Jen Espada: When you were younger, you went to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Can you tell me about that experience?
Leah Gottfried: I fell in love with acting when I was 8 years old, living in New York. After a couple of years, I convinced my mom to take me to an agent and I pursued it here. When I was 14, my family moved to Los Angeles. I enrolled in an acting class that was pretty intensive, which I really loved. I auditioned a lot through my high school years and I worked a lot. It was wonderful and amazing but at the same time, there was so much rejection. It was specifically hard as a teenager to go through that because you’re already so insecure. Then going into this room every day where people are there to judge you can be hard for anyone. I loved it too much to let that get me down though. There were enough bookings and success, so I was really excited and happy about it. Those were some of the best years and it really solidified my love for acting.
JE: I read in your piece on Grok Nation, Mayim Bialik’s website, that you were fired from a job because you wouldn’t work on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. How did you rise up after that devastation?
LG: That was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. As much as I’ve risen above it and created this incredible show, it’s still painful and bittersweet. When I booked that role, it was the most exciting thing in my life. It was the first time I was part of something like that. It felt like a family. Especially because high school was really hard at that time and this was my outlet. It was wonderful in so many ways. When I was fired, it felt like I wouldn’t recover.
What was so powerful about that experience was that because I was fired and I was in such a low place, I had 2 choices. I could either accept that I couldn’t pursue my dreams because I’m not going to give up my observance, or I could fight for it. I decided to fight for it because I knew I couldn’t stop acting. That was the point where I started creating roles for myself.
Now, looking back, that firing was one of the greatest things that happened to me. Without it, I wouldn’t have starting writing and directing my own films, I wouldn’t have realized that I loved being on the other side of the camera, and I wouldn’t have ever created Soon By You. It’s so clear, looking back, how everything happened for a reason.
JE: What are the challenges of being Orthodox in the film industry?
LG: What’s great about the show is that I’m the boss so I set the schedule and I work it around Shabbat and holidays. I would love to work on other projects, especially as an actress. Even though I get to act in the show, it’s not the same as working with another director. I really miss that. It’s something I would like to pursue but I’m hesitant because of Shabbat, holidays, and the kind of material it would be. The challenge now is to find roles that align with my values and also challenge me as an actor.
JE: I’ve read that while you were a student at Stern College, you created the school’s first Film major. Why did you decide to do that and how did you go about getting it off the ground?
LG: When I first went to Stern I wasn’t sure what I was going to major in. For a little bit I thought I wanted to major in English, but then I realized I had to study Film. But Stern didn’t have a Film major or a Film department. I was already there, I loved the environment, and I wanted to stay. I worked with the art department head, she was extremely supportive of me, and we created the first Film major. I took classes that already existed in different departments like Film Studies in English and Editing in the Art Department. I put them together to build my own Film major. The school was hesitant at first because it had never been done before. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept fighting for it until they relented and allowed me to do it. I also took a course in Cinematography at NYU to supplement what they didn’t have. The coolest part is now other women can major in Film there.
JE: Where did you get the idea for Soon by You and how did you make it come to life?
LG: It came about at a point where I had started my own production company, Dignity Entertainment, and I was doing a lot of work for clients but I wasn’t feeling creatively fulfilled. I wanted to write and produce my own work. A mentor of mine introduced me to the Israeli TV show, Srugim, which is about young, modern, Orthodox Jews dating in Israel. I was completely blown away by it. At the same time that I was watching that show, a lot of my friends were telling me their hilarious dating stories or discussing the difficulties of the process. I had this A-HA moment where it was like this has to be a thing, why has nobody done this before? There’s so much material here in New York.
The first episode, The Setup, started out as a short film. It was 15 minutes long and was completely self-funded. I put everything I had into it. I had no idea what people would think but I submitted to a bunch of film festivals. It got into a bunch and won Best Short Film at the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Once I saw the audience reaction, I knew I really had something and decided to expand it to a web series.
JE: What advice would you have for women who aspire to be Filmmakers?
LG: Find yourself a mentor who works in the industry. No matter what stage you’re at, you have the ability to be a Filmmaker. These days it’s so easy, you can even use your phone. The more you practice, film, and hone your skills, the better Director you’ll become. Use whatever you have and always be creating.
Also, believe in yourself because a lot of people will say it’s not a viable profession and they’ll try to discourage you. If you have that passion and you feel like you have something to say to the world, then you absolutely have to find a way to say it.
