The Hamilton Film Festival just wrapped up its 17th year running, and for the first time, I’m in one of the films featured. Entirely by accident.
It all started this past July when, in an uncharacteristic burst of spontaneity, I signed up last minute to a film acting workshop offered by a studio I’d never heard of. HamOnt Acting Studio, I quickly came to learn, recently opened its doors in town in an effort to fill a void for aspiring and established film actors in Hamilton. My late-night email received a speedy reply from studio creator and coach, Jessica Clement, with a warm, “A fellow night owl! Haha thanks for reaching out!” That welcoming tone carried effortlessly into the month-long workshop, and onto the set of the short film we shot together as a class.
Clement and I sat down recently at the bustling Dundas Starbucks to chat about the steadily growing studio, which will return with a fresh session of classes in the new year. A 15-year veteran of the acting craft herself, Clement just wrapped on the new Richard Gere film Longing, which primarily shot right here in Hamilton.
“Hamilton is up and coming for film,” says Clement. “We have Bayfront Studios, which I’ve filmed at now, and I see film sets all the time in Hamilton. it’s really becoming a hub.”
With a Nicholas Cage-led movie also in the works, Clement wants to make sure local actors are taking advantage of the opportunities a growing Hamilton film industry has to offer. Her studio is built on providing actors with the necessary knowledge to land an audition and succeed on set, covering everything from self-tape etiquette to getting an agent, and even mindfulness to maintain balance in an often challenging artistic field.
“I think, for a lot of people, it’s like a giant question mark when it comes to getting into the industry: what’s legit and what’s not? How do I get an agent? How do I start auditioning for union films? And there’s just so much that’s not super accessible to people,” says Clement. “It can probably be very overwhelming for people and they might want to give up or hold off on it until something tells them ‘this is what you’re supposed to do,’ so i’m glad to be that person.To be like, ‘these are the steps you need to take. You can take them right here and I’ll hold your hand.’”
If anyone knows the uncertainty of the industry, it’s someone with the background of Clement. After a first taste of the stage at age seven, in her high-school-music-teacher-mother’s productions, Clement nabbed herself an agent at twelve, landed her first commercial audition and instantly fell in love with film acting. But her journey to the big screen came with detours, including a stint in Halifax as a casting director’s assistant.
“Just being on the other side of it for a second, I was like ‘oh, it’s really fun to watch actors do their thing!’” says Clement. “And I got to help them, give them notes to make sure they hit the mark a little bit closer, and then she hired me to be her resident coach. I discovered I loved doing it.”
When the pandemic swept in and turned the world on its head, Clement was back in Ontario, staring down an unexpected crossroads.
“When COVID hit and so much of the industry shut down, I didn’t really feel like an actor anymore,” says Clement. But she took it upon herself to change that. ”I wanted to keep my chops up and I wanted to make sure other people felt like actors.”
And so the coaching spark was reignited.
“There’s obviously a lot of bad that came with the pandemic, but the other thing that happened is it levelled the playing field for so many actors because, as everything is online, it means that people from Halifax and people from Hamilton don’t have to drive or fly into Toronto to do an audition. Those people are finally getting their chance to be seen and are probably freaking out and don’t know what to do, and I just figured I could help them use this opportunity to start their careers.”
But Clement wasn’t about to make the leap to studio creator without a parachute, which she found in the form of local industry staple and Hamilton Film Festival Director Nathan Fleet. “I reached out to him and sent him my resume and said, ‘I’m in Hamilton and I want to teach acting in Hamilton,’ and he was like, ‘okay, great! Come and we’ll do it.’”
Fleet gave HamOnt Acting Studio a home in his Hamilton School of Media Arts venue, located within the Ancaster Memorial Arts Centre. He also offered a spot in the film festival for the short film Clement wrote and co-directed with assistant coach Eric Martin, starring her inaugural students. Which is how I came to fulfil a goal I never even knew I had.
For Clement, her HamOnt Acting Studio, and her ongoing collaboration with Fleet and the Hamilton Film Festival, this is just the beginning.
“I’m very grateful and I know that it’s only going to up,” says Clement. “We have so many plans to do things together and we’re just going to grow the industry in Hamilton more and more.”