by Alicia Dietrich / photos by Lawrence Peart
Actress, producer and entrepreneur Felicia Day was recently honored with the College of Fine Arts’ E. William Doty Young Alumna Award. While Day received her degree in math from UT, she attended UT on a full violin scholarship, took dance classes in the Department of Theatre and Dance and starred in multiple productions in the department. Day has appeared in numerous television shows and films, including the CW show Supernatural and the SyFy series The Magicians, but she is best known for her work in the web video world, behind and in front of the camera. She co-starred in Joss Whedon’s Internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which was ranked in the “Top 10 Best TV of 2008” by Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine and won an Emmy in 2009. She also created and starred in the seminal web series The Guild, which ran for six seasons. The Guild won numerous awards for web video excellence, garnering a PGA nomination for best web series in 2011. In 2011, Day created a web production company with YouTube called Geek & Sundry that produces all manner of digital content. It was sold to Legendary Entertainment in 2014. Since writing her New York Times bestselling memoir, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Day has worked on her own creative projects as a producer, writer and actor. We caught up with her recently to learn more about her career and creative projects.
Your experience at UT was somewhat unusual in that you enrolled at age 16 and graduated at 19. What can you tell us about your experience here and how it affected your professional trajectory after college?
I had a very unusual background, so I wasn't really able to do all the fun stuff that normal college students get to do. I was a little more supervised. I actually lived at home the whole time. But that enabled me to focus on getting as many experiences and classes under my belt as possible. I had two majors, but I always tried to take classes in different areas that were not my majors just because I was so interested in other things as well. The great thing about UT was that I was able to create a trajectory for myself that was unique within such a big campus that was surprising and awesome.
You’ve had such an interesting career pathway. You have classical arts training, and you’ve taken that and leveraged it into this career as an actress, producer and entrepreneur where you’ve more or less forged your own pathway. Can you talk about how your classical training helped support you on this journey?
Being trained as an artist was wonderful because I always knew I wanted to go in the arts. I didn't know exactly what area I wanted to concentrate on, but having the discipline to focus and perfect something—you know, I'd practice eight hours a day in my practice room over at the music building—and at the same time I participated in theatre and dance. I think the discipline of working really paid off later when I really needed to be more self-motivated. I think especially if you are learning an instrument or have something that requires a lot of daily practice, you don't really shy from keeping on a schedule after college as some people might if they're not being graded for it.
I also think having a diverse background, no matter where you go with the education, everything always informs everything else. When I graduated, I was the valedictorian of the College of Natural Sciences, and my speech was "Finding the Art Within Your Science" because I know my science background helped me in my art and vice versa. I think being too myopically focused on one path kind of sells you short and deprives you of the ability to innovate within the thing that you love.
When we talk about entrepreneurship in the arts here, we try to frame it as learning the skills to “take control of your own career.” It seems that you are the perfect example of someone who has done just this. Can you talk about what you think students and artists need to learn to be able to do this successfully?
I think it's super important to take as many business classes [as you can]—anything that teaches you about finances and contracts—because especially if you're an artist, a lot of people want to commoditize your art if you become successful, and they show up wanting to take advantage of you. It's really important to know what you're getting into when you're signing a contract to preserve yourself as an artist and to protect yourself and protect your art.
Early on in my career, I didn't have the benefit of taking business classes or any of that, and I signed some contracts that I later regretted because I either gave up the rights to something or I had to stay in a place too long. I think having that background is integral to being an artist because artists are often freelance, so you're constantly having to do the business of art at the same time as doing the art itself. In fact, it becomes like 70/30 in business to art. So, having knowledge about that is very, very important once you get out of a university situation.
It’s been about a decade since you launched the scripted web series The Guild, which was one of the first of its kind and certainly one of the most popular web series. Since then, we’ve seen the traditional network TV model of television completely upended with more content than ever on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. With these changes, do you see more opportunities to create what you want to make?
It's kind of both. I think there's always an opportunity to get great work seen. It's just a little bit harder now because of the saturation. I do think that bigger streaming platforms basically are just institutionalizing what already existed. There are just more opportunities for the people who were already creating on TV.
