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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

My Breakthrough Moment

Short reminiscences from 28 more people we love — Helen Mirren,, Seth Rogen, George Lucas, and more

Side B of Salt-N-Pepa's 1987 "Tramp" single  

Salt-N-Pepa, musicians
PEPA: We didn’t like “Push It,” ironically. We hated that song. We really hated that song. And it became the biggest hit song.
SALT: You know why we hated that song, because we came from an era where everything was so hard-core and underground. And back then, people were like, “You’re not hard-core.”
PEPA: “Tramp” was on the A-side, “Push It” was the B-side. But a DJ flipped it and started playing it, and it just kind of took off on its own.

Gwen Ifill, journalist
I wrote a book about breakthroughs, and people would always ask me, “What was your breakthrough?” I didn’t have a good answer. But the truth is, when you learn how to say yes and when you learn how to say no, and when it helps to do both, and you keep pushing through. Even when people call your names or when people underestimate you — I figured out that I can’t be underestimated unless I do it to myself. That was the breakthrough.

Jane Seymour, actor
I started out as a ballet dancer. I performed with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden. I had my first line in my first movie, Oh! What a Lovely War. Maggie Smith, turned to me and said, “Darling, you are not going to end up in the chorus.” And I said, “Why not?” And she said, “You stick out too much.”

Niecy Nash, actor
When I was 5 years old, I saw the most beautiful black woman I had ever seen in all my five years of living, on television. She had on a long red dress and her eyelashes looked like butterflies. And I looked at my grandma and I said, “Grandma, who is that?” And my grandmother said, “Baby, that’s Lola Falana.” And in that moment, I knew. I said to my grandma, “That’s what I want to be. I want to be black and fabulous and on TV.”

Helen Mirren, actor
I was doing Shakespeare — Henry VI, Part Two. I was playing Queen Margaret, and she has a very long speech, and I suddenly realized I had the vocal ability to control the language. And it was an amazing feeling, because, you know, when you do Shakespeare, it’s often as though you’re on a horse that you can’t control; it’s like running away with you and you don’t know how to control it. But suddenly I felt I could control this big powerful horse. After seven years.

Michelle Kwan, ice skater
I think in life it’s not like these grand moments. That’s what I learned in sports. My achievements were so simple. My goals were so simple: Win the next competition. There was always another competition. When I finished, it was going to grad school. It was about one step in front of another.

Will.I.Am., musician
I was outside in my neighborhood in the projects and I put the radio outside the window. The song was “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force. I was doing a little dance and then the gangsters came by. I was 11 or 12 — now gangs are recruiting kids that are 9, but back when I was younger, they started at 12. But the gangsters were just like, “Hey, Willie.” And everybody started watching me dance. That’s when I knew I could stay out of trouble — that the gangbangers weren’t going to recruit me, they’d just want me to perform.

Anthony Bourdain, television host
I was still working in a restaurant. Kitchen Confidential had come out a number of months earlier. It was on the best-seller list, but I assumed that it was delusional to think that a person could actually make a living writing and telling stories. I was determined to keep my day job, but at one point, I realized we are more journalists in the dining room than we are customers and that something really strange had happened and there actually might be a living in this storytelling thing.

George Lucas, director
I was in film school and I was making my first documentary. I wasn’t really involved in movies before that. It was a little tiny film, one minute long, called Look at Life — an abstract film, an art film. I looked at that and I said, “I can do this. This is great.”

Ron Howard, director
When I did Willow and worked for George Lucas, I felt like I’d gotten my Ph.D.

Gloria Estefan, musician
I still remember the very first check that I got. It was for $250 as a songwriter — to me writing is the biggest deal. It still blows my mind to think that I’m going to write something and people across the world that I may never meet are going to hear it.

The check was for “Tu Amor Conmigo.” It ended up on a B-side of a single that we had in 1976. I thought to myself, “Wow, to be able to actually do what I love.” I gave the check to my mom and she framed it. I wish she would have given me the money and cashed the check. But no. She kept it.

Kelly Bensimon, model and businesswoman
Everyone told me that you couldn’t have men’s interviews in a woman’s magazine, and so I said, “Well, I’m going to.” So I had Pharrell as one of my interviews. All my interviews were questionnaires, so I asked him if he liked boxer or briefs. At the time, people were like what, you can’t ask questions like that in a woman’s magazine. And I’m like I can ask anything I want. It’s very important what kind of underwear men wear.

Warren Littlefield, television executive
When I was a young kid growing up in New Jersey, staying home watching television was more informative and more interesting than going to school. So I faked being sick a lot. My mom was a housewife, and I think she enjoyed the company so she didn’t send me back to school that often. And I did that a lot until somebody came by one afternoon and said, there’s a rumor you’re dead. I thought, Okay, I should probably get back to school. But I think that was my moment.

Gay Talese, writer
When I was a high-school student, a sophomore, in my little town, Ocean City, New Jersey, 1947, I got a job for the town weekly. I was a schoolboy reporter, and I was getting stories published in the town weekly about the school’s activities. I knew I only had one chance in my life to get a job, and it was this great job. I was like this is what I want to do. When I was 15, I was doing what I’m still doing at 83. Otherwise I’d be sweeping the streets.

Chelsea Peretti, comedian
I had a stand-up showcase, and it didn’t go well — it was a weird audience. Walking out, the festival booker goes, “Maybe this isn’t for you.” I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” I mean, I cried then, but whatever. It’s been a big motivator.

