Veterans in Creative Careers: Christine Clayburg, Actor (Air Force)

Christine ClayburgNominated for an Emmy and named “Boston’s Best Meteorologist” by Improper Bostonian magazine, Christine was a Geology major with a love of theater when she landed a part time job as a weekend weather reporter in Missoula, MT.  Four months later she was recruited by the NBC affiliate in nearby Spokane, WA.  Three years to the day from her first weather job she was flying across the USA to work for NBC in Boston.

Christine has hosted, anchored, forecast and headlined newscasts for top rated stations across the country including KABC in Los Angeles, WCCO and KMSP in Minneapolis, and WHDH in Boston. Her live severe weather coverage and severe weather programming has garnered several station Emmy Awards and her work as host of “The Snow Snow” in Minnesota led to a Hirsch Broadcasting award for Sports programming in it’s first season.

Since moving to Los Angeles she has gone on to appear in movies and television series including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 90210, The Closer, Hallmark, Lifetime, and 4 seasons of Desperate Housewives.  Off camera, she runs, working as media consultant and producer.  Her company assists businesses, individuals and non-profits alike in techniques to make their stories more approachable and media friendly.

After many years covering natural disasters she enlisted with the Air National Guard as a loadmaster on the C-130 Hercules. As a loadmaster she supervises all aspects of loading, weight and balance, preflight and airdrop operations.  She is an expert marksman who has deployed twice for Operation Enduring Freedom, completing many successful missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Her additional work as an Airlift Control Loadmaster includes managing readiness and rapid response for national and international disasters.  She is also an Air Force instructor, teaching aircraft load planning and emergency response airlift operations to the sister services, NASA, Lockheed Martin and other government contractors to ensure rapid coordinated airlift response worldwide.

A solitary outdoors fanatic, she has climbed numerous North and South American peaks as high as 22,842′, kayaked solo for a week through the Apostle Islands on frigid Lake Superior, bicycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway, completed Olympic length triathlons and traversed the Sierra Nevada alone.

She is certified Meteorologist with a B.S. in GeoScience, an Airdrop qualified C-130 Loadmaster and an Air Force instructor.

Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast

Justin Sloan: Christine, what caused you to decide to join the military?

Christine Clayburg: I’d love to give you an inspiring answer, but the short version is, I ran out of time. I had been warned it would hurt my TV news career if I joined (and it did), but my gut said I would regret it forever if I didn’t take that oath. I enlisted on the last possible day I could before my 35th birthday. It is the most professionally costly and personally rewarding decision I’ve ever made.  I had no idea my ancestors had served in every major conflict since the Civil War when I joined, but I love knowing it’s a part of who I am now.

What have you learned from your service and do you feel it has changed your life for the better?  

I learned more about working in groups during eight weeks of Basic Training than I did in nine years of working my way through college and over a decade in television news. What I have gained since joining is a sense of awe at the men and women who enlist when they are young. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people working in movies, TV and news, but none more remarkable than those who chose to serve at a young age.

JS: And you are still in, correct? How do you find time to do it all?

CC: Well. Let’s define “it all.” I’ve never married. I’ve never had kids. My cat keeps threatening to call PETA’s emotional neglect hotline. I drive a 20-year old SUV that was 5 years old when I bought it. I have had roommates in my home and rented rooms in other people homes for a decade now so that I could stay mobile, unfettered and follow the wind. I love my life, and it is a high-octane, carefully choreographed, juggling act on many days, but I am by no means doing it all.

JS: But it is still a lot! At what point did you decide you wanted to be an actor, and how did your life as a meteorologist and your military time inform this decision as well as your acting roles?

CC: I don’t think you decide to be an actor.  The audience decides.  When you can make your audience roar with laughter, and wipe away tears in the same evening you’ll know they’ve decided. Everything else is just research.

If I can serve a story in a way that moves people, that’s great. If not, there are so many other aspects to storytelling that fascinate me.  Being on stage is a rush, working on camera is an adventure in emotional engineering and doing live news is a blast, but it’s telling a great story that makes it satisfying.  My unexpected success as TV meteorologist and environmental reporter, despite my profound disinterest in devoting my life to having a movie star body, made me think maybe I had something to offer in fictional storytelling too.

