Carnegie Mellon University
December 10, 2021

Pittsburgh Film Features CMU Alumni, Faculty and Students

By Pam Wigley

Pam Wigley
  • College of Fine Arts
  • 412-268-1047

Billy Porter is rarely at a loss for words. Whether he's making the rounds on the morning shows, midday chat fests or late-night TV, Porter commands the interviews.

But on a sunny afternoon in late summer on the Pittsburgh set of his upcoming feature film, tentatively titled, "What If?" Porter was silent in the company of his "family," fellow alumni from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama. Porter, a 1991 graduate, listened and became emotional as Renee Elise Goldsberry, who graduated in 1993, recounted her classmate's rise to fame — and all the setbacks along the way. Goldsberry, who currently stars in Peacock's "Girls5eva" and won a 2016 Tony Award for her role as Angelica Schuyler in "Hamilton," remembered her friend's challenges.

"This is a light for me," she said, gesturing toward Porter and referring to his directorial film debut. "For so many years, so many of us knew his talents, knew his greatness, and we watched his work go unappreciated."

She said she followed his career, the good times and the bad. Even when he was doing "amazing things," his frustration at not being lauded for his efforts became her shared frustration.

"I couldn't understand why no one was giving him his due, but he never got discouraged. Other people who didn't gain critical success became bitter or gave up altogether," she said. "Billy, though, Billy just persevered. He kept humbling himself. 'OK, you want me to sing? I'll sing.' 'OK you want me to write, I'll write.' 'OK, you want me to direct, I'll direct.' Finally, people took notice. Finally! That's why seeing this Billy Porter with this success is so rewarding."

"Your education is the foundation. Your incredible passion is what gets you a job." — Billy Porter

Nic Cory, the film's associate producer and fellow CMU alumnus who graduated from the School of Drama in 2009, nodded in agreement.

"He has taught me grace," Cory said. "He had his hand many times on the doorknob of bitterness, but he never opened it. Someone weaker than he would have opened that door."

And, as the stories and testimonials flow, silent tears glide down Porter's now-famous cheekbones. It's not just the sentiments shared by his fellow graduates that has touched him, Porter said, but also the chance to return home to Pittsburgh and work on a film for Orion Pictures that explores a transgender teen's choices and challenges. When choosing talent for the production, he said he was naturally drawn to his Carnegie Mellon connections.

"From the time I started [at CMU], I met some of the best people I know — and still know," Porter said.

Goldsberry is one of them. Her CMU audition took place in Pittsburgh, where she and Porter met. She said he welcomed "this little skinny girl" from the start, and they forged a friendship that has grown stronger through the years.

All of these alumni advocate for continued theater training beyond high school, where they first found encouragement from teachers — Cory from Louise Carmon; Goldsberry from Nina Machus, Charles Geroux and Carolyn Franklin; Porter from Peggy Hughes Rushlander and Lenora Nemetz.

"There are people who don't go to college for training, but I believed in it," Goldsberry said. "Going to CMU gives you that assurance that you're an actor, and you're good at what you do."

Porter agreed, and also gives credit for success to those who combine education with dedication.

"Your education is the foundation. Your incredible passion is what gets you a job," he said.

Passion in Cory's prior work led Porter to agree that he was suited for an assistant director role; Cory later was promoted. Trained as a musician, Cory spent two years studying architecture at Columbia University but still dabbled in theater, his true love. He transferred to Carnegie Mellon and earned a bachelor's degree in acting and musical theater to pursue his dream.

"I wanted to be an actor, but I knew I needed to be trained," he said. "I saw too many casualties of people who wanted to be actors but never pursued the proper training."

The additional training he has received from Porter has been particularly beneficial, Cory said.

"He [Porter] is the classic example of 'do it yourself,'" Cory said. "He teaches just by doing. He is kind and interested in everyone."

"The Lord placed angels in every part of my life at every juncture," Porter said. "It doesn't cost me anything to be kind."

He extended the CMU reach on the set to include others affiliated with the School of Drama as well. Actor Vanita Harbour, a 1990 drama alumna, also appears in the film, as do several current students. School of Drama faculty member Tomé Cousin also oversaw the film's choreography.

"This is my family, and they just happened to be right for their roles," Porter said. "I mean, if you ain't right for the part, you ain't right for the part," he said with a chuckle.

"But this all," he said, gesturing around the room, "this all just came together." And, then, just like that, he noticed the afternoon light fading. The trip down memory lane wraps, the director comes back and the love in the room ... well, it stays.

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