By Vanessa Broadbent
The film industry is known for the glamorous lifestyle that comes along with working in the movies; it’s a world that many people dream of being involved in.
For Oliver resident Susan Kosola, this isn’t just a dream but a reality. Or at least it was during her over 20-year career working as a movie set designer.
Kosola started out like many young people: wanting to be an actress. Having grown up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, she set her sights on the industry after seeing an improv theatre troupe perform at her high school in Grade 9.
“I had never seen improv before and I thought they were absolutely fascinating,” she said. “At the end of that assembly I went straight to the guidance counsellor and said, ‘I want to sign up for theatre arts.’”
Kosola then studied theatre for the rest of her high school career. When the end of the school year came around, she didn’t want her acting stint to end so she took her theatre teacher’s advice and joined a local community youth theatre where she acted in two children’s plays.
And when the summer was over, Kosola still wasn’t ready to part with the theatre so she stayed involved with the company throughout the school year, working on their scene props and lighting.
“I would go on my long-distance runs in the morning before school, do my after-school sports, go home and eat dinner, have my dad drive me down to the theatre and work until midnight, and then come back and do it again,” she said. “I was just go, go, go – but I was in my bliss.”
After working in props with Ontario Youth Theatre, Kosola moved to Toronto where she became involved with The Second City, an improv comedy enterprise based out of Chicago. It was there that she met – and studied under – actor John Candy.
This being in the late 1980s, Candy had already garnered an impressive resume for himself, but Kosola described him as being extremely humble and kind.
“He was just the most big-hearted, lovable, nicest guy you could imagine,” she said.
But Candy wasn’t the only household name in the room. Not yet having had his “big break,” Mike Meyers was a student in the class that studied alongside Kosola. But she didn’t see him as humble as Candy.
“Most of us in the class were between 18 and 20 years old; jeans and T-shirts were the uniform of the day,” she explained. “But there was this one kid in the class, he always came in dress pants, a sports jacket and a vest, shirt and tie.”
After class, Candy would invite the entire group for a beer, and all students would readily join him, except for Meyers. Kosola, who along with her colleagues was eager to hear every one of their teacher’s stories and pieces of advice, was confused and a little offended that Meyers wasn’t also keen on spending the extra time with Candy.
“So around 30 years pass and I’m living in Vancouver and it comes on Entertainment Tonight that Mike Meyers turned 45 that day. I said ‘He’s lying about his age, he’s my age.’ But that’s why he never came for a beer with us, he was underage.
“He was 14 at the time while the rest of us were 18, but with the suit and all that we thought he was our age.”
The Second City attracted several other soon to be big names, including sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, England’s Monty Python and even Robin Williams, who Kosola got to watch perform in a friend’s improv class.
“The teacher said, ‘There’s a guy here from L.A., he wants to participate in class, are you guys okay with that?’ Well, it was Robin Williams before he was famous. He got up there and he just stole the whole class, he was just funny from one moment to the next.”
Kosola loved improv comedy and wanted more than anything to make a name for herself in the trade. But making it as an actor isn’t easy and eventually she began taking more behind-the-scenes jobs.
“If you’re an actor, you’re just dying to get a job. You need to get an agent but you can’t get an agent without a job and you can’t get a job without an agent,” she said. “I got tired of being broke so when I got a chance to do some set decorating I took it.
However, with the higher pay and amount of hours came higher demands and expectations.
“They ask you for the impossible and if you say you can’t do it they’ll find someone else … Our motto was they asked for a miracle and they wanted it yesterday.”
But that didn’t mean making a career was impossible.
“At least in the film industry, you’re working, providing there’s work to come in. If you go in, prove yourself a good worker, you’re easy to get along with and you get the job done, you can make a nice living.”
Working behind the scenes didn’t mean that Kosola missed out on getting to observe the main action. From watching Al Pacino act, to seeing Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt star alongside each other, working in set decoration was a front-row seat to witnessing Hollywood up close and personal.
“Watching wonderful performances was magic. You’re watching a show, you’ve read the script, and the actor does the thing and you’re crying.”
But talented performances aside, it took a lot to put Kosola in a daze; having so many stars around on a regular basis loses its charm quickly.
“With all the big names I ever worked with, I was star struck only once,” she said.
“I got back to the studio during shooting crew lunch. I had to drive slowly because a bunch of the guys were playing soccer in the parking lot. The ball got away from them and was coming straight towards my truck. One of the guys chased it and I had to stop. He came to my window and said, ‘Sorry.’ It was Richard Gere. I was tongue tied and I eventually stammered out, ‘That’s okay.’”
Working in the film industry isn’t a career that ages well, especially with the high physical demand. Eventually, due to health problems, Kosola decided to retire from movies and try her luck in the Okanagan with a slower pace of life.
“I got breast cancer in 2004 and then again in 2006 so I had to leave the film industry,” she said. “I can’t work on my feet anymore and set decoration is mostly standing for 12-15 hour days, so I’m trying to find somewhere else to utilize my talents now.
“I miss the money and I miss the magic. But I’m older now.”