From L.A. to Belgium

interview with Ann-Sophie Vanlommel

You might recognise Ann-Sophie Vanlommel for her roles in ‘De Kroongetuigen’, and more recently ‘Mainstream’. Fascinated by the performing arts ever since she was a little girl, Ann-Sophie moved to L.A. to pursue her dream of breaking through internationally. Now back from a three-year American adventure, Ann-Sophie has come to realise Belgium is more home than ever before.

Anne-Sophie Van Lommel. Image by Yvel Sagaille.

“I quickly learned that friendly people absolutely aren’t the same as kind people.”

As a child I loved dressing up and standing in front of the camera. Whether imagining myself Cleopatra or wielding a sword like Joan of Arc, I always chose women with strong feminine roles. Then I saw my cousin in a commercial with a well-known actor. As a 7-year-old, I was blown away and instantly knew I wanted to do the same thing. I contacted my cousin and that’s how it all started for me. I was offered a few commercials, which I loved doing, and my passion for acting was well and truly set alight. Sadly my fledging career was put on hold as I had to focus on school.

Someone close to me told me I would never make it as an actress. They told me that I would be better off focussing on studying something practical like journalism. And although I successfully completed my journalism degree in Belgium, I never really let go of my dream. Deep within my soul I knew I would always have to work extremely hard, but nothing in life feels quite as meaningful as performing. My hard work paid off and I landed a part in ‘De Kroongetuigen’, one of Flanders’ most popular series.

“Although I successfully completed my degree in journalism, I never let go of my dream of becoming an actress.”

It only served to further strengthen my resolve: I was going to be a professional actress. There was an acting course I really wanted to follow which was only on offer in L.A.. Obviously applying to study in the United States involved a lot of paperwork, as well as an audition. I had to record a monologue, which meant I had to prepare a script and empathise with a character I had chosen myself. Based on that audition tape I would be accepted or rejected.

When I was told in September 2017 that I was the last of the group to be accepted into the acting school, I was still living in Belgium and I was expected to start classes on October 19 2017. Packing up my life in Belgium, finding accommodation in L.A., applying for a visa, booking a flight and saying goodbye to everyone within a month was a huge rush. Thankfully, the school helped me arrange my M-1 visa, the student visa that allows you stay in America for one year, after which it needs renewing.

“It’s difficult to trust people when everyone is so superficial.”

I adapted to life in L.A. fairly quickly because I’m quite a flexible person. The worst thing was the bad food. No chance of getting a tasty sandwich with charcuterie, like we know in Belgium. Americans are generally friendly people, which makes you feel welcome. Belgians are more distant and reserved when you first meet them. However friendly doesn’t necessarily mean kind. Americans will make a great show of greeting you, but won’t hesitate to say something behind your back.

It’s the normal course of things there: you are polite to someone’s face, but as soon as they leave the room, it’s open season. It makes it difficult to trust people, because everyone is so superficial. It does mean you adjust your attitude towards people. Fortunately our international student circle had a different mentality. With all of us being in the same boat – in L.A. without parents, and under a limited visa – I found everyone quite sincere.

America is a Western country, but faith plays an important societal role, with many different types of belief systems. Around the corner from where I stayed there is, for example, “The Mosaic”, a spiritual church. A large stage welcomes you when you come in and the loud music has people swept up in a frenzy. At the other end of my street you can get baptised in a swimming pool.

“If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work, you can probably forget it here. You even run the risk of being deported.”

The average rent here for a one-room apartment is over $2,000 a month, which is a lot more than in Belgium. And that’s without gas, water and electricity. My roommate slept on the couch in the living room while I had the bedroom. Some people have to combine three jobs just to be able to pay for their housing. Without the support of my family, I would have been in trouble for sure.

Before my second M-1 visa ran out, I had to apply for an OPT visa, which means Optional Practical Training. This would allow me temporary work as a student. And despite the massive amount of paperwork it involved, I was insanely grateful to receive it the day after my graduation. Next up was my O-1B visa, a three-year artist visa, which I had to apply for before the one-month grace period following my OPT ended. Applications can take up to six months – doubling in time during COVID – and a lot of people run into trouble during the process. If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work in the given period of time, you can probably forget it, unless you’re really lucky. You even run the risk of being deported.

