Life has been a wild ride for Rivera Reese since the Sylvan Lake native followed her thespian dreams to New York City.
Between playing super-villain Nebula in a Marvel touring show and a rouge-ish gang-leader in a Netflix and Fever immersive production, Reese has been flexing her dramatic and stage fighting muscles since moving to the Big Apple in 2012.
Pursuing work has sometimes been “exhausting,” she admits, but never boring.
“I get to be in these projects that people are really excited about,” says Reese — whether she’s playing “a half-robot woman who swings a flaming sword,” or a mastermind thief who draws audience members into the imaginative action. “I get to be in these events that people enjoy.”
The former Red Deer College theatre and motion picture arts student left central Alberta to study acting in the same environment where two of her theatre instructors learned their skills. “It had been a dream of mine since visiting New York with my family in 2007…”
She attended the William Esper Meisner School of Acting for two years and took a four-week course at the New York Film Academy.
While bartending in Queens to pay her bills, Reese started auditioning for roles. She soon learned to turn her nervousness into excitement rather than fear, but felt the frustration of “putting yourself out there” only to feel criticized and judged.
“I still remind myself with every audition that this isn’t the most important thing in the world. In fact, it’s when I truly do not need the work that I land the work.”
Her first break came with an audition for All For One, a Three Musketeers-inspired theme park stage show that went on tour.
Reese had luckily kept up her stage combat skills, learned from instructor Thomas Usher at RDC. “I saw they needed a woman with stage combat skills to play their lead villain, I knew I had to take a…stab…at it,” she jokes.
Reese was cast as Milady DeWinter, “where I got to swing on ropes, beat up the queen, and throw a grenade at those meddlesome musketeers.”
This “fun couple summers of work” led to the opportunity to play Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy in a live-action stunt show, Marvel Universe Live international tour.
“I play the main villain— typecasting is real!” Reese jokes.
She calls it “one of my most physically-demanding jobs,” where she uses Kali stick-fighting martial arts techniques against Marvel’s mightiest heroes, “with sword fighting, circus tricks, fire spinning…”
Reese will be reprising the Nebula role for another Marvel tour in April 2022.
Meanwhile, she completed an off-Broadway run of an original sci-fi work called Alma Baya, where she played “an enigmatic survivalist on a hostile planet.”
Reese also acted in a series of short films: “I shot a zombie movie in Idaho, played a foul-mouthed bartender from New Jersey, was a teleporting hit-woman trying to retire, and a mute post-apocalyptic terrorist…”
Her current project is a co-production between Netflix and the U.S. company Fever, called Money Heist: The Experience – NYC. It’s based on a popular Netflix show of the same name (Spanish title: La Casa del Papel). The immersive show takes the whole audience hostage for a theatrical bank robbery.
Reese plays Shanghai, the ringleader, who enlists audience members as new gang recruits. “It’s a great time because we all get to dress in the show’s iconic red jumpsuits and Salvador Dali masks.”
She’s encouraged that theatre has recently re-launched after the pandemic.
In mid-2020, she was “devastated” to hear RDC’s acting programs in theatre and film were being cancelled due to low enrolment. Her now-retired parents, Larry Reese and Tanya Ryga, previously taught theatre and film at RDC.
Beyond this family connection, she said, “I built my dreams around knowing that high level education and production experience was available in my home city. I felt comfortable jumping to professional-level work with real applicable experience that I am now aware most other schools …do not offer.”
Reese’s parents were encouraging about her career choice — but cautioned about having realistic expectations.
“The instability between jobs can be a challenge,” she admits. “Also, it’s difficult to go long periods without seeing my family.”
She hopes other stage-struck people will follow their dreams with open eyes: “More than school, more than determination, more than talent, it’s about who you know,” she stressed.
While joining colleagues who produce their own work is always a good idea, “understand this…it can take years to get consistent creative work.”
She therefore advises “don’t just focus on acting, but also on other interests. Whether it’s a musical instrument, stand-up comedy, or stage combat, have more than just acting going on in your life.”
In the meantime, “keep auditioning,” added Reese, who hopes to eventually be able to return to Alberta to do some film or theatre work.