'Days of Our Lives,' 'Ally McBeal,' 'Mission: Impossible III' and 'Boardwalk Empire' are just a few of the productions listed on Tracy Middendorf's impressive resume, which includes supporting roles in movies as well as numerous episodic TV appearances.
The seasoned actress, who settled with her family in Brooklyn, away from the glitzy and glamorous Hollywood, is also an invested activist. Inspired by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky tome, she decided to give back by making use of the digital age and her passion for photography. Hence, she recently launched "Shutter To Think," a project that funds education programs for girls with globally recognized organizations.
Middendorf reunites well-known actors, writers, musicians and directors who donate some of the photos they take in order to raise money for facilitating girls' access to an education. Anthony Edwards, James Cromwell, Eva Mendes, Meryl Streep and Steve Buscemi are a few of the names that jumped in to contribute, with many more to come.
Even though still in an early stage, it took a while until the project has materialized. Middendorf personally and meticulously researched the organizations she chose to work with. Her ultimate goal, after raising awareness and raising as much money as possible, is that the funds are correctly distributed.
Digital Journal caught up with Middendorf about "Shutter To Think," the huge impact Meryl Streep's donation had on the project, her love of theater and directing, including her latest and future artistic endeavors.
First off, thank you so much for your time. I’d like to start by asking you to tell us, in a nutshell, how "Shutter To Think" started.
It is a grass roots effort, as far as the project goes. I came up with it a few years ago, and at first it was a project that was going to collect various artworks from actors, writers, directors, musicians, but I love photography and I realized that it would be a lot easier for someone to send a photo. One of my favorite parts of the project is seeing what people donate and what they find interesting or beautiful. Artists travel a lot for their work, so I knew that we would get pieces of the world, which I loved, because I think that helps to bring the world closer together.
So it's been a slow progression in formulating the idea and coming up with a concept. I originally had read Half the Sky. I read Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools, and wanted to come up with a way that I could raise money and raise awareness. And because I'm an actor and I have two boys, I can't really, right now, travel in these areas hands on, but I wanted to do something that would raise awareness and raise money for these different charities that support girls education. And so it slowly has formed into this project that I'm really, really proud of. It's a bit daunting, it's a lot of work, but I'm very proud of it and I'm really encouraged by the artists who have donated.
Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this kind of project is something that hasn't been done before.
Not that I know of. I looked to see if there was something like this. There is one project that I think it’s wonderful that I discovered just a few months ago called Nuru Project, and they’re photo journalists that donate their photos. They're not really donating their photos because they get a bit of the profit, but 50% of the profit goes to different charities. So it's similar, but those are professional photographers, whereas mine, they're not really professional photographers. Some of them are, some of them as artists do photography on the side, but it's not a requirement. In fact, I love getting these photos from people who aren't professional photographers.
Jhumpa Lahiri was my first donation, and she said to me, "I'm not a photographer." And I said, "Most people have a photo that they've taken that they love because somehow it just turned out great or it just has some sort of meaning to them." And so this photo is so appropriate. She's a writer and it's these men standing outside their bookstall in Calcutta and I love the fact that was what she chose to donate. Or like James Cromwell, who we see as this certain kind of actor in these certain kind of parts, yet his donation was “Roman Teens.” I thought it was wonderful. You get a little glimpse into their personality I think also, and their humour.
Absolutely. And even though they are not professional photographers, the quality of their photos is really, really good.
Yeah, I've been fortunate enough that a lot of them have sent some really interesting photos. You know, it's an ongoing process. I've sent out different emails to different people, managers, publicists, the artists themselves. Slowly the gallery, the collection will get bigger and bigger and I think that will help also publicize the issue. Most of these artists have Twitter accounts so I'm using that as a means of getting the word out. Whatever social media, I'm not very good at social media, I'm past that age [laughs] I'm sort of learning it as I go. I'm hoping for a snowball effect. The more and more artists that I get, the more people will know about it and the more people will be interested in buying these prints or buying the bag in order to raise money. So, I'm hoping that is what's going to happen.
Half the Sky is not just a book, it's also a documentary and it became a movement. You teamed up with "Half the Sky Movement" in selecting some of the charities that the proceeds are going to. What criteria did you focus on in choosing these charities?
How it started, Half the Sky was a book first. It was just recently made into a documentary this past year. And now it has become a whole movement, which is wonderful. But I've been researching the different charities before that. My friend, Martha Adams, is a producer on this documentary called Girl Rising, which is coming out next spring. And it's about 10 girls from around the world, and 10 different female writers and then one director. They tell their story and how education has helped save their lives, basically. I was involved in this, and really intrigued and became very passionate about this movement to educate girls, and also just to give them more equality. I've done a lot of research on the different charities, and I have chosen highly effective charities, because that was important to me that these charities are rated well, their money does go to these girls, and goes to helping them.
