By: Anna Paula Goncalves
From foreign dreamer to global professional; what does it take to make the transition?
Meet Brazilian-born actress, activist and filmmaker, Luciana Faulhaber – someone who will inspire you to go after what sets your soul on fire, even if that means moving to a new country, by yourself, to do it. Which in Luciana’s case, was only half her story.
A little girl growing up in her home country of Brazil who tucked away her dreams of one day becoming an actress, only to uncover that same dream as an adult while in a new country, Luciana embarked on quite the journey. She was a scholarship recipient and received a summa cum laude Bachelor’s of Science degree from Fordham University, and then was admitted early to Columbia Graduate School of International and Political Affairs, and is now a member of SAG-AFTRA.
A working actress based in Los Angeles, she has acted alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Sir Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Lopez, Ted Danson, and Justin Chambers to name a few. She has even produced and directed some of her own projects purely for the love of the art. And yet somehow, learning about Luciana — engaging with her intellect and witnessing her poise — is what’s most impressive about her.
For our interview, I asked her about life experiences, cultural experiences and everything in between. And it became that much clearer that her overall journey has prepared her to do what she does, in a way that only she can do it.
Moving to a new city, a new country where the language, values and social norms are different, was a challenge.
Anna: Can you share about the move and the experience living and studying in a new country? Any culture shock/experiences?
Luciana: Moving to a new city, a new country where the language, values and social norms are different, was a challenge. My first year of college was the most difficult. Academically, I was at the top of my class but learning the cultural norms took some time. I remember girls showing up to class in pajamas, eating with their hands, and the physical distance from home really struck with me. Coming from a Latin American country, there is a certain level of formality I was raised with, that no longer had a place – yet at the same time as a culture we tend to be very physical, expressive and friendly. I had to learn about the “personal bubble” and that expression of affection was for close friends and family only. College was also the first time I was made aware that I was a person of “color.” In Brazil we are all mixed, I remember the year I moved, the census had 585 different self-proclaimed races or something like that. We were all different and all the same. Now I was brown and a foreigner. To the mainstream culture I was Latina, to the Latin community I was not “Latina enough.” I was actually kicked out of the group “Latinas Unidas” because they said Brazil wasn’t “Latin enough” even though it’s the largest country in Latin America. My friend who later on became a lawyer defended me saying if I wasn’t Latina, neither was she, because she was Puerto Rican. They kicked us both out. In retrospect this really encapsulates what it is like being an expat; you learn to assimilate to new cultures but in the process you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. You become a true global creature and start living by your own sense of right or wrong, instead of cultural expectations.
Today, as someone who is, shall we say, “Americanized” — and pulling from your experience when you first moved to the States — how would you say your decision to study politics helped shape what you stand for today, how you utilize your platform and maybe even interact with others, globally?
Education was the most important thing for my parents. Regardless of where life took us, both of them made sure we got the best education we could and education truly was what changed our lives. If it wasn’t for the education they worked so hard to give me, I wouldn’t have gotten that scholarship and I wouldn’t be here today. So I am a big believer of the transformative power of education because I am a great example of that. I wanted to go into politics to help implement educational programs in developing nations for the purpose of growth, peace and social change. Even though I loved my time at Columbia University with fellow like-minded people, I quickly learned the bureaucracy of the world and that very little change was actually accomplished on a policy level. That same year Brad and Angelina had adopted another child, and adoption rates in the US had increased 20 percent. It was a reminder that example is the leading action for change. Lead by example. So I went into the real world and continue to get my hands dirty with organizations that are advocates for change, such as the ACLU and Times Up now.
We can never get more of it and we never know how much we’ve got. I try to spend it wisely.
With this same passion that lead you to study politics and be an advocate for education, changing career paths then couldn’t have been easy. So I’d love to know how that challenging time during your career change served a bigger purpose in your life. What was the biggest lesson you learned and still carry with you?
I think I’m yet to learn my biggest lesson. But what I have learned so far is that no time or distance can separate you from family, and that family is not necessarily the group of people who you were born into. I have also learned that the most precious currency in life is time, not money. We can never get more of it and we never know how much we’ve got. I try to spend it wisely.
Family. Let’s dive more into your upbringing. You mentioned during an interview on a Brazilian TV show how you thought acting wasn’t “serious enough” for someone having grown up in the family you grew up in. So you went on to study International Politics at Columbia University Graduate School. Can you share more about your family dynamic and how their projection played a part in your decision making process?
When I was five years old I told my father I wanted to be an actress. He responded by saying it was unladylike to be on stage. Except for classical ballerinas. So at age six, I started classical ballet. Three years later my father passed away and my mother told me I could quit if I wanted to, and that was the end of my ballerina career. Now I laugh about this story but it’s a great example of how sexist and patriarchal the Latin American culture could be. I was lucky that my mother was a rebel (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say) and she decided she would not be in another traditional relationship. Instead, she spent all her time and resources working on giving us any opportunity we wanted to pursue. My mother sacrificed her life to give us the freedom to be anything we wanted and told us that constantly. She used to say she was “raising us for the world” and that she truly did. I’m the one that has to remind her of that now.
As a Brazilian myself, I know how our culture can somewhat dictate what we, as women, are “expected” to be by a certain age. Aside from your father imposing his cultural ideal on you, would you say that the Brazilian culture as a whole is something that you struggled with or needed to fight against being so independent and career driven?
