Lights, Camera, Academics!
From the red carpet to the Birnbaum Library, Film and Screen Studies student Courtney Baxter ’16 is paving a Pace path that works for her.
For some students, Fruit by the Foot, Mead notebooks, and KFC are brands and products that evoke childhood. But for Film and Screen Studies student Courtney Baxter ’16, they evoke lights, camera, action. Baxter has been a working actress since age 11, producing films and starring in national commercials for brands like Jamba Juice and Universal Studios, as well as in feature films. Currently filming the sequel of Syfy’s hit film Sharknado, she shows no signs of slowing down—not even during college.
Self-admittedly quiet and private about her acting career, Baxter says it’s not usually one of the first topics to come up when meeting new people. But that discretion is momentarily on hold while she films Sharknado 2: The Second One, a Syfy original starring Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Vivica A. Fox, Mark McGrath, Baxter, and others as they save New York City from a shark-infested tornado. Baxter and the rest of the crew have recently begun filming around the Big Apple, including in Times Square.
“There were tons of paparazzi and publicity, which was cool and distracting at the same time,” she says. “We had a lot of pedestrians who wanted to stop and take a video, but where they wanted to take a video, they were in our shot.”
While this is the most public film Baxter’s worked on, it is certainly not the first. She recently attended the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) in February 2014—sharing the red carpet with Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett—to premier Night Has Settled, an autobiographical coming-of-age drama directed and written by Steve Clark. Baxter co-starred in the film in 2012 and played the role of Clark’s real-life sister. “My character struggles after her parents get divorced and is just trying to make do and feels very isolated from the rest of her family,” she says. “I really, really enjoyed exploring that character.”
She is also in the final stages of post-production of Running on Empty, a film by Joe Pernice, written specifically for Baxter to star in. She also produced the film in addition to acting, helping to secure funding and find a crew, equipment, and a team of producers to see the film into fruition.
But Baxter’s successful acting career isn’t without sacrifice or careful planning, especially when it comes to her education. She briefly moved from West Chester, PA to Los Angeles after elementary school and opted for an online middle school education. By the time she started high school, Baxter made an important decision. “I decided I wanted to take a step back and go back to real school, because I didn’t want to have any regrets later on and feel like the last time I’d been in real school was elementary school,” she says. Baxter completed high school in three years, allowing for a gap year between graduation and college to work on multiple projects, including Night Has Settled.
It’s no surprise then that when it came time to pick a college, Baxter weighed her options carefully. “My priority was finding a school that would be willing to work with me…and be supportive and understanding,” she says.
She attended a prospective film student event at Pace when she met Film and Screen Studies Director Ruth Johnston, PhD. “Dr. Johnston spoke and that was my convincing factor, I’d say. She was talking to us and she said ‘We want to treat you like adults from the first moment you’re here and support your growing careers.’”
Baxter says she now looks to Johnston as a great resource for balancing her work and school life. She also says that the abundance of online courses offered at Pace, as well as summer and winter sessions, have been essential for her unpredictable schedule. She’s currently on track to graduate a semester early.
But for now Baxter continues to film Sharknado 2, set to premier in July 2014, and prepares for a role she will film this summer. When she’s not on set, she can be found learning about her craft from the other side of the camera in her Film and Screen Studies classes. “I’ve learned so much from watching films, and watching films is how you learn how to make films,” she says.
Check out the trailer for Night Has Settled here.
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Senior Advice: Jaclyn Griffith