This week, I was so thrilled to interview Ava Cantrell, a 19-year-old actress, dancer, director, and philanthropist. Born and raised in San Diego, Cantrell began her acting career in 2008 and was recognized for her breakthrough performance of Penelope from the Nickelodeon sitcom The Haunted Hathaways in 2013. In the past decade, Cantrell has received numerous accolades for her proliferating portfolio of performances, including feature films One Under the Sun and Lights Out, CBS show young Sheldon, and numerous TV commercials, music videos, and short films. Additionally, Cantrell is a nationally-recognized competitive dancer and has directed her own short film, published a comic book, and spearheaded a variety of philanthropic endeavors.
I was so excited to speak with Cantrell about her journey to stardom, her experiences as a performer, and her upcoming endeavors.
Q: How did you first break into the television and film industry?
A: I was a dancer when I was little. At the recitals, I would always catch everyone’s eye and I stood out when performed. I was not the best dancer, but I loved to get on stage. My dad was a child actor and recognized the love of the art in me. My parents submitted to the top three agents, and they were interested! My career began at age 7, and I am still with my awesome agents Nicole and Milton.
Q: Nickelodeon’s Haunted Hathaways was your big break— please tell us about how this opportunity came to fruition and what your first experience on a major television channel was like.
A: I had been working on lots of commercials, music videos, and short films but hadn’t hit TV yet. I had auditioned, but nothing clicked. When the role of Penelope Pritchard came along, I genuinely thought it was just my role. I went in to audition WAY over the top. I dressed exactly as a young, rich, bratty little girl would dress. The role was meant to be mine.
It was my first time on a big set, and I needed a bit of extra direction to adapt to the fast pace of Nickelodeon. Fortunately, I had great coaching and picked it up fast. It was pretty amazing to book a guest star role, and even more exciting that turned into a recurring role. You never know in the business what’s going to happen. When you go on set for the first time it is super easy to get overwhelmed, but even as a young girl I knew that I needed to be professional and it was my job. During lunch and after I clocked out, I would just walk around Paramount in complete wonder and excitement! That lot has so much history and I feel lucky to be a part of it now.
Q: What was the single most challenging part of your career thus part? And what about the most rewarding?
A: The most challenging part of my career is staying motivated and not getting burnt out. I have a career spanning over a decade. I have had some close calls to major roles and then not get them and that is hard. What has helped me is to have a super fulfilling life outside the industry life. I always did well in school. I graduated high school as valedictorian with a 4.4 GPA, I am in community college now, I surf often, and have a great boyfriend. The most rewarding is booking jobs. I feel incredibly grateful for each one, no matter how big or small, they have helped pave the way for my career.
Q: Is there a specific type of character you usually play? How do you connect with your characters as an actress?
A: The interesting thing about me is there is no specific role I play. I have worked on almost all genres and played all types of roles. I was the killer in Warner brothers “Lights Out,” a girl with terminal cancer in “One Under the Sun,” a bratty super doll fan in Nickelodeon “Haunted Hathaway’s,” and most recently, a drama student in “Young Sheldon” I want to work on roles that are outside of my comfort zone. I am willing to go way out on a limb for a role, and the more challenging the better. My coach and manager Sharon do character development for each of my auditions and if I am hired, I think that work helps. I love working with Sharon and bouncing around ideas and why and how. It is one of my favorite parts of acting.
Q: What is your favorite character you’ve played thus far?
A: I get asked that a lot but because I have played so many great roles, I can’t call it. I would like to think my favorite character is still in a role out there in the universe.
Q: Please share a little bit more about your experience as a dancer, director, entrepreneur, and comic book writer. How do these disparate art forms shape and inform your role as an actress?
A: All those things as well as my surfing and photography all tie together. Dance led me to act, acting led me to direct and to create a comic book. I wrote the comic book “Amulet of Lilith” with my Dad. I would love to play Lilith in a movie or on TV one day. She survived the holocaust, and her story is an interesting fast-paced one. It is amazing how many people do not know what the Holocaust is anymore, and I hope that my comic brings awareness. Being an entrepreneur runs in my family so that was a given, but I was more motivated to get my brand ZOOMe up and running because while acting is my passion but not my plan to support myself in the future. If we all stay open and don’t force things, it is amazing in which the universe can guide you. I am part of a family that taught me that the road less traveled is a beautiful one.
Q: Please tell us a little more about your philanthropic endeavors and your passion for animal rights and anti-bullying activism.
A: I have been involved in charity since I was a little girl. I think it is especially important to give back. I spend my time now doing charity work and giving back over the many things people my age do. I was bullied as a young girl by people I had known my whole life. It was one of the hardest things I went through, but it made me stronger. I must tell my story even if it helps just one person. I am deeply passionate about animal rights, rescue, spay, and neuter. I lend myself to so many charities especially now over the pandemic. I have recently hosted virtual danced parties for Angel City Sports and Urban Surf Kids as well as “Acting with Ava” on Facebook live to raise money for Starlight Foundation. I love helping out!
Q: What is the one biggest piece of advice Ava Cantrell would give to young, aspiring actresses? What is one lesson you’ve learned that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career path?
A: Do the work and know that slow and steady wins the race. I don’t want to be famous; I want to work for a long time in the business. Don’t go into acting for fame. Right now, you will get more famous on Tik Tok anyways, so act because it is in your blood, you are passionate about it and would do it for zero dollars. What I wish I knew is that the industry keeps changing every year in who it hires, what looks are booking, if it wants a serious actor or an influencer. If you do you, and stop looking around and comparing, you will go far in this industry. I know I have a long career because I am staying true to who I am and taking my time with the journey.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I have projects!!! Yeah! I had three on the calendar for March that all got canceled. I am going to star in an indie short called “Mission 22” with a powerful message for veterans. I am working with Brandon TV and we have a few projects in the works. Timing is everything and the timing is still a bit off. But I am here, and I am ready for the next wave of work. It will be super exciting to get back on set.