Like many college students, Celeste O’Connor is taking all of her classes online this semester. But while the John Hopkins senior is majoring in public health, her career path looks unlike that of her classmates. After graduation, she plans to move to Los Angeles, where the Baltimore native will continue making her mark in the entertainment world as an actress and burgeoning stylist. The flexibility of distance learning this semester also happens to jibe with her career trajectory. “I can audition and do my styling, and still log into class from my phone or from wherever I am,” she says.
In late October, she traveled to New York from Baltimore with classmate Mecca McDonald; the pair recently started a photography and styling business, Pedestal, and were in town to work with a few clients. They’ve worked with Tayarisha Poe — who directed O’Connor’s first feature film, “Selah and the Spades” — and singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan, better known as Snail Mail. “Friends, people that we know from the entertainment industry, and also people we know from school,” says O’Connor, who does most of the styling. “Our clients are a very wide range.”
The 21-year-old also had an opportunity to style herself — in a vintage neon green skirt and Lil’ Wayne T-shirt — in promotion of her upcoming film, “Freaky.” The actress stars in the Universal/Blumhouse film opposite Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn, which appropriately makes its debut in select theaters on Nov. 13 — Friday the 13th — with an on demand release to follow.
The film is pop-horror in a similar vein to director Christopher Landon’s previous horror franchise “Happy Death Day,” this time with a body-switch premise (“Freaky Friday,” but make it horror) between Vaughn and Newton. “Freaky” is a crowd pleaser — there are slasher-gore elements for the horror fans, balanced by comedy in the form of Vaughn pretending to be a middle-school girl. It’s a satisfying watch, offering the predictable jump-scares within a new framework.
“Even though [the film] tackles a lot of stereotypes and tropes from past movies, it was unique and exciting,” says O’Connor, who plays Nyla, one of two best friends tasked with reversing the body-switch. “Nyla was the moral compass of the group. She’s the mom of the group; she’s caring and compassionate and really loyal to her friends. I identified with her.”
She met Landon for the first time over FaceTime. The director was calling her from the prosthetics section of a costume department, and one of the masks from “Freaky” provided the backdrop for the call. Signing onto the film, O’Connor wasn’t a huge horror fan herself, although another Blumhouse movie changed how she saw the genre.
“I get scared so easily. I am the friend who is closing my eyes and screaming the whole time and then asking ‘what just happened?'” she says. “Yeah, definitely was not into horror before this. But when I saw ‘Get Out,’ that was the first movie where I was like, OK — I’m seeing people that look like me, I’m seeing similar experiences that I understand, and I can get with horror now.”
The film was an introduction to comedy and improv, and O’Connor nods to Vaughn’s influence as a scene partner. “I learned so much by watching him,” she says. “He was very open and collaborative with us. He would give us pointers and we would bounce ideas off of each other. So that was a really valuable experience.”
Next year O’Connor will appear in another blockbuster film, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” alongside Finn Wolfhard. She shot the movie after “Selah” and before “Freaky,” and it served as an introduction to the world of bigger-budget projects with a larger cast and crew. “Even though it was kind of scary to hop onto this huge set with all of these incredible well-known actors, Jason [Reitman, the director] really made it feel like a small indie set, where we were all a family and spent time together outside of work,” she says. The film is slated for a summer release, and she might just get to watch it from L.A. post-graduation.
O’Connor notes that she wasn’t initially looking to become an actress; she wanted to be a singer-songwriter. “I kind of fell into acting,” she says. At a talent showcase when she was 14, she met a casting director who introduced her to the people who are now her agents and managers.
Although committed to acting — and soon, trading the winters of the East Coast for the West Coast — she still hopes to put her John Hopkins degree to good use. She anticipates utilizing her growing platform through the entertainment industry to raise awareness of the various ways in which social justice issues — education, housing, health care — affect public health.
But for now, she has her attention on a more concrete goal: graduation. “Six more months and then I’m free,” she says. And with that sentiment, O’Connor is just like any other senior year student: Ready to find out where her path will lead.
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