I met Mary Lou Rock at the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991. We both attended RAHI, a six-week college preparatory course. I remember Mary Lou as an outgoing person who always had a smile for everyone. I ran into Mary Lou about a year ago at a RAHI Reunion. I was impressed to see that she is pursuing her acting career. Mary Lou is currently living in Los Angeles. I caught up with her during her recent visit to Anchorage.
Mary Lou decided to move to LA after her divorce earlier this year. She felt she needed a change and to be on her own. Mary Lou had been to LA before and fell in love with it. Jean Bruce Scott, Producing Artistic Director and Co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry in LA, was involved in producing Cikiuteklluku and saw her perform. Jean told Mary about staged readings at the Autry in May and asked if would be interested. Mary was scared, but agreed to attend.
Mary Lou admires Jean and says, “The fact that she saw something special in me gave me the confidence to do make the move to LA. I can’t express how grateful I am to her for that.”
Mary Lou always dreamed of becoming an actress, but she didn’t think it was possible. She was painfully shy from junior high school through college. Sometimes her stomach hurt just talking to people, even those she knew. Mary says, “It wasn’t until I worked at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and felt culturally whole that I came out of my shell.” She discovered she loved talking to people from all over the world. Not long after that, she did a voiceover for the American Lung Association of Alaska and felt a sense of excitement she had never felt before. People encouraged her to do more of that but she didn’t know where to start.
Mary auditioned for a speaking role in Big Miracle with Drew Barrymore, but didn’t get a part. Then, she was called to be a stand in for another actor. Even though she wasn’t going to be on camera, she was filled with excitement to be on set and enjoyed watching people buzzing around her who were taking light readings and making sure the set was just right. Mary says, “I guess my happiness made an impression.” She was called in again a couple weeks later to be a background actor with no lines.
They didn’t end up using her, but during a break between shots she was standing in an open space and the director Ken Kwapis rushed passed her, looked at her, and said, “Hi Mary!” Mary couldn’t believe it. She had never met him before.
On the third and final time, Mary got called in as background on the last day of shooting. She says, “When I got to the set, Mr. Kwapis’ face lit up and he greeted me.” Mary’s heart jumped! She was playing a hotel clerk. As a background actor (or extra) you have to mouth words and not actually say them so the microphone doesn’t pick up your voice. As she was doing that Mr. Kwapis said, “Give her lines.” One of the crew put a mic on her and whispered, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Actors work in Hollywood for years and never get a speaking role.”
Mary felt like she was in a dream world. Her shot was the last of the day. She had at least 20 people watching her as she walked in the door and said her line. She was in heaven in front of the camera. Afterward, Mr. Kwapis gave her a big hug. That was the day she thought, “Maybe I’ve got something. Maybe I can be an actress.”
It was because of that speaking part that Mary was able to become part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, now SAG-AFTRA). Mary says, “I will be forever thankful to Mr. Kwapis for giving me lines, but mostly for remembering my name and inspiring me to fulfill my dream.”
Being an actor has brought Mary to life. For years, Mary suffered from extreme fatigue, and it got so bad at one point that she couldn’t work for two years. There were days she could barely move. She felt useless. However, through treatment, changes in her diet and getting regular exercise, she began to recover.
It wasn’t until her first lead role in the play, Cikiuteklluku, that Mary’s life truly changed. She was working 8-12 hour days and says, “For the first time since I was 12, I felt energized.” From then on, Mary got better and better, and felt like she was doing what she was meant to do.
Mary’s most widely known role is probably the part she played in a 2012 Super Bowl commercial.
Locally, she gets the most recognition the health education video called, “What’s The Big Deal?” because it plays at the Alaska Native hospital. Mary also had lead roles in several theater productions.
I asked Mary what she does to prepare for roles, and she exclaims, “Memorize! Memorize! Memorize!” After she memorizes lines, then she can have fun with it. Mary says, “I pray as I get into my roles, that I will do my best to honor the story, the writer, the director, and my fellow actors.”
Mary says, “I am not the star of the show. The story is the star and we all work together to tell it.” Mary also does her research. Like when she played Raven in The Winter Bear, she watch ravens around Anchorage. Mary studied how they moved and talked to each other and read about their behavior.
Mary’s family and friends are her biggest influences, and her parents are her main mentors. She says, “They taught me that character is your most important attribute and to always treat people with kindness and love.” Mary’s mentors also include Jean Bruce Scott from Native Voices at the Autry and Ken Kwapis, director of Big Miracle. She says, “They both believed in me enough to take a chance on me.” Mary’s fellow actors are also her mentors and says, “I always amazed how much I learn from them.”
One of Mary’s biggest challenges was not knowing where to start. Mary says, “It is especially hard in LA where you are one of thousands and thousands of people pursuing acting.” Another challenge includes promoting herself. Mary says, “Being Native, you are not supposed to talk about yourself.” She overcame that challenge when one of her mentors told her not to look at it as promoting herself but happily offering her best to the world. “That change in perspective really helped me to become more confident in myself,” says Mary.
“Being Inupiaq/Yupik Eskimo has been a huge advantage to getting roles in Alaska. All of my characters locally have had ties to being Native. In LA it’s a different story. Since I am half white and they do not have a lot of Eskimo roles and I do not look particularly Native American Indian, I get categorized as Caucasian. But it doesn’t mean I get fewer roles, just not the ones that are specifically Native.” – Mary Lou Rock
Mary’s advice for aspiring actors:
- Do what your heart tells you.
- Being an actor is not glamorous most of the time. It’s a lot of work, long hours, dealing with rejection on a regular basis, and there is no steady paycheck unless you make it big.
- If you do decide acting is right for you, make sure you have boundaries and stick to them. There are a lot of people who will try to take advantage of you. Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart.
- Network and meet people who share your passion.
- Have fun!
Mary Lou is living her dream and enjoys acting. She says, “The exhilaration I get from acting is well worth the hard work. I did not go to Hollywood to become famous. I don’t need to make it big. I am happy and I’ve already made it.” I admire Mary for her tenacity to move all the way to LA to live out her dream. I also admire her positive attitude in every role she plays. Mary is one brave Alaska Native woman! Go Mary!
ABOUT MARY LOU ROCK
Mary Lou “Baayin” Rock is from Shaktoolik, a small Inupiaq village in northwest Alaska. As a girl her dream of being an actress seemed unattainable, but upon moving to Anchorage she began doing voiceover work and appearing in local commercials. It wasn’t until her involvement in Everybody Loves Whales that her love for acting was realized and received union status with the Screen Actors Guild. She has since appeared in “What’s the Big Deal”, a short film for the Alaska Native Medical Center, and “Sled”, the 2012 Super Bowl commercial for Suzuki.
In her theatrical debut, she played Liza in the November, 2012 developmental production of Holly Stanton’s Cikiuteklluku: Giving Something Away. Her latest roles include Teacher in Jack Dalton’s Assimilation and Raven/Miranda in The Winter Bear further nurtured her love for the art of visual storytelling. She recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career where she was featured in readings at Native Voices at the Autry.