Kelsey Cooke grew up acting professionally in Hollywood, signing with her first agent at the age of 7. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Arts from Vanguard University and pursued a Broadway, TV, and Film career in New York upon graduating. Her work eventually brought her back to Hollywood, where she co-founded thisishardtoread productions and is an award-winning producer, writer, and actor in the award-winning feature comedy/mockumentary film RE-OPENING. Favorite career highlights include: LIFE PARTNERS (Tribeca & Sundance Film Festival), BLACK NOVEMBER (Vivica Fox), PAN AM (ABC), ROYAL PAINS (USA), BAD TEACHER (CBS), and THE VERONICA MARS MOVIE.
Kathleen Cooke: OK full disclosure – you are my oldest daughter and the new Influence Women Nashville Chapter Director. I could tell lots about you…but I’ll let you tell us a bit about yourself.
Kelsey Cooke: I am co-founder of thisishardtoread productions with my husband, Chris. We create comedies with heart. I’m a producer, writer, director, and actor – not necessarily all at the same time, hah! I began in the industry as an actor at 7 years old in Hollywood and came up through the industry working not only in LA but after college in New York, working on stage and Broadway musicals before moving back to LA in 2013 as an actress and producer.
Kathleen: How and why have you gotten involved with Influence Women as the new Nashville Chapter Coordinator?
Kelsey: I recently moved to the greater Nashville area for the main purpose of collaborating with like-minded industry professionals. I was tired of waiting for some “big break” that would never come, and after producing my own feature film during the pandemic, I realized the Hollywood industry is so much bigger than the box we put it in. Nashville was the place where I felt called to create a movement with people who feel the same way. I know the multiple challenges of a career in the media and entertainment and the importance of collaboration with the right people and having a community of people who support each other not only in their work but in their faith.
Kathleen: When is the Influence Women Nashville launch, and what’s happening?
Kelsey: We are going to start gathering women on November 9th who are excited to get involved with our mission – to bring women in the industry together who want to encourage, uplift, and empower each other and align their media career with their faith and values. Let’s get to know each other and think of others who would also like to have a local community of creators. Please reach out if you would like to be a part of this initial group.
If you want to connect with Kelsey and Influence Women Nashville, reach out to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes the most important person to be truthful with is ourselves. It’s important to look honestly at how well we keep boundaries, where we’ve rooted our identity and the motives of our hearts. Read this month’s INNER VIEW as we dive deep with Andrea Polnaszek into some core truths and the ways we navigate them imperfectly.
Andrea M. Polnaszek has written many books and is the co-creator of multiple films alongside her sister, Alexandra Boylan, as part of The Boylan Sisters Entertainment company. Andrea’s most recent movie, The Greatest Inheritance, with her accompanying book by the same title, is a study of Ecclesiastes. The film wrestles with the theme, “There is a time for everything and a season for everything under Heaven.”
Andrea is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has spent her clinical career helping children and their families communicate their feelings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at Gordon College, a Master’s in Social Work, and a certificate in Theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Kathleen: As a filmmaker and writer, you come from a unique position as a licensed clinical social worker with an understanding of the human mind and our choices. What has God revealed to you on how we can make better choices that will sustain our careers and lives, especially during the disruptions of a pandemic?
Andrea Polnaszek: I had the opportunity to write a book and devotional about Ecclesiastes and specifically spent much time meditating on Ecclesiastes 3. During an unappreciated time, global pandemic, I felt like folks around me, including myself, were asking questions like: “Why?” “What do we do?” “I don’t like this new life?” While exploring the idea of – what season is this and what is God teaching me in this season…God brought a surprising insight.
I was invited to perform a funeral service for the first time. The woman who had passed had struggled with mental illness for many years before her death. Her family felt they had lost her many years before she died. The process of preparing for the funeral provided an opportunity to remember. Looking through pictures and reminiscing reminded everyone of beautiful memories. This insight caused me to ask: Why do we wait for funerals to share a eulogy? So, I have begun to tell people what I appreciate about them in real-time. I have spent some time thinking about happy memories and sharing those with others. The experience has brought me new insight into what the Joy of the Lord looks like. I believe that joy is born in gratitude. And a heart of thanksgiving is a gift from God alone.
