys and I started making videos for YouTube. We got nearly 3 million views for four videos. I sold a show to the producers of Two and a Half Men. It didn’t get made, but I was like, “Maybe I’m on to something.” So here I am now, I’m on my third pilot for Fox. It’s an animated pilot, and it’s being animated now.
BELSON: Unlike maybe a lot of kids at the time, certainly unlike kids now who come out of college with a plan, I didn’t have a plan.
LAZARUS: It wasn’t chic back then to have a plan.
BELSON: I went home, which is here. And I was a reader [at CAA, an agency], and I really liked it. My boyfriend was doing a semester at UCLA, and when it was time for [him] to go back to Trinity, I was like, “Yeah, you know reading scripts and writing coverage and stuff, it’s all great, but like I want to go back to New York and back to the East Coast, and stay with this guy.” So I worked in publishing, and I worked in off-Broadway theater, and realized I hated those things. A friend of mine was working for a producer named Wendy Finerman, and he said, “I’m gonna leave, come back to L.A., you can be her development girl.” So I came to L.A. It was a huge learning curve, and I was just one of those eager “D Girls.” I started a series of other jobs. I worked at 20th Century Fox as a studio executive. Amy Pascal, who’s now the head of Sony, created Turner Pictures and hired me. When Turner Pictures dissolved and Amy returned to Sony Pictures, she brought me along. From there, I joined The Jim Henson Company, which was fantastic–I loved it there. And about eight years ago somebody from DreamWorks Animation approached me and said, “Have you ever thought about animation?” And I said, “Not much.” And I started talking with them, and I love it! I love working in animation.
LAZARUS: I went back to New York, and I kind of worked in a law firm for a minute. I was struggling with that decision. I got wait-listed at Northwestern, so I had six months. I moved to L.A. to become a movie star and quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. I got a job working in casting, which I didn’t even really understand, but it was awesome, and I could read with actors, [cast] a bunch of TV pilots. I worked on Independence Day. That sort of solidified the fact for me that I loved this world, and I wanted to be in entertainment. And I loved casting, and it was a great way for me to learn the business from all sides of it, and obviously from the actor’s point of view. I got a job at a publicity company, and I didn’t really understand what publicity for actors was. I didn’t know that someone procured someone to be on a magazine cover; I thought that just happened. I got hired three years later at UTA to be an agent, and I’ve been at UTA for 13 years.
MCCORMACK: I had very humble goals. I really just wanted to be an off-Broadway theater actor. I did plays at Playwrights Horizons, some Manhattan Theatre Club, and The Vineyard. And I got to be in premieres from playwrights who I loved. I did a play [at the Manhattan Theatre Club], and there was a production here at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, and I came with it. I had done a little bit of TV–The Sopranos in New York and just a couple other little things. I continued to act, and I got some more movies, and then I was on TV shows that I didn’t watch, and I was sort of floundering. I don’t know; I sort of felt uninspired. Acting had meant so much to me, and there was so much passion, and then I sort of felt not connected to it, and my secret dream was to always be a writer. I took a couple screenwriting classes, and I started writing films. I have a writing partner, we wrote a movie, got into Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics bought it.
BELSON: It’s great, say the name.
MCCORMACK: It’s called Celeste and Jesse Forever, and that for me was a huge break in my career, because we produced a film, we acted in it, we wrote it. So then I had of all these screenwriting opportunities, and we got a production deal and have a TV show coming out this fall on NBC called A to Z, Thursday nights at 9:30.
LAZARUS: I’ve seen it; it’s great.
MCCORMACK: At a certain point you get to a certain age, and maybe if my career had been better I would have continued to do it, but, at a certain point, you have to take your career into your own hands, you have to create content, and everything changed once I said I had a script that people wanted to buy.
LAZARUS: Well then you’re in control of things, which is the fun place to be rather than waiting for people to write great stuff.
Q: What is the highlight of your career?
BELSON: For me it’s easy. I got nominated for an Oscar. It was exciting. And maybe one day I’ll win one? I don’t know.
HOGAN: I think a highlight for me was learning how a good TV show was made working on 3rd Rock from the Sun … the writers, the actors, the crew all treated each other with such respect. And then I’d say the other highlight is …
BELSON: You’ve just created a show.
HOGAN: And that is the craziest thing. We just cast Cheri Oteri, Chris Parnell, Jenny Slate, and Andrew Rannells. I mean, we have this incredible cast. And it’s something that came out of our heads, my writing partner and I, our heads. To see it come to life is extraordinary.
LAZARUS: I was so obsessed with movies and television growing up. So for me, the highlight is, I mean, not to sound like a cheeseball, but every day is a highlight. Getting to be a part of putting movies and TV shows together that people watch, and things that are in pop culture, things that my family likes, friends like, and being at the inception of some of those things, you know, not all of pop culture, but some of those things, is pretty fantastic. That’s the answer for me: every day.
MCCORMACK: Making a movie with my best friend, and having it go to Sundance, and have it come out, and actually be something that feels like a representation of who we are as actors and writers and as producers because so often you try to make things and they don’t get made, or it doesn’t come out quite right, and that movie does really feel like a representation of how I want to be as a writer. So that was a real achievement.
