Introduce yourself! Who are you? Hello! My name is Cady McClain. I started out my career as an actor but since then I have written books, painted paintings, contrived albums of music, built collages, and directed films. Born in Los Angeles, I lived in NYC for 25 years. I still long to live on a farm, someday, where I can have horses and a bunch of wacky chickens. Until then, I will live back again in Los Angeles and continue to work on my documentary film, Seeing is Believing: Women Direct, whose purpose is to help aspiring directors to find a pathway forward.
What is one thing no one really knows about you?
Although I worked in television as an actress for many years, no one really knows how much time I spent in New York focusing on anything OTHER than acting. I think this is partly what makes me a good director. I loved going to see all kinds of art, music, film, performance… I took college classes on the side in art history, international literature, and writing. I read the books that intrigued me and went to see all kinds of films: classic films, European films, art films… anything that helped me understand the history of artists and human beings. I EXPLORED New York, its history, its culture, everything it had to offer. I found this time very well spent when I finally started directing film, as directors need to understand the world in a deeper way than most people.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice anyone ever gave me was “Be your own Grandma.” Well, she actually said, “I mother myself,” but that kind of freaked me out. So I changed it to Grandma because to me the essence of dear old granny is kindness. I didn’t need “straight up” talk, blame or a guilt trip. I got plenty of that in my life. I needed gentle but true WISDOM. Now my “grandma consciousness” is all part of my creativity now. Being able to make a beautiful chicken soup is really not that different than being able to make a film. You need patience, attention, and understanding to get it made, and you need to be able to listen to the ingredients just like you listen to actors. “What is this soup telling me? Does it need an herb? What would that be?” is the same process as “What note is going to help this actor? What does she need to hear to move her to another emotional space?” It’s really all the same thing at the core of it, a form of deep listening. Grandma, in my imagination anyway, is a great listener.
What would you say to 16 year old you?
When I look back at my 16 year old self I feel so sad for her. At 16 I dropped out of High School (took the GED aka the HS equivalency test) so that I could focus on working full time. My mom said we needed the money, but she neither took a job or went to her rather well-off family for help. Basically, she let me quit school to focus on paying the bills. So if I were to meet my 16 year old self today, I would tell my 16 year old self this: “Dear Young Cady. Your mother’s path was of her own choosing. You already gave her every dime you made as a child actress. Sacrificing your life for hers is not right. You are not responsible for her or her decisions. No matter how angry she will be for a while, go get yourself legally emancipated and move back to the horse ranch where there were good, Christian people who understood right from wrong until you know what YOU really want to do with your life. Your mother will be fine.”
I wish I had done this because my mom filled my head with limitations of what was possible for me in my life. She made me think that my dreams were foolish, that all men were bad, that the world was a dangerous place to be feared. She thought I would either fall in love with someone like my father (who was an alcoholic) or become my father (who left us with no child support) and regularly told me so. She was like a “doubt dump truck.” This led to me being suicidal by the time I was in my early 20’s, and in therapy of one kind or another for 16 plus years. (I still work on myself, it’s a never ending process.) Her words made me constantly wonder whether I could actually accomplish my dreams. By 20 I couldn’t even get in the same room with my dreams. For example, I wanted to go to Julliard, but my mom drove it into my head that, “I should make as much money as I possibly could before I was 40 and nobody wanted to see or hear from me anymore.” So I couldn’t even attend a Broadway show for years. It was too painful to watch the actors doing what I wanted to do.
I started to overcome my mom’s crappy influence when I began going to 12-step meetings. At first, Al-anon was like a room full of my mom and AA like a room full of my dad and I ran screaming. But eventually I began to see that my entire family dynamic had been riddled with intense, crippling dysfunction and it was my job to break a pattern that now lived in me. So I started to say, “No” to my mother, which let me tell you, did not go over well, especially when I told her I was going to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving rather than come to see her. Oh boy, Guilt-Trip-o-Rama. Despite the huge bucket of blame and shame sloshed on me that took years to get clean of, I did start to recover a sense of my own agency in my life. Although I don’t do 12 Step meetings now, they really helped me a great deal back then.
What message do you think every woman should hear?
I think every woman should hear that their mother is a part of the history of women, and by looking at the culture in which their mother was raised, they can understand them in a new light. When I looked and saw how my mother was a product of the 1950’s, she made much more sense as a person. There was no legal abortion, not much encouragement for women to pursue a career path, and a lot of really misogynistic behavior that women had to endure as part of daily life. It helped me to understand why, in part, my mom had the attitudes that she did. That said, she could have also taken encouragement from the women’s liberation movement a whole lot more, or paid attention to all the women who were stepping into leadership roles in the 1980’s. She could have gone to therapy to deal with her issues in the 1990’s. But she didn’t. She died of cancer in 1995, a victim of all she was exposed to, and all the darkness she held too close.
My mother’s life was no small influence on me deciding to do this documentary on women directors. It was practically a life saving measure for me. After a life time of hearing “no, we can’t” I NEEDED to hear “YES WE CAN” from all kinds of women. Women who had overcome obstacles, women who had come from more supportive families, women who had chosen what had been held for years as a job “for men only,” (the field of directing) and thrived despite it all. Hearing these stories and then weaving them into a film has probably been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. No award or amount of money can really top this because it is such a reflection of my choosing to live a life that my mother could not imagine for me.
Would she be proud? She would be knocked off her pins. But that’s not why I did it. I did it for me. I did it to prove to myself that all that history, all that engrained culture of fear and doubt, and all those family voices were 100% wrong. That, as a woman, I am actually capable of whatever I set my mind to doing. That I am stronger than anyone ever told me or believed possible. That what I have to say is of value, and that what I value has worth to the world.
I hope some other woman will read this and think, “OMG that is me!” and decide to roll the dice on herself and her own dreams, whatever they might be. That would make me ridiculously happy.
Cady McClain is a two-time Emmy Award winning actor, filmmaker, musician and author.