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Kathryn Shasha, who tried her first cigarette at age 11 and ended up becoming a regular smoker, experienced a life-changing moment climbing up from her basement in 2012.
"I'd been walking up my stairs and ran totally out of breath," she recalls. "I figured I needed to quit."
Her daughter was about to turn 2 years old, too, and Shasha says, "I wanted to try to be around for her. Obviously, smoking, you die earlier - you just do."
So, even though she had tried and failed to break her smoking habit several times over the years, she tried again - and succeeded 15 months ago.
And now, this weekend, she is climbing stairs - more than 400 stairs, in fact - for the cause.
The New London native will scale those steps on Saturday as part of the American Lung Association's Fight for Air Climb in New Haven. It's a fundraiser for lung disease research, advocacy and education. The event will be held at 360 State Street, described as New Haven's most eco-friendly building,
"It's something obviously very close to my heart," Shasha says. "I believe in what they're doing."
Shasha's team for the Fight for Air Climb is called "Actors for Air" - and that's for a good reason. She is a professional actress with plenty of commercial credits and background appearances in well-known films and TV series.
It was back as a student at the Williams School - she's a 1987 alum - that Shasha became involved in acting, under the tutelage of Jane Martineau. Even so, Shasha figured she'd become an attorney like her father, Gilbert. She earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., but when she was cast in a commercial after college, she changed her course.
She says that commercials and print work are "really my bread and butter" now. A national ad she did for Subway, for instance, got a lot of air time.
She also, though, does a good deal of background work. She's part of a core group of FBI agents on the acclaimed FX drama "The Americans." She's been on the show numerous times, although she's had no lines.
"I started out years ago. One of my first background work (jobs) was on 'Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,'" she says with a laugh of the 1994 movie. "That's how far back my career goes. ... I was what they called the maitre d'. I carried around a bottle of Dom Perignon in the mansion scene. My big role! I think I did actually ask, 'Would you like a glass of wine?' but they cut it."
"Most of these things, even if I'm in them, half of the time, they get cut."
She did, though, make it into "Hope Springs." She was in the scene where Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones have dinner at a B&B - and Shasha was seated at a table right behind Streep.
"It was fabulous to watch her. I mean, her and Tommy Lee - to be in a room with them and actually hear the direction the director gave and be really intimate in that - that was one of the better learning (experiences) and being able to watch. Sometimes, they put background way up in nowhere land."
Her more recent background work included playing a potential juror in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Shasha says she "got to at least see Martin Scorsese" and saw Leonardo DiCaprio as well, but she had more of a close-up view of the action on "American Hustle." She filmed two scenes for "Hustle," one in which Bradley Cooper is running to a fight at a cab and another in which someone gets thrown out of a limo.
Background work has also been a great opportunity for Shasha to network.
"That's how I find out about independent films," she says.
Among her recent projects: She plays a secretary in the upcoming release "Employees Only." She played a madam in a short film titled "Tricks of the Trade." (You can see a clip from that on YouTube.)
"I've gotten so much experience and so much training (on sets). I am now ready for real roles. Years ago, I thought I was. Now that I'm getting the roles, I realize I wasn't even close to ready back then," she says.
If developing an acting career can be challenging, it still isn't tougher than stopping smoking. Shasha says that kicking the habit was the hardest thing she's ever done.
"I'm proud of it. I am," she says, adding, "My husband was so supportive."
Shasha started smoking a pack a day when she was 18. Shasha's mother, Carol, realized her daughter had become a smoker like she was. Kathryn Shasha recalls, "She said, 'I will quit so that you quit.' She quit for me, and then I didn't quit. I still to this day remember how that felt, to know that she had quit for me, and I was still a smoker and I could not quit."
What helped her give up the habit in 2012 was calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW. The program includes everything from the availability of a web coach to information on how smokers can deal with their urges. Shasha says she could call up someone from 1-800-QUIT-NOW whenever she was struggling, and the support was vital.
"I've been on a real big lifestyle kick lately," she says. "Right before the new year, I went on a juice fast. I decided to be extra healthy this year. I was reading that magazine and saw the Fight for Air Climb."
Understanding first-hand how tough but vital it is to quit smoking, Shasha stepped up to join the climb.
To make a donation to Kathryn Shasha for her participation in the American Lung Association's Fight for Air Climb, or to join her team "Actors for Air," visit go.lungne.org/KShasha2014.