“I’ve always been a bit of a ham.”
Ashley Whillans has had a strange journey from child actor to a keynote speaker at this year’s Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference at UBC.
At age eight, she dragged her parents to an audition for The Sound of Music. “I didn’t get the part. I almost did, but after that I told my parents I wanted to get an agent,” she said. Acting wasn’t her main focus until after she graduated high school. “I moved out, got a serving job, got a better agent and started to audition.”
Ashley laughs when asked about what has been, to date, her most prominent role.
“They were looking for people who could make a disgusted face.” At a casting call for Juno, the producer and two directors told Ashley that her disgusted face was great, “and then all of a sudden it’s in the trailer…I’m pretty sure it’ll say in the eulogy that someone writes about me, after I have a career and everything, ‘And she was the stink-eye in Juno. That was the way her face looked.’”
Ashley has, for the most part, left the acting world behind.
“I used to be an actor, worked at a bar, got home at three. I had a totally different lifestyle before I went to school.”
She talks about working at Whineo’s on Granville, moving houses every year of her degree and turning down multiple marriage proposals from a Russian ambassador.
“The experiences that I had, say, working at the bar on Granville, gave me a lot of life experience.”
With her hard-earned cash, Ashley moved to England to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts—the London equivalent of Juilliard. “It turned out that at the end of it, I didn’t want to be an actor anymore.
“Looking back, everything makes sense…You get into acting because you’re interested in portraying characters, and you like doing character research, and are interested in different periods in which people lived. In psychology, it’s essentially that. In acting, you experience it. In psychology, you study it.”
Ashley is currently working towards an honours degree in psychology, and is studying happiness, well-being and pro-social behaviour with Dr Elizabeth Dunn.
Ashley’s constant smile is a mix of pride and sheepishness. It isn’t easy to land attractive research positions. “I didn’t get the job at first.”
After daringly requesting any position at all in the lab, a spot was opened up for Ashley, “and then the other girl in the project got a bit busy and she ended up dropping out of the project, and I became the project coordinator of a huge study in my third year.
“I didn’t expect any of this,” she confesses. Ashley won the Russ Patrick Award last year for research writing, and just got accepted to study at UBC as a Master’s/PhD student in psychology. “That just happened a couple of weeks ago, and that’s really exciting right now.
“What I take from the university experience is that you need to find ways to get involved that make you really happy,” she said.
“Find things that make you excited. I would really love to be teaching and researching. It’s a bit of a hoop dream because they’re not easy [jobs] to get. That’s what would make me super happy, if I got to have an office of my own and ‘Dr Whillans’ on the front.”