Taking the stage as a freshman in Notre Dame Prep’s production of “Annie” cemented Kosha Engler’s dream of becoming an actress. “The whole experience of being on stage with lights and music and dancing and costumes and applause was magical,” says the Class of 1995 alumna.
Today Engler is a London-based actress, voice artist, and writer with numerous credits to her name, including HBO’s “The Wire” and Disney’s “Tuck Everlasting.” Most recently, she appeared in the BBC’s production of “Victoria” as the scheming Hannah Landridge who unsuccessfully attempted to steal away the Queen’s cook, Mr. Francatelli, played by Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben Kingsley.
Since 2012 Engler has been the voice of Maybelline UK, and video game enthusiasts will recognize her characters, particularly Claire in Crytek’s Crysis 3. In addition to acting, she writes screenplays; her latest feature, The Fantasy Ridge, a female-led action drama set on Everest, was named a Final Draft Big Break 2017 Top 10 Finalist.
Engler and her husband, Benet, have two sons, Cornelius and Atticus. Here she shares some stories about launching into show business, living the life of an ex-pat, and how her beloved alma mater, Notre Dame Prep, influenced her career.
I’ve loved reading about your background and career. When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?
The dream took hold while doing Annie my freshman year at NDP. The whole experience of being on stage with lights and music and dancing and costumes and applause was magical. I knew for certain when I visited the performing arts building at UMCP as a prospective theatre major. I went into one of the acting classrooms, saw the beat-up black boxes students use for scene work and suddenly my stomach started doing flips. The thought of acting every single day for the next four years… was terrifying and frightening and thrilling. I knew in that moment I had to go for it.
How did NDP influence your career path?
My education at NDP made me feel like I could do anything. I had so many interests. I loved the performing arts best, but that seemed like a precarious choice. Three very special teachers - Maggie Ward, Elizabeth Fink and the late Cathe Kelly - inspired, encouraged and believed in me so much that it I felt I had permission to pursue acting as a serious career. I can never thank them enough.
How did U of Maryland influence your career path?
The UMCP theatre department taught me what it meant to be a professional actress. We were privileged to have Washington DC’s best theatre practitioners as our professors – actors, directors, designers, and stage managers. The quality of productions was top notch and there I learned the foundations of my profession – the craft of acting, etiquette on the job, work ethic, how to collaborate creatively and the scope and breadth of what is possible in the theatre. After graduating I had the great fortune to act alongside my acting teacher Mitchell Hebert in a play called Patience for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He was so so good, and I loved sharing the stage with him. It felt like coming full circle.
What was a defining moment in your career?
I was 24. I’d just quit my day job as an administrative assistant and I was in a production of Macbeth at The Folger Theatre in DC. I was having a blast and just heard I’d been cast in the next show at The Folger too. I clearly remember being backstage in the dressing room about to go on, checking my costume in the mirror, and on the monitor hearing my fellow cast mates up on stage speaking Shakespearean verse when it hit me - "This is it. I am actually living the dream. I am getting paid to do what I love." Ever since, I’ve never wanted to settle for anything less than that.
Your experiences run the gamut—stage, television, movies, web, animation, VO. What is your favorite medium? What is your favorite type of acting project and why?
My favourite type of acting project is anything where I get to work with inspiring talented people, a fantastic script and, as icing on the cake, I have a role that frightens and challenges me.
All mediums are satisfying in different ways. The stage was my first love. The discipline of learning the whole play by heart, rehearsing and exploring the piece, then performing the entire thing from start to finish in front of a live, reacting audience is pure joy and terror at once. It requires great stamina and skill in mind, body and voice and it is where I feel most at home, but also most exposed. The people are RIGHT there, especially in my latest production of Hamlet in an intimate 90-seat theatre. The audience were mere feet away - no hiding! But you get that immediate feedback which is thrilling. (Or not, depending on the show.)