Theodore Roosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” God has brought me to a place of hard-fought contentment – accepting that there is good and bad in every season and that He is over it all! I would say that when I look at all that the last few years have thrown at me – the joy of the Lord was my strength. God revealed to me the importance of disciplining myself to put Him first.
Kathleen: It’s not the normal screenwriter’s path to come into the film business from a clinical social worker background. Many might struggle with their career goals and identity and lose their way. Yet God seems to carve us uniquely into His plan and purpose. Why is knowing who you are in Him the essential choice?
Andrea: Boylan Sisters Entertainment just finished principal photography on a movie called Identity Crisis. I have done a lot of thinking, meditating, and studying on this issue. Our culture seems to be telling us that unique needs to be named and that our core identity or “created in the image of God” can or should change. I struggle with this conversation because when I talk to people wrestling with gender disphoria and questioning their sexuality, I see genuine concern, discomfort, and a deep sense of longing to feel whole.
I was one of those teenagers and young adults who always wanted to be in a different stage than where I found myself. I wanted to be grown, married, and have children. I was convinced that when I became a wife and mother, those feelings of longing would be fulfilled. My life experience has taught me that every new stage of life comes with new questions and the opportunity to have even more longing. Different is more than OK. God has created us with an array of personalities, gifts, and various appearances.
I struggle with staying at peace with whom God made me. Ten years ago, when I wrote a book about rest and openly wrestled with being disappointed with God, I took the next step toward being at peace in my skin. I don’t always stay at peace, but I do find that if I am disciplined to be vulnerable and stay real with others and myself, I find the peace that passes understanding.
Kathleen: To sustain ourselves in our 24/7 world, we must have boundaries. But often, we don’t draw the right boundary lines. What’s a boundary you struggle with within your work and life?
Andrea: I am a recovering people pleaser. I find that when my boundaries go down, my people-pleasing increases. I am a lifelong student of John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries. I discovered the book when I was at a very low point as a pastor’s wife. I found myself sad, lonely, and resentful. This book taught me the difference between walling myself off and having a fence with a gate. The key was that I had control of the gate; I could open it or close it. The Boundaries book reviews each of the main areas of your life – family, marriage, kids, work, church, and family of origin. I often use the book as a reference going back to it to read just one chapter on whatever area of my life I am struggling in.
The biggest lesson I have learned is that when I let my guard down and allow what I think other people want to overtake me, I need to pause and adjust my boundaries. In the past, I would think, “If she would just do this, then I could feel this.” Learning how to hold healthy boundaries has freed me from the thought that someone else can make me feel a certain way. It has caused me to focus on what I can control and what I am responsible for.
I am currently watching the TV series The Chosen for the third time. One of the things that I am struck with by Jesus’ example in that depiction is that He spent time with God and followed what God wanted, not what others wanted. He paused regularly to seek what His Father had for Him. I wish I could say I do this all the time. I don’t. But, I’m a work in progress, always striving to notice how I feel and how I am behaving and stopping to invite God to inform me who I am!
Kathleen: We all impact others’ lives. What’s the one thing you’ve learned about influence?
Andrea: Influence is a BIG word. With the rise of social media, becoming an “influencer” is sought after. For me, I feel it is a heavy weight. As soon as people are watching, whether online or off, I immediately get cocky and say something I don’t really believe. The thing I have learned about influence is that it is very important to be wise. My heart’s desire is to use my influence to give God glory, and I don’t mean that in a cheesy or churchy way. I mean that I struggle with a form of pride that is connected with “getting credit” for what I do.
When I find myself caught up in getting what’s due to me, I have taken my eyes completely off of God and how He has intended to honor me and chosen to focus on how I want to be seen. Influence is something that should be guarded and treated with great respect. For me, I must put my eyes on Jesus so that He is influencing me first before I am influencing others.
Kathleen Cooke: Your childhood and teen years were tumultuous, but God had His eyes of love and care on you. What would you tell a young person today who is living in a challenging or chaotic situation?
