The OI Interview: Dana Powell

Dana Powell is best known for playing Pameron on the hit ABC series Modern Family as well as for her role in Bridesmaids. Powell is a Springfield native and proud Hillcrest graduate who is back in town for two events: VisionCon 2019 and the season finale of the Emmy-award winning The Mystery Hour. (Our headline photo is from Dana’s first appearance on The Mystery Hour.)

OI sat down with Powell before events began at VisionCon, which is at the Springfield Expo Center through Sunday night, and what was originally just going to be a quick question for a photo shoot story on the convention became much more.

OI: You’ve accomplished many things in your career that so many actors would love to reach such as landing a regular role on a network sitcom. When you were starting out in Springfield, and you obviously had the dream to make it as an actor, did you really think you’d get there or did you have a little voice in the back of your mind saying that dream was just out of reach?

Powell: I had the dream. I always say my mom forced me to audition for a musical and that’s kind of how I began. Then I went to college [for acting] and at a certain point as midwesterners we’re like “OK, it’s time to put away the dream and get a real job.”

So I worked at KSPR-33 for a little bit, then my boyfriend at the time said “I’m going to L.A.” and that was somewhere I said I would never go! I kinda thought I didn’t have the looks for TV and film! I was more of a theater person.

But we made the move out and it’s interesting: I always tell people, when I talk to students or young people that want to get into the industry, if you’re doing things locally where you are and you’re not the star, it doesn’t matter!

I was never the star of anything! I went to MSU, I not the star of that department. I never had a lead at Springfield Little Theatre! I was in YES troupe and youth groups but I was never the star. Even in my high school, I never got a lead.

It doesn’t matter! You don’t have to be the one that when you walk in a room people stop and say ‘that kid’s gonna make it!’ It’s a job just like anything else. A friend of mine says it takes three things: luck, persistence and talent. If you’ve got two of those three, you’re gonna make it.

So I always encourage people: even if everyone else tells you it’s a dream, keep going. Let that flame in your heart really fire up and get you out there.

OI: This question betrays my age, but I remember lines from a song by Poison called “Fallen Angel” that says “the lights didn’t shine as bright as they did on her mama’s TV screen and the work seemed harder, the days seemed longer.” There’s a lot of hard work in your industry that people never see.

Powell: Oh yes. People think that on a set everything is glamorous, and yes, you can be very well taken care of. But I remember one time I was pregnant and standing outside in 98 degree temperatures shooting a show called Suburgatory and we had to push lunch because we just had to get a shot!

It is a job. People think it’s all red carpets and runways and that’s just not it. Especially at my point in my career I consider myself a working stiff. I’m still auditioning. You’re all over town and it’s all in the hope of getting a job. It’s a lot harder than people realize.

OI: You mentioned auditions, and you’re really in a field without a safety net.

Powell: No, not at all.

OI: And if you don’t book some gigs…

Powell: I can’t feed my family!

OI: That has to be a tremendous amount of pressure.

Powell: It is! It’s interesting because in the midwest, and I’m a hometown girl from Springfield, Missouri and I was raised to make sure you always have insurance, make sure you always have a job, you don’t leave one job without having the next job…I never have a job until I do! And that job may last for a day or for three weeks. You just don’t know.

There’s no safety net and after a while, it does wear on you, but you get used for it. For my husband and I, it’s a lifestyle, and you just have to accept it. You believe in what you’re doing and keep going and so far it’s worked OK for me so far, knock on everything!

OI: You met your husband in college?

Powell: He’s from St. Louis. We met in college here at MSU. Moved out to California together, a couple of dumb dumbs, just with what we could fit in our car. Worked our way up and now I’m so proud, his resume is so much more impressive than mine.

OI: Go ahead and brag on him.

Powell: He worked on Modern Family, but he also produced a show called LA to Vegas, he worked on a show called Making History, he worked on the last Spiderman movie…

OI: I think LA to Vegas got shafted.