Jordan Peele, comedian
I went to Sarah Lawrence College for a couple of years and was part of an improv sketch group there called Judith, named after Judith Light. It was just the most fun I’d ever had in my life. My comedy partner at the time and I just quit school and left for Chicago. We said, “You know what? We’re going to be comedians or bust.”

Judith Light, actor
I was very young. It was actually my mother who coached me to learn and memorize ’Twas The Night Before Christmas and perform it for my father — I was not quite 4 years old yet. When I was in the process of learning it, in the process of performing it for him, I had this overwhelming experience that this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I could do it, I didn’t know if I’d be good at it, but I certainly knew that there was something about it that was calling to me.

My father wept when he saw me do it.

Schreiber before a high-school production, 1985.  

Liev Schreiber, actor
The first laugh I ever got — It was in high school during A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played and I got a laugh. I’d never experienced anything like that before. That was pretty good. But I still wanted to be a dentist. I really liked pushing the buttons on the chairs.

Rachel Comey, designer
I don’t know exactly when it happened. Maybe when I got out of debt.

Tony Hale, actor
I did not study theater in college, I studied journalism. I wanted to go into advertising, so I studied journalism and mass communications, because I liked people. Then I was like, “I’m going to just try acting. I’ll move to New York and see what happens.” I acted in high school, I did musicals, I did Fiddler, I was the rabbi. I did Oklahoma! I was Ali Hakim. I liked it, but I studied journalism because I didn’t know if I could make a living off of acting. So I moved to New York, and my first show, I did Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. We did Taming of the Shrew. And really, it was nuts. Then I did commercials. New York is so accessible — the subway, even though it smells, is a beautiful thing. But the rejection is so overwhelming.

Renee Fleming, opera singer
I think a big turning point for me was Desdemona in 1995 with Plácido Domingo. I’d sung it the year before, but this was opening night. If you’re prepared and you know that the role is in your voice and that you have mastered it to at least a degree of comfort that enables you to get onstage and do your best, that’s all you can hope for, and then the chips fall because people make up their own mind after that, but it’s really just that sense of the satisfaction of knowing that you did everything that you could.

Nicole Miller, designer
I must’ve been like 10 or 11 or something. I always made my own clothes. But I was in a very conservative town, and I always made these crazy striped dresses, and everybody always thought that my clothes were a little crazy. But my other friends, who were kind of fashiony and went to New York, they liked my clothes. The girls in high school, probably not. They were like, “What’s she wearing?” They had on little Shetland skirts and knee socks and I’m wearing a horizontal striped mini-dress and they were like, “Who does she think she is?”

Alan Alda, actor
I was on the stage since I was 6 months old. My father carried me onstage in a burlesque sketch. And he took me onstage when I was 9 and we did an Abbott & Costello routine at the Hollywood Canteen. And then when I was old enough, I started getting small parts and the parts got bigger.

But I knew it was my calling in high school when I wrote a musical comedy. It was no choice, there was no other option than to write and act and do what I’m doing now. It was called Love’s the Ticket!

Seth Rogen, actor
I did stand-up when I was young and I wrote a joke about, when I was too young to go to strip clubs, I wrote a joke about sending my mom in the strip clubs for me, because she would buy alcohol for me, so my joke was like, if she’ll buy alcohol for me, maybe I can get her to go to the strip clubs for me. And that was the first joke I wrote where I was like, That’s a pretty funny joke. I was 17.

David Remnick, magazine editor
I was a newspaper reporter for ten years, but really the first time I thought that I could maybe go outside those very careful boundaries, I was sitting in my office in Moscow. And, in those days, you couldn’t call because it was too expensive. I mean, really, $25-a-minute expensive, and you communicated by something called telex, which went chugga-chugga-chugga-chug. And that’s how you sent stories and everything. It was really, it feels like 150 years ago. We had an East German telex machine, and all of a sudden it turned on, and I got a note from Barbara Epstein, the co-editor of The New York Review of Books, asking me to write a piece for them, and suddenly the world, which seemed very, very far away, became a little closer.

Peter Sarsgaard, actor
The first time I ever acted was in a gymnasium in St. Louis. I acted a play called Bent — a play about homosexuals in a Holocaust. I was playing one of the guys who’s forced to have sex with a dead woman to prove that he’s heterosexual. It’s a pretty brutal role. I’d never acted before I did it, and I felt like something had happened and I looked at everyone sitting there. They looked like they’d had an experience and I’d had one, too, and that was it. My very first time.

Rachel Dratch, actor
I was a pretty good student, but in classes I would pipe up a lot. Pipe up is code for act like a dickhead in class. Like pipe in little jokes and stuff. I always got kind of a thrill out of that, although my teachers didn’t. So this is not a funny answer, it won’t make the cut, but I was taking all these acting classes and I was like, “Oh, acting’s so competitive, I can’t even go into it,” because you always hear it’s so crazy. But I was taking all these classes and what I was noticing was that I was really into comedy and everyone else was all into the dramatic shit that I was terrible at.

Dom DeMarco, pizzaiola
There was a guy here who, he used to own a business here. He said to me, “I don’t like what I sell.” I said, “What do you sell it for? Why don’t you eat what you sell?” He said, “I don’t like.” “Then what do you sell it for? No sell. Go sell something you like or no sell.”

You’ve got to like what you do, so if you don’t like what you do, you should not do, you know what I mean? That’s how I look at things. You’ve got to like what you do. And I like dealing with flour.