British-born Karina Michel has accomplished a lot during her 25-year career: model, actress, producer, magazine columnist, co-business owner, podcaster, and, recently, Culture Council member for Rolling Stone. Her career just seems to keep getting busier and busier, which is exactly how she likes it. Did I mention she’s also a mom? You would think that Michel would have little time to grant interviews with everything she has going on in her life, but she was more than patient with her time when we spoke, and her stories were told unrushed and with enthusiasm. Those two terms could describe her work as well. This spring, two of her producing projects through her company Tallulah Films, Self-Charm, directed by 19-year-old Ella Greenwood and starring rising actress Bukky Bakray (who just won the BAFTA EE Rising Star award for Rocks) and I Am, starring Oriane Pick and directed by Ludovica Musumeci, explore the sensitive topic of mental health. A timely topic many are facing brought forth due to the pandemic. Michel also spoke to me about her newest passion, her entertaining and lively podcast Coffee with Karina. It’s more than worth checking out and after you finish reading this interview, I’m certain you’ll want to.
Jason: Can you begin by telling us how you found your way into the industry and then into producing your own projects?
Karina Michel: I moved over to the US when I was 10 years old. It was a crazy time, but a great one as well. My dad was Entrepreneur of the Year in England so that was one of the reasons we moved over. I learned a lot from him, Now looking back, it probably influenced me more than I even knew at the time. To make a long story short, I did modeling in New York and then I ended up going to LA, in 1999. I worked as a model and actress for 12 years and it was my business. It was a lot of fun but I knew I wanted to do something else eventually. I studied studio makeup for a little bit, but I never thought I could do producing. I didn’t see any women producers at the time. It wasn’t something that was there. It was usually male directors and male producers. I got a small film role in an indie called One Story, and one day I asked if I could just help out because I wanted to learn and that’s how I started. And now here I am doing this 11 years later.
Jason: Did you see a huge void in the male-to-female ratio of people working in the industry?
Karina Michel: In the beginning, I would say definitely. The women I remember seeing on set were the makeup artists or the wardrobe people, which I also loved, and that was something I actually did for a little bit. There was one job I worked on, I was an actress on it, and Judith Light was the director. And I thought, oh my god, yeah, she’s amazing, this is so cool. She’s a woman I grew up watching on TV, and she’s doing this and she was really doing a good job. I think Privileged was the name of that show. Lucy Hale was in it. But when I saw her doing it, that really put it in perspective. Directing isn’t something I love doing. I think great directors are amazing, and I’m always looking for them, but producing was really the thing that pulled me in. I think it was because I can combine the business stuff that I love so much with the entertainment.
Jason: Did you see a void in certain topics that weren’t being addressed in entertainment?
Karina Michel: Even as an actor I did. A lot of times I would get offers for sexy girl next door or the young mom and that’s great, but I wanted to play like the nitty-gritty on dramas which there weren’t that many of. They existed, but there really weren’t so many of them. And that’s really the stuff now that I love to find. I got something today, actually. Somebody just emailed it to me. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so exciting!” It just has great female characters in the story that I’d never really thought of before. It was so cool. It happens sometimes, not all the time.
Jason: Can we shift now to the two films you just which both explore mental health?
Karina Michel: So the ones I just produced are I Am and the other one is Self-Charm. Both of them are about mental health, and people ask me “Why were you interested in this?” Both directors reached out to me, and it was the type of project that I was interested in doing at that time. I’ve never been drawn to this topic; however, I started thinking about it, and I think when the lockdown came last year I was like, something needs to be done. Everybody seemed to be dealing with some kind of, I don’t want to say mental health issue, but nobody knew what was happening and it was this sudden loss of control. It was a weird time.
Jason: These two films are similar in that they explore mental health, but they look at different sides of it and both are treated respectfully, which is something you don’t see in many depictions when it comes to mental health. Schizophrenia is particularly portrayed in a negative light particularly on those television crime dramas.
Karina Michel: Bukky Bakray stars in Self-Charm and she just won the Rising Star BAFTA so it’s really exciting. Other similar things that run through both movies is that they deal with the realities of having some type of mental health issue. One of them is self-harm, and Bukky does such a good job in the film. Then the other one deals with schizophrenia, so it really is about how it infiltrates into your life and how you deal with things that will come up. I don’t think these issues are really talked about that much in the media, and if they are, it’s usually in a negative way. Films have this common thing where usually it’s a crazy person, so I wanted to put it in a better light and say “Hey, you know, there are a lot of people dealing with this, especially now with this pandemic, and putting in a better light is what we can do to help.”
