“The courage to be you: I think we fear that. The biggest thing that I’ve realized is that there’s nothing scarier than embracing who you really are.”
They seemed like such wise words from a person so young. But interviewing Mia Selway made me recognize that youth has little to do with life’s experiences or their lessons. And I couldn’t help but believe she, like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, was discovering the power of the ruby red slippers.
Carol and I interviewed Mia over videoconference from her current home in London, where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. RADA, one of the oldest and most prestigious acting schools in the UK and famous worldwide, is literally two hours from West Sussex, where Mia spent most of her growing-up years. But the distance she’s traveled to find her place as an actor is anything but a straight line.
We see Mia’s journey to becoming a professional actor as intricately woven with her quest to find her home, her purpose, and her place in the world. But what is home? At the deepest level, we understand that home is more than just a place to live. Our human need to be nurtured, find connection, feel safe, and have stability provides the roots we need to support our alternative drives to grow and pursue our wildest dreams. This need for grounding and human connection is just as strong as our physical need for shelter, food and clothing.
Mia Selway, now 30, is the youngest of seven children, from a considerably large family for the modern UK. Her father was a traditional Church-of-England Brit and her mother a Thai Buddhist, but together they converted to Mormonism in their hometown of Kent long before Mia’s birth. When Mia was just 18 months old, her mother passed away, and the children were separated to live with relatives and friends because of her father’s debilitating grief. Mia was passed around between families and doesn’t even know today who took care of her for the better part of two years. Her father eventually brought the family back together when she was three and moved to Utah, where he remarried. The marriage didn’t work out, and within a few months, they moved to West Sussex, where Mia spent her life until she was 18.
“Looking back, I was always an actor,” Mia said. “I’m sure that because of the early instability in my life, I would literally create my own worlds where I could feel safe. Even growing up in a large family, I was a lonely child. Every child was grieving because we had lost our mother, and our father was in agonizing grief, so we were isolated from each other. I would draw pictures, and cut out photos from magazines to create a family to place in a world of my own. And then I’d close my eyes and they’d come alive in my imagination. And when I watched movies as a child, if I liked a character, I would just become that character for sometimes weeks at a time. I would dress like them, and talk like them, so even as a child, I was stimulating my actors imagination.”
“When I first started at RADA, our director, Ed Kemp, gave us a quote by Alan Rickman (the British actor, instructor and mentor to many aspiring actors, famous for playing Severus Snape in Harry Potter), who was alive at the time:
But Mia’s journey to acting has taken a circuitous route from London, to Australia, to America, and back and forth between the three countries many times, always driven by a desperate search for something she has not understood until recently. As a teenager, she was compelled to get a job at the airport, because she found all the activity exciting, and was energized by the idea of travel. She said she felt suffocated by the culture of her community in West Sussex; the area had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country and she loathed the plainness and predictability of such a lifestyle.
“I came from a town where most people never left, and I remember the youngest kid who I knew who had a kid was 12 years old.” She worked for several years at the Gatwick airport with a single mindset of leaving, and just before she turned 18, saved enough money for a one-way ticket to Australia.
“I had only about forty pounds to my name, but I went to live with an Australian family as sort of an au pair. They were very kind to me, and encouraged me to have different kinds of experiences.” She felt welcomed in this family with traditional parents, and settled comfortably under the wing of the surrogate mother as her own.
Growing up as a Mormon, Mia felt she always had a safe network of people around her, but also had little exposure to other ways of thinking, and this often caused her confusion and deep conflict. In Australia, she found a job in an organic food store, where she met many different kinds of people, who stimulated her thinking about her life, and planted the first seeds of doubt about her beliefs. “I think it was one of my favorite jobs, because of all the interesting people that I met.”
Eventually, she saved enough money to study, and found scholarships and support to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In spite of her growing internal conflicts, she still found shelter and comfort in her Mormon community at BYU. She was drawn to acting, but started by trying to go around it in several ways. She studied journalism, envisioning herself in documentary making. She then decided to go behind the cameras and learn film work.