But at the same time, if you have a more out-of-the-box idea, people are more willing—and especially people of diverse opinions and backgrounds. If you want to tell stories in those ways, I think there are more opportunities. And just having more out there for people to work on provides more entry-level positions, especially in television and film.
So, it's kind of an interesting place to be where the total grassroots innovation is a little bit on the downslide because there's such a glut of professionally produced content. But it just means a little bit different way of getting into places. The great thing is that bottom line, there's just more opportunity on every level for everyone now.
In your talk last week, you talked about running Geek & Sundry and how you reached the point that you were overseeing other people’s creativity more than your own. How do you balance those competing forces when a lot of what you do is creating content outside of traditional platforms, which requires a more DIY approach?
I think that if you are a self-driven person and want to do things outside the systems, you have to take on some of the business and the logistical. It was kind of a unique thing that I did, taking on the business side as well as the creative side, just because it was necessary. We didn't know how to scale. We didn't partner with people who could already do the business stuff. You end up spreading yourself too thin when you are a self-starter person, and that can only go so far. I did feel like I slowly crept over the years into a more administrative, into a more figurehead position where I was enabling other people's creativity vs. my own. It's a slippery slope. There's only so much bandwidth in somebody's life. There's only so much time we have to create things and spend our energies. It's a constant balance. I am a little bit of an obsessive-focused person, and so when I have a task at hand, I focus on it a little too hard. And that kind of tended for me to give my attention to other people instead of myself.
But that self-care as an artist can't be neglected because that's really the engine and the pilot light that started everything in the first place. Whatever it is you can do to maintain that—it's never going to be the same ratio all the time, but you just have to make sure it's something. That will help you avoid frustration and burnout.
I like that metaphor that it's the pilot light that fuels your creativity in the first place.
Everybody has a creative pilot light, and it just depends on how large we want it to burn and how big the flame is. Even if you have the ability of a big flame, sometimes it can get very small with pressures. I know recently becoming a mother has really challenged me to keep anything going at all. But knowing that you're a better person in whatever else you're doing if you're a creator inside means that you don't have to take care of your inner creator just for yourself. You need to take care of your inner creator for everybody around you as well.
What do you look for when you’re deciding whether to take on or commit to a new project?
Is it creatively exciting for me? I notice a tendency for me to really be drawn to innovation over institutions. So, trying to conform to having a traditional route is hard for me, and I'm not very successful at it because it doesn't spark my interest. But if I'm rebelling against something or breaking something, I'm so much more interested in it. That's something I've recently concluded about myself. Your body tells you what you're excited about, right? It's not like I'm not willing to work, but the work that I choose needs to fuel me and fuel my creativity and excitement. I think when you're in touch with that in yourself, that's going to always lead you to the direction that's going to be more fulfilling.
Sometimes it's less financially fulfilling, but in the long term, if you're doing something that you're excited about and enthusiastic about, the long-term rewards are much greater.
What can you tell us about what’s next for you in the year ahead?
I'm going to stay on the same path of looking for opportunities to do things a little differently, to tell stories I'm interested in telling and be part of other people's creative ventures that excite me. You don't always have to be driving the ship. You can always be a passenger as long as it's going to an interesting place. I definitely will continue writing and acting and producing and seeing where digital media goes because I always want to be within that world because it excites me.
What advice do you give to young people looking to break into the business?
When I gave a speech at UT, a couple of people asked, "If you're at 'A,' how do you know how to get to 'B'? I think that was kind of expressing a little anxiety about graduating and where do I want to go from here. I think it's really interesting because I never could tell where I was going to go. Ever. I could never have told you that this was the path I was going to have taken. It's ridiculous. I mean, I graduated thinking that I might be a violinist, and I had a math degree. Who knows where we'll go? And that's kind of great, especially if you're a creative person. You're not going to want to sign up for one job and go there with your briefcase every day for 50 years. That would be a little depressing.
I think if you just know yourself as a person—outside of other people grading you and telling you what you should do—if you follow your interests, you're going to make a unique path for yourself and surprise yourself at where you'll go in the end. That's great. You should always have a surprising 'B' to what you now know is an 'A.'