There are many, many charities and so it was difficult to choose which one. I did look at "Half the Sky" and some of the people that they are associated with. But I definitely went into Charity Navigator, and did as much research. I also wanted charities that covered various countries. So Afghanistan and Pakistan as well, South America and Central America. And I wanted it to encompass as many places as possible because some of these charities just focus on South Africa or India, and I wanted to make sure that you could choose, as a customer, a charity that’s maybe in an area that you wanted to focus on. And so, one is even based in New York, and helped girls in the US. It's called GEM. It was important to me, that people had a choice.
They all had to have programs that were focused on girls and girls’ education. They all had to have a very high rating on Charity Navigator. I looked at their percentages of how much of the money went to the girls and to these programs. And, that was pretty much it. I had a huge list, it was very hard to narrow it down. As the project grows, I might add some others. It doesn't affect the project, it just gives the customer more choice. But I kept it down to under 10 for now. Too many choices sometimes just makes it more difficult.
Do you co-ordinate all the processes from securing a photo to how the funds are distributed?
I basically do everything. And it's set up so that the project is basically funded by the consumer. "Shutter To Think" is not a non-profit, but the profit goes to support the project. Profit doesn't go to me, it doesn't go to anybody else, the profit goes to the charities. 70% absolutely goes directly to whatever charity they choose. If they buy a photo for $100, $70 immediately goes to that charity, and the 30% pays for the printing cost, and the packaging cost, and all of the expenses that go into the website. All of it. All of the expenses that keep the business running.
So the concept is that the consumer is basically supporting this project that is raising money for girls' education, which is a very simple and easy way in order for these charities to get this money rather than becoming a non-profit and having to jump through a lot of hoops and spend a lot of time and effort on the paperwork. Basically, the money just goes to the big non-profits.
Are you doing this single-handedly or is somebody helping you out?
I do this pretty much single-handedly. I have two lovely girls that are interns that have just volunteered to help with the social media. I also have a young girl who is working on the website. We've worked for about a year on designing the website and getting the website programmed. And so, it's basically those three and me. I have a great lab, a guy in Bushwick, who is very close in Brooklyn, who is wonderful and who does all the developing of the photos. It's a very small operation.
How many photos have been donated so far?
I think we have over 20 so far. There's about five photos that aren't available yet. The reason they're not available is that it's very easy for an artist to upload a photo, to send me a digital photo, but I won't sell the photo until I have an agreement signed by them that they took the photo, that they have the right to donate the photo and I also have a certificate that they sign that I print, that goes with the photo. And that takes a while because that's all paperwork and I have to send that to them in the mail and then they have to sign and then they have to send it back. So, we do have a couple of other artists who have donated but I haven't posted their photos just yet. I might do it in stages, I think that might help with the publicity so I put the photo up even though it's not available and then once it's available I re-tweet and we put the message out again.
Do you have a certain goal of how many photos to have included in the "Shutter To Think" gallery?
I think, right now, I would love to have 20 from each category. I would love to have 20 photos from musicians, 20 from directors, 20 from actors and 20 from writers. Right now, my focus is musicians and writers. Once I get that I'm going to try and figure out if I want to keep it at a certain number so that I would discontinue some photos and add others. I haven't really decided yet. I think I have to see how the collection grows and the interest in the photos. I might start limiting the photos to only doing maybe 50 prints. Right now, it's an open edition of no more than 200, but I might lessen that if I get so many donations. If the gallery is so huge I might start limiting the prints, which might make them more desirable for people.
But the real goal is just to raise as much money as we can and raise as much awareness as possible. And being celebrities, they will garner a lot of attention and help bring more people to the site and more people will learn about this issue. More people will learn about the problem and understand the problem and hopefully get involved in some way.
Speaking of the interest this is generating, what is the response from outside the US?
I've had a few inquiries about photos from different parts of the world and I would love for this to become global and that people would know about it in different countries. That's so much about the kind of theme of this project, too: global awareness and global participation. So, again, I am very new to the social media, so this is something that I slowly understand and hopefully get more and more help to get the word out globally. I've had a couple of different people get in touch with me about translating the site into different languages, which I hadn't ever considered before, but I think it's a marvelous idea. I think that the more people know about it, the more awareness there will be and the more money we can raise. That's definitely a goal of mine.
The website includes a collection and also a signature series, the latter on a higher price range. Some photos, like Anthony Edwards’ “India Boy,” are part of both the collection and the series, some aren't. Why is that?
