BURBANK, Calif. - Mary Fae Smith got bit by the acting bug - make that an acting ladybug - when she was a Woodbine Elementary School fifth-grader.
Smith said her role as the ladybug in the school's "James and the Giant Peach" production began an acting journey that will take a major step with the December release of the film, "Happy Holidays." Smith stars in the independently produced venture, which she said is a project she can relate to.
"It's about a young girl's coming of age," Smith said. "Like a female 'Catcher in the Rye.'"
Smith has the lead role in the film, playing Clarissa Ryder."
Smith said the movie is the story of a girl who crosses the country to attend school. The film traces her college experiences and relationships by focusing on her trips home for Christmas each year.
Smith plans to make that trip herself this December when she will return to Woodbine for the holidays. While home, she plans to speak with Woodbine students about her acting journey and travel to nearby Denison for a showing of Happy Holidays at the Donna Reed Theater.
"When I was in high school I attended the Donna Reed Festival a couple times - their acting camps and workshops. It made me realize this was something I could do," Smith said. She received encouragement from Eddie Foy, a casting director who has worked on films such as "Planet of the Apes."
Smith realized in order to pursue her dream she would have to move to New York or California. She opted for the latter, enrolling in Orange, Calif.'s Chapman University in the fall of 2004. "I knew I couldn't just come out and start acting," Smith said. "I knew nothing about the business. That would have been quite foolish."
Her Midwestern sensibilities intact, Smith pursued a bachelor of fine arts in theater performance and achieved that degree in three years. She's appeared in several plays and a couple other small independent films. "I work a couple other jobs that are flexible so I can go in for auditions," Smith said.
She had three of them lined up last week. "I am finishing up a play in Los Angeles," she said. "I always like having an acting project."
Smith had several such projects during her Woodbine years. "All through high school I was involved in every single play," she said. She also entered speech and drama competitions - anything that would get her on stage.
"My mom always told me to do something you like, even if you don't get paid a lot."
So far, she's living both ends of Mom's advice. "I don't think I am that big a deal," Smith said. "I don't make a lot of money. But when I think of where I have come over the last three years, I feel pretty good about it."
She wants to share that message in Woodbine and Denison. "You can do anything," Smith said. "It doesn't matter where you come from."
She completed work on "Happy Holidays" last year. She said the film has been submitted to the Sundance Film Festival and others around the country. "You hope a studio likes it and thinks it can make them money," she said. Going to local markets, such as Denison, is another way to get exposure.
According to the film's Web site, www.happyholidaysfilm.com, the project cost $4,000 and took 33 days to shoot. "The director (Sassy Mohen) asked me if I wanted to show it in my hometown," Smith said.
Woodbine doesn't have a movie theater, but Smith immediately though of Denison and the Donna Reed Theater. She will appear at the film's showing and be available to answer questions. Kenny Kahl, coordinator of the Donna Reed Festival, said he's excited the film - and Smith - will be appearing.
"It's really in line with what we are all about," he said: "Inspiring young people to pursue their entertainment goals." Smith is on board with that mission.
"I am proud of Woodbine and proud of southwest Iowa and that I grew up there," Smith said. "This is a gift I can give back."
"Happy Holidays" will run Dec. 20-23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Donna Reed Theater in Denison. For more information, call (712) 263-3334.