Rock Star: How World Class Geophysicist Julie Oliver-Touchstone Found her second life and female empowerment as an indie movie actor

Julie is a force for good in the theatre and artistic world; her bold, seemingly fearless life is an inspiration. What we found most fascinating in this interview, though, was that Julie has struggled with depression. Her path through darkness to a life of radiance is nothing short of a true story of a feminine Renaissance. Meet an artist, scientist, and human whose rebirth is authentically beautiful.

When you first meet Julie Oliver-Touchstone you notice her beautiful, lilting voice which is so harmoniously gentle that she could make reading the phonebook sound like a Regency Era literary classic.  You then get to the nitty gritty, to the woman that has emerged through a lifetime of highs and lows, as the warm, glorious creature you see before you; the beautiful and wizened crone (a designation of which she is VERY proud) who is mistress of her destiny.  We chatted about her latest big screen project, The Dark and the Wicked, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, via video conference as is right and proper during this time.  Relaxing in her condominium nestled in the trees above the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, she describes it as a magical treehouse with a lovely view of the woods surrounding her. 

Last year she informally adopted a family of raccoons as her feral fur babies after they began visiting her balcony.  She now hand feeds them and has named the two kits born this year, Frick and Frack.  Enchanting!  Not the presence of a woman whose latest turn on the big screen as a woman tending to her dying husband and fighting to stay on her family farm is both terrifying and unsettling.  The Dark and the Wicked is a performance culmination of her life’s experiences, and a celebration of Julie’s taking control of and owning her own female empowerment.

Born and raised in Dallas, her Texas roots are deep; her grandfather received an FDR land grant.  Her Aunt Polly won blue ribbons at the annual Texas State Fair for her famous Polly Pies;  Chuck Norris is reportedly a huge fan and was a regular at the café in Forney, Texas that served them.  Her grandparents, called Big-O and Nanny, had a farm where Julie learned to ride horses by the time she was three.  Her parents ensured that their children were well grounded and attended public schools even though they had the means for private education.  During her formative years, her mother introduced her children to the magic of theater by taking them to performances at Theater Three, Dallas Theater Center, and the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, which exposed them to performers from around the country, including Morgan Freeman in the titular role of Othello.  During a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Southern Methodist University, five-year-old Julie was paying such rapt attention that during the tomb scene she jumped up and shouted from the audience “She’s not dead!”  Her mother enrolled her in drama class in sixth grade where she was cast in Cinderella.  During one scene a missed cue by an actor left Julie alone onstage where she improvised to cover the gaffe.  She LOVED it and knew she found a calling.

As ideal as her childhood was, things took a dark turn during her senior year of high school when she was diagnosed with clinical depression and suicidal ideation.  Her first thoughts of taking her own life were at age seventeen but lucky for her, and all of us, she was unable to follow through.  Of that experience she says “If I could go back in time to visit my seventeen-year-old suicidal self, lying on the cold tiled bathroom floor with a razor held over her wrist, I’d say, “You won’t BELIEVE what’s going to happen!”  Despite her health struggles she still managed to graduate magna cum laude from Highland Park High School and immediately enrolled at Austin College in Sherman, Texas “based on the proximity to my psychiatrist in the Dallas area.  I visited him twice a week, and he saved my life.”  Of a failed romantic relationship during her sophomore year she says, “I thought I was going to be lonely all of my life.  With neurosis, depression, you’re not really socially great.  I was an odd duck.  I was a social outcast, both in high school and in college.  Low self-esteem doesn’t even begin to capture that feeling.  I took 88 aspirin one night and then vomited them up.”  She points out that before this attempt she gave no one any indication that she was intending to end her life and wants others to know this, “Watch your friends if they are talking about suicide.  It’s when they stop talking about it that you really need to worry.”  This survival was her wake up call.  At the time she was majoring in pre-med but realized that was not the path intended for her so she switched to “Communication Arts,” aka “Theater.”  She also realized that since she couldn’t die, she instead had to learn how to live.  “Live or die, but don’t poison everything around you,” a quote by Anne Sexton, became her mantra.  She made it through college with the help of good friends, her tribe and band of misfits, and theater.  She earned a BA in Communication Arts in 1977.  It took lots of hard work to power through the depression including a change of diet and exercise.  “If I could get to the YWCA and fall into the pool I would swim, those endorphins would kick in, and I would make it through another day.”  She said one day, “God, everyone else seems to have the desire to live, I’d like mine please.”  And it happened. By age 27 she was back on a healthy path for life.

