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Rising Stars: Meet Conner Wharton

Today we’d like to introduce you to Conner Wharton.

Conner, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I realized I had an interest in performing at the ripe age of four—upon discovering an insurmountable need for attention and wigs. I loved musical theatre, Saturday Night Live (Chris Farley should probably not be a five-year-old’s idol), and any opportunity to make someone laugh, even for just a moment. I still do.

Growing up in a small, three-traffic-light of a town in southwest Virginia, I spent summers at the local drive-in and became charmed by storytelling, partly due to my home’s isolated mountains that force communities to rely on one another for entertainment. With a father as a pilot, my parents believed there was no better education than traveling and learning about the lives we are fortunate enough to share a world with. Inspired by this childhood that took me to over forty countries, I co-created and hosted a web series when I was 16 about travel and cultural exchange among teenagers living in rural communities called “Where I’m From.” For the pilot, I traveled to Edisto Island, South Carolina to highlight the Gullah Geechee culture and to spend time with local teenagers. After high school, I moved to Los Angeles to study English and film at UCLA, and somehow time (though it is merely a social construct) moved too quickly, and I graduated this past spring.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
No roads are smooth and there’s always a pothole of disappointment looming in the distance, particularly for artists. I often struggle to call myself an artist or anything that requires me to explain away what I have done and what I have not done. Most professions seem to never run into this problem. Unless you’ve gone to school to become a doctor or a lawyer, you cannot call yourself one. On the other hand, anyone can call themself an artist without any bolstering proof. This is what makes art so beautiful yet mercurial. If anyone can be an artist, how does one stand out or make a life of it? How do you explain a life shrouded in roundabout paths and inconsistent jobs—nay, gigs? As someone who loves daily planners, order, and the container store, the unpredictability becomes difficult to process. However, knowing that everyone struggles with this makes it a tad bit better. Just a tad.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I act, write, edit, and dabble in various film formats, including Super 8. Most recently, for one of my final school projects, I created a Super 8 film of Appalachian railroad tunnels, bridges, hiking trails, my yard—spaces neglected long before the pandemic. For me, it became part of a winter restlessness during the pandemic, tightening the indirection of ambling in abandonment. At the moment, I’m taking various classes, studying voiceover, and penciling in intermittent crises throughout the day to reflect on no longer being a college student. In the fall, I’ll return home to help film and edit an intergenerational project documenting the lives and stories of Appalachian women.

My proudest work came the summer after my freshman year. With my good friend and colleague, Mark Salyer, I co-wrote and starred in a short film, “Ladies Most Deject,” which examines the impact of America’s drug crisis, focusing on the most overlooked and unwarranted victims of Appalachia’s opioid epidemic: the children of substance abusers. I play Charlie, a seventeen-year-old who is forced to navigate high school and take on the role of caring for her three younger siblings as her mother’s addiction and substance abuse worsen. We shot it entirely in my Appalachian hometown, with most of our cast and much of our crew composed of locals. The story was inspired by friends, classmates, and family members whose lives have been irrevocably devastated by substance abuse, especially their childhoods. The short is a film of compassion, showcasing the resilience and strength of these children and the duty a community must accept in order to help them. “Ladies Most Deject” was selected in over 35 festivals, garnered several awards, and now serves as an educational video among schools in the area.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
I was privileged to spend my past year in the safety of my home with my family in Virginia. My last year of school was spent in a zoom box in my room. But it was also spent canning food with my family, riding bikes in my yard, and going through all of my childhood toys. Ultimately, I’m learning to take life day by day, to be firmly rooted in the present moment, and to accept that there is no such thing as uninterrupted happiness. During much of the pandemic, many of us were looking toward past times for comfort and future times for hope, anything to dilute the interminability of the moment at hand—not knowing when and how we could recover. Gluing oneself to the moment sounds cliché and is repeated in every acting class, but it’s perhaps one of the hardest and most important lessons I am learning. Maybe that’s why I love watching children act, beaming with their full emotional accessibility. They have very little perception of the past and future; they only have what is right in front of them.

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Image Credits:

“Ladies Most Deject” Stills: ARAY Productions Headshot: Deidhra Fahey Photography

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