People think I was living the dream over in L.A., but it was mostly a 24/7 hustle and dealing with a lot of rejection. So many times I auditioned for gigs only to be turned away. You have to deal with constant disappointment. Yes, you can build a portfolio from scratch with student jobs, but big productions won’t hire you unless you either have a visa or are the golden girl they are willing to sponsor.

“If you’re not hired for jobs, you can’t take your portfolio to that next level. But if you don’t have a portfolio, they won’t hire you.”

Yes, I was free to pursue my dream and do what I’ve always wanted to do, but I was in a foreign country far away from family and friends and had to start from the bottom again. You have to be mentally strong to deal with all the challenges. The stress of arranging your visa, getting a job and paying your rent is relentless. It’s hard to keep going when you feel deflated and I was quite depressed when I first arrived there. You can’t count on anyone but yourself to pick you up off the floor. Despite all that, I kept going and was in the running for a few jobs, which helped me regain my confidence.

And then a virus suddenly took over the world and put everything on hold. Corona not only exposed the political divisions in America, it exposed centuries of repressed feelings that had been bubbling away below the surface. Thanks to the ongoing political tension and the debate about Black Lives Matter, which was openly conducted on the street, the situation became increasingly grim. It was dangerous to go outside. Lots of people flouted the corona rules anyway, but pharmacists near me saw their business shattered, helicopters flew over our apartment 24/7, and in other states people were shot or pelted with teargas. Even children were hurt in these riots.

“Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.”

As an immigrant, you keep quiet at that moment and stay indoors. First and foremost because of corona: if you get sick in L.A., the medical expenses are likely to bankrupt you unless you have a very expensive insurance. But less well-known here is that under Trump’s policy, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ed.) was scouring the protests to single out immigrants and deport them to their own country. With my visa application still being processed, I was afraid to go outside. It was even worse for immigrants of colour, like my Guatamalan roommate who – as a Latina – would have been singled out for deportation immediately. Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.

“Working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages.”

People in America tend to be a bit more gullible than Europeans, so they are more likely to be incited by something said or decided by government or politics. Belgium has its flaws but living in L.A. has opened my eyes to our country. We have a good education system and a strong safety net. In America I relied on ginger tea with lemon when I was sick, but I didn’t dare consult a doctor because of the excessive costs. There’s no OCMW or social security in America, as there is in Europe. In Belgium you can count on monthly financial support during the corona crisis, whereas in America I received a single stimulus check for the entire eight months I was there and unable to work due to the pandemic.

Returning to Belgium and working on my portfolio here has shown me that working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages. You can break through more easily when you’re fishing in a smaller pond. Moreover, Europe is no longer America’s little sister when it comes to acting. I feel that more qualitative projects are currently being launched in Europe than in America. Ultimately that’s what it’s all about for me: working on projects that offer added value and can affect me.

“I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight.”

Trump’s policies prevented me from having a fair chance as an actress in L.A.. I actually stayed there waiting for Biden to be elected, hoping he would change the immigration system. But I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight. The visa policy hasn’t changed yet, so I would have been stuck there, twiddling my thumbs. Obviously, things have gotten more difficult since Trump’s policy. In the past, your application was always reviewed and if you met three of the six necessary criteria, you had a good chance of getting a visa. Now you have to meet three of the six criteria for your application to even be considered. Unless you’ve won an award or a prize, you have no chance of getting a visa that allows you to work legally.

Now I’ve had some time to distance myself from L.A., I can finally breathe again. There’s no pressure to keep getting papers updated and organised, no anxious wait to see whether or not I am allowed to work in the country where I’m staying. The visa issue has dominated my life for years. Without consciously realising it at the time, I was under constant stress. Unless I’m offered a job in Belgium to work in L.A., like Veerle Baetens, or get a green card, I don’t see myself returning anytime soon.

I still dream of an international career, but coming back to your roots every now and then and coming back to life with both feet on the ground is the best learning experience you can have.

 

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