Mia worked for Women’s Services and Resources at BYU where she organized campus events that focused on women’s empowerment. One such campaign, called “Recapturing Beauty” featured a woman, Stephanie Nelson, a wife, mother of four children and a blogger who was in a horrific airplane crash that left her severely injured and disfigured at age 27 and threatened to “forever change her relationship with her children” because they couldn’t even look at her. Another campaign called ”Voices of Courage” focused on female victims of abuse and one of the events showcased a collection of artwork created by abuse survivors. But even as she worked tirelessly to promote women’s issues, Mia continued to be drawn toward acting. “I was always too scared to just kind of go for it,” she lamented.
“I always had this thing inside of me,” she continued. “Maybe I didn’t know it was acting, maybe it was performing, but I always had that desire to…I don’t know…to entertain, or to tell stories, or to connect. There was always just something there.”
While still a teen in England, Mia had often taken the train into London, where she liked to hang out on the West End and feel the vibe of the performance community. She imagined herself as a journalist, and would pretend to interview the actors to see if they would talk with her.
“I was bold back then, and very talkative. At the time, I was studying media, and we were learning how to be journalists. I got myself into the press section with all the reporters, and they asked me who I was, and they encouraged me to go for it. So, I got my notebook out of my backpack, and I would go up to the actors and just start interviewing them, as if I was a reporter for a magazine, and they would literally talk to me and answer my questions. So, I thought, ‘I could really do this’, and I started going to events and being a reporter.” She told them she was with a publication she invented called “Freestyle Magazine”—a magazine created for young people about young people.
Mia studied at BYU for several years, and worked summers in Australia. She eventually took classes in acting, and found instructors she described as both inspiring and nurturing. But she became increasingly conflicted and unhappy, and described some dark times of self-destructive thoughts, behaviors and relationships. She began to question everything, from her beliefs, to her identity, to her sexual orientation. Mia started to recognize that she had been searching for a mother all of her life, and began to look back and see a pattern of attaching herself to mother figures.
“For so long, I’ve looked for a mother or a family, like a baby that wants to feel nurtured and safe. When you don’t have that, it’s hard. You feel like you’re blowing in the wind. I’ve quite literally done that,” Mia recalled.
She described her lowest point in 2010 when she was at BYU and feeling increasingly despondent, alone, and suicidal. “My whole life started to turn upside down. I was questioning everything, including my purpose. For so long, I’d been defined by my religion. My whole network of people was Mormon, and if I left, I was going to be the bad person. I felt panic about who I was and what I really stood for. Leaving the religion meant there would be family repercussions; my identity was built on the definitions of my siblings.”
She recalls one night in this dark time, lying in her bed in Provo, Utah, and asking herself this question: “What could I potentially live for that would give me meaning or purpose, that would excite me and make me want to really be alive?”
“I didn’t know of anything else but acting,” she said. “There was just nothing else, and I remember making that conscious choice. It was very powerful and I will always remember it. Ever since then, I just started looking for as many opportunities as I could to be the type of actor that I wanted to be.”
Mia applied for and attended two short courses at RADA before she was accepted to their full-time program. Her circuitous route to becoming a professional actor has wound over several years and over many different paths, from BYU to Sundance, to London and LA, with a myriad of opportunities pulling at both her heart and her purse strings. Many times along the way, others recognized in her a raw and natural talent for acting, and she was courted by schools and influential people in the entertainment industry. She considered many different options, but her desire for classical training, and her reconnection to her roots in London swayed her decision, and she committed to a 3-year program at RADA that began in 2015.
In the meantime, she sought therapy to help her understand and resolve her self-destructive patterns and keep her focus on her goals. She believes she was about 25 when she started to define herself as “not Mormon”, and credited moving back to London in 2012 as the first opportunity she allowed herself the chance to discover who she was and what she stood for.
