WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - For most of the acting roles she has landed since moving to Los Angeles, Briana Venskus has had to learn lines, study scenes and delve into the inner-depths of the character. Her new role won’t present those types of requirements. On April 3rd, Briana will be crowned as the Queen of the 2019 North Carolina Azalea Festival in her hometown of Wilmington.
“I grew up with the Azalea Festival,” Briana said when asked about being invited. “I went to the parades, the street fairs. So, I have this sort of image in my mind. It’s the event of the year! It’s the Azalea Festival! So, to be asked to be the queen of it, nonetheless, was a bit of a shock and I would say, absolutely daunting to say the least. It’s such an event, and it means so much to so many people. I was definitely, pleasantly daunted by the proposition to be the queen.”
Briana was born in Wilmington, but her family moved to Greensboro about a year later. While she grew up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, Briana says the family visited the coast every year for vacations, keeping Wilmington a part of her childhood. Briana’s parents live in the city now, and she got the news about the Azalea Festival invitation while heading home for a visit.
“Being crowned for the Azalea Festival has been so cool for my parents,” the 35-year-old says with a laugh. “My mom is over the moon! All of her friends are so ecstatic! I think it’s just so neat. Parents put in so much time and so much effort in making sure their kids have the best life possible. They’ve absolutely been my number one cheerleaders throughout the years. So, to be able to even get to a point where they can see that other people are acknowledging and celebrating the accomplishments that I’ve been able to have, which they are a huge part of and they know that they are, it’s just so cool. To see them smile and to see them have a good time and just know that it was all for something, is really wonderful!”
It was a fascination with actor/comedian Robin Williams that Briana says is responsible for sparking her early desire to entertain and make people laugh. Jim Carrey, too. A teenage Briana transferred to Philip J. Weaver Education Academy in Greensboro specifically for the theater program. Briana credits one of her teachers there, Dan Seaman, with not only growing her abilities, but encouraging her to pursue it as a career. She talks about it at 5:00 into the podcast.
“He’s just one of those rare lights bulbs in your life that told you it was okay to be who you wanted to be, and to be creative,” Briana remembers. “I absolutely can’t thank him enough for being that little spark on the fire and saying, ‘If it’s something you want, do it!’ It was an invaluable relationship and invaluable experience to be able to be in his classes.”
“Briana brought to the table an energy, an honesty and a truthfulness which are rare in the traditional school setting,” Dan Seaman said when I asked about Briana. “She contributed as much as she ever took from the group, and we all benefited from our association with her. She gently and respectfully challenged me and the other Company members, always working towards our best efforts. I was (and am) very fond of her, and memories of her time at Weaver are happy ones.”
After a year at Weaver, Briana continued her studies at the UNC School of the Arts, graduating in 2005 with a concentration in drama and acting. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts in 2009. Briana immersed herself in the world of auditioning and seeking out roles in film and television, and it paid off in 2009 with her first on-camera appearance on the critically-acclaimed series, House. I asked Briana about that achievement in her career at 11:20 of the interview.
“I remember turning on Fox, and seeing my face pop up, and it was almost this moment of like ‘Ah, how am I there if I’m here?,’ she says. “It’s something you study for and train for and you’re in the world, so you know it’s going to happen. But it’s such a surreal moment to actually see years and years and years of hard work finally pay off. Countless auditions, meeting hundreds and hundreds of people, going to countless meetings, putting in the work, barely getting sleep, waking up to pay your bills, just to be able to go out and get an audition for something. So, to have that accumulation, even for that first role as small as it was, to have it actually pay off and actually happen was a surreal thing to witness.”
While continuing to pursue and land on-camera roles, Briana worked on crews for several film and television productions, including Bones, Fast & Furious and Happy Endings. Her first recurring role came in 2014 on the series Nashville. Hindsight followed in 2015, along with her role as Agent Vasquez in Supergirl, which continued through 2017. Briana appeared in two episodes of the award-winning series Grace and Frankie, gaining experience working with legendary actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
“Those two women are so professional, and are so insanely good at their jobs just in terms of showing up, knowing their lines, getting everything done in a quick manner, having respect for the crew and respect for the talent, it just goes to show you that when you do things the right way it really does make a difference, especially in film and TV,” Briana said. “I think being kind and being a professional are hands down the two biggest tools you can have working in this industry. I think Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin emulated that in a way that I can’t even describe because it was just such an experience to just show up.”
It was at that time that Briana decided to let the world know about her bisexuality. She says coming out publicly lifted a weight off her shoulders and allowed her to focus her creative energies on advancing her career. We talked about it at 20:00 of the podcast.
“When you add in the professional aspect of it and doing the more public aspect of the career I’ve chosen, that weight, and having that weight lifted off of it was so beneficial,” Briana explained. “It’s really freed me up. All that brain power I was using to try to hide something is now being used for better. For creativity. For energy. For projects where I actually need the energy as opposed to trying to cover something up.”
Briana had to deal with some pushback when the Azalea Festival Committee announced her selection as the 2019 queen. Comments on the festival’s Facebook page questioned the decision, mentioning a specific post Briana put on her own Instagram account last November, when she was denied a television role because she ‘wasn’t seen as authentically LGBTQ enough’. Briana used the middle finger and an expletive in her comments. She responded directly to the comments on social media, and expanded on it during the podcast interview.
“I definitely think their opinions are valid,” she said. “I don’t want to tell any of them they are wrong, because they are not. It’s their opinion, their point of view and they are one hundred percent entitled to have that. But I also think there’s room to highlight the fact that, while they may have found a particular post with a particular finger, they also did overlook plenty of other posts where I had peace signs, where I was celebrating my family, where I was celebrating my friends, where I was standing up for people who didn't have a voice. So, to pass over so much good to focus and hone in on one negative was, I think, the most upsetting part of it, was to think of all the good that can be done was being overshadowed by one particular thing.“
Briana got a lot of positive feedback for immediately addressing the concerns of those posts. She has become an advocate for LGBT awareness, and her appearance at the first openly bi-sexual Azalea Queen will break new ground in the decades-old event.
“I definitely know that I am not the obvious choice for the Queen of the Azalea Festival,” Briana said. “It’s a little bit off the beaten path. I understand. But I think that’s also a testament to Wilmington, and the growth and the change in North Carolina, putting the foot forward and saying ‘you know what? The South is made up of so many different people. Yes, the tradition is alive and yes, we’re going to honor that tradition. But we’re also going to put a new face on it and see what happens’.”
You can hear my full interview with actress Briana Venskus, the 2019 North Carolina Azalea Festival Queen, by clicking on any of the links below.
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