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Tall story: The journey of Eugenie Bondurant

Bill DeYoung

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She was in high school, Eugenie Bondurant says, when she realized there was more to life than fitting in. A shade under six feet tall, and spectacularly skinny, she’d had it up to here with people asking her if she was on the basketball team, har har.

“I’m never going to fit in,” she remembers thinking. “I’m always going to be this other person … this can be a positive.”

So she embraced her differences. And combined with a relentlessly positive attitude, it has served her well in the intervening years, in her chosen career as a film and TV actor.

As Dani McConnell in “Fear of Rain.” Lionsgate

The St. Petersburg resident has a major role in Lionsgate’s Fear of Rain, opening Friday in theaters and via on-demand services. The psychological thriller, written and directed by Castille Landon, was shot in the city, and in Tampa, in 2019.

Her co-stars are Katherine Heigl, Harry Connick Jr. and Madison Iseman, all of them with bigger names and stronger profiles.

But it’s Eugenie Bondurant that Fear of Rain audiences are going to remember. “If I walk into the room and people look at me – and they’re going to look at me, I’m 6-1 – I don’t have the shape or the look of a wallflower,” she says. “Nothing against wallflowers! But it is what it is.

“That’s what I try to tell teenagers who are tall, and not really fitting into their body yet. They don’t really understand it.”

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As Tigris in “The Hunger Games.” Lionsgate

She’s worked in business offices, walked the trendiest fashion runways of New York, Paris and Berlin, taught the fine art of acting to hundreds of students, narrated for live orchestras and appeared in everything from cable TV’s Arliss (as a transvestite) to the big-budget film The Hunger Games – Mockingjay, Part 2 (as the feline “stylist” and fan favorite Tigris). She popped up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Frasier and in movies known (Fight Club) and unknown (Donald and Dot Clock Found Dead in Their Home).

In the 1990s, when she was living in Los Angeles and hitting the audition circuit full time, Bondurant wondered why, unlike her acting friends, wasn’t she getting called for bit roles on soap operas?

“It took a few years – sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake – but I realized, I’ve had this really fun career of oddball roles and wacky, fun, creative things, and of course they didn’t book me because I’m not their type, I’m thin and angular,” she says. “And there’s no room for that in a soap opera, number one.

“And number two, all the male leads are shorter than I am.”

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The youngest of three Bondurant siblings (all girls), she was born and raised in New Orleans. The sisters’ parents split when Eugenie was a teenager. She learned the art of self-reliance, she explains, from her mother.

“My mother was a very bright woman who was artistic in her own way. She was theatrical, but not in the arts. She was very crafty and inventive. She was the McGyver of our home, and she taught us how to be that way. So I feel like I’m Hints From Heloise … Heloise and McGyver. I’ve gotten that knack.”

Indeed, when Bondurant and her husband, Palladium Theater director Paul Wilborn, bought their Old Southeast home in 2004, it needed serious renovation. Of course, they hired a contractor, but Eugenie did a lot of the day-to-day dirty work herself while Wilborn was at the office. She says she’s a “hands-on kind of gal.”

She had a nine-to-five herself once, working in a leasing office. “I loved math and I still do,” she says, adding with a mischievous laugh, “but I went into business because that’s where the boys were.” She earned a degree in corporate finance from the University of Alabama.

Bondurant was in her mid 20s when a New Orleans doctor diagnosed her with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “That,” she explains, “was my change of life.”

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Bondurant suffered months of chemotherapy, pain and psychological anguish (“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t sit in a chair. I was so thin – it was just horrible”). When the smoke cleared, and she was declared cancer-free, she looked in the mirror and realized the illness – and the treatment – had dramatically changed her metabolism, along with her appearance. Her weight loss was dramatic, and it appeared to be permanent. Her now-pronounced cheekbones gave her an exotic, almost androgynous look.

“I felt like I had a new lease on life, and I could do anything I wanted. If I worked hard at it, if I was vigilant. I am a good person, I have a good heart, and I want those people around me to have good hearts, so I didn’t expect myself to get in trouble. And I didn’t.”

She quit her job and began looking for low-key modeling gigs in NOLA, wearing a wig. Her unique face and figure began to open doors. Through modeling contacts, she relocated to New York.

“I was naive but I wasn’t dumb. In business, you have to have a plan. So I wrote down my first-year goals and what I wanted to accomplish, and within three months I had accomplished those goals. I moved to New York in March, and by September I was in Paris, working with an agency. I didn’t make a ton of money, but it was an adventure of a lifetime. So happy.”

Still, the shallowness of the modeling universe didn’t sit well with her, and once she found herself in Los Angeles – ostensibly to visit her sister – she began taking acting classes.

