Director Vanessa Parise had an unconventional path to her craft, deferring a spot at Harvard Medical School to pursue acting. She soon discovered her love of directing, and the rest was history. In an ironic instance of career serendipity, Alyssa Milano starred in her (Parise’s) first feature film, Kiss The Bride, while she was also starring in the cult classic Charmed – decades before Parise would direct episodes of its popular reboot. Now juggling career and motherhood, the director has even loftier ambitions on the horizon, hoping to one day direct female-driven action films. No matter the genre, her work remains positively bewitching.
Cliché: Prior to becoming a director, you had originally planned to attend med school, even deferring your place at Harvard Medical School for a decade. That’s quite a shift in career trajectories! Talk about the moment or the series of moments that made you decide directing was the right path for you. Do you use both parts of yourself? Have you always wanted to be a director, or was it a passion that arose spontaneously?
Vanessa Parise: Growing up in NYC and then RI, I started acting in theater from the time I was a kid. Then I studied neurobiology [at Harvard] while I also sang in an acapella group and did a whole bunch of  plays. That love of both pursuits continued, as I deferred HMS to go to Circle in the Square Theater’s conservatory. On my first day of theater school, I was standing on stage in my technique class – and the teacher could see so much about me just watching me… and she helped me to be more fully in each moment… to be powerfully present. I knew at that moment that acting was the path for me. Then, I wrote [produced] and directed my first feature so I could play one of the sisters, and as soon as I jumped into the director’s chair, I felt a similar YES…. Now I was using my acting experience to inform my directing. I’ve come to realize that as a director, my prep time uses my science / problem-solving mind while shooting uses my acting / in-the-moment / feeling mind. Both are essential.
Which female directors are you most inspired by currently?
Oh wow, there are so many! Lina Wertmüller! Lesli Linka Glatter, Jill Soloway, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Patty Jenkins, Bethany Rooney, Julie Taymor, Dee Rees, Reed Morano, Mimi Leder….
Have you encountered sexism in the industry or naysayers doubting your potential because of your gender? How do you navigate that without internalizing any negativity?
The biggest challenge has been getting hired. More specifically, getting hired for larger budget gigs that are in the system [directing episodic television and studio features]. I started out in the indie feature world – writing, directing, producing and starring in my own films. I never felt any discrimination. But as soon as I wanted to get into the system – where you can potentially make a lot of money, I felt a huge shift. Since then, it’s felt mostly like I’m pushing a boulder up a mountain.
Also, bringing my baby – and now my toddler – with me on location, from the time he was three months old, has been a challenge. Especially bringing him to set, where people aren’t used to seeing a woman directing, never mind a woman-with-a-baby directing [laughing]. Almost everyone has loved it, but I’ve also been made aware of some muttering and complaints about our brave new world!
I’ve decided to follow my gut… to forge my own path, even amidst the naysayers, and to focus on all the wonderfully supportive people who are helping us to create this new reality. I work extremely hard, and it’s really challenging to try to find a balance where I have time for my family and my friends. All work and No play makes for a lonely life [laughing]!
How did you first become involved with the Charmed reboot? Were you familiar with Charmed during its original run? Did you go back and watch the original version for research?
Alyssa Milano was starring in CHARMED when she starred in my first feature film, KISS THE BRIDE, which was about four sisters and their dysfunctional but very loving family. I watched a lot of the original series at that time – and loved it. I’ve always tried to write interesting, multidimensional female characters into my scripts, and to hire as many women as possible below the line as well. To be given this opportunity to be Producing Director [and Co-Executive Producer] on CHARMED feels like the perfect culmination of all my work to date… like it was meant to be.
You have directed three of the first nine episodes, which is quite remarkable. We had the chance to see episode 102, “Let This Mother Out, ” since it’s already aired. Congrats on its success – the great reviews and high ratings. What was your favorite or most challenging scene to shoot and why?
The most challenging sequence was the mirror sequence. Some of the mirrors were real, and some were CG!/ green-screen. We were working off the concept art I created with our extraordinary production designer and art department. And some great storyboards. Both of which we blew up and posted on set. But it took a lot of brain power from everyone – cast and crew – to keep on the same page about what we were shooting, and what the scene would ultimately look like. Plus, we were dealing with MIRRORS, so we were of course having to find ways not to see ourselves (the crew) in the reflections. All of which became dizzying after 10 hours of shooting!
Additionally, you also act as Producing Director, with responsibilities like hiring cast and crew and ensuring that the overall style of the show remains consistent from one episode to the next. Is it difficult juggling so many balls on set? How do you determine what belongs in the Charmed universe and what doesn’t?
I was one of five children – the middle child – in a very creative family. I watched my parents live life on their own terms, not paying too much attention to what was expected of them. Their enthusiasm for life was infectious and they taught me the wonder of discovering each day and the joy of stretching and growing. So I continue to dive in, and I’m always excited to juggle lots of different balls. In terms of what belongs in the Charmed multiverse (ha!), we have an incredibly strong pilot episode as our guide.
What messages do you hope a new generation of viewers take away from Charmed?
CHARMED speaks to how “our differences are our strengths,” and that “we are stronger together.” I’m beyond grateful to be working with this extraordinary team on a show that’s political, topical, and inclusive – all told in an elegant, poignant yet humorous way.
SheKnows named you one of the “Ten Female Directors Breaking Stereotypes”. What does this recognition mean to you? How do you plan to continue breaking down stereotypes?
SheKnows is a powerhouse organization working to get to 50% women [directors and writers] by 2020. I feel honored by their recognition. I’m always inspired to continue to break stereotypes. In my current job, this means bringing more female and diverse directors to the table.
In what ways can women in the industry better support each other and leave the door open for other rising female directors?
We can help raise awareness about each other, share our relationships, vouch for one another, open doors for each other. We move forward together!
Any new projects that you’re currently working on or on the horizon that you’re excited about?
I am so grateful for my current job [as Producing Director on Charmed] – I’m loving it. I’m also excited for what the future brings. Hoping to direct television pilots. And female-driven action films.
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“Charmed” Director Vanessa Parise Thrills Classic and New Fans Alike With A Beguiling Reboot. Photo Credit: Alec Watson and Kat Tuohy. Photo on Charmed set courtesy of Vanessa Parise.