Jason: Do you feel people have become more open about sharing their struggles with mental health over the past year?
Karina Michel: I do. I feel it has become more of a topic because self care is a buzzword that’s being talked about a lot, which I think is great. And everyone needs to take care of themselves in that way. I started my podcast Coffee with Karina and even the celebrities that I would have on—everyone thinks celebrities lives are amazing with no problems. It was so refreshing to hear everybody was dealing with something on some level. Some a lot less than others, but I do feel like people are much more open to talking about it.
Jason: I find exactly the same things happening, especially where people will use humor and jokes to mask what their confusion and uncertainty, I really enjoy your podcast and I was listening to the Don McLean one (writer of the classic hit “American Pie”), and it struck me people who wouldn’t normally reach out and speak to someone are now doing so and just giving their time and looking for someone to talk to.
Karina Michel: I’m so glad you got to listen. Thank you.
Jason: Have you seen a shift in attitude in mental illness in the entertainment industry since you entered? Years ago we had movies such as Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation but have you noticed a change in how the entertainment industry approaches and handles telling these stories?
Karina Michel: I don’t think we’re there yet but I think it’s definitely starting to be more of an honest portrayal. Even with Girl, interrupted, which I love that movie, I love Angelina Jolie, I remember going to the theater in LA and it was a packed theater, and I remember it so well. We actually sat on the floor. I feel like it is getting better and not so negative, but I still feel we have a way to go. Ella Greenwood—her film, Self-Charm—she’s done such an amazing job. She really tells the story in a gentle way but one which still leaves quite an impact.
Jason: What more do you feel can be done to to address the issue in the industry?
Karina Michel: Telling these stories so kids can relate. I have a 10-year-old, and during last year she went through some different phases because she wasn’t going to school. I’m sure that was what a lot of parents are dealing with as well. Now she’s back at school and everything’s good but even at a younger age it affects you If you’re not seeing your friends and you’re not doing things. So showing characters and storylines that kids can relate to and that they can see I think that’s really a sure way to get the message across.
Jason: What do you do to take care of yourself when you find things get a little bit overwhelming?
Karina Michel: I’m dealing with movies with serious topics and sometimes that can manifest into off work hours. It does get to be a lot sometimes. I also co-own a company (Fresh Patch) with my husband, so we’re busy people. I love to get out in nature, just walking in nature, every day if I can in the morning really puts my mind in a good spot. If I don’t do that I can feel more stressed sometimes. I’ve been a lot more picky about the projects I take on because you want to take on the ones that you really believe in and want to get behind. And just eating healthy and getting enough sleep which is obvious, but it does make a difference.
Jason: What do you look for in a project or what are the themes or elements in a story which really speak to you or grab you?
Karina Michel: Obviously, there has to be a great story. And a great director, and cinematographer is really important. I look for real dialogue. That is like my biggest thing and it probably goes back to being an actress. When you’re handed a script and they’re like, ‘okay, you say this’ and sometimes you’re thinking, “but this isn’t like a normal conversation, this isn’t how people speak.” So something that I really look for is something that flows effortlessly, like a normal conversation does.
Jason: What are some challenges facing you—or you have faced—as a female storyteller in a predominantly male industry?
Karina Michel: Nothing terrible, but I will say when I was transitioning over, when I decided I wanted to be a producer, everybody obviously saw me as a model and actress, I’m 5’10, I have long blonde hair, and I struggled to be taken seriously a lot in the beginning. I would definitely play down being a female, I would make sure I would be very covered up, and be very conservative because you want people to hear you. I’ve gotten past that now because it’s been 11 years. I’m not so concerned with it anymore, but it definitely was a thing.
Jason: So you’ve definitely seen a change in the industry from when you first began?
Karina Michel: The industry is always changing. I’m usually the only female on a project, and on these two this year, there have been a lot of women, which is great. I can’t say that about everything, but it’s getting better. It’s a lot more accepting now
Jason: I’ve interviewed a few female filmmakers over the past little while and they say it’s changing. Some have implemented a 50/50 crew of women and men straight down.
