There are days that Amber Phillips must wonder why she made the journey in the first place.
Not, it should be pointed out, because of her experiences as one of the stars of Dark Commandos: Empires Fall (in which she portrays newly transformed vampire Sue Janic), but rather because of the overwhelming odds against anyone with ambitions of becoming a successful actor in Los Angeles. Back home in Michigan, Amber had a fairly full plate, appearing in such plays as Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, as well as being a member of a musical theater. In other words, hitting the boards was a fairly regular achievement for her in Michigan, but Michigan is not Los Angeles.
"It's definitely been a long, arduous process," admits Amber, whose credits include a number of short films as well as the independent feature, Minimum Wage. "I sat around for a while when I first got here. I took acting classes and that sort of thing. That was probably the most distinctive difference. When I studied in Michigan and did theater in Michigan, it was all sort of musical theater where all you needed was a sad look on your face when it called for it. When I started taking acting classes in Los Angeles, I was taught about the process and the craft and a way of working that just goes deeper than 'How is this going to make me look? What is this going to look like in the end?' They kind of walk you through the feelings, and the emotion comes from that and the results come from the process.
"Business-wise," she continues, "I was really fortunate because I got a manager pretty soon out of the gate and he's taken me through part of the business and shielded me from a lot. It's hard, you have to hustle and it's a really daunting process. I get frustrated all the time. Actually, the more involved I get in the business side - with my agent or casting directors or producers - the more frustrated I get, because it's not necessarily whether or not you're talented. A lot of times it will come down to things that you can't control. That becomes frustrating because, at this stage of the game, I'm in such a powerless position. The truth is, I like to get in there and make things happen for myself. I can do that to a certain extent, but my fate is left up to hundreds of other people.
"It's not just about getting the job, really. You have to go through the casting director, you have to audition for the producers. There are all of these steps along the way. Even after you're hired - especially in television - they can fire you the next day. They can fire you at the table read. There are all these steps where you can be completely annihilated. It's such a tricky sort of thing. It reminds me of that arcade game 'Pitfalls', where you have to keep swinging across vines and there are always new ones ahead of you."
"It's really hard and a really transitional lifestyle, and I'm always in a state of anxiety. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.
For Amber, a great deal of satisfaction has come from the opportunity she's had to work in the independent world of short films as well as her latest gig in Dark Commandos. "I feel that independent filmmaking is being part of a group," she offers. "You're along with a bunch of other people who really want the project to succeed. You're not just there to get a paycheck for that day."
An example, she emphasizes, is her relationship with director/producer/co-creator Tom Sanders on DC. Having worked with him on a short film she produced and he edited, Amber felt completely confident putting herself in his hands. "I believe in Tom," she says, "and I believe in this project and I really like everybody that he's working with. Plus, I get the opportunity that I wouldn't get on a bigger project to interact with the crew and be involved with the preproduction. Also, Dark Commandos is a great idea. I'm really looking forward to it and I'm always calling him and saying, 'When are we going again?'
"The project reminds me of capillaries in that everything branches off into this complicated backstory. It's so great coming into that and saying, 'I'm obviously in great hands because everybody is so interested and they've got this massive backstory.' I've never been involved with anything like it."
Amber's role in Dark Commandos: Empires Fall is pivotal in that Sue Janic essentially serves as the audience's introduction into the world of vampirism. The audience is along for the ride when Sue is first bitten, is then reborn, embraces her new destiny to serve with the Undead Brigade and then gradually changes as she becomes more immersed in the vampire existence.
"Originally when I auditioned," Amber reflects, "I went in with a different idea than the writers had in mind. She's changed from my perception of her, which is not bad at all. My idea was that she was just a kid; a girl. I went in there with the black garb and the dark makeup and my hair in pigtails and was just kind of very flippant. I think the scene we read for is when she meets with Non in the chapel, and I just played her very flippantly. I may have even have had gum in my mouth. She just struck me as such a kid. Almost like in Interview With a Vampire, where the girl, Claudia, is stunted at a certain point. She's irresponsible because she doesn't have life lessons to dictate to her responsibility or any of those things.
"I think what's going on now with Sue instead is a whole seductress, femme fatale kind of thing" elaborates Amber. "I'm fascinated by the arc, because it's something I've never played before. I'm usually cast as the geeky girl, or the girl who's a little bit off. So when I went in to audition, I definitely took in all of the "girl", because I don't see myself as a seductress or a femme fatale. If there's a sexuality involved, I tend to play toward the innocent sexuality. But I'm all for going in the other direction. (Sue will) inevitably have very girlish traits because she's being played by me, but I'm all for the other side of it. It'll be a great thing for me to play as an actress, simply because I've not played it before. I think it will be liberating for me and certainly difficult in a lot of ways - but I'm all for it!"
Despite her enthusiasm for the concept of Dark Commandos and for her character, Amber admits that she is not a genre fan. "I liked The Matrix, but I'm not a big science fiction fan.
"Vampires are really the only thing I can get interested in science fiction or fantasy wise," she closes. "There is a certain sexiness and allure to vampires; a darkness. They're humans, for the most part, but then there's something darker about them. Because they are sexy, because they are relatable characters - most of them - they can be normal people and can interact, and you can have believable circumstances while you still have this other thing going on. There's a seductive sort of darkness about it, and as an actor it's hugely appealing because you play all human emotions and draw from your own register of life, just like you would from a 'normal' character, but then there's this other thing that you can put on it that just allows you to do anything that you want to.
"I'm not alone in feeling this way. People that I wouldn't even think were into vampires were very jealous when I got fitted for fangs."
Sue Janic will first appear in Episode 5.