And boy, did she like that. She liked it so much, she stayed.

“That’s how I felt after cancer: If the universe is giving me this opportunity, putting it right in the center of my path, do I trip over it and ignore it? Or walk around it? How do we not pay attention to it?”

She was “petrified” doing her first monologue in front of her class, so much so that she forgot the opening line and stood frozen.

As she got more comfortable, Bondurant threw herself into classwork and career, and began booking commercials, which led to “extra” work; then came the TV roles, and the movie roles. In time, she began teaching acting, too.

Paul Wilborn was a reporter for the Associated Press in L.A. He met Eugenie Bondurant at a party; although he was immediately smitten, she needed some warming up time.

She’d been considering moving back to New Orleans to continue teaching, but romance intervened. In August, 2003, she and Wilborn arrived in Tampa, his hometown. She was the first acting teacher at the Straz Center’s brand-new Patel Conservatory. They were married in the spring of ’04 and moved across the bay. 

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A location scout for the Hallmark Channel movie True Love Blooms was in St. Petersburg in 2018, looking for homes to use in the imminent production. On the phone, Bondurant invited him over to look at the house she shares with her husband, and consider it for the shoot.

To her surprise, the man said “I’ll be right over.” 

“So he comes over, and he’s taking photos of the house for Hallmark,” Bondurant remembers. “And of course I’m looking like a schlub, because that’s what my day-to-day looks like. He’s outside, and I stick my head outside the window … and he takes a shot.

“Sometimes I think I look like an anorexic crane. So that was probably one of my anorexic crane shots.”

“Fear of Rain” debuts Friday on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms. It will also screen at Greenlight Cinema in St. Petersburg, and the Studio Grill locations in Seminole and Tampa.

At the time, the same scout was also looking for St. Pete homes for the $2 million picture I Saw a Man With Yellow Eyes, which would eventually be re-titled Fear of Rain.

Writer/director Landon was looking through his house photos and stopped at the one of the woman in the window. That very day, producer Joseph Restaino had shown her Eugenie Bondurant’s Internet Movie Database page, so Landon recognized the face in the window. “Who is this woman?” she said.

Interestingly, the role Bondurant auditioned for, and got, was originally written for a man. “I’ve done other roles where it was changed from a man to a woman,” she laughs. “Or, I’ve played men. Twice I played transvestites. So I’m thinking well, whatever.”

The film is a thriller, not a horror picture; its central character is a teenage girl with schizophrenia played by Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). Israel Boussard (Fear the Walking Dead) is cast as her would-be boyfriend. Heigl and Connick play her parents.

Bondurant plays nextdoor neighbor Dani McConnell, who also happens to be the kids’ English teacher.

Says producer Restaino: “Eugenie’s versatile, she’s pleasant to work with, she brings her A game, she’s a pro. She’s working with some great actors, and she really delivered above and beyond.”

The Tampa-based Restaino (among other things, he once ran the Gasparilla International Film Festival) was familiar with Bondurant’s work, and says he clearly remembers saying to Landon “I think you need her in the film – she’s an amazing talent.”

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Bondurant, who’ll be seen next in The Conjuring – The Devil Made Me Do It with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, is looking at yet another busy year.

Her long professional alliance with St. Pete’s Andi Matheny Acting Studio is coming to an end, as Matheny and her husband, screenwriter Tom Flynn, are moving to New York in March.

That leaves Eugenie Bondurant as a Meisner-certified acting teacher without an acting school.

“It’s a little daunting,” she says. “For the 25-plus years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve never gone out on my own. I’ve always pitched people on my classes. And now I’m going to be driving the bus solo.”

Her first classes will be via Zoom. “Hopefully by the summer we’ll be back in a studio,” she says. She’s lining up guest lecturers and instructors through her connections in the business.

And she continues to be one of the most vocal cheerleaders for filmmaking in the bay area. Although Florida, due to its lack of state tax incentives, does not attract Hollywood blockbusters, “Pinellas County is really great for lower-budget projects,” Bondurant explains. “That’s why Fear of Rain worked out so well here.

“And then there was another project, Lady of the Manor, that Andi was in. And they shot in another friend’s house. Those are the kinds of projects that bring in talent, and use local talent, and use local crew. They put their people up in really nice hotels. They give them a per diem that they spend in the community. And those people then see St. Petersburg for what it is and fall in love with it.

“On Fear of Rain, I was constantly telling Harry, Madison and Israel ‘OK, this is where you want to go.’ ‘Why don’t you try taking the mural tour?’ ‘Have you been to the Dali? Have you been to the Chihuly?’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Avatar

    Amy Walsh

    February 8, 2021at4:42 pm

    Congrats on your continued success, Eugenie!

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