Katy O’Brian on Going from Bodybuilder to Marvel & Star Wars Actor
Feb 25, 2023
It’s Collider Ladies Night Pre-Party time and that means we’ve got an actor on the rise you absolutely must keep an eye on. It’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’s Katy O’Brian.
In the MCU’s latest, Scott (Paul Rudd), Cassie (Kathryn Newton), Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Hank (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the Quantum Realm. After being separated on the way in, Scott and Cassie try to track down Hope, Janet, and Hank, and along the way, they run into the Freedom Fighters and learn there’s a brutal force threatening all life in the Quantum Realm (and beyond) — Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). Led by O’Brian’s Jentorra, the Freedom Fighters have tried everything to put a stop to Kang. Even though Jentorra’s wary of anyone who comes from above, she eventually comes to realize that Scott, Cassie, and the others could be key to finally taking The Conqueror down once and for all.
With Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania now playing in theaters nationwide, O’Brian took the time to join me for a Collider Ladies Night Pre-Party interview to discuss her journey from wannabe veterinarian to studying German and psychology in college to working as a police officer to ultimately becoming an actor who’s already appeared in two of the biggest franchises in history, Marvel and Star Wars.
Image via Marvel Studios
Clearly O’Brian has many interests, but one reason why she pursued other paths before committing to acting full force is because she didn’t think there was a place for her in the industry. “Being in the Midwest, there wasn’t a lot of demand for someone who looked like me.” O’Brian continued, “I didn’t really feel like there was a place for me, so I kind of thought I had to get a practical job.” That practical job wound up being in law enforcement.
O’Brian was part of a short-form improv troupe at Indiana University, but she also needed a job to help cover the pricey tuition. She explained, “They had a little career day and I showed up, and they had this booth for the university’s police department.” A representative at that booth listed some of the perks of the job — free room and board, access to all the university games and stage performances, and the opportunity to attend police academy and become a police officer. She explained:
“I signed up for the program, and you’re basically like a cadet for a year and you just do really general security around campus. Then you do go through police academy and at some point it clicked to me; I was like, ‘Oh man, this is actually a real thing.’ And then you become a police officer … After college, graduating I was like, ‘Okay, am I gonna do an extra year of physics? Am I gonna go to med school? Or am I gonna go get a PhD and do psychology instead of psychiatry? And then, all in all, I was like, ‘I have to take a break. I can’t do more school. I have to take a break for a second,’ and [it was an] easy job, essentially. I already had a certificate for it and everything.”
Yes, O’Brian did become a police officer after college, but as was often the case, she still pursued the arts, and that’s when she was inspired to put a heavier focus on becoming a professional actor. She recalled:
“I [joined a police department] and, in the meantime, really sat down and thought about what I really wanted out of life, and it was to act. So I found an acting class, built up a reel, gained my confidence. I had my teacher, Jim Doherty, make me feel for once like I could actually do it. He believed in me so much that he hooked me up with his agent who’s now still my manager, and I took off to LA and gave it a shot.”
Image via The CW
Making the move to Los Angeles is a big step to take, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from there. O’Brian stressed the importance of networking at the start of one’s time in Hollywood; “I met with a career counselor before even coming out here through my alumni association at Indiana University and she’s like, ‘Networking, networking, networking.’” That networking scored O’Brian an opportunity to teach Hapkido and self-defense, to teach even more at Mount St. Mary’s University, and then to teach kids karate through a program called Little Ninja. Nope, none of that is acting-specific, but O’Brian highlighted the importance of pursuing opportunities one’s passionate about that still leave them the time to take the steps needed to build an acting career:
“In this job, what do they say? It’s not survival, it’s thrival jobs, right? It’s having something that you can do that can help you and specifically give you flexibility to go on auditions, to take acting classes, to have the time to constantly upgrade your materials, your headshots, things like that. I think it’s super important. Go out to meetings. It’s really, really, really hard to do that if you’re stuck in a nine to five.”
