Hendrix alumna knows who she is and what she wants
By Rachel Thomas '14
Ashlie Atkinson '01 still remembers the day she
changed her major from English to theater.
"I remember I had gotten an A, my
first A on a paper in Alice Hines' class ... and I remember she walked past me
and dropped the paper on my desk and said ‘we'll make an English major out of
you yet, Miss Atkinson,' and I thought, I just changed my major," Atkinson said.
"I had done it right before I went to her class. And then I thought, ‘Oh, I will
miss you Dr. Hines, but I've got somewhere to be'."
Now a stage and screen
actor who played major roles in two films that premiered this year at the
Sundance Film Festival, when Atkinson started at Hendrix she was an English
major with serious doubts about a career in acting.
A Little Rock native,
Atkinson knew from a young age that she wanted to act. After graduating high
school, she briefly went away to college in New York but decided to come home
and enroll at Hendrix, where she had attended Arkansas Governor's School for
"I'm so glad I didn't go anywhere else. The friends I made at Hendrix
are my friends still, to this day. And I don't mean like three or four of them.
I have probably still 40 friends from Hendrix that I talk to ... Isn't that
crazy? The school was only like 1,200 people, how do I still have 40 friends
that I talk to? We graduated 11 years ago. That's insane. It's wonderful."
However, in New York, Atkinson had gotten a "reductive view"
of acting, that it "fed the ego."
"I felt like it wasn't the right thing to
do, and somehow I lost the thread of what I wanted to do as an actor," Atkinson
So she majored in English, but she quickly found herself drawn back to
She made many of her closest friends in the theater department,
including Lesley Dancer '01, who is now Atkinson's playwriting partner. She and
Dancer have won and placed in the alumni category of the Hendrix Playwright
Theatre playwriting competition several times.
Atkinson was struck by the
difference between her coursework and that of her friends. She remembered
watching her friend practice lines and build sets and thinking "This doesn't
even look like work to me, this looks like fun."
However, Atkinson couldn't
reconcile changing her major until working with Dr. Rosemary Henenberg and
Professor Danny Grace '77 convinced her.
"I really have to give credit to Dr.
Henenberg and to Danny Grace because they instilled in me, in that little chunk
of time that they had me in those classes or doing a play, they instilled in me
that it wasn't about the ego," Atkinson said. "That a life in the pursuit of art
is a life well spent, and that there's something about art and the performing
arts that can nurture and that can soothe and can heal and can teach. And that
there is nothing to be ashamed of to be enthralled by the creation of art. And
that was huge. That changed everything."
Now an established actor, Atkinson
recently attended the premieres of Compliance and My Best Day at Sundance.
Atkinson said she had fallen in love with a phrase she learned at Sundance, "the
heart project," and that both her films were real heart projects.
like both film makers, Erin Greenwell and Craig Zobel, who directed My Best Day
and Compliance respectively, came to the project with so much passion and there
was a distinct feeling that everybody on both of those sets was playing at the
top of their game," Atkinson said.
She said filming My Best Day felt like
"adult summer camp," since they filmed in rural Pennsylvania, and all the actors
stayed together for the 18 days of filming.
Compliance, in contrast, felt
like being in a gang of thieves. The film was shot in a real Kentucky Fried
Chicken. For two weeks, filming began after the restaurant closed, and ended
when the employees came in the following morning.
Compliance, which is based
on true events, contains scenes of sexual assault. Atkinson described the first
screening at Sundance as "intense," with people walking out or shouting at the
screen. During the post-screening Q&A, a man shouted at Dreama Walker, the actor
playing the lead character, "your body's pretty appealing." That was the last
straw for Atkinson.
"I'm mad. And one of the things that I think Hendrix and
my mother taught me is to be very articulate when angry. Instead of retreating,
I tend to want to make my point very clearly," Atkinson said. "So I get mad and
I take the microphone and I say something along the lines of ‘are you saying
that because Dreama's pretty she can't portray the victim of sexual abuse?' ...
that cleared the air a little bit, in a weird way."
After that, people
stopped Atkinson in the street to say they had agreed with her or that they
weren't sure and wanted to discuss the film further.
Atkinson, who had seen
the culture of Park City as unsettlingly focused on prettiness when she first
arrived at Sundance, found that this experience helped her realize what her role
was. It was the role she wanted.
"I realized that what I was there to do was
talk about my film, to have opinions about it, to try to express them the best
way that I could and create a conversation, and to engage with people, not to
get my picture taken," she said. "And it sort of solidified for me why I wanted
and needed to be there, and made me feel far more confident in my role in this
particular little corner of the industry."