Powell: I do too! That show was so great!

OI: The cast was fantastic.

Powell: [Dylan McDermott] is so funny. It was really disappointing for me as a viewer!

OI: Then again, I like things like Monty Python that my family just didn’t get.

Powell: Me too! I think that’s the reason I was the black sheep that moved away.

OI: I did the same thing, my whole family is in Pennsylvania.

Powell: My family, they love to visit LA but they would never move. My grandpa used to say “aw, you’ll be back in six months” and after six months he would say “you’ll be back in another six months” and now it’s been almost twenty years!

OI: Tell me about your podcast because it’s different than what you’re doing with your acting.

Powell: It is! It’s more of a passion project for me. You don’t make a ton of money doing a podcast. I do all the production on my own, I learned how to do all the audio work on my own.

It’s called the Rants and Raves Podcast. My co-host is Jessica Young, she’s another actress and comedian in L.A..

The first part of the show we rant about things. We have people send us things that happen to them and we rant about it. Things like people butting in line. This last week we talked about communal shared objects, because a woman said her cousin goes to hot yoga and there’s a communal towel…

OI (and the five people listening in): *shudder* Ugh…

Powell: It literally made me vomit. I literally had to make a special announcement that we had an edit on the show because Dana puked.

OI: A communal TOWEL?

Photo from the Cats With Their Mouths Open instagram

Powell: Can you even imagine? So we rant about things that are ‘what in the world?’ and then we take a cleaning breath and then we talk about charities, local hometown heroes, anything positive or good news. Sometimes at the end we’ll say something to ponder for the week, a conversation starter, or I’ll share something I found. Like this week I asked people to go follow cats with their mouths open on Instagram. It’s ridiculous but it makes me smile and I love to see it every day on my feed.

I would rather see that kind of stuff, because if I have to watch the real news, which we all do to be informed, I need to buffer that with what’s good in the world too and that’s what we hope with our podcast. Out with the bad, in with the good.

OI: What does it mean to you to have success on the level you’ve had and then be able to leverage that to help the arts in your hometown?

Powell: I really have a huge desire to do that. I have an independent film that I wrote which I would really love to shoot here.

Missouri is working on getting tax breaks back for film which is very exciting for me. It’s very hard to shoot without them and I believe they could be very good for our economy. If part of the industry can come here, it’s employing people, it’s putting money into the local economy, jobs like you wouldn’t believe, so that’s very exciting to me.

I shot a pilot in St. Louis in September, they had a lot of support. When I came here to talk about the movie, you know how people here are! They’re lovely! They’re beautiful people and they want to support you and they want you to succeed. I want to try and make more of that happen.

I want to help the students at MSU whenever I can. I taught a workshop for them when they were out in L.A.. It’s a lot of fun.

You know, one thing I was telling my friend before I came here, the one thing that’s odd about doing things at home, I get more nervous doing things before people at home than anywhere else. I’m on a podcast that is listened to all around the world and you don’t think about what you say and sometimes you think ‘well, that was real dumb!’ but when I come home like this I was really nervous before I left the hotel room!

These people are important to me. What they think about me and my family is important to me. I love my hometown. I’m scared they’re going to think ‘oh, she’s all Hollywood now.’

OI: Ok, that was going to be my last question, but I have to ask something just for fun. When I think about home, there are things that I miss like an honest-to-God real Philadelphia cheesesteak. When you’re out in L.A., what are the things from Springfield that you crave that you wish you could run out and get?

Powell: Well, you know what number one will be! Cashew chicken! For me, it’s cashew chicken, Mexican Villa, and Mr. Goodcents. Those are my go-tos. I can’t come home and not get them.

OI: Sancho or burrito enchilada style?

Powell: It’s a toss-up. Usually what happens is I get one, and someone in my family gets the other, and I usually end up eating half of theirs too! I just have to get my sweet sauce!