After acting bug strikes, Parise finds a cure

Vanessa Parise, the director of "#PopFan," airing Saturday on Lifetime.
Vanessa Parise, the director of "#PopFan," airing Saturday on Lifetime. Courtesy vanessaparise.net

When Vanessa Parise was valedictorian of the Westerly High School class of 1988, she was on track to go to Harvard University - which she did, graduating magna cum laude in biology - and then on to Harvard Medical School.

But something got in the way: another passion.

Parise took time off between undergrad and graduate school to act - something she'd always done as a hobby, including in Harvard student productions. Her two years in New York's Circle in the Square theater program proved to be life-changing, literally: she decided to forsake medicine for the performing arts.

Parise acted off-Broadway before she headed to Hollywood. There, she started writing her own scripts, and her first big project was 2002's "Kiss the Bride," which she also directed, produced and acted in. She shot the movie in L.A. and Westerly, with Alyssa Milano and Johnathon Schaech starring in the tale of three sisters returning home to Westerly for their other sister's wedding.

Since "Kiss the Bride," Parise has continued to work steadily. She wrote, directed and acted in the 2008 feature "Jack and Jill vs. The World" starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Taryn Manning.

She went on to direct TV projects for Lifetime and Hallmark channels, including "The Wedding Chapel" starring Shelley Long. Parise is still writing, too, having sold a pilot script to ABC Family and a freelance episode of Hallmark's "When Calls the Heart."

Parise occasionally still wonders what would have happened had she gone to medical school, but she's very happy with what she's doing.

"I feel like my heart gets satisfied. ... When I'm working, it uses so much of me. It uses my senses, and it demands that you be in the moment," she says. "It's completely exhausting but amazingly exhilarating. It's a pretty incredible experience."

Her latest experience: directing "#PopFan," which will air at 8 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime. It stars Chelsea Kane, who TV fans know from the Disney Channel's "Jonas L.A.," the ABC Family sitcom "Baby Daddy," and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

"#PopFan," Parise says, is "kind of a take on 'Misery.'" A female pop star makes an overtly sexy video - think Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" - that upsets her conservative boyfriend. She heads up the New England coast, gets into a car accident and wakes up in a remote lighthouse, where she's being taken care of by a young man (played by Nolan Funk) who acts as though he saved her.

"Slowly, she discovers that he's disturbed and ultimately pretty psychotic, and he makes her reenact this sexy video, so (the movie) is pretty dark," Parise says. "But it's also timely, and the way I directed it was that it was a coming-of-age story for Chelsea's character because she's had to learn there are consequences to her actions. She was a little girl, at the beginning, partying at this club. By the end, she had to take her power and take her space and figure out how to solve the problem of saving her life - and her boyfriend, who shows up, too."

Discussing what drew her to "#PopFan," Parise says, "I loved that I could create a unique world. Most of it took place in this isolated lighthouse. I loved the challenge of the performances. I thought the roles were so meaty and layered and interesting.

"Also, this is the first movie I've done where it hasn't been a big cast. It was really similar to a play because it was really primarily these two lead actors. I love when it's theatrical like that. I come from a theater background, so if it's just about the actors and what we create rather than the technology, I love that."

Parise also got a chance to recreate New England in Vancouver, where "#PopFan" was filmed. She found an isolated lighthouse on Vancouver Island and a location on the mainland to use as the lighthouse's interior.

She lives in Vancouver now but still spends a lot of time in L.A. She shoots movies all over the country; the most recent, for instance, was in New Orleans.

Parise's work as a director makes her, in a way, a rarity. The number of TV and movie directors who are women is extremely low. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety both ran articles earlier this year about the small percentage of women directing top-grossing feature films - 6 percent in 2013 - and the situation isn't all that much better in TV.

"It's even a little worse than it was 20 years ago," Parise says. "I don't know why that is. But the numbers are really alarming on directing."

The situation for women writers is a little better, but not much.

"Hopefully, somehow, we can change that," Parise says.

She hopes the increase in the number of female executives in the TV world might have a positive impact.

Parise, meanwhile, is already onto her next project. She's writing a script for the Luke Perry movie "Demo Girl" on the UP Network. It's the story of a girl who gets into Harvard but ends up racing in a demo derby, just as her father does.

She hopes, too, to move into directing episodic TV in the future. And, yes, the woman who was once planning to become a doctor would be happy if she ended up directing a medical drama.

Chelsea Kane stars in
Chelsea Kane stars in "#PopFan," a TV movie directed by Westerly native Vanessa Parise. Photo by Quinn Bender
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