IN CONVERSATION WITH DANIELLE BISUTTI
Interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari & Jana Letonja
Emmy Award-winning actress, producer, director and singer-songwriter Danielle Bisutti is best known for her role on Nickelodeon’s ‘True Jackson VP’ and was recently nominated for a BAFTA for her performance as The Norse Goddess Freya in Sony PlayStation’s top grossing videogame ‘God of War’.
Danielle, you are an accomplished artist. Emmy Award-winning actress, producer, director and singer-songwriter. Can you tell us how you got started in the industry?
I was born into a big Italian family of actors, writers, directors, producers, cameramen, decorators, singer-songwriters, authors, screenplay writers, playwrights, filmmakers, models, TV personalities, you name it. So you could say it’s in my blood, my destiny. All roads paved before me led to my innate desire to be an actress, filmmaker and singer-songwriter. They didn’t lead me down a path where the gates to the Hollywood kingdom were flung wide open, but the road did provide familiarity, support and curiosity. My father, Richard Bisutti, was a child actor in some of the biggest musicals and movies alongside Frank Sinatra, Gwen Verdon, Hayley Mills and my mother, Diana, was a model, writer, painter, singer-songwriter and musician.
Even though I begged my father to let me audition for commercials, TV and films when I was a kid, he felt it was very important for me to stay in school and experience a normal childhood. However, he and my mother were always supportive of my talents and dreams and not only encouraged me to audition for every single school play or musical, but they never missed a show. Hailing from this long lineage of artists, both in front and behind the camera, inspired me to discover where my talents lied. After graduating from California State University at Fullerton with my Bachelor of Arts, double emphasis in Acting and Musical Theatre, I moved back to Los Angeles to pound the proverbial pavement.
Between my second cousin Doug, who was a cameraman on ‘Friends’, his brother Alan, who was a First A.D. on ‘Ally McBeal’ and my dad, who was the lead man on ‘Cybil’, I was able to obtain the three vouchers needed for my SAG card. In 1999 I become a union member. Twenty-one years old and ready for my Oscar, I became a hostess at Crustacean Restaurant in Beverly Hills while doing theater, casting director workshops, on-camera-cold-reading classes and starring in numerous short films. Notably one entitled ‘Kismet’, in which I starred opposite Nestor Carbonell. At 23-years-old, I finally landed a manager and booked my first TV co-star role on ‘Dharma and Greg’. When I gathered with family and friends around the TV to watch my big moment, my one line got cut. It was right then and there that I knew, I had officially made it.
We would love to hear more about your experience on stage in theatrical and musical productions, such as ‘Hair‘, ‘Anything Goes‘ and ‘Hamlet‘. What do you love the most about performing as a theatre actor?
What I love most about theatre is the exchange of energy between what’s alive on the stage and what the audience is feeling. The electrical currency and reciprocity of this dance is intoxicating. My roots are in theatre and it will always be my first love. It’s where I began my exploration as an actress and comprehension of how to create a character from the inside out. I love the detective work of breaking down a script, scene by scene, honing in on the needs and wants of my character and from that evidence, creating their backstory. Theatre training utilizes the entire voice and body, which has given me the ability to fully embody a character. At first I had my sights set on Broadway, but I also desired a career in TV and film in Los Angeles where my support system was based. In my junior year at Royal High School I was cast as Reno Sweeney in ‘Anything Goes’. This production launched me on the musical theatre fast track as I learned how to tap dance, sing, act and carry the lead of a show simultaneously.
As for Ophelia, I was never in full production of ‘Hamlet’, but at 17-years-old I did perform her famous monologue at the Irene Ryan Competition at The Lincoln Center Theatre in NYC and placed runner-up for Best Actress. ‘Hair’ was the musical that changed my life. Junior Year at C.S.U.F. and I was cast as Sheila, leader of the protestors and singer of all the great female ballads the show had to offer. At first, I was extremely intimidated by this responsibility as I was still burgeoning in my talents and abilities. ‘Hair’s’ original producer, Michael Butler, came and saw our production and fell in love with us. He brought our entire cast to Chicago, where we had a three-month run at the New Athenaeum Theatre. One of the main reasons he brought us out there was to perform the songs ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Let the Sunshine In’ at the 1996 Democratic National Convention for Bill Clinton. There we were, a bunch of college kids sharing the outdoor stage at the Aire Crown Theater alongside Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bonnie Raitt. The core cast got to perform on the Today Show with Bryant Gumbel. We danced around a bench in Central Park, just a gaggle of hippies, as we performed the song ‘Aquarius’. Michael named our ‘Hair’ tribe The Potawatomi Tribe. We still keep in close touch. Sadly, we recently lost Michael Butler. He was an actual living legend and changed all of our lives for the better.