Being a woman in this modern world is a tough one. It’s a constant dichotomy between old and new expectations. Being raised in a traditionalist country, I longed for the idea I was sold: a family, husband and kids. But being raised by a rebel mother who wanted me to be fully independent, I also wanted a career. This is a conundrum most women are faced with. However, the older I get, the more I see I don’t have to choose between one or the other. It really is a matter of finding a partner who also wants those things and who is open to a true partnership. Unfortunately, breaking cultural cycles takes work and awareness. It’s amazing how we easily fall into observed patterns even when we are aiming for change. I hear from a lot of my friends that they wanted to be different mothers but are amazed how similar they have become to their own. Learned patterns are powerful and that is the reason a true critical-thinking-based education is so important.
Do you find yourself needing to adapt to different cultures when you’re working on set? Whether it be your behavior to match the cultural norm of the country you’re in or even understanding the cultural norm of a different country so that you don’t have unrealistic expectations of how you “should” be interacted with or spoken to?
Absolutely. But that is true not only locally, but also globally. Everything has its unique culture: a new set, a new office, a new group of friends, a new city. You have to really “read the room,” everywhere you go if you want to succeed and make friends. As an actor, I feel like I have an advantage because part of my job is to observe and listen. That is the key to most things in life as well, I believe.
As for the atmosphere in the workplace in the U.S. versus other places in the world, what are some of the cultural differences? Anything you wish our country would learn from other countries?
I have only worked in two countries that are culturally very different. But observing countries like Canada and even most European nations, there is this commitment to quality of life that is missing in the US and in Latin America. This culture of “not enough” drives us to endless work hours. We all have a responsibility to work toward changing that.
You mentioned earlier “time as a currency.” I’d love to switch gears and talk about your time traveling, for work and for leisure. Would you say the experiences are exactly how you thought they would be? What’s different? What do you love? And what do you dislike?
What I love the most about getting to travel so much is listening. It’s amazing what kind of information people volunteer to share if you just listen. As an approachable woman, (usually with a cute dog!) people tend to sit next to me and just talk: airports, coffee shops, events. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was from a woman I met at the Tompkins Square dog park in NYC. She said to me: “When you feel uncomfortable somewhere, maybe you are alone or don’t know what to do, just stand and smile. Smile at everyone and people will just come and talk to you.” She continued, “People want to talk to the happy person in the room.”
I don’t remember her name but I never forgot her advice. I use it all the time. Turns out a smile, like tears, is a global language that we all understand. I, too, now find myself always looking for the happy people in any room. It might sound chiché, but it is true: you’re never fully dressed without a smile.
A stranger gave you an advice that you now carry with you. Can you maybe recall anything that was inspiring? Something that you heard, saw, or experienced during your travels that was worth carrying with you — professionally, personally or both?
Contentment. I spent a month in Bali once doing some creative work and the word contentment kept popping up. At the time I thought contentment wasn’t good enough. I wanted exhilaration, excitement and happiness. I spent that time talking and listening to the locals who were to this day, some of the most amazing people I have ever met, and they had so little but seemed so…content. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that without contentment, you don’t have the other stuff. There is no happiness without contentment with yourself and your life. Acceptance is so powerful. Years later I still see the word “contentment” everywhere I go and it makes me smile. It’s a daily effort.
Today, you have proven that a girl from a third-world country can take the leap into a different country, change her “original plans,” pave her own path — against cultural expectations — and succeed in the pursuit. What has kept you going in an industry where there is so much uncertainty?
Love. Love for what I do and for the people in my life. When things get really tough I think if there is anything else I’d like to do with this one life. The answer is always no. Then I think of all the people, the ones I am aware of and the ones I don’t even know about, and their efforts to help me in my pursuit. It’s amazing how big of a difference small gestures can make. I urge those who read this article to think about that. When you are alone in a foreign country, away from your family and the people who know you, with no safe haven, every little bit of support counts. I read something recently that said that every time you think of quitting you offend all the people who worked hard to get you to where you are. That really resonated with me.
It’s admirable to see your love for what you do and just as admirable to see your commitment to using your platform to speak against injustice. What are some of the activism work you are currently working on? And how can people get involved?
Thank you for saying that, but I feel like I am just a small part of something so big. My objective in life is to lead by example, so if sharing my experiences will help at least one person who is struggling, I have accomplished what I set to do even though it’s tough to feel this vulnerable and exposed.
Growing up, my mother always talked about people who did “charity” work but didn’t help those around them. She always made an effort to help those nearest to us, achieve a better life. I have other fantastic women around me and together we found outlets to support and a community to be a part of. As my mother taught me, my advice is to start locally. See what organizations are available around you from your local PTA to the office support group. You might think what you are doing is too small, but the ripple effect of change is amazing. Happier people are kinder, more helpful, more open to the world around them.
Do you have any advice for creatives and storytellers, globally, dreaming about mustering up the courage to listen to their inner voice and just go for it?
Ask yourself constantly: What do you want to do with this one and only precious life? If you only hear one answer you don’t have much of a choice, do you? I have learned that there is never a right time in life. You just have to take a leap of faith.
It’s been a pleasure learning more about you, Luciana. Please let the readers know what to look out for from you — you have quite the lineup of projects coming up!
I am honored you have shared your time with me and provided me with this opportunity to speak. One of the positive consequences of the internet is to know you are not alone. I hope all global wanderers and culture surfers like me, find safe harbor and inspiration in this article. Our generation seems more comfortable physically exposed than emotionally vulnerable, and I hope that we can change that together. If you’d like to stay in touch and follow my journey, follow me on Instagram [@LucianaFaulhaberOfficial]. Here you can find out about upcoming projects, see the ups and downs of navigating cultures and the story of a girl who moved to America from a third world country in pursuit of her dream.
So back to the original question…
From foreign dreamer to global professional; what does it take to make the transition?
It takes embracing where you come from and where you find yourself right now, first and foremost. And it takes commitment; commitment towards living life with grit and with meaning, commitment towards loving yourself and your craft [unapologetically], and commitment to never stop learning.