I moved to LA because I felt like I’d gotten to a point where too many people were just doing plays or shooting films for attention or fun.  A well told story, in humble hands, can be a powerful catalyst for good, or to put it in military terms, a force multiplier. But you can’t just do it for fun, you’ve got to be willing to go to hell and back again to get it right.  That’s what I’m after.

The great thing about my years as a TV Meteorologist is that you really are the director of a “mini-movie” every day. Putting together a forecast is like finding the heart of a script, building the graphics is sort of like storyboarding, writing “the hook” for the news teases is like marketing, and delivering the “greatest hits” live, for a complex forecast in two minutes and 30 seconds, forces you to get really good at crafting a story on a deadline and rolling with the punches too.

I know some people think science is math, but to me it’s always been stories.  That’s what I loved about Geology.  Story first, Then Math.  Science is a collection of stories about what we think represents truth in our world, until someone comes up with an even better story that we believe.  In that way it’s not so different from movie making, except that in news you can have a bad day and start over fresh tomorrow.  In fictional programming one bad day can send the whole train off the rails.

I didn’t join the Military until well after all this, but my military experience has given me the most phenomenal leadership and management training, better skills in working with teams (I’m an extreme introvert at heart) and a deeper appreciation of how stories are such a precious part of our freedom.  I think I will look back 10 years from now and see that my military training has added a foundation to my natural abilities and interest that will blow the lid off whatever limited me before.

JS: Many men and women out there struggle to find their passion and belonging after the military. What advice do you have on discovering yourself and finding your passion?

CC: There’s no one else like you! You didn’t chase fame, fortune, ease or comfort and then get around to serving others. You chose to serve first. It’s weird to step back into a world where people put the pursuit of happiness, validation, money or significance first. It seems dumb when you get out, because it is. Most people won’t regret until their deathbed, what is already a way of life for you. I have yet to meet anyone in the military who truly gives themselves credit for how remarkable they are!

Your passion will be a way of serving others that thrills you. That’s it. If it doesn’t serve others, if you’re not constantly challenged, it’ll probably bore you to tears and then you’ll fail at it. So keep looking and invent your own way forward. You can get quick visibility doing crap, but work of lasting significance will cost you heartache, pain, discipline, humility and time. But that, I guarantee you, is what the Veteran is cut out for.  It’s also best insider scoop on a story I’ve ever had.

JS: Do you have any fun stories or crazy experiences you can share with us about your time on set or auditioning?

CC: My first scene in my first network show, which happened to be Desperate Housewives, had a reporter script that read like a news story with a section marked “VO” which means “voiceover.” In TV News we specifically write to this so we DON’T have to memorize more than a few lines before the daily deadline pressures of airtime.

I’d done it that way for so many years that it truly never occurred to me that they might want the VO part memorized. So there I am on location in downtown LA, with about 100 staff buzzing around on the most popular television show in the world and I know only half my lines. Add to that, a dozen extras and several drivers who have to re-set every time I mess up in front of the stunningly talented, and incredibly patient Shawn Pryfrom and director Wendey Stanzler.

All Ms. Stanzler did after we’d discussed the predicament was smile warmly and kindly say, “How can we help you.” A few minutes of crunch time with the script supervisor and I pulled it off.  But, Lord only knows how much I cost the production with each minute of delay.  I was sure on the way home this story was already buzzing around Hollywood about the arrogant, idiot reporter who didn’t bother to memorize her lines, and held up production on the hottest show in town.

As it turned out, they called me back two episodes later and this time after delivering my lines perfectly on the first shot of the day, director Larry Shaw asks me if I’m a “real reporter” to which I say, “yes.”  He waves his hand and says “do your thing.”  So, I ad-lib like we do when we have to stay on the air for hours, he loves it, and writer/producer Joe Keenan, of Frasier fame, starts re-writing things on the fly to fit my ad-lib style for half the morning.