You have starred in many popular TV shows, most notably in ‘True Jackson VP‘, ‘Parks & Recreation‘ and ‘Last Man Standing‘. How do you choose your roles and what attracts you to a project?
The roles and projects I choose are simply the opportunities that come to me whether it be an audition generated by my team or a project with a friend that resonates with me. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, as long as the narrative speaks truthfully and there’s some sort of transformation for my character. I tend to get cast as very complex women, which I adore. I’m an ambassador for the characters I bring to life and love diving deep into their plight, fighting for what they need.
The only work I’ve ever turned down are projects that hung their hat on being gratuitous. Shock value for the sake of titillating an audience does not do it for me. Quite the opposite. Also, on my small pile of rejections have been an underdeveloped script or shallow character, a subpar level of writing where I just simply can’t say the words with any amount of truth or authenticity. Not all projects are created equally, but I certainly do my best to bring an ubiquitous sense of integrity and courage to every role I’ve played. I continue to grow with each character, expand with each project and that is a huge blessing.
You received a Los Angeles Music Award for ‘Best Female Singer-Songwriter‘, your album ‘Glimmer‘ was nominated for AAA Album of the Year and your song ‘In Passing‘ has received Unanimous Choice Recipient Award for Independent AC Single of the Year. How did you develop your singing and songwriting skills and what does it mean to you to have your songs placed in films?
I inherited my musical talents from my mother, who is a beautiful singer-songwriter, my Nonna Renata, who was a very talented pianist and my late great aunt Helen Greco, who sang with Bing Crosby andon ‘The Spike Jones Show’.
At four years old, I remember sounding out Carole King’s song ‘I Feel The Earth Move’ on my Nonna’s piano. Shortly thereafter I began taking piano lessons. My earliest memories of singing are from church, the school choir and Madrigal choir at Royal High School. I didn’t begin voice lessons until college. In addition to learning voice and singing techniques at the C.S.U.F. musical theatre program, I studied privately with Myrona DeLaney, professor of Music Theatre at UC Irvine.
As for songwriting, I remember writing my first song ‘Lost and Found’ in elementary school math class. Aptly titled because I was always completely lost in math. It was literally the albatross on my shoulder, my Achilles heel, the bane of my artsy right-brained existence. My love of English literature and writing lent itself to the poetry of lyrics, giving narrative to the music I was writing. Songs come to me in many different ways. I’ve had a few original songs placed in films. Of those songs, some I wrote specifically for the films that I was in or from my character’s perspective. In fact, my latest song ‘The Blue Rose’ was written for a fantasy-horror feature film of the same name ‘The Blue Rose’, in which I play the enigmatic femme fatale Norma Steele. My song is featured in the film score’s overture, written by our talented composer Alexander Burke.
Executive produced by Jay Von Hoy and Tracie Lynn and produced by Athena Pictures, ‘The Blue Rose’ was written and directed by George Baron and co-stars Olivia Scott Welch. The story follows two rookie detectives who set out to solve a homicide, but end up in an alternate reality made up of their worst nightmares. Our film’s world premiere will be held at the London Fright Fest Film Festival in August 2023. I have a huge catalogue of songs just waiting to be placed in more films and television series.
For hosting ‘Street Music Los Angeles‘ you won an Emmy Award. What was it like to work on this show and what does this award mean to you?
Oh my goodness, you’re taking me all the way back to 2002 when I co-hosted Street Music L.A. with Jerry Day. If memory serves, I believe Jerry attended one of my music shows around town and liked my bubbly-meets-sardonic banter in between songs. He approached me and asked if I’d ever done any hosting to which I said “No, but I am an actress”. I became his co-host in the dynamic daytime series that focused on finding notable independent musicians living in Los Angeles and giving them a televised platform to perform their music for a widespread audience. I still love the premise of our show and it just so happened to earn me a Daytime Emmy Award at 22. I could have never seen that coming.