“It’s been painful,” Mia said emphatically. “Sometimes when I’m having a particularly hard time, I say to my best friend, Dalton, ‘I better make it as an actor, because I didn’t go through this shitty life for nothing.’”
Mia describes acting as an incredibly vulnerable experience. “You have to be so vulnerable, and you constantly wonder if you’re enough. I can’t bullshit my way through life. I know that I have a long way to go in terms of learning and figuring it out, but it’s really, really hard sometimes.”
She said feels most authentic and most happy when taking risks and being “all in” to make human connections. She said, “Like Brene Brown talks about when you’re in the arena and you fall flat on your face, having given your all to someone or something that didn’t work out, and as hard as those experiences are, it’s in those moment when you know you're most human. Life is a verb. It’s something that constantly moves, and you just have surrender and go with it sometimes. Otherwise you can end up loosing yourself.”
Even though she’s now on more solid ground with her career path, Mia still reports dark times. She’s struggled with health issues like chronic tonsillitis and glandular fever, sometimes being so sick she questions whether she should continue for the sake of her health. “I’m telling you right now, it’s not easy, and the number of times I’ve texted my friends and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore…like I mean literally. I have to make a daily choice to really engage at school. And not just at school, but in my life as a whole. I’m really learning that at the moment.”
“I recently read somewhere that self-love isn’t optional, so that’s kind of been my mantra for the past six months. And part of loving myself is following this path as an actor. But training to be an actor is exhausting; this work is very exposing. I am constantly being challenged to question who I am and everything I believe about the world around me. Its draining, but if I’m honest its one of the most wonderful parts of being an actor. We get to dedicate our lives to exploring our hearts and guttural instincts, and asking ourselves daily, what it means to be human, and as such we get to be society's voice, heart and soul.”
“Brene Brown talks about this concept of wholeheartedness. I genuinely want that in my life. I think we live in a world where we are constantly wearing masks. For me, I think that’s why I chose acting because, again, going back to this quote: ‘You rid yourself of the brick walls and the inhibitions…’ and essentially the masks that we wear. And you take it off, and whether it’s to an audience member, or your best friend or your sister, you say, ‘Here I am, this is me. I see you, and I allow you to see me, too. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than that, when we’re willing to take off our masks.”
For all the extreme challenges, Mia’s life path glows with a beam of resilience and resourcefulness. From finding physical or emotional strength to keep going, or scraping together the resources she needs to support herself, she somehow always makes it work. We asked her where she gets her courage and stamina.
“I have a strong vision of what I want my life to look like. I’ve been guilty of focusing on the future of it, but particularly at RADA, you don’t get to think about the future because you just have to be in the present here. So really, I’m learning that I have to embrace the journey of it.”
In Mia’s journey—seeking a mother and a family, a purpose and a career path, she’s collected a backpack full of wisdom and insight. Returning to study at RADA in London--so near to the place she wanted desperately to escape just a few years earlier--seemed puzzling to us. Many people who move away from their roots do so to start a new life, and free themselves of their sometimes painful histories. Listening to Mia’s story prompted us to ask her the question that now seemed central to her story: “Where is your home now?”
“It’s funny. I was just talking with my dad about this not too long ago. A lot of people have bases, like parents’ homes. A place where if something happens—a crisis or something—a place where you can go and you’ll be ok. It’s that place—that sense of stability. I guess because I didn’t have that, because I’ve moved around so much from Australia to London to back to Australia to America to London to America and back and forth from London, just in the past two years, I think I’ve been searching for that home. That’s been the most unsettling.”
“I’m learning now that home comes from within, and I have to build it from within now, rather than look for external things. That’s been quite a light opener for me in my life. And it wasn’t until recently that I realized that I’m the only one that can ever really create that, and I have the power to do that. But that’s a very scary thing, because you realize you’ve had the power all along. And that can be very intimidating because then you have to give up all these ideas and stories you’ve told yourself that, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’”
“I think that’s real bravery.”
- Mia Selway, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
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