Gianna Simone: God has recently been teaching me that He is my provider, protector, and source of ultimate love. That He is enough, and in Him, I am never alone. People will love us but also let us down, which really hurts. Yet, He will NEVER let us down, disappoint us or abandon us. He keeps His promises – always has and always will. We will never be more loved than we are right now. He is truly for us and loves us more profoundly than we know or could understand.
Kathleen: Your life was one of constant uncertainty, and the media and entertainment industry is always rocky and challenging. Many might have given up, but you pushed forward. How do you decipher the ambitions you want from the perfect place God wants you to be in?
Gianna: Such a great question! Many years ago, I had an epiphany about this concept. I know God loves me and wants the best for me; therefore, I want what God wants for me. So, I asked God to help me see and desire the very best for my life and make my desires His desires, and vice versa. I want my will to be aligned with His will. If I feel a strong urge toward something that appears to be a good thing, I know to pursue it and act on it. It always seems to work out.
Oh… I still make mistakes. I am still human. There have been times when I have misread a situation and have had to re-assess and re-route and learn something from God that I didn’t see before. It’s all part of learning, growing, healing, and drawing closer to Jesus. I have seen and experienced lots of things in my life that I know I don’t want, which has shown me more of what I do want in my life—empowering me to move in a positive direction with confidence.
Kathleen: Fear is the word, isn’t it? How do you deal with the constant fear?
Gianna: Jesus tells us in Matthew 21:22, “Whatever you ask for in prayer BELIEVE you have received it and it WILL be given to you” Belief is so powerful, and fear can hold us back from accomplishing our mission(s). “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18) Every single time I have chosen faith/love/belief over fear, it has changed my life for the better. Whether it is speaking at the United Nations (my first ever public speaking event) or jumping out of an airplane (when it was the first time for me ever to have flown in one) or standing on a cliff and bungee jumping off it (my most recent challenge), I love breaking through and overcoming fear. It builds character and strength. The mind is so powerful, and so much of what we want is right on the other side of fear.
Kathleen: Often, we never know how God uses others to influence our lives. Can you tell us about an instance when someone influenced your life and how God used that person to change the direction of your life?
Gianna: When I was in foster care, I had tried taking my life and ended up in a hospital for young girls who had tried taking their own lives, too. I shared a room with another girl around the same age as me – about 15 years old. One night before bed, we were up talking, and I told her about Jesus. I had been attending church, and the messages were starting to make a lot of sense to me, but I hadn’t asked Jesus to come into my heart yet. The next morning, we were in a group setting, all sitting in a circle sharing our feelings and thoughts. She began sharing and started telling the counselor that she had given her life to Jesus the night before, and she no longer felt sad or suicidal any longer. I was in a bit of a shock that my thoughts had influenced her. God used my mustard seed sprouts for her belief.
It delighted me knowing that it had positively made a change in her life, but more profoundly, it impacted my own belief in God and His redemptive power. I soon got out of the hospital, kept attending church, and eventually asked Jesus to come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior. Very soon after I was saved, God blessed me with my modeling and acting career, which have all led me closer to Him and profoundly changed my life. I can attest that once you give your life over to the Lord, He sets you on the most incredibly fulfilling trajectory and mission in life.
Gianna Simone is an actress, model, and producer. Her film credits include, Star Trek: Into the Darkness, Mother’s Day, I Can Only Imagine, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, and God Bless the Broken Road. She has appeared in several national TV shows and on the covers of numerous national publications. She presently hosts Love, Gianna, which focuses on plant nutrition with top doctors and athletes. She serves as a board member for The Plantrician Project and identifies as a Christian vegan.
Originally born and raised in Boston, she was abused and placed in foster care at 13 years of age. Her story is focused on overcoming obstacles in life. She founded The Gianna Simone Foundation, which focuses on bringing hope and positive change to individuals who have been neglected and abused. She worked directly with Kigali University providing scholarships to survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She was honored to present her work, on behalf of her foundation, at the United Nations. She works tirelessly with numerous organizations that assist foster care youth, sex trafficked victims, and animal rescue agencies.
Visit Gianna’s website here.
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