Meanwhile, between takes, I’m sitting under the sun shade with Teri Hatcher (the other principal for the day) and she’s cracking me up with her laments that she can’t bring her finger anywhere near her nose for a whole entire day because of the paparazzi with the massive telephoto lenses camped all around. And, sure enough, there she was on the magazine covers in the grocery aisle, in the same dress (NOT picking her nose), just a few days later.

All that, in the span of two episodes.  That’s when you fall in love with this crazy town.  So know your lines (DUH), be good at your role, but be ready to rock-n-roll too!

JS: That’s a great lesson learned! Having worked on such shows as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 90210, Desperate Housewives, and others, what can you tell us about how it feels to act in student films and the works many of us start out in compared to the real deal? Does it feel any different?

CC: I cut my film acting teeth doing student films with Emerson, B.U. and MIT students when I was in Boston. There’s a relaxed, experimental quality to the process. It’s a great time to learn, observe, experiment and collaborate with young filmmakers who will one day master their craft.

Working on a network show feels like having an Amtrak locomotive parked on your chest with 150 cast, crew and a TV network inside the train. When you get your action cue you have to be as amazing as everyone on the train or the whole thing goes off the rails. I’m not really exaggerating.

JS: With your experience as a meteorologist and acting in similar roles, has it been an easy transition, or is acting a whole other beast? If it is different, what are some of the struggles you have faced?

CC: As a TV meteorologist and as a reporter you get tell the story the way you think audiences will enjoy most. You can ad-lib at will and have control of darn near everything except the Earth’s atmosphere (gosh darn it)!  I like to know everything about everything, but my job as an actor is just to give the director some great options that can be reworked by an editor later.

I’ve ad-libbed live coverage of a tornado outbreak for 3 non-stop hours. I’ve memorized and performed 20 minute one-woman shows on stage without missing a word, but for some bizarre reason I find memorizing even a few reporter lines I haven’t written myself to be the most challenging thing!

JS: When you first wanted to be an actor, what resources did you turn to? Would you have done it differently knowing what you now know?

CC: Ah resources… Brace yourself because I believe it took all this to get to where I am now (and this is just a sampling):

By age seven I was exercising the dictatorial privilege afforded to all big sisters to cast my little sisters as unpaid extras in pretend library PSA’s starring myself as an infomercial host praising the merits of reading (the camera and crew were imaginary, but let’s not get bogged down in details here).

I started out learning every aspect of performance art as a kid in a little church drama program. I learned so many ways of telling engaging stories including magic, mime, dance, clowning, balloon sculpture, and even ventriloquism. I acted in and emceed a ton of performances for library, community, and senior care programs. In high school I did community plays and school plays, and church plays and participated in show choir, dance, cheer, leadership, ran for office, lost both times, and was a rally commissioner. I also competed at speech meets and forensics debates that helped me develop my voice.

While going to college I sang at a restaurant, and acted, dance and sang at a Melodrama dinner theater. I also drove from Sacramento to the Bay Area to intern at a casting office once a week, which led to a day as an extra on the TV show Nash Bridges. When I didn’t have time to be in plays, I went to see them at ART in Boston, The Guthrie in Minneapolis, Sacramento, Spokane and even in Montana. I played Mary Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” in Spokane, did a few playwrights forums and then did it again in Minneapolis while working a weekday morning show. I subsisted on 4-hour blocks of sleep for months at a time to pull it off.

Notice that none of these resources are in LA and all of them led to what I am doing now. That’s how bad I wanted to be a good storyteller. As soon as I could afford it I paid for coaching in voice, movement, scene study and on-camera work in every town I lived in and I also got a lot of feedback on my voice, movement and presence from TV News consultants. Suffice it to say, despite a natural gift for reporter type roles at young age, it was ALL hard (but fascinating) work from there to here.

If I had it to do over I might have gotten a little more sleep!

JS: What advice do you have for those former or current military men and women out there that want to get in to acting?

CC: Really, really, learn what it means to be an actor. Know where stage right and left are, what a ¼ turn stage position is and why it matters (hint: it has nothing to do with marching). Know what upstaging really means. You don’t need to know this to work on camera, but if you want to work with great actors, it’s a sign of respect to know what they know and it also helps you feel you more confident.