Originally, the concept for the project was that I was going to have only about 20 of these photos. They were going to be a limited edition, large size, and they were going to have original signatures with each photo. That was the original concept of "Shutter To Think." It was bothering me though that they were going to be that expensive, and most people wouldn't be able to afford them. It was very important to me that they’d be affordable, and that it would reach a large audience, and that people would be able to buy them. That's why I changed the concept and so I kept the original concept, which is the signature series which includes larger prints and the certificates are original signatures.
And then, I decided to do smaller prints, and they're digital C-prints rather than Archival Pigment Ink prints. Basically, the artist signs one certificate and I make copies of that certificate. So they're not original. The originally signed certificates, they're printed signatures. Because I can't ask an artist to sign 200 signatures on 200 certificates. That way, I was able to offer these prints to someone who could only afford $100, but I could also offer it larger with only an addition of three and an original certificate. So, it kind of covers a wide range. Not everybody decides to do the signature series. I offer it to everyone who donates, but some people just want to do the collection and just want to sign one certificate and have me print them. That's why not everyone is in the signatures list.
How can anyone contribute if they may not be able to afford a print?
Well, one of the reasons that I created the bags was that I wanted to offer another price range where people could get something, and it would only cost $36 if that's what you could afford and you can buy a bag. At the moment, I'm offering a 5x7 of one of my photos. I think maybe every few months, again, I'm formulating this as I go. What I will probably start doing is offer other artists' photos in a 5x7, but in the bag, so that they feel like they're getting a photo as well. They're buying a bag, but they're also buying a year's supply of textbooks for a girl. So that is another price range that, hopefully, if they can't afford $100 print, they could buy a bag. So trying to offer a wide variety of things so that if people feel like they want to contribute, they can in some way. There's also just going to the charities themselves and donating if they want to. But I'm trying to offer a product that somebody gets something but they're also supporting girls education.
Who made the latest donation? Steve Buscemi was the latest one that we put up. We have some interest from Elvis Costello; we haven't gotten the definitive yet. We have some interest from Alfre Woodard, and a lot of people are in the process of finding a photo and sending it on to me. I. But, every day, I send inquiries out and I solicit from different artists. Then I get different kind of interests and people think about it and take a look at it. And I like the element of surprise as well that people can check in and find out who we have. I'm also going to post a newsletter at some point. I've got to figure out how to put a newsletter on the site so that you can be informed when we get a new donation. And maybe even get first dibs on the new donation, but that's the next step that I have to figure out on the website. You caught me early on in this project so some of the things are still being formulated.
Meryl Streep also donated an iPhone photo of herself and Hillary Clinton taken at the Kennedy Center honors reception early this month. What was the effect on the site’s traffic and the project itself?
That helped immensely. She was incredibly gracious to do that. I had received an email from her assistant a couple of days before asking if there was any sort of time frame for the project, and I wrote back saying, "No, this is gonna be an ongoing project and so anytime that she would like to donate, we would be very, very grateful". And two days later, they sent over the photo, the iPhone photo that she took. And at first I was confused because I'm not on the internet all that much. I was a little confused and I wrote back saying, "So, Meryl Streep did take this photo, right, because that's the requirement that the artist actually took the photo." And her assistant came back to me and said, "Oh no. You should look at the web, it's all over the web."
But then I still wasn't sure that it was an exclusive photo for us, and the more research I did, the more I found out that no one had this photo, that she donated this photo just to us. A few of the sites that had the picture of her taking the photo, said, "We sure would love to see that photo. I wonder where it is." That's when I emailed some of these publications and said, "We have the photo and so here it is." And that was incredible because it went on the wire service globally and we had a tremendous amount of traffic based on that photo. I was just overwhelmed by her generosity, and she knew that that would be a great help for us for publicity. Well, she was wonderful. She signed the contract within two days, the certificate and the photo is now available. So, she was very quick to respond and to help.
I saw her speak at the "Women in the World" conference this past March, and she introduced Hillary Clinton. This is a conference once a year created by Tina Brown and it's here in New York City and it's extraordinary. It's three days of people talking about women's issues around the world and what they're doing to help, what they need. Very inspiring. It was really wonderful to see Meryl Streep give this really beautiful introduction to Hillary Clinton. And then it was really great to get the photo, and so it kind of came full circle for me. I'm very happy to have it.
Let’s talk a bit about your acting career. What projects do you have lined up?
I just finished a film in Brazil called The Art of Losing, and that I imagine will come out maybe in the spring. And last month, I finished filming a pilot in San Diego called The Last Ship for TNT. We will find out probably in the next four months whether that gets picked up, and if so, then I'll be working on that.
Can you tell us briefly what they are about?