How did you get into the video game industry as a voice and character dubber for games like ‘God of War’ and ‘Madden NFL 21: Face of the Franchise’?
How I found myself in ‘The Nine Realms’ as The Norse Goddess Freya in Sony PlayStation’s top grossing video game franchise ‘God of War’ was a complete surprise to me. In fact, it wasn’t until the table read that I knew which video game I was cast in.
In 2014, my manager got me to audition for an interactive game, where I would be in a Mocap suit, a la Avatar, and act out scenes that would later be animated. I could have never imagined the ways in which this interactive game would later bestow me two BAFTA nominations for my performance as Freya, the Witch of the Woods, former leader of the Vanir, Queen of the Valkyries. I was also completely unaware of the level of artistic sophistication and evolution these games had undergone. ‘God of War’ is an absolute masterpiece. Sony Santa Monica Studios yields some of the most gifted and innovative video games in the world. They also attracted some of the most gifted, generous actors of such a high caliber of talent. I am in awe every single day knowing that I have been able to create alongside these magnificent artists and human beings for the past nine years. What a blessing to consider them my family.
I’ve always been fascinated with voice over acting, ever since I was a little girl watching Disney movies. As a teen in the 90s, I, obviously wanted to be Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’ and sang ‘Part of Your World’, ad nauseam. The most informative Disney animation for me was ‘Cinderella’, because my mother used to voice all of the characters, even the little mice. Her mockingbird voice mimicking talents were passed down to me and that’s how I stumbled into my first voice over job as Elsa’s double for Disney in 2010. I didn’t realize Elsa was the character I was auditioning to voice double because I hadn’t seen the first ‘Frozen’ film yet. However, I was profoundly aware of its presence as my little nieces would sing ‘Let It Go’ all the time. Over the years, being Elsa’s voice double has been an absolute honor.
Most recently, I voiced Elsa for Disney’s award-winning video game ‘Disney Dreamlight Valley’. Since then, I have done a few traditional voice overs as Wonder Woman in the ‘The Lego Movie 2 Videogame’ and a very scary vampire voice in Bethesda’s video game ‘Redfall’. It should be noted that there is a big distinction between performing voice over in a booth and doing a performance capture in Mocap suits on a volume stage. The goal is equitable, to convey the emotional truth of the character you are embodying inside an imaginary set of circumstances. In my opinion, doingvoice over in a dark booth without having other actors to play off of is much more challenging.
Do you play video games yourself?
I do play video games and I love them. I grew up playing in the arcades as most Gen X kids of the 80s and 90s did. My favorite video game to date is still ‘Ms. Pac-Man’, but I do remember being very fond of ‘Tetris’, ‘Donkey Kong’, ‘Frogger’, ‘Zelda’ and utterly obsessed with ‘Super Mario Brothers’ when Nintendo first came onto the scene. That’s pretty much where my video game playing prowess peaked. I still haven’t been courageous enough to try and play ‘God of War’. The PlayStation controllers on these very complex consoles have me utterly baffled. However, it is a challenge that I aim to overcome one day. My Twitter and Discord fanbase have been encouraging me to start a Twitch Channel and stream videos of me learning how to play ‘God of War’ and ‘God of War Ragnarök’. Perhaps I will someday. And when I do, it will be considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.
What does it mean to you to have been nominated for a BAFTA for your performance as the Goddess Freya in Sony Playstation‘s video game ‘God of War‘?
It means the absolute world to me. Freya has been the role of a lifetime. Every aspect of becoming a main character in Sony PlayStation’s ‘God of War’ franchise has felt divine. I could’ve never imagined that this interactive video game project would elevate my career by garnering groundbreaking, world-wide success, critical acclaim and a’“Best Performer’ BAFTA nomination in 2019, along with a ‘Best Supporting Performer’ BAFTA nomination for ‘God of War Ragnarök’ in 2023. My gratitude is boundless. The fans that have embraced me as their Freya, Queen of the Valkyries, on social media has touched me on such a deep level. I geek out with my Twitter and Discord fanbase all the time as we openly convey our love and adoration for the emotionally impactful narrative of the game. In terms of bucket list items, it’s a dream come true to have been nominated and recognized twice by the British Academy for the most profound work of my career thus far.
