Alumnus Leans on Academy-Learned Skills for 'The First Volunteers'

Academy of Art University alumnus Fred Charles took a number of detours in his quest to become an actor. During his years at the Academy, he jumped around between different departments. After starting as an acting major, he switched to communications. He also did a stint in screenwriting. In addition, Charles took time off from his studies to go to China to form an American-Chinese co-production company before returning to the Academy as an online student and earning his degree in 2014. In hindsight, he realizes that venturing down different paths helped him expand his skills and grow as an actor.

“The school and all of its departments were really patient with me,” said Charles, who is now seeking acting opportunities in Los Angeles. “I had a big ego at first. But it can be so crushing to pursue acting — it humbled me a lot. I admire my instructors at the Academy even more for their success in this industry. They were all very supportive and taught me different skillsets that would be useful in making a short film that I could act in and put out at festivals.”

Drawing on those skills and his interest in global culture and World War II history, Charles followed his instructors’ advice to write a screenplay about something that resonated with him. The result was his film The First Volunteers, the story of a diverse group of World War II pilots. Nicknamed the Flying Tigers for the well-known shark face art that adorned the noses of their planes, they were the first Americans who volunteered to serve in the Chinese Air Force and help the Allies defend China against Japan.

“They were the first pilots going off to China,” explained Charles. “They had to learn the language and the culture. A lot of people don’t know about the interplay between our two nations during the war, or how diverse and inclusive this group of pilots was. I wanted to highlight these elements in the film.”

To help fulfill this goal, he included a Native American pilot and a strong female character in The First Volunteers. He also consulted with World War II veterans and military historians to make sure his film was as realistic and accurate as possible. While he’s proud of writing and directing “The First Volunteers,” Charles was especially excited to act in it. He also learned that trying to do everything in a film is not for the faint of heart.


Academy of Art University alumnus Fred Charles. Photo courtesy of Fred Charles.

“It was excruciatingly hard to be in front of the camera and behind it,” he admitted. “I had great people behind the scenes helping me, but it still took a lot longer to finalize the film and piece it together. It was manageable for this project, but I’d be cussing too much if I had to go through the same thing on a full-length film. I want to act, but I’m glad I have these other skills, too.”

Last fall, all of Charles’ hard work paid off when The First Volunteers was featured at the Los Angeles SkinsFest, a film festival dedicated to promoting work with Native American themes or characters. Charles said being part of SkinsFest validated him both as a filmmaker and an actor.

“It was a big deal for me—I was thrilled,” he stated “Lots of actors dream of overnight success, but I’ve yet to see that happen. I’ve got a clear, step-by-step plan of what I need to do to get where I want to be as an actor.  My next steps are to follow up with agents and to continue to work on developing more material I can work on with other actor friends.”

He appreciates the Academy for teaching him the importance of being relaxed when acting. “I learned a lot about technique through the school,” Charles said. “It’s really all about listening and being in the moment—it’s not just waiting to say your next line.”

He also values knowing how to write a screenplay and understanding how much the success of a film or TV show depends on a strong script. “The script is the foundation for the whole project,” said Charles. “Everyone uses it a bit differently. I know what works and doesn’t work in a scene and also understand the production side of things. I prefer acting, but it’s necessary to have an idea of what else goes into a project in order to help make it better. I got all of that from the Academy, and that’s gold."