Q: What you would tell someone at Trinity now, if they wanted to be in the entertainment industry?
HOGAN: You know, I for sure would say hard work, tenacity, perseverance, ability to take rejection, and a belief in yourself.
BELSON: Because the thing about rejection is, you just need one person to say yes. Just one person!
LAZARUS: I’d say get out here.
MCCORMACK: I’d also say find people you admire and that you want to work with, and if you can’t work with them, work for them until you can work with them. And do more than one thing: if you’re a writer, act. If you’re an actor, produce. You can’t just do one thing anymore. You have to be able to do several things, and they all connect anyway.
Q: What advice would you give to your Trinity self, knowing what you know now?
HOGAN: Don’t be afraid to be different and to take risks academically and creatively. I interview kids for Trinity.
LAZARUS: Do you really? That’s awesome.
HOGAN: I recommend it.
LAZARUS: They’re smarter than we are.
HOGAN: Way smarter.
BELSON: So much smarter …
HOGAN: I always tell them, “If you get in, take advantage of the entire experience.” I went to the Rome program; it was amazing.
LAZARUS: I went to Florence.
BELSON: I didn’t sort of figure out how to really take advantage of it until too late. I was kind of goofing around, and again, I think kids are more serious.
LAZARUS: I think that this would be most people’s answer. There’s the rare person I think that would actually say, “Yes, I took advantage of every single aspect of the campus.”
MCCORMACK: I went abroad my junior year and came back, and I was like, “Oh my god, this college is incredible.” And my freshman and sophomore year I didn’t take advantage of it in a way I wish that I had.
BELSON: I really had a lot of regret. My senior year I tried to do everything I could to make up for the lost time, but you can’t make up for the lost time. So take advantage of everything. And don’t worry about what’s not perfect about it. Pursue what’s awesome about it. Don’t worry about what isn’t.
Q: Name a Trinity person who was an influence.
BELSON: I don’t know if he was there when you guys were there, but Fred Pfeil.
MCCORMACK: He was amazing. I loved my adviser Dirk Kuyk, whose name is, he told me, from Faulkner. He taught me how to read. I mean, to be a really scrupulous, thorough reader and a critical thinker. I don’t even think I knew how to read before I met him.
HOGAN: I’d say for me, the entire History Department. Five 70-year-old men who were all master storytellers. And a guy in my fraternity, Jamie Kapteyn.
BELSON: I was actually heavily influenced by my friends, too, because I had come from this Fast Times at Ridgemont High background, and nobody was an intellectual at all. Not my first year, but my second year, I fell in with this group of kids who were really intellectual.
HOGAN: Well, this [discussion] was amazing.
MCCORMACK: “It’s seldom we’ll meet in the moonlight so sweet, ’neath the elms of our old Trinity.”
Following in their footsteps
From Trinity to today
Kristine Belson ’86
Majors in creative writing at Trinity
Returns home to L.A.
Becomes a reader at CAA talent agency
Heads to New York
Works in publishing
Tries off-Broadway theater
Serves as development executive to producer Wendy Finerman
Works as studio executive at 20th Century Fox
Moves to Turner Pictures with Amy Pascal (now head of Sony)
Follows Pascal to Sony
Joins The Jim Henson Company
DreamWorks Animation comes calling
“I love it! I love working in animation.”
Chris Hogan ’85
Majors in history at Trinity
Paints houses on Cape Cod
Moves to Chicago, studies acting with Joyce Piven, lives with Cusack family
Performs at Next, Remains, and Steppenwolf
Creates The Chris Hogan Show
Gets signed by ICM agency, moves to L.A.
Acts in 3rd Rock, MADtv, The West Wing, Studio 60, The Sopranos
Does films with Ron Howard, John Luessenhop, Michael Radford
Takes screenwriting class
Makes videos for YouTube
Writes screenplays and TV pilots
Now in production of third animated pilot at Fox
“I sold a show to the producers of Two and a Half Men. It didn’t get made, but I thought, ‘Maybe I’m on to something.’ ”
Billy Lazarus ’93
Majors in Latin American studies at Trinity
Moves to New York
Works in law firm “for a minute”
Gets wait-listed at Northwestern
Heads to L.A.
Lands job in casting
Works on Independence Day
Gets job at publicity company
Starts work at UTA as a talent agent
“I worked on Independence Day. … That sort of solidified the fact for me that I loved this world and I wanted to be in entertainment.”
Will McCormack ’96
Majors in English literature, minors in theater at Trinity
Wants to be an off-Broadway theater actor
Performs at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, The Vineyard
Does production of play at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood
Appears in The Sopranos
Acts in movies, TV shows
Takes screenwriting classes
Starts writing films
He and writing partner write movie; it gets into Sundance; Sony Pictures Classics buys it
Has new TV show coming out this fall on NBC
“At a certain point, you have to take your career into your own hands, you have to create content, and everything changed once I said I had a script that people wanted to buy.”