Artist Spotlight: Actor, Musician and Louisiana Film Industry Advocate Susie Labry
Louisiana actor Susie Labry’s first background role came in the 1977 Baton Rouge-shot telefilm The Life and Assassination of The Kingfish. Over a 40-plus year career, her outstanding work as an actor and political advocate for the Pelican State’s film and TV industry continues to impact the lives of Louisiana’s talented filmmaking professionals.
Though Hollywood hasn't always portrayed the people and culture of the South in an accurate manner, a large part of the film and TV industry has found a second home in the region due to lucrative tax credit programs offered by states like Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.
While Georgia now enjoys a majority of the production business, Louisiana continues to mark itself as a filming destination for major Hollywood studios and independent projects produced by the State's indigenous creative talent.
One member of Louisiana's extraordinary filmmaking community is veteran actor/musician/film industry activist Susie Labry. Since starting her career in 1975, Labry has either worked as an on-camera actor or background performer in hundreds of productions shot throughout the Pelican State.
Beginning with the 1977 made-for-TV biopic of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long The Life & Assassination of The Kingfish, Labry’s work as an extra includes series like HBO’s Treme, CBS' NCIS: New Orleans, FX’s American Horror Story: Coven and the short-lived Larry Hagman CBS drama Orleans, plus movies like Everybody’s All-American, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, LBJ and the Oscar-winning Green Book, among many credits.
Labry's speaking roles include parts in independent, Louisiana-made projects like With My Soul, Flood Streets, and 1959, as well as episodics like Home Remedy, Hogwash and this writer's comedy web series The Late, Late News in 2016. I had the honor of working with Susie on an episode of that show, which will premiere soon.
Louisiana’s film and TV tax credit system remains an often volatile political football in the State Legislature, but as a passionate citizen advocate for the industry, Labry has made extraordinary efforts on the grassroots level to convince legislators to keep local and regional production at a steady flow.
While activism is only one facet of Labry’s outstanding professional life in the Louisiana film industry, working on camera and behind-the-scenes has helped Labry to be more comfortable on any set as she is in any social environment. For Labry, the man fondly remembered throughout Louisiana as "The Singing Governor" was the catalyst for her to enter the entertainment world.
Labry as an extra on the set of director Rob Reiner’s 2016 biopic LBJ.
Chris Hadley: What and/or who inspired you to become an actor?
Susie Labry: I had an idol/hero/friend in Jimmie Davis, who was Louisiana’s Governor (from 1944-48 and from 1960-64) as well as a singer and actor. I wanted to follow in his footsteps in all three. I call him a “man of many hats”. I always enjoyed the limelight and being on camera in news stories, in plays on stage, newspaper pictures and a documentary. When (the producers of) The Life & Assassination of The Kingfish held a casting call for extras to be in political scenes, I went to apply.
I had a great featured part in the film’s funeral scene next to Huey Long’s coffin in the Louisiana State Capitol rotunda. (I also did) scenes outside (Baton Rouge's) Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, and (a rally) scene outside East Baton Rouge Parish Courthouse. This involved my 3 desires: politics, music, and movies. I got to experience what it was like to be politics in the past (the '30s), and to be on film.
CH: On a personal level, how do you feel acting has changed your life?
SL: It has absolutely changed my life. I learned life skills by interacting with other people of different times and ages. I learned tons about nonverbal communication and (reading) between the lines through sets and acting classes. I gained friendships, respect, fame, connections, happiness, identity, and a beautiful lifestyle in working in my niches of politics, film, history, and music. I'm enjoying my identity as a lady of many hats.
CH: You've worked in the film and TV business for several decades now, specifically in Louisiana. Given both the industry's growth here, and the many changes that have been made to it in a political sense, how have those factors influenced your work as both an actor and a booster of the State's film industry?
SL: I started in 1975 and did a few movies in the ‘80s. That increased in the ‘90s. When the tax credits began in 2002, the industry in Louisiana boomed to #1 in the United States. I averaged 20 projects a year from the turn of the century until when it was capped in 2014, when it became unstable and lacked certainty as I predicted.
North Carolina and Canada boomed when they had tax credits. When they capped theirs, their industry collapsed and died. Then Louisiana became #1 and even got better when it raised theirs from 25% to 30%. It went down when it was capped.
As for politics, former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was the first person who wanted to cap the tax credits. We (in the Louisiana film and TV industry) fought that. I participated in building probably the biggest, quickest grassroots effort in Louisiana history and she backed off. We won in protecting the tax credits. Meetup.com was one of the biggest tools we used to organize our effort. As the Internet came to the forefront, that made it very easy to drum up 2,000 people in this grassroots effort.
Labry starred as a nun in the Louisiana-filmed period drama short With My Soul.
CH: Among the hundreds of projects you’ve worked on - both as a background actor (or extra) and in speaking roles - which of those do you feel were the most rewarding to do?