That doesn’t mean you can’t throw your hat in the ring if you have a great presence and look. But show respect for those who are trained. I’ve studied a lot, but I would not have the success I have had if not for conservatory trained theater actors who took me under their wing on stage. You want to experience the same pride and confidence in your acting work that you do in your military service and that takes training and discipline! THEN you have to learn how to break all the rules, which is definitely something I am still working on.

JS: Do you have any thoughts on how one should avoid scams, as I am sure there are in the acting world (fake auditions, overpriced headshots, etc.)?

CC:  There are no shortcuts. Assess all offers by what YOU can take from the experience whether they can deliver on their promise or not.

I’ve paid between $150 and $600 for headshots and the $600 ones were worth every dime. I found someone who was a real artist, and who was engaged in my mission to exude something more than just another perky blonde news lady. Know what you want, trust your gut, and if in doubt, start small. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

JS: Are there any resources they should be aware of? Great websites, books, classes? We met via the Veterans in Film and Television group, and I would love to hear more about your experience with this group as well.


Resource List

1 ) Read: A lot. I read everything on this list before I moved to LA. Start with the books.

2) Research: – President Kevin E. West is the most honest man I know in this town. He is only a veteran of Hollywood but he has a true heart for service to others. My best early LA decision was joining this organization. Many folks I met there are friends and professional colleagues today. It’s is definitely a “No B.S.” zone, where hard work is valued and encouraged.

3 ) Do: – Peter Kelley – If you are a trained actor and want to make the transition from theatre to film definitely do his workshop (interview required).  I learn something new about myself every single time I go.

4) Discover:  – After Basic Training and SERE, this is the next best, zero hype, training for heart, mind and soul I’ve come across.  Rumor has it the guys that wrote The Matrix did so after completing the forum, not to mention Oscar winners, Apple Inc. employees and Navy Seals. HIGHLY recommend this if you intend to get out of your own way and lead with excellence in your field.

5) Transcend: – Free mediation training for Veterans funded by director David Lynch’s Foundation. When you’re out in the tall weeds with a life less ordinary, sometime you just need to be still long enough to answer your own questions. This was hard for me to learn, even with a great coach, but now I can’t live without it.

6) Grow: Get into an ongoing class. Make friends with real acting chops who have been at this awhile. Ask questions. I have had a hard time relating to actors in many classes I’ve taken in LA, especially after coming home from deployments. Susan Giosa creates a “No B.S., zero narcissism, SAFE zone” that will terrify you at first, and, if you stick with it, teach you to breathe again.

7) Build your future: Veterans in Film and Television is to Veterans what Yale, Harvard, Columbia, USC and every other top ten list school is to those who pursued the Ivy League when they were young: A highly selective and exclusive network of dedicated professionals who have met exacting standards and endured a rigorous shared experience. It can completely level the playing field for the time you gave, that others in this town might see as lost. It’s one of your greatest assets. Use it.

JS: What do you think about taking local theater classes or other such avenues, for those men and women in locations where film acting is not common?

CC:  Yes. Yes. Yes. Do a play. It’s fun and you learn so much.

To a certain extent you can learn how to act on camera using a tripod, an I-phone, lots of reading, and becoming an absurdly driven perfectionist.  It’s easy to fall in love with the images you capture, but what you want to shoot for is that you work moves other people too. That’s when you know you’re on the right track.

You can perfect the art of inspiring an audience from anywhere on the planet.  Even when I’m deployed I’m always shooting little projects in my spare time. Shooting your own stuff, even if no one ever sees it, also makes you a better actor, because it puts you in the shoes of the crew and takes some of the awe and mystery out of the process enabling you to just focus on going after the best possible end result.

The better I get at all aspects of filmmaking, the better it makes me in front of the camera. But to do that there are definitely going to be times when it’s not glamorous and not even a little fun.  This is why you have an edge as a Veteran. You already know how to “embrace the suck.” You already know you’ll love who you’ve become on the other side of “the suck.”  So keep going! You got this!

JS: Thank you again, Christine. Before we sign off, do you have one main piece of advice you would like to offer our aspiring actor friends?

CC: Acting isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.



These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers. 

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