Given O’Brian’s extensive experience in martial arts and athletics, one might assume she’d consider pursuing stunt work in Hollywood. O’Brian recapped her thought on the matter:
“I did have a lot of people ask why I didn’t want to do that and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a stunt person. I want to be an actor.’ I like performing the martial arts scenes in films to whatever extent they will allow me to, which most of the time they’ll just let me do it, but I have an aversion to being set on fire, I have an aversion to being kicked out of tall buildings. [Laughs] You know, I’m not getting any younger. I’m getting into my mid 30s. I just don’t think that now’s the time to have done that. If I had come in maybe in my early 20s or something, I might have given it a shot. But then I also had some opportunities to talk to stunt performers and they do say that they get boxed in. They’re like, ‘Well, now I’m trying to branch out to acting, but people see me as a stunt person.’ So I definitely wanted to steer away from that and say acting is my focus and that’s where I’m gonna go all the way.”
Image via CBS
While O’Brian did avoid being “boxed in” in that respect, she did find herself being limited to certain types of acting roles, roles she dubbed henchman roles. While one does want to get as many opportunities as possible when first starting out, there came a point when O’Brian recognized that she needed to take action in order to ensure that wasn’t the only way the industry saw her. She explained:
“I used those roles as a stepping stone. I think a lot of people hopefully would agree, if you are getting cast, that’s a good thing. And if you are getting work, that’s a good thing, especially when you’re first starting out. And then once you start to want to branch out, I had to start turning down roles. And I said specifically, I’m not doing another henchman role. So either don’t send me the audition or let me tell casting or whoever. I’m not coming in for that role. That’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I want to be represented on screen. There was a project, it was a really big project for a certain franchise that was, again, it was another henchman role and I turned it down and because of that I was probably able to audition for other projects in that universe.”
Image via Disney
Perhaps that other project is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a film that gave O’Brian the opportunity to pop big time playing a hero and leader.
The role of Jentorra kept O’Brian on her toes, demanding the ability to adjust to story and fight scene changes on a dime. “I feel like we were getting new pages up until the last day.” O’Brian continued:
“Sometimes I’d show up to set and they’re like, ‘You’re gonna learn a fight scene right now.’ The hardest part for me though, and the strangest part is, generally [in] television, it has to be done next week, right? You’ve got to get the episode done next week or it’s not gonna get done. For Ant-Man, I never knew what days I’d be working. The schedule changed constantly. You’ve got all these A list actors that have a bunch of other stuff to do and everyone’s flying in and out. I do not envy the ADs. I don’t envy the producers. I don’t envy anybody that has to be in charge of any kind of schedule for that stuff. You really genuinely never know when you’re gonna be there or not.”
Yes, the schedule changes did prove challenging for O’Brian, but she still insists the stress levels while making Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania were especially low. She noted, “You have the best of the best working around you. In a weird way, it’s lower stress because it seems like they have a little bit more time to breathe.”
As for Jentorra’s future in the MCU, we don’t know when/if she’ll return, but O’Brian did insist she sees loads more creative opportunities in the Quantum Realm.
“It’d be so cool if we got to do more. There’s so much there that basically has to be in the background. And it’s such a quirky, fun little world and, yeah, they could do limitless things with it. There’s an interesting, I think it’s a Hermann Hesse quote, and I’m not even gonna try to do the quote, but the concept of it is, we can only write about or tell stories about what we’re familiar with essentially. So even when we’re thinking about what is the possibility of the Quantum Realm, we have to pull from situations and scenery and things that we already know exist. You’re never gonna see an alien that looks like something so out of this world that we haven’t seen it before. If you’ve never seen lava before, it’s gonna be like a whole new life-changing experience. So I feel like the Quantum Realm, they have an opportunity to try as hard as they can to branch out of what is actually possible, what we’ve actually ever seen before in the world, and it’s a hard task to do, but I think it can be done.”
Eager to hear even more about O’Brian’s journey in the industry thus far including working on The Mandalorian, starring opposite Kristen Stewart in the A24 bodybuilding movie Love Lies Bleeding, and then some? Be sure to check out our full 40-minute conversation in the video at the top of this article or in podcast form below:
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