Without her South Mississippi past, Devin Ladner wouldn't have been able to watch her short film "LILITH" premiere in Hollywood next month.
Ladner, a native of Kiln, said her life experiences are what helped define her future in acting and filmmaking in Los Angeles.
When she was a child, Ladner tried gymnastics for a year. She played softball, twirled a baton and tried playing the piano and flute. But nothing ever stuck until her freshman year at Hancock High.
She took a theater appreciation class -- and was hooked.
"I joined drama club at the end of freshman year," she said.
In 2008, she won best supporting actress at the Mississippi Theatre Awards for her role is Elise in the play "Gorgeous Raptors."
She began acting with the Bay St. Louis Little Theatre in college. It was there when she landed her most difficult role, a mother named Becca who was grieving after losing her son in the play "The Rabbit Hole."
"I had no idea what it was like to be a mom or a mom who lost her child," she said.
Ladner's grandmother attended the play. At one point, Becca asks her mother if the grief ever goes away.
Ladner's grandmother, who lost a son when he was in his 20s, replied "No" from the audience.
Ladner said hearing her grandmother's voice in the audience connected them and validated her love for performing arts.
Career on hold
Ladner wanted to move to Hollywood to pursue acting, but she instead chose to attend college at the University of Southern Mississippi. She chose USM to be near her boyfriend. But when the two split after five years when she was 19, Ladner said she felt lost.
"I was at a school that I didn't want to go to. I realized I didn't have any friends because all of my friends were his friends. I really didn't know who I was."
Things only got worse for Ladner later that year.
She met a co-worker out at a bar in Gulfport for drinks. Ladner said she drank too much and got sick. The next morning, she woke up to the man raping her.
"I didn't have the chance to say no," she said. "I was so hurt by all of it when I woke up that I couldn't say anything."
Hurt and confused, Ladner decided to seek help from a therapist at the mental health clinic in Bay St. Louis.
"When you're on the ground at the worst you can possibly be, you're the only person that can pick you back up," Ladner said.
Her therapist encouraged her to start putting her thoughts and emotion on paper, so she started writing poetry and became inspired by reading feminist works.
"I thought it (the rape) was my fault," she said. Learning more about rape and sexual abuse and women in general showed me how much things needed to be changed."
After completing the fall 2011 semester at USM, Ladner told her family she wouldn't be returning to school. She was ready to move to Hollywood.
California, here she comes
Ladner said her family was supportive of her decision.
"My mom, dad and brother are my best friends," she said.
From January to August 2012, Ladner lived with her parents in Diamondhead and worked four jobs to save up $5,000 to move.
"I worked my butt off," she said. "I wanted to get out as fast as I could."
With the help of a friend, she found an apartment and a job serving at a restaurant.
She said finances can sometimes get low, and she struggles living so far from her family. But she has no plans to return to Hancock County.
"I really wanted to do this," she said. "It's never been an idea in my mind to give up and go back home. I'm pursuing my dream."
Big goals, big success
Ladner took acting classes as soon as she got to Los Angeles, but she quit those to audition for as many roles as she could. She landed roles in plays and short films, but she wanted to create something based on her experiences.
A friend persuaded her to sit down and put her thoughts on paper, and the screenplay "LILITH" was born.
"Feminism and helping women became such a big, big part of me," she said.
The short film is set in a parallel universe. Men keep all of the women in the city in cages and treat them as commodities. Women receive an implant that makes them deaf, so they are unable to communicate with each other. From the time they are 5 years old, they are taught only one skill.
"They severely lack education," Ladner said.
Lilith is a test by the city to try something different. They decide she will be a singer, so she must be able to hear and speak. She doesn't receive an implant.
Ladner says Lilith's voice leads her to challenge the patriarchal society she lives in, and eventually is a leader in its collapse.
"She was the first woman who has a voice," Ladner said. "The voice is what gets power, and the power awakens her."
Ladner raised $16,000 to fund the production of the film by going to Kickstarter.com, a website that bills itself as "the world's largest funding platform for creative projects." She said more than half the money raised came from Mississippi residents.
The money raised helped fund a team to make "LILITH" happen, Ladner said.
"There are so many young people pursuing a dream that are so talented, but they're under the impression we need to get other people to let us in on the game," she said. "Why aren't we doing it ourselves?"
The "LILITH" team is composed of 12 primary actors plus Ladner, a director, costume designer, director of photography, composer, special effects coordinator and producer.
Ladner said she hopes "LILITH" will premiere in Hollywood in March, and in South Mississippi shortly after.
"I told the director we will definitely premiere it in Mississippi," she said.