You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you're in your 30s, what do you do when you've, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you're now ready to commit to something you're passionate about, whether it's a new job, city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we're debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we'll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest (and best) changes of their lives.
Actress Stephanie Szostak didn't find her true passion until her late 20s when an accidental modeling stint led to a full-fledged acting career. Before she was starring on hit shows like ABC's A Million Little Things or modeling across the globe, the French actress had her mind set on a career in marketing.
After studying the subject in college, Szostak saw herself going into sports marketing but ended up finding her way into the skincare marketing department at a little company called Chanel. While this may have been a dream job for any of her fellow marketing classmates, Szostak knew there was something different out there for her.
Then, when an opportunity to start modeling came her way, everything changed. Realizing that what she loved most about modeling was the chance to play a character in editorial shoots, she took an acting class and knew she had found her passion. Ahead, Szostak explains how she jumped from marketing to modeling to acting and shares what the ups and downs have taught her along the way.
Tell us about your first career path.
I had a marketing degree from William & Mary and I did a year of business school, and then my husband and I decided to move to New York. My mom, in France, had a friend whose husband worked at Chanel in Paris, and he called Chanel in New York and said that I applied for a job, so that’s how I got the interview and then I got the job.
I started as an assistant in the marketing department for the director of skincare and my boss was incredible. She still works at Chanel in Paris, and even though I was just an assistant, she brought me into every meeting and asked me for my opinion on things, and it was all about skincare. I just remember I would look at my boss and her boss and think that this is not what I want to do; [it] just didn’t feel fulfilling.
How did you make the transition from marketing to acting?
I felt really alive and connected in a way that I hadn’t.
When I was at Chanel, the director of advertising came to me one day and told me he was doing a photoshoot for an in-house training brochure and asked me to help out and be in front of the camera to model for it. I felt very uncomfortable, but I agreed to do it. [I was] feeling really nervous (at the time I was 26), and the photographer when we did the photoshoot said, "So what agency are you with?" And I said, "Oh, no, no, no. I’m not a model. I’m too old; I’m too short." And he said, "No I thought you were a model," and that sort of planted this idea in my head. All of a sudden, I was like, wait, maybe I could model and then figure out what I want to do and make the same amount of money.
So I did modeling for three years, from 26 to 29 years old. I went to Japan and Spain and worked a lot in New York City, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I just sort of enjoyed the editorial photoshoots because it was kind of playing a character. I kept asking people in my agency about taking an acting class, and I don’t know why because I never did acting, but they were like "Oh, no. You have too much of an accent, you’re too old." Then finally I found a teacher and I was completely mesmerized by the work. I got up and did a monologue for the first time after a few weeks, and when I finished I was like, Oh my god this is what I want to do. I didn’t know at what level I’d act, but I felt really alive and connected in a way that I hadn’t. I really found my passion.
Was acting harder than you thought or did it come naturally?
Acting was a lot harder than I would have ever thought. I had no training whatsoever and [my teacher] was very tough, so that was really hard. And then the transitioning, even though it was hard, it just felt right. All of a sudden I was driven and it felt like I had to do it. I got movies, I did some commercials, and then I got an independent movie where I had the lead in it. It was a great little movie, very low budget, but it got into the Tribeca Film Festival, but the movie never got released. So there was a lot of stop and go. It is still to this day really hard.
What have been the biggest challenges throughout all of your different careers?
For acting, the biggest challenge I would say is navigating the period when you’re not working and staying confident in your craft and growing, as opposed to getting down on yourself and feeling rejected and losing your confidence.
I felt like I was put in a box a little bit when I worked in the corporate world. I was just doing what I was supposed to do, so I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t find myself. I think it was a combination of working in the wrong field but also being young and not having figured out yet who I was.
How is acting suitable for your personality? Why did it feel like the right fit?
When I’m acting, even though [I'm] playing another character, for some reason it feels really connected to [my] true self, kind of. You’re playing another character but are connected to your core, and that’s really liberating.
What's the most important thing you've learned in making such a big career change?
Trust that you’re enough. Be yourself, but go all in once you’ve found that thing. Go all in. Embrace the unknown, and go all in.
Were you scared? How do you push past the fear to follow your passion?
I was definitely scared when I left marketing for modeling because my whole life I had done what I thought was the right thing. My parents paid for my college education, so I was nervous that it was stupid and who was I to think that I could do something [in the arts]? I was also worried and concerned about what other people thought. A lot of people thought I was being ridiculous. I remember when I started acting and I went to the Ukraine to do a short movie that wasn’t paid. I had a six-month-old, and my husband's friend was like, Who does she think she’s going to be? She thinks she’s going to work in Hollywood? But at the same time, I think because of the love of it, I always kept going.
I think there’s an inner drive that’s just there. Also, I think you can’t do anything alone, and the support system that you build around yourself with people you love and who believe in you is priceless. I’m so lucky to be married to someone who knows me and understands me and has always supported me. I think just keep growing in the periods when things are not going your way—use that as almost training camp. When you’re in a creative job and there’s no job, use that time to grow as an artist.
What are some of the mistakes you made along the way and how did you learn from them?
When I started acting, I remember I would always read something before I’d go in to audition and I’d think, Okay, who do they want this to be? And I would try to be that version, getting further and further away from who I was. I think I did that in life, too, in the workforce. What am I supposed to be? Who am I supposed to be? What are people looking for? I guess in the grander scheme, it’s worrying about what others want or expect from [me].
As an example, I’m an actress, but I live in Connecticut. I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, so when I go for jobs, it’s always at home and I self-tape. I go for almost everything that comes my way, even when I think I’m wrong for it. I made the choice, probably a couple of years ago or less, that I’m going to stop [changing my accent] if I don’t think the role needs an American accent; I’m just going to do my accent.
So for this role on A Million Little Things, when the audition came my way, the description said wife, etc., and specified an American accent. I didn’t think it needed to be an American accent, and I thought, It’s fine. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it. So I did my own thing, and then they liked it. The mistake was not trusting myself, not trusting that I was enough. Little by little, you’ll learn that your uniqueness is actually the best you have to offer.
When you look back and reflect on your previous careers, do you have any regrets?
No regrets at all. I’m so happy even to have gone through the changes because it all makes you richer, all the different experiences and all those failures. Not getting the sports marketing job that I thought I really wanted—all those disappointments and failures actually help you find your trajectory. So, no, definitely no regrets.
What advice do you have for other women who want to branch out and make a change in their lives like you have?
Just go for it. I mean that sounds so cliché, but listen to yourself, listen to your inner voice and embrace the unknown. I love that advice. Just to be in the moment sometimes and don’t think too much. Embrace the unknown and believe that you’re in the right place too. Even if you’re in a place where it doesn’t feel right, that’s serving a purpose. I think inside we know when the right time is to do something.
To me, acting doesn’t feel like a job; it’s really a passion and something I love and that I keep learning and growing from. Every experience is new, so every job is new—that’s the beauty of it, in a way. You keep doing the same thing, but there’s no sameness in each job.
For more inspiring stories from successful women who've made major career changes, tune into MyDomaine's Second Life podcast.