Julie lacked the confidence to move to New York to try her hand as a professional actor and eventually landed a position she enjoyed as gastroenterology research lab tech.  After the results from an aptitude test pointed Julie towards the sciences, she enrolled in junior college to earn physics and calculus credits, then applied to graduate school at Texas A & M where she earned a Master of Science in Geology.  Most of her career as a geophysicist was with Veritas (now CGG), a geophysical processing company based in Houston, where she earned admiration, respect, and accolades from her peers in what is a very male-dominated field.  Work was often difficult, stressful, and time consuming.  She recalls during the run of The Hollow at the Company OnStage in Houston, working all day, going to the theater that evening to perform, then immediately leaving after the 10:30 p.m. curtain call to go back to work to have a project finished by mid-morning.  Her team won an industry innovation award for developing the first sub-salt dome imaging in the Gulf of Mexico; her $1,000.00 was spent on an expensive business suit.  “When you are presenting to Exxon, Texaco, and Chevron, if you look like an authority figure, they listen to you.” She also developed a reputation for being able to work through communication and language barriers among peers which allowed them to be better communicators themselves.  “My theater degree really came into play in physical and vocal communication.”  Unfortunately, as happens to many, she was downsized on February 13, 2017.  She took it in stride because she had started taking film and acting classes to improve her acting skills.

Theater and performance were never far from her heart, and after she earned her undergraduate degree she did some work with the Dallas Shakespeare Festival where she met and became lifelong close friends with Jim Beaver.  He once gave her some very sage advice about landing a role: “It’s not that I’m good, it’s that I’m available.” (Mind you when she reminded him of this sage advice he didn’t remember giving it but she never forgot it).  She has performed with both amateur and professional theaters including The Ensemble Theatre, The Company OnStage, Classical Theatre Company, Pandora Theatre, Obsidian Theater, Theatre Southwest, and Wordsmyth Theater Company, all in Houston, as well as Theatre Three in Dallas and Harbor Playhouse in Corpus Christi.  At Scarborough Faire in the 1980s she played Eleanor, Duchess of Rutland.  At the Texas Renaissance Festival, she flexed her improv muscles with zany peasant characters Hattie Snatch and Pearl Weatherwax. 

Production still from Dropa, available on Showtime streaming

For her screen credits, take a peek at her profile on IMDB and you’ll find she is in some fantastic company.   She has worked with the likes of Jason Douglas, who boasts acting credits in Dropa, The Walking Dead, and Jack Reacher; Josh Bass, who directed her in her first small local film, a satire called Ninjews: Goy-L Trouble.  In 2012 she appeared in her first feature film, Backroad and formed a lasting friendship with director Wayne Slaten.  Helpful advice from Bass later helped her land a role in 2017 in Season 2 of the AMC series Preacher as Gran’Ma.  The audition for The Dark and the Wicked came along in the fall of 2018, leading her to cross an item off her performance bucket list: performing a scene as an older woman, completely nude.

