Ashley Hinshaw breaks through in Chronicle

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When Chronicle premiered last weekend as the #1 film in America, it was a long time coming for one of its young stars. Ashley Hinshaw has been making the transition to film acting for a while, but her projects haven’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a pattern that worked out okay for a certain actress last year named Jessica Chastain. “Yeah,” says Hinshaw, laughing at the comparison, “I read an interview where she said ‘I was worried that what I did would never come out, but now my life has changed so much.’ And I can identify! It’s been a little crazy, because I spent two years in L.A. constantly working, going from project to project, but I had nothing come out yet. I was in this stage of limbo where I told my friends, ‘I swear I’m an actress, and you’ll see me one day!’ And now all of a sudden 2012 comes around and here we are.”

Chronicle has been somewhat of a surprise hit, but Hinshaw had an idea early on that the project had the potential to break big. “From the first moment I read the script last spring,” she says, “I knew it was going to be something really special. At the heart it was just this story of these three guys, and it’s so very real in motivation. When you watch the movie you feel like this could be really happening, and as much as you have to let your mind go with all these science-fiction powers, and the kind of craziness that movie becomes, you’re still watching three guys you feel like you could know. It’s not one of these superhero movies where everything is completely rooted in fantasyland.”

The shoot took place in Cape Town, South Africa, last May through July, right in the middle of the temperate South African winter. But it was necessary to travel all that way since the film is set in…Seattle? “Yeah, it was doubling as Seattle,” Hinshaw laughs, “and in my mind I couldn’t imagine how that would work—but it actually works quite well. All the cast and crew were transplants down there so we really bonded, got close, spent time together just doing crazy things that you get the opportunity to do—go on safaris, shark dive. Cape Town, that was such an incredible experience to live there.”

Quite a far cry from the small Midwestern town where Hinshaw’s roots lie. “I spent most of my years growing up in La Porte,” she says, “which is a small town in northwest Indiana. It was just real normal, small-town life—lots of religion, lots of corn and farming. I liked growing up there, I didn’t know anything different, but I always knew I was going to leave. In a small town everybody say’s they’re going to leave, ‘I’m going to grow up and move somewhere and do something great with my life.’ But I always knew it.”

Show business turned out to be her ticket out of town, but her beginnings in theater were fairly inauspicious. “I remember my first audition. I was around nine and I auditioned for Pinocchio. My town is so small and maybe 40 people auditioned for this play, and there were like 35 roles so you were pretty sure that if you were auditioning, you were going to be something. And I didn’t get anything. It was so devastating to me. I was a bit of a shy kid even though I liked performing, and my parents were trying to nudge me into a more social activity, and then I didn’t get in. It was so traumatic for me that I decided I wasn’t going to do it again. As a nine year-old I was just humiliated. I remember sobbing that I didn’t get into Pinocchio.”

Cue the young ingenue’s parents, who wouldn’t let her give up so easily. “The next year my parents must have bribed me to audition again. It was The Wizard of Oz, so I agreed to do it and I got the role of Toto. Oh yeah, so I was so proud of this too, I was just determined to be the best dog in the world. I wore the dog suit, face paint. It took me quite a few years to get out of animal characters. I was Toto in The Wizard of Oz then I was some random bird in Alice in Wonderland. It took me some time for people to let me speak actual human language.”

From there Hinshaw was off and running in acting, and theater became a central part of her life. “I think I finally found something where I really belonged,” she remembers. “I get annoyed when actors say ‘I didn’t have any friends and I was so geeky.’ I’m not going to say that, but I just had such a grand imagination that I spent a lot of time living in my own made-up world. Acting and being on stage made me feel like I belonged, and I found people in this world where you play make believe and people actually want to sit down and watch it. It was fabulous. I finally felt like I’m not just the weirdo kid talking to herself in her tree house.”

The path wasn’t without complications, though. Sometimes dead ends appear in creative careers, and Hinshaw hit one early. “I got really into musical theater for a while,” she remembers, “and you know it’s a small town so there wasn’t much competition. So when I say I was good, it doesn’t mean Glee should be calling me anytime soon, but I think I held my own for my little town. Then I had one traumatic experience and my mother, bless her soul, was very honest with me about how bad it was. I think she thought she was being helpful with an honest critique, but it just mortified me so badly that I have this huge complex now that I am tone deaf and I can’t sing and I won’t do it. I don’t think that’s reality but it’s been so ingrained in my head now. I was Wendy in Peter Pan singing my little solo, I couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 and it was just bad. I would love to see it now. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I’m remembering, but maybe it was! It very well may be. I stopped doing musical theater right after that. Left that to the professionals.”

When the chance came to leave—at the tender age of 16—it wasn’t acting but modeling that provided the opportunity to leave town. “My mom had always tried to help me get a commercial agent,” she explains, “and all the modeling agencies would say, ‘Oh she’s so cute, but she’s not tall enough to be a model.’ So it wasn’t something I ever really went after. But then through a weird course of events, Wilhelmina scouts stumbled upon me and offered me this contract and it was like, ‘You want to take me to New York and put me up and guide me and if I fall on my face I just go back home and go back to school like I was anyways? And in the meantime I get to see the world and meet all these great people?’ It was kind of a no brainer to me.”

The next few years were a blur, as Hinshaw made money, built a career, saw the world, and grew up, all at once. And she reached some pretty great heights in the business, becoming a face of Abercrombie & Fitch, among others: “Man, I lived everywhere—Spain, France, Greece, London. I lived everywhere. As a Midwestern small-town girl I had never seen those places. I had never left the country before my first modeling job. A year later, I had to renew my passport because I didn’t have any pages left. It was really a wild ride.”

But the acting bug was still there. “I realized kind of quickly there were a lot of girls I was working with mid twenties to early thirties,” she says, “that were working regularly, but they had been doing the same thing for 15 years. And they had made money and stuff, but they all wanted to do something else. But they felt they had to keep modeling because they were making money. I realized quickly that if I was going to pursue the acting thing I was going to have to make the change and just kind of walk away from the modeling thing, while being glad I had made enough money to support myself and be able to make the move to L.A. I knew if I stayed doing it, trying to do both at the same time, there would always be a carrot dangling in my face: ‘Oh, do you want to travel to Morocco for 10 days and make a big huge wad of money doing a modeling job,” but in the meantime maybe miss acting opportunities. I knew it would be hard to turn down, so I just made the decision that I was making the switch. So far, it’s turned out to be a good decision.”

A good decision, indeed. In addition to the surprise hit Chronicle, she’ll be seen this year in Rites of Passage alongside Stephen Dorff and Christian Slater, in Cherry alongside James Franco, Heather Graham, and Dev Patel, and playing Miley Cyrus’ best friend in LOL. It’s a great beginning of a career for Hinshaw. She now lives in Los Angeles, of course, but she still thinks of herself as that Midwestern small-town girl: “The first couple years I moved after I left I couldn’t imagine going back. I couldn’t stand the Midwest, didn’t want anything to do with it. But now that I’ve been gone for a while, I’m kind of realizing the charm in the small-town life a little more now that I’m constantly surrouned by smog and traffic.”