JE: Being a Writer, Director, Producer, and Star of a show is tough. Everyone is relying on you for all the answers, you always have to be in control. How did you learn how to be a rock star on set? Did it come easily to you?
LG: I’ll be honest, it’s very overwhelming to do so many things. Even just to be a director because everything at the end of the day falls on your shoulders. I build a really incredible team of people that I can rely on and delegate to. I have wonderful Producers, Co-Writers, Co-Stars, Assistant Directors, and people who I know I can trust. At the end of the day, it does come down to me but I know that they’ve got me covered.
I’ll also say it’s really all about the preparation. By the time I show up on set all I have to do is follow my shot list. I don’t like to show up on set and figure things out or have any surprises. It’s also about having confidence in my own ability and with every episode, that gets easier.
JE: You also have your own production company, Dignity Entertainment. How is producing different from being on set?
LG: Producing can be up to months of work until we shoot. It’s all of the logistics. Right now we’re in pre-production for episode 5 so I’m scouting locations, we’re beating out the story and talking about casting. I think producing is probably my least favorite part because it’s not as creative.
JE: How do you maintain a work-life balance with everything you’re working on?
LG: I’m still figuring that out. A lot of my friends are people I work with, like Jessica for example, who’s a Co-Producer on the show. We’ll do things like go away for a weekend when we have a speaking gig for Soon By You but we’ll also make it a mini-vacation. What’s great about being the boss is I have the flexibility to decide when I want to work so as long as I get a certain amount of work done during the day, I usually give myself time off in the evenings. Recently I’ve been making an effort to go out and see actual humans and socialize, but it can be very tricky. Whenever we’re about to shoot an episode, just forget it. My friends know they shouldn’t even talk to me or expect me to be anywhere because I’m so super focused.
JE: What does a typical day look like in Leah’s life?
LG: I’ll get up pretty early. I take the first couple of minutes to check my emails and I star anything I need to reply to. Then I’ll eat breakfast and ease into my day by watching an episode of whatever I’m watching, currently, it’s Grey’s Anatomy, which I’m starting from the beginning. Then a lot of emails and phone calls. Depending on the day, I’ll go into the city for meetings, I live in New Jersey. These days, I’ll go in and have a writing session with Danny (Writer and Star of Soon By You) at a coffee shop in midtown. Those are really fun.
I usually take a few dance breaks throughout the day to get my energy up, especially if I’m sitting a lot. At night, I will often hang out with friends, my roommates, or my family. Then I’ll do more work and go to bed. I write every single day if it’s not in a script form, it’s just journaling.
JE: What is your favorite part of your job?
LG: Watching an episode at the premiere. Sitting in the audience and watching it on the big screen with all the people I love around me is the best. Hearing the audience reactions first-hand and sometimes seeing it for the first time complete myself – there’s nothing like it in the world. My heart swells with pride, love, and joy. It’s such an incredible feeling to see something you’ve worked so hard on and that means so much to you complete and, most of all, seeing other people enjoying it. The best part is seeing the people enjoy it and talking about it.
JE: Best career advice you’ve ever received?
LG: My mom gives me really good career advice. The best advice she’s given me is don’t be afraid to speak your truth.
As women, we are often told we need to be so timid, apologetic, and sweet. There’s nothing wrong with being sweet but you can be sweet and firm at the same time. I think that’s something that’s very necessary to be a leader.
JE: What are the biggest challenges of your job(s)?
LG: Juggling so many things. I’m not only working on Soon By You but I’m working on other projects. As a freelancer and as someone who runs their own company, it can be challenging to juggle so many different projects. On one hand that stimulates me creatively, but on the other hand, it can be very overwhelming.
JE: What teaser can you give about episode 5 for Soon By You fans?
LG: Episode 5 takes place at a wedding and we will deal with the aftermath of Sarah and David’s date. We’re going to see how that plays out and it’s going to be very interesting…..
“Believe in yourself because a lot of people will say it’s not a viable profession and they’ll try to discourage you. If you have that passion and you feel like you have something to say to the world, then you absolutely have to find a way to say it”
“Don’t be afraid to speak your truth. As women, we are often told we need to be so timid, apologetic, and sweet. There’s nothing wrong with being sweet but you can be sweet and firm at the same time. I think that’s something that’s very necessary to be a leader.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
All photos are courtesy of Leah Gottfried unless otherwise noted.