I’m still pretty starry-eyed about film and television work. Every time I step onto a new set I am in awe of how it all works. The camera is the audience and the actor has to be very aware of where it is at all times and yet simultaneously, usually, pretend it’s not there. It’s so technical and I love the challenge of trying to master that part while also appearing effortless and natural. I love the extreme contrasts – the intimacy of a close-up and the enormous, mind-blowing scale on big-budget films. Yes, screen work is much more stop-start and often out of sequence, but that’s OK. It then becomes all about mastering only that scene, that moment, maybe even that look. Plus if you mess up, you just go for another take!
I love that in voice work I can be anything – my age or looks are no barriers. There is huge freedom in having only your voice to convey character. It can also be really cathartic – especially when I get to shout battle cries for an hour in a video game session. It’s just huge fun. Animated shows are usually comedic and in the recording sessions I get to completely let loose and try all sorts of whacky, ridiculous things. It's a welcome change from the serious stage and screen roles I often do.
You recently appeared in Masterpiece’s “Victoria.” What was that experience like? What made it memorable?
I’m a longtime fan of British period drama so to actually be in one was a dream come true. Stepping into the backstage world of Victoria was dazzling – to see all the sets and locations up close, the elaborate 19th-century costumes, wigs and accessories, the break-neck pace at which the episodes are shot and just the vast number of people it takes to make such a show happen.
It was surreal arriving on set for the first time. I was driven there in a Mercedes – while wearing a huge dress over a punishingly tight corset – only to be whisked straight over to an actual horse and carriage, complete with a driver, where I would play the scene with Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley). Fifty extras in costume surrounded us, in the pouring rain, to help create a bustling London street. The scene ended with my carriage pulling away, so every time the director called ‘Cut!’ the horse had to circle all the way around the location to start again in the right spot. This took five minutes each time. We did something like seven takes so I had 35 minutes riding around an amazing estate on my own in a Victorian carriage. I kept having to pinch myself!
But what sticks in my mind most is how warm and welcoming the cast were. After two years of working together, I expected the series regulars to be an impenetrable clique but they couldn’t have been more inclusive and friendly. They invited me out every night to dinner, drinks, dancing. It was such fun to get to know them a little and hear all their tales about working together.
Is fashioning a VO character different from creating one on stage/screen? How so?
The biggest difference is that in VO most of my focus is on the accent, quality, and pitch of my voice rather than on what my body is doing. Still, physicality plays a part. Whenever a character I’m playing does any kind of physical activity I have to simulate that movement behind the mic to make it sound more realistic. In the Star Wars Battlefront II sessions, we had to lift and move around heavy weights on every line to make it sound like we were actually exerting ourselves in battle. After three three-hour sessions, it was quite the workout! Also, I’d argue there’s more imagination and visualization required behind the mic than on screen or stage. I have to pretend I’m on a spaceship with aliens attacking or in a speeding car going over a cliff or whatever crazy scenario my character is in.
You also write. What motivated the transition/expansion to writing? What would you like to achieve in terms of writing?
The short answer is - I went through a period of not much acting work and wanted something creatively fulfilling to do. The long answer is - I've always wanted to write and I've always loved movies, so writing screenplays seemed like the perfect fit for me. In my senior year at NDP Maggie Ward taught an inspiring class called 'No, but I Saw the Movie' about novels and plays that had been adapted into films - Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. I was fascinated by the adaptation into a visual medium. Many years later - during a slow acting period - I read a novel called Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve and saw it so clearly in my head as a movie. I adapted it, just for fun, for the screen. Acting work picked up again and I put writing on the back burner. Then during my two pregnancies, I came back to writing with renewed vigour. I took an intensive six-month online screenwriting course and began my first original feature script, The Fantasy Ridge, which I'm proud to say was a 2017 Top 10 Finalist in the Final Draft Big Break competition (out of 7000+ entries). Now I write to create stories and characters that I'd like to see exist on screen. I would love to get a film or TV show I write made, or even optioned. The difficulty is choosing where to throw my efforts - writing or acting! Ideally I'd be able to combine the two and write something I could act in, direct or produce.