Karina Michel: I’m always open to that and one thing I do with both my businesses is make sure to help in any way that I can. The women that are single mothers, they just do so much and I’m just blown away how they do it all. I’m in complete awe. I’m always open to hiring women that are in that situation because I’ve just seen them blossom. I’ve seen really incredible things happen so that’s been a really exciting thing to witness.
Jason: What would you like to imprint on your younger collaborators such as Ella and Bukky?
Karina Michel: When I was 18, I wasn’t anywhere near the head space Ella is in right now. She’s incredible. With them I’m always telling them to go with your gut, just to listen to your inner voice and just be who you are. I always tried to do that but I always had that voice like, “Oh, am I doing the right thing?” The people in your life, they’ll try and advise you on things, but I think you should always go with what you think is right or what feels right. You should never go with anything that doesn’t feel right for you. You should just pull from your own experiences, just like Ella, and that’s really taken her so far. She’s done incredibly well.
Jason: She’s coming up in a time when the industry is really taking a look at itself and its practices in the past. It’s remarkable to think how she’ll navigate the next phase of her future career compared to people who have had to navigate it in past decades.
Karina Michel: I agree. I think she’s coming in the best time, I’m so excited to see where she goes with it. It’s been exciting to watch her over the past year. She always surprises me. She has a really good eye too. When I came on to the project she had already decided on Bukky. She’s very hands-on, has a good eye for her casting and every part of producing.
Jason: As a supporter and proponent of workplace diversity in the industry, how do you ensure that certain groups are properly represented? Do you feel you have to lead by example?
Karina Michel: We did a film called Where the Land Meets the Sky, and we made it into the International Christian Film Festival, which is a totally new genre for me. I don’t know if I’ll make another film like it, but it’s about second chances. I remember when we were finished I said to the director (Preston Walden) the thing that I’m most proud of is the diversity that we have in this film. And it wasn’t anything that we had set out to do. It just happened organically. It was really cool. I write for a few publications and I absolutely make a point to be inclusive and represent as many different backgrounds as I can.
Jason: As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy your podcast and I want to dive into listening to more of it. Was this was something you started during the pandemic as a natural progression from TV and film?
Karina Michel: It’s a funny story. Last year was a rough year for me because my dad passed away, which was terrible, and everything shut down. I’m the type of person that really likes to always be doing something. I just find I have to be creative. So I have done some articles for Authority Magazine. They had interviewed me and then the editor asked if I wanted to write a column. This was something I could do from home and it wasn’t a huge commitment so I ended up doing that. Once we got started, they said I could interview people. You can call them just like you and I are doing right now. I never pictured myself doing it. I didn’t want to be back in any kind of limelight. I was quite happy behind the scenes. So I did an interview and I sent it to him. But it turned out to be like therapy as I love talking to people anyway, and I think it really saved me through the pandemic, reaching out and having really meaningful conversations was helping me a lot. And obviously helping other people too, which was great. A week before that I was saying “But everybody has a podcast,” and then of course, then I ended up doing it (laughs).
Jason: That really comes through as you seem to be having such a great time speaking with your guests so now I want to ask if you could interview anyone at all, who would it be and why?
Karina Michel: There are many people I’d like to interview. I’m sure everybody would say Oprah, but one person who I always thought was pretty cool is Liam Gallagher of Oasis. I actually met him a really long time ago when I was a teenager at a show and he’s awesome. He just started a production company in London and I’d be curious to talk to him about how he reinvented himself in the film world. I’m really interested to hear what that’s about, so I’m hoping to talk to him at some point. With the podcast…I’m excited that people are tuning in. They do like it and so far they’re excited to hear more.
Jason: Is there anything else you’re excited about besides producing films and creating your podcast?
Karina Michel: I’ve actually partnered with Rolling Stone which just happened last month, which I’m super psyched about. I’m still like pinching myself on that one. But yeah, it’s exciting.
Jason: Writing for Rolling Stone was of course how Cameron Crowe started.
Karina Michel: Oh, my gosh, sometimes I’m just like, whoa, how did this happen? There has been so much negativity, but also so many blessings have come out of this year. I have to be thankful.