Sure. The Art of Losing is directed by Bruno Barreto, a very famous director in Brazil, and it stars Gloria Pires who is also very loved and a famous actress in Brazil, and Miranda Otto who's an Australian actress and absolutely lovely. It's the story of Elizabeth Bishop who was a poet in the 1950s and she won the Pulitzer for her poetry "North and South". And she went to Brazil to visit her friend, who is played by me, and to stay with her for a little bit. And I, my character at the time, was in a long-term relationship with a woman named Lota who was an architect and a very extravagant and fascinating woman.
These two women were in a long-term relationship living outside of Rio. And Elizabeth Bishop came to stay and ended up falling in love with Lota and we all ended up living in the same kind of complex, in the same area. Lota and Elizabeth became lovers and were in a long-term relationship. My character ended up staying on the property and raising four girls, adopting four girls and spending the rest of her life in Brazil. So the story is really about Elizabeth Bishop who is a famous poet here in the US and Lota, a famous architect. She built Flamingo Park which is in Rio. It's a beautiful park. She was responsible for building that. So it’s basically the story of their courtship and their life and what happened.
The Last Ship is a television pilot. My character’s husband who is a Navy captain has a ship that he is taking out for a test out in the Arctic. And there's a female scientist on board, who’s trying to discover the source of this virus that has broken out in various parts of the world. And you realize after kind of midway through the television show that the world is dying of this outbreak, of this plague or virus. And so she has found the primordial source of this and they need to get her back to try and come up with a vaccine.
They realize they can't get back because basically the world is dying and so they're trying to come up with a vaccine in order to save the planet. And my character, I play his wife and I've got our children up at this cabin and we're basically trying to survive and he's trying to get back to us. It's very much like Contagion or Outbreak.
Last year you made your directorial debut at the Fringe Festival in NYC with a play called BREAK, a tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. How did that come your way?
I do a lot of theater. Theater's my first love and I've been wanting to direct for a very long time. We have a lot of really great artists in our building here in Brooklyn. I was doing laundry down in the basement and started talking to this woman who lived in the building. And she was telling me she just finished a young adult fiction book and she had been an actress but she had written some plays and this one play had been work-shopped and she'd been wanting to do it. And I said, "Well, I'd love to read some of your stuff."
Her stuff was wonderful and she's a really great writer. Her name is Louise Rozett. And it was a very moving play, a very funny play and she said, "Well, maybe we should try and get it done." I said, "Absolutely. Try and get it into the Fringe Festival, I'd love to direct it." And I was in DC working on a play and she called me and said, "We got in." The play got in, and so all of a sudden I was directing. Within a month of meeting her, or two months of meeting her, I was directing her play. I had a great cast, it was a really beautiful experience. And it's done with very little money. We raised money on Kickstarter.
The Fringe Festival is very trying and testing of your patience and your stamina because they're done very quickly and you have to bring your whole set in, you have to strike your whole set down each show. But I learned a lot, and I love working with actors and it was a really nice play. It was a great experience, and I hope to do it again. I might try and direct a film with Louise. She's working on some things. But I think I might like to do another play very soon.
One final question. How do you cope wearing so many hats: wife, mother of two, director, actor and activist?
I kind of fail a little bit in everything [laughs]. It’s a little trying sometimes, but I have an incredibly supportive husband. He's a writer [Franz Wisner, New York Times bestselling author] and so he's home writing a lot and can help out. So we're very equal on matters of taking care of the kids and taking care of the household, and then both contributing in every way that we can. As an actor I have periods when I'm working intensely and then I have months when I'm not. So, that allows me to focus on this project. And the kids always come first and that's always been a juggle.
But the other things are pretty manageable because of being an actor. That affords me time to do other things. But it's always hard for everyone to juggle because we all have all of our different projects that we feel passionate about and love. If you love it, you find time to do it. So, I'm very happy to be doing something that I love rather than just having to do something for a pay check.
Right on. This reminds me of an interview of yours from a while back in which your advice to up-and-coming actors was: "Don't try to be a star, just be an actor, because you can't control being a star."
It's true, you can’t. And then you'll just be miserable if you're not that. And chances are you won't be that. And I don't think being that is all that fun anyway. I think it's much more fun to have anonymity as an actor and you play different parts and to enjoy what you do rather than the results of what you do. But some people are very interested in being noticed and being adored. But I think that that's dangerous. I think it never really leads to true satisfaction. I think you can be happy in what you do and where your passion lies, then I think you're better off. Because then you can change, you're not tied to that, either. If you decide that you don't love doing that one thing anymore, it's very easy to step out of it and do something else. But if you're addicted to the fame, then you're kind of stuck.
Thank you so much once again, Tracy. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
No, thank you for taking an interest and for helping to promote the site. I appreciate it.
For details about "Shutter To Think" visit the project’s website.