SL: I enjoyed (doing) The Life & Assassination of The Kingfish, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Roe v. Wade, The Pistol: The Birth Of A Legend, Ray, All the Kings’ Men, LBJ, One Nation Under God, The Mark Essex Story, The Fire Next Time, Orleans, The Big Easy (TV series based on the 1987 feature film) and Treme. These involved politics, acting, true stories, and my type (of) music.
I loved doing movies such as Everybody’s All American (the 1988 college football drama starring Dennis Quaid) which had a great impact on me because I gained tons and tons of friends there and because it was a period movie, which I also enjoyed doing. Movies with great sets also intrigued me: I was set-struck rather than starstruck. You go places where otherwise you would never go as a tourist.
Becoming a stronger Christian, I enjoyed working on Christian-based movies. I want to use my acting as a tool to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to build God’s Kingdom. I enjoyed doing all of Lisa Arnold’s movies: God’s Not Dead, One Nation Under God, etc.
CH: Aside from the many major Hollywood projects that have filmed in Louisiana, you’ve actively worked on independent productions made by indigenous filmmakers in the State. Talk about some of your memories working on such films, and the people you’ve worked with on those projects.
SL: I love working with Louisiana filmmakers like Jency Griffin Hogan, Lisa Arnold, Chuck Bush, Kay Landon, Victoria Greene, Carol Bidault de l’Isle and Gisele Haralson. I loved working on all of Debby Gaudet and (actor) Veleka Gray’s movies as class projects that have (the) potential to become features in theaters and in film festivals. I loved all the independent movies because opportunities were greater there.
People in film are the most unique people. We got along well, and we were all on the same page in many areas. We shared energy, interests, and a humongous amount of excitement. I also enjoyed doing all the 48 Hour Film Project shoots, which are super great places to get experience and to network with filmmakers of today and tomorrow.
The indigenous and independent projects (are) where I focus and shine on as I see more opportunities for me and for Louisianians. This is where I see Louisiana start to shine and when these prosper and grow in quality we will shine. This is my venue that has room for me. I am well known in that area, and opportunities are greater for us (Louisianaians) as we have more room for choice and creativity there.
This is where we can make something out of nothing, which we Louisianians do well at. We are #1 in almost everything when it comes to talent, creativity, pioneering, inventions, and skills. We are who put D.C. and Nashville on the map, and now Hollywood.
Our talent and skills are unknown to the world and we are hidden even to our neighbors up the street. I see almost everyone (there) is famous and has universal talent. (They're) breaking records in all different fields, and they hardly know what their respective neighbors can do or already do. This will enable us to show our talents and (to show) what Louisiana has to offer to the world.
It is hard to compete in the big world, but the independent world is where we can have a greater opportunity to showcase ourselves, our talents, and our creativity. We can network, and grow ourselves. It is happening. To me, this is the true test to see what you can do. I am happy there. Also, I see there will be less mainstreaming with new media and more fragmentation of markets and target marketing. There will be many venues and rooms opening up for us to plug into and shine.
CH: Since Louisiana’s film and TV production tax credits have recently been adjusted to favor the State’s native filmmaking talent, how have you personally benefited from that change given your work in this industry?
SL: It changed my lifestyle from dirt poor to upper-middle class. It not only enabled me to support myself and to be economically on my own, but it also enabled me to help others get work, to save lives, and to give.
CH: You’ve been among the major champions of the tax credit program, despite countless pushback of that program from legislators. Though we’re a few months away from this year’s legislative session in Louisiana, where do things stand right now with your efforts to lobby the State’s political forces to keep the program thriving, and what are your hopes for those efforts?
SL: I was told that our grassroots effort was one of the biggest, next to the oil industry and unions. I was told we broke records with 7,000+ hits to the legislators' web sites in a matter of minutes. I was one of the first to thank the legislators and our Governor. The Internet and technology enabled us to do so, as well, and we were all on the same page. We all stood in unity and solidarity.
Right now. the industry seeks stability and certainty. In this 2020 Legislative session nothing is planned, but our assignment now is to know your legislators, and (to) build relationships with them and their staff. It’s time to let them know who we are, to let them know what is going on in their districts and to let them know how the industry impacts their districts.
It is unpredictable (what) these new legislators will do, as we need to inform them early while we have time - rather than (at) the last minute when their minds are full as to the impacts of (the) industry in their district and state as a whole. The time is now. They need to hear their constituents’ personal testimonies and (about the) economic impacts to them and their districts.
I’m glad our Governor, John Bel Edwards, is a friend of the industry, whom we won over thanks to LFEA (Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association). We had best be prepared for next year.
CH: What projects are you working on right now?
SL: I'm in pre-production on an unnamed project where I will be the lead actress. I don’t know the name of it yet but I will wait to announce it when it is complete or when it will premiere. I am currently an extra in Jency Griffin Hogan’s new film, Daisy and Smiling Jack.
Labry's complete filmography is available here:
Find out more about Susie Labry on her official web site: