Putting the Holy in Hollywood

New acting studio wants to ‘plant a cross’ in film capital.

There’s a new Hollywood arrival whose goal is far different than seeking fame and fortune.

Holy Wood Acting Studio’s aim is to form top-notch actors who will become a moral center in the movie industry.

“Acting is more than just a career — it’s a calling,” says Max Espinosa, Holy Wood Acting Studio’s co-founder and director of operations. “Why? Because it affects people. Art has the power to change people’s lives. Hollywood goes around the world and reaches the masses. It all starts with the actors. So we want to create actors to influence Hollywood in a positive way.”

The name choice of Holy Wood Acting Studio is more than a play on words.

“We strongly believe we came here for a reason,” Espinosa says. “We’re here to plant a cross in the middle of Hollywood.”

This is the shared vision of all three Espinosa co-founders: Max, his father Carlos, the studio’s CEO, and Max’s sister Karla. For three years Max was personal manager to actor Eduardo Verastegui, star of Bella, and Karla marketed and promoted that film.

Their experience prompted the idea for Holy Wood. Max Espinosa describes how, after interacting with a lot of well-known people during three years in the industry, he realized the real need to help future actors balance their lives.

“They have all the success and the fame,” he mused, “but what’s the purpose of gaining the whole world if you’re going to lose your soul?”

The answer: Start a school not only to train actors professionally, but to help form them morally.

“We build on the ‘four pillars,’” says Espinosa. “Besides acting, there are three more ‘courses’: personal growth and development, leadership, health and fitness.”

Under well-known acting coach Mark Atteberry, the same acting techniques will be taught as in the major schools, but without asking actors to compromise values or morals.

The school has hired teachers and acting coaches with excellent credentials in the industry who “all are passionate about God, about our Lord Jesus Christ.” Most are Catholic.

Simultaneously, the personal growth and development pillar will help future actors realize the moral meaning of their lives, while the leadership pillar’s full name is “The Catholic Vision for Leading like Jesus.” That is also the title of a book by Catholic teacher and writer Owen Phelps. Phelps, who received the papal honor of Knight of St. Gregory the Great, developed this program and has now adapted it for actors.

The fourth pillar of health and fitness utilizes the teachings of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body. Actors will not only learn to eat healthy and exercise properly, but that God created their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

“These four pillars,” Espinosa emphasizes, “will help actors not only come out as great actors, but as people of integrity.”

Holy Cross Father Willy Raymond, president of Family Theater Productions, highlights the real need in Hollywood to train actors who want to remain faithful to their Catholic faith. He applauds the Espinosas as a devout family fervent in their faith for willing to take this challenge on and put their own time, energy and resources into the project.

Father Raymond points out that in mainstream acting (and acting schools), actors are often asked to do things that are immoral or compromise their beliefs, values and faith in different ways, and he is pleased this school offers an alternative.

“For the Holy Wood Acting Studio to come on the scene and be a haven where you really will learn the discipline required for acting and also strengthen personal faith rather than compromise it is a very important step for them to take,” he explains. “A lot of young people who are committed to the faith — and their families — will be reassured by that commitment Holy Wood Acting Studio has to build up and support the faith while these young people are in training to become actors.”

Being asked to do “questionable things” in the mainstream acting studios is one reason aspiring actress Sequoia Sierra of West Covina, Calif., is excited to begin the initial summer session to learn the same Meisner Acting Technique major secular studios teach “in an environment that isn’t going to ask me to compromise my morals.”

She also looks forward to classes on the other three topics, because “they’re forming the whole person.” The school “incorporates your Catholic faith into everything in such a way it’s part of every facet of what you do.”

“We realize our art is to glorify God,” she says. “Our talent is given by God and for God’s glory. So they promote you to be the best in the industry. That’s the only way we as Catholics can make a mark on the industry.”

She realizes actors need to be leaders to influence change for the better.

“John Paul II wrote and talked a lot about the media being involved,” says Joseph Griffin, who will teach the leadership course.

“If we’re to bring about a significant change, we have to be the leaders and have the courage and the understanding of our mission. We can influence and create a different narrative in Hollywood when we have these leaders. That’s what’s lacking. There’s talent, but such an abuse of things and the agendas that go on in Hollywood. We’re trying to give these young men and women the courage to go through these things.”

A father of 11 children, Griffin is an actor with many credits on and off-screen. He and Max Espinosa got together for this project through a mutual friend, an Opus Dei priest.

Griffin, who noted top people need to be the school’s teachers and facilitators, wants the school to “produce real actors who have an understanding of their faith and their own mission in life, if God is calling them to be actors.”

“I tried to keep myself open to how the Holy Spirit was able to direct me,” Griffin says of his role in the school. He explains the leadership aspect of the curriculum — “Leading Like Jesus” — is “a Catholic vision. We use Jesus as the role model of great leadership.” Griffin also can bring in his personal experience leading his family.

With this course among the unique aspects that sets it apart, the school wants to develop “leaders that are attractive, courageous, knowledgeable and professional, and with a profound understanding of what God is calling them to,” he says. “God calls us to be great, not just okay.”

This path is a way to impact the film industry, Griffin explains: “Hollywood is Hollywood. You can’t reinvent it, but you can affect and transform it through your own actions.”

The grand opening of the school’s Culver City facility outside of Los Angeles, minutes from major studios, was purposely slated for March 25, the Annunciation, a feast of our Blessed Mother.

Fifty people joined in prayers and Benediction led by Father Raymond, who then, as part of the blessing, consecrated Holy Wood to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The year-long school session will begin on Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. “We don’t do anything,” says Max, “without our Blessed Mother’s blessing.”

On the day doors officially open for the first class — June 12, Pentecost Sunday — there will be a Mass. “We did it on purpose,” Max says, “so the Holy Spirit can come to our students the first class.” The Espinosas always seek a “special blessing from God.”

Through every step, Holy Wood wants to teach actors “how to be a light in the darkness,” Espinosa asserts. “Instead of being led by the industry, they will lead the industry.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

Visit HolyWoodActingStudio.com

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.