Who are some of your favorite actors and/or directors and why?
Of course Meryl Streep. She has an incredible ability to put herself into every role and yet create an endless variety of completely different characters, both serious and comedic. She is utterly believable and so watchable. Mark Rylance also comes to mind - he's also totally believable but also surprising in his character choices. He always seems so present and spontaneous even though he's speaking scripted lines. I’d love to achieve that in my own work.
How is life as an ex-pat? Do you miss the US? Maryland? Anything in particular?
Being an ex-pat is a double-edged sword. It's exciting to live in London, one of the greatest most metropolitan cities in the world, with all of Europe at my fingertips. I've always been an Anglophile so I love living here and have great affection for all the British cultural idiosyncrasies. I have a group of British family and friends who I adore, as well as fellow North American expats, mostly actors. I've built a good career here. I got to be in Victoria! But the longer I'm away from the US the more I miss it, in ways I never expected. I miss the effortless belonging. I miss the landscapes, the vast spaces. I miss the references to all the things I grew up with, things so uniquely American - songs, places, brands of food, turns of phrase, lines from American sitcoms, American holiday traditions. I miss the shared history with my childhood friends who I wish I could see more. With a family of four it's so expensive to travel I can't go back for things like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, baby showers and reunions. And yes, I miss Maryland very much. It feels like a part of me. The thing that is hardest to accept - is that the America I left in 2005 is not America today. The idea that I have become, in a way, a stranger to my own country.
Describe what it is like pursuing an acting career in the UK. Are the opportunities different, more plentiful, etc.?
Being an American actress in the UK is a great niche. My natural accent is my USP. There's a group of us over here - North American expats - who I see again and again at castings. So the upside is I get called in for all the American roles that fit my type and it's been great for my voice over career. The downside is, there are fewer American roles than English ones so it can be challenging at times. Also, it's harder to find meaty, three-dimensional roles in TV and film for Americans, at least in supporting roles. The best roles usually go to the 'names.' There's a fair amount of clichéd American characters out there. Luckily though with high-speed internet and the advent of self-taping auditions, casting nets are cast much wider these days. I can be seen for shows made in America more easily than when I first moved here. Just this week I went up for a series regular in an NBC TV pilot. Fingers crossed.
Is anyone in your family also in “show biz”?
Only my uncle - he's a composer/songwriter who lives in LA pursuing a career in film orchestration. We used to play piano duets together when I was a kid.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever had to do in acting?
This past September I did a three-person Hamlet with my husband, Benet, and father-in-law, Gyles. Benet played Hamlet while Gyles and I played everyone else. Playing my husband's lover and mother as well as my father-in-law's wife, lover and child was pretty weird.
How do you keep current with your craft?
I always try to learn on the job from those more experienced than me. I also go to talks, masterclasses and workshops. In fact, I just began a six-week acting course for working actors. It’s wonderful to go back to the safe space of a class to explore and stretch myself without the pressure of being on a job.
What would you advise young people who want to pursue an acting career?
Do not pursue it lightly. It can come with many highs but many more lows and you have to love it enough to ride the waves even when it's hard. Be prepared to diversify. Learn to love uncertainty. To succeed it takes passion, self-belief, hard work, persistence, a good sense of humour and a lot of luck.
What was your favorite NDP memory?
On the opening night of every NDP musical I did, Maggie Ward would gather everyone in the cast together into a tight circle. We'd be in our costumes, hearts pounding with nerves and excitement, and she, our fearless leader, would look every one of us in the eye and recite this from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: "We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains. Be perfect. Adieu." I can still hear her saying it. She’d always get a little choked up at the end. And we'd all want to make her proud. I still do.
What were your class colors?
Purple and green.
March, Dance Aerobics, or Song?
Song. In my freshman year, our class won the song prize. And I was on the song committee. It was a proud moment.