On a secluded farm in a nondescript rural town, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family,” is how the The Dark and the Wicked is described.  Around the time she landed the part, Julie had testified in a trial against an individual who was harassing and terrorizing members of her residential community through acts of vandalism, retaliatory acts, and even fraudulent claims to state agencies.  While it was later determined that the perpetrator was in violation of a restraining order and would eventually be further restrained, at the time there seemed to be no recourse for Julie.  She genuinely feared for her safety but vowed that this person would not be allowed to hold that power of terror over her nor drive her from her home as had happened to several others.  The invitation to audition for The Dark and the Wicked came during the worst of the legal battle, and in preparing for the taped audition, while fighting her near crippling fear and anxiety, she remembered something her acting teacher, Deke Anderson, had once told his class: “If something is happening in your life, don’t be indulgent, but if this really is happening to you, then you use it if it’s true to the character.”  She was directed to imagine a relentless and unstoppable evil. She exhaled and instead of resisting those emotions of dread with determination, she let them flow over her and nailed that video audition.  Her endurance through that trial, and the emotional toll it took more than prepared her for the role of a woman whose husband is dying and who cannot bring herself to leave their beloved farm.

The Dark and the Wicked is available on Amazon Prime, various streaming services, and in a few select theaters.

Before filming began in February 2019, over a breakfast meeting, one of the producers shared with Julie that the choice to cast her required no discussion; it had been unanimous among the production staff.  What had its roots in a dark moment of her life transformed into a very bright spot.  Even so, her character is in emotional turmoil.  Bryan Bertino directed her as to the tempo of a particular scene (no spoilers here!) but gave her the leeway to make sound performance choices befitting the character and the tone of the story.  She decided that the emotional pain should be so deep that physical pain would be a welcome relief.  Realism was paramount, the idea being that watching it would convey overwhelming grief allowing for an empathetic response from the audience and for them to grieve as well.  For Julie there was no pain greater than the recent loss of a friend’s beloved beautiful four-year-old son from influenza that, with her friend’s permission, she drew upon to make that emotional connection, and it worked.  Julie’s performance is magnificent and heartbreaking; she does not take for granted the difficulty of her performance.

What about that nude scene?  “I read the script, saw it and immediately thought, ‘My dream has always been to a nude scene when I was 80.'”  She laughs, “I guess I missed it by a few years.”  At her audition, the director and designers discussed whether to have her nude or in a nightgown for that particular scene in the film.  Nudity, it was decided, would be more unsettling and distressing for her character’s son; during filming Julie took full advantage of its inherent feral and primal nature, demonstrative of power rather than sexuality.  Despite the dark and ominous tones of the film and of the filming experience, there was room for humor as well.  It was also discussed at her audition whether she was to wear a merkin or go without.  The director and designers, most of whom were many years younger than Julie, were not aware that women “of an age” become hairless in their nether regions.  She was asked to disrobe, and her body inspected with and without the merkin, the female costumer and makeup artist close in attendance. 

At first Bryan appeared completely abashed but quickly stepped into director mode.  He took a step back, looked her up and down and declared “I like this.”  The entire process was very professional and matter-of-fact.  The one-night shoot was outdoors, in a bone-chilling 33 degrees, but the crew were pros at keeping her warm with heaters in the break tent and by singing Beach Boys songs with Julie in between takes.  Her experience as a life drawing model years earlier also proved useful.  “Separate yourself.  Set yourself in your pose, drop robe, and you’re there.  That creates a wall and a comfort zone for everyone… When they called ‘action,’ the costume designer would grab my robe and jump out of the shot so they could film.”  She adds “All of my other scenes before this one were just DRAINING, but this one was so much fun!  When you think it’s darkest sometimes amazing things can come out of great pain.  Talk to someone if you have great pain.  There is no guarantee it’s going to be better, but you never know.”  It was the single most empowering experience of her life.  

Julie can be found on IMDB here:

Her comprehensive acting resume can be found with Pastorini-Bosby:

Stacy A. Bakri was a performer with the Texas Renaissance Festival for thirteen seasons including nine as the Assistant Director for the Performance Company.  She is an Estate Planning and Probate paraprofessional and currently serves as the Artistic Director the Company OnStage Theater in Houston, Texas.

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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