You have played in a diverse variety of film genres, from horror to comedy. What are your favorite challenges as an actress when it comes to exploring different genres and type of roles?
My favorite challenge as an actress, when exploring different genres and characters, is understanding their heart, soul and backstory, so I can embody the truth of their journey. I need to know what their damage is, to quote a famous line from the 90s cult film classic ‘Heathers’. Every human being comes equipped with a set of memories, some joyful and some traumatic, that informed their childhood. No matter the genre or story, when I get to know where a character is coming from, I can justify the choices they are making. I thrive by unveiling their vulnerabilities, which I believe is the portal into the heart of their humanity. This is particularly important for characters who might read as evil on the page, whose choices are out of integrity, sometimes even despicable. The power of these courageous, vulnerable moments can enable an audience to have compassion, empathy and sometimes forgiveness for their choices. Just like in real life, nobody ever thinks they’re the villain. I am certainly not lobbying to reward people for destructive, hurtful behavior. However, if my job is to bring a flawed character to life in the complexity of being human, the only way for me to do that is to understand their pain and through the portal of their vulnerability shine a light on that secret place within all of us that is fractured and wounded.
When you are not on set, how do you spend your free time?
When I’m not on set, I’m usually writing or producing a project. Whether it be a song, music video, prospective TVseries or screenplay. Outside of anything creative, my priorities are to spend time with my family and friends. I love spending an ample amount of time in nature, dancing, working out with my trainer, practicing yoga, meditation, going to church or relaxing at a spa with mani-pedi, massage, facial and much needed rest. I am a cat and I like to nap. When I have the luxury of time, I enjoy traveling, exploring new cultures, learning new languages, culinary delights, libations and experiencing life to its fullest. I find ultimate fulfillment when being of service in any capacity. Above it all, self-care is most vital. During the busiest seasons of life, I find it difficult to juggle it all and cultivate a healthy balance. This dance between stillness and ambition is a daily negotiation, but my body always lets me know when I’m depleted and need to make time to nurture myself. I’ve learned to always listen to my inner voice through it all. It is my most wise and reliable guide.
Can you tell us about your company ‘Perfect Timing Productions‘? What are some of your future projects?
My 25-year career as a working actress has certainly had its fair share of strides and stops, wins and losses. Something revelatory happened when I finally understood that the rejections weren’t personal, it was a just business, as they say. I knew it was time to emancipate myself from the whims of a project that didn’t choose me for a myriad of reasons that were completely out of my control. I walk into every audition feeling empowered, believing the role is mine. But that doesn’t always mean the part is meant for me. Even though I trust all things happen for a divine reason, I didn’t like the feeling of not being in control of my destiny. Mainly because I had such an electrical currency of tireless creativity that needed an outlet. I knew the only way to break through that proverbial Hollywood glass ceiling was to make my own content. I have a bit of a rebellious streak, thus taking no for an answer is not in my DNA. They also say necessity is the mother of invention and inventing always requires a certain amount of risk, but it’s a risk well worth taking. It was time.
I named my production company after my corporation name ‘Perfect Timing Productions’ because I believe everything happens in God’s perfect timing. I love team building and collaborating with creative partners. Together, supporting one another in this creative collective, we get to tell the stories we want to tell. And that has also been one of my life’s biggest blessings.
2023 is already shaping up to be a very busy season for my production company. We have several projects we’ve been nurturing that are ready to go into production. Namely, two feature films. A dystopian sci-fi, thriller-horror ‘Osiris’, co-written with my partner Nickolas Dimondi, a psychological-thriller, horror, fantasy drama ‘Wake Me’ and a darkly comedic web-series ‘Damsels’, co-created with my partner Amber Henley, who also co-stars with me. We aim to release ‘Damsels’ on my ‘Perfect Timing Productions’ YouTube channel and possibly Amazon Prime sometime in the Fall of 2023.
Last November, in celebration of ‘God of War Ragnarök’s’ release, we premiered ‘Song of the Valkyrie’, a Norse Mythology inspired fantasy music film set, a cover of Lana Del Rey’s song ‘Video Games’. This epic music video is a love letter to the ‘God of War’ fans, Sony Santa Monica Studios and my beloved role as Freya.
Photographer ODYSSEY BARBU