I recently spoke to Hollywood actress and SGI member Cathryn de Prume about her Buddhist practice and her career. She generously made time to do a Skype interview in between red carpet appearances promoting the launch of her new Oscar-nominated film Wild, where she appears opposite Reese Witherspoon. An SGI district leader in Los Angeles, Cathryn has been chanting for 30 years. She had her first big professional break in a role with Jodie Foster in Five Corners in 1987. But perhaps the biggest achievement of her life is introducing more than 100 people to Buddhism, including her Mum, Dad and two brothers! My thanks to all the readers who suggested questions for this interview and to Cathryn for her warm, wise and uplifting words.
Were you always religious?
CdeP: I was spiritual from a very young age, I would go to church on my own aged 7. And as a teenager I became a born-again Christian. After that I explored meditation. Then I was taught how to chant by a waiter in a restaurant where I worked. At first I found some of the Buddhists a bit weird 🙂 and I had a very strict leader in the early days of my practice, but I soon realised that SGI is an inspirational movement that provides an amazing support system.
Why do you think that so many artists and actors are attracted to Nichiren Buddhism?
CdeP: Well it’s a roller coaster life! It’s hard earning a living as an artist, because it can be feast or famine. So I find that the practice brings an inner stability to handle the ‘eight winds’ identified by Nichiren (prosperity, disgrace, honour, praise, pleasure, censure, sufferings and decline). As he said, a truly wise person ‘is neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline’. I think the other reason is that artists tend to have a very strong seeking spirit. We want to go deeper into life and find the answers.
What do you feel is the dominant life state of people in Hollywood?
CdeP: I hate to say it but, animality. We can tend to have so much fear, even the most successful actors, because the profession is so unpredictable. And then it can easily be all about ego, about being concerned with what people think of you. But with the real movers and shakers who I’ve met, such as heads of studios, acclaimed directors, many ‘A list’ actors; do you know what I’ve noticed? They are kind. They are warm, they have courage and compassion. They have a high life condition and that’s why they do well in Hollywood. Thanks to my Buddhist practice, I can develop myself. It’s a daily practice, like brushing your teeth, and I do it every day because otherwise the plaque comes back! Chanting creates a higher life condition. And when you have a high life condition, you make better causes for your own and others’ happiness.
Were you like that before you started to practise Buddhism?
CdeP: No. When I started out, acting was my obsession. It was all I chanted for. It kind of worked. Early in my practice I was hired on a low budget movie which meant I couldn’t participate in a major SGI activity at the time. After chanting about it, this wisdom came up in me to pull out of the film. I gave my all to the activity instead, which included encouraging many other young women. The next day I was offered the part in Five Corners, the movie that launched my career. The movie I had turned down never even got finished. I have learned now to trust and make these leaps of faith based on my chanting and as a result have created one miracle after another.
How do you handle rejection when auditions don’t work out?
CdeP: I try not to focus on it. It helps when I remember that Buddhism is a practice for self and others. To me the key difference between Nichiren Buddhism and popular self-help practices, (such as the Law of Attraction) is that they’re focused solely on oneself. When I’m not busy doing the work I wish I was, I’ll go and chant with someone in their home (a strong tradition in SGI). By supporting someone else, I grow my own life. This organisation and this practice give me the opportunity to support other people, therefore cultivating my compassion, giving me a broader perspective that includes my family, community, society, the world.
How do you deal with the pressure to look perfect in your industry?
CdeP: Actually I think that’s a bit of a myth. There isn’t that pressure to look perfect. There are loads of actors who don’t look perfect, we come in all shapes and sizes. And neither Reese nor I wear make-up in Wild. You gotta love your wrinkles if you want to represent humanity! All kidding aside, sure there are the lead roles that tend to go to young beautiful women but I’m interested in playing all kinds of women. I don’t have to be the lead.
Does Wild have a message and if so, what is it?
CdeP: From a Buddhist perspective? To honour and appreciate all aspects of your life. And to understand that there is Buddhahood in everyone, no matter what your past.
What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self?
CdeP: “You’re OK. It’s all going to be OK. And it’s OK to fail.” Because in those days I was putting so much pressure on myself.
What is your favourite gosho quote?
CdeP: “A blue fly, if it clings to the tail of a thoroughbred horse, can travel ten thousand miles.” SGI is that horse and we can travel so much farther than we could on our own. We can create peace right where we are with people we would not normally connect with by getting involved in a district, (a group of 15 – 25 people who practise together). The SGI organisation is set up brilliantly. It gives a person the opportunity to raise their life condition by chanting and supporting others. When one person becomes happy they influence those around them. Eventually our hope is that this will create world peace.
Which Buddhist teaching do you find most challenging to believe?
CdeP: That I am a Buddha. That I have all the power within me.
And if you could teach anyone in the world to chant, who would it be?
CdeP: It would be a teenage girl on the verge of making a big decision, someone at a fork in the road. Because teenagers and youth are our hope. They’re the future. They can change the world. But they can also destroy themselves. There’s nothing more exciting than introducing someone to the practice and watching their life change.
If you like this interview, you can read more from Cathryn in my book, The Buddha in Me, the Buddha in You, available now for pre-order from Amazon UK (publication date: Feb 2016)