Rising star: The inspiring journey of Drama graduate Aphrodite Armstrong

From high school theater to stand-up comedy to UNCSA, 2024 School of Drama graduate Aphrodite Armstrong’s passion for acting and performing has been a driving force throughout her life. “Acting has always been a part of my life,” says Armstrong. “I always knew I wanted to be an actor and always loved being on stage performing.” 

With notable accomplishments early in her career, such as a South by Southwest (SXSW) Special Jury Recognition for Outstanding Performance award and a supporting role in a recent film, Armstrong is poised to take the entertainment industry by storm after graduation.

Aphrodite Armstrong at Sundance

Aphrodite Armstrong at Sundance 2024 for the premiere of "Ponyboi." / Photo: Getty Images, Dia Dipasupil

Early foundations

Originally from Los Angeles, Armstrong started her formal arts education at a performing arts high school. During her high school years, she was awarded a diversity scholarship to train at the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisation and sketch comedy group founded in 1990 by notable comedians such as Amy Poehler. 

When a high school teacher told her that transitioning would ruin her acting career, Armstrong turned fully to comedy and her work at the Upright Citizens Brigade became her focus. Overall, Armstrong credits her background in comedy as a huge influence in her artistry. 

After this expansion of her repertoire into comedy, she was also able to secure representation with a talent agent and a manager during her senior year of high school. 

As her senior year of high school coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to shift back to focus on acting and applied to several drama schools across the country, ultimately settling on UNCSA. 

Why UNCSA? Affordability and excellence

Armstrong’s reason for choosing UNCSA was simple: “It was the most affordable school of its caliber in the country,” she explains. Attending the information session conducted by Dean Scott Zigler ignited her interest in being a student at UNCSA because she could tell he was “passionate about creating an equitable institution and was interested in stories about all people.” But what truly “sealed the deal” was speaking with Drama graduate N’yomi Stewart (B.F.A. ‘21) about her experience as a student. 

The caliber of the drama education she received is something that Armstrong says was the highlight of her experience at UNCSA. “Artistically, I couldn’t be more grateful that I was a student of the excellent teachers in the School of Drama.” While she says her years at UNCSA were challenging, she has been grateful for the many lessons she has learned as both an actor and artist.

Aphrodite Armstrong in Barbecue

Armstrong in the Spring 2024 Drama production of "Barbecue" directed by faculty Cliff Odle. / Photo: Wayne Reich

“Not only did I get to experience the unmatched curriculum of the Drama school,” explains Armstrong, “but I also got the opportunity to work on several projects with the Film school and to create my own work.” 

When looking back at the faculty that made her education fulfilling, Armstrong specifies Jason Bohon’s movement classes as “the most amazing piece of my education I’ve ever received in my life.” She also gives thanks and credit to retired faculty member Tanya Belov and on-camera acting coach Bob Krakower for being crucial to her education.

See her on the big screen

During Armstrong’s time at UNCSA, she not only focused on coursework and drama productions but also took part in the short film “West by God” and the feature film “Ponyboi.” 

In the short film “West by God,” Armstrong stars as Nelly, who goes on a date while driving through a small town in West Virginia. The film premiered at SXSW in 2022 and Armstrong won the Special Jury Recognition for Outstanding Performance award for her work. 

In the announcement for the award, SXSW said Armstrong and co-star Kyle Riggs deserved the award because, "their dynamic and visceral performances beautifully emulate the powerful themes within the film about the human condition and the need for love, no matter what your walk of life."

Aphrodite Armstrong

Armstrong with the rest of cast of "Ponyboi" at the Sundance 2024 premiere. / Photo: Getty Images, Dia Dipasupil

Armstrong calls her work on “Ponyboi” a “dream come true.” The film revolves around a young intersex sex worker (played by River Gallo, who also served as screenwriter) fleeing from the mob following a botched drug deal, leading him to confront his own history on Valentine's Day. In the film, Armstrong plays the supporting role of Gina, who is also a sex worker. “When my manager gave me the script, I knew this was exactly the kind of work I wanted to be a part of,” recalls Armstrong. “I loved the script; it was so dark and funny and doesn’t shy away from many realities within the LGBTQ+ community.”

“I played a very interesting character and I did a lot of research so I could feel confident and comfortable in my portrayal of her,” she says. “I retaped my audition many times because I wanted to make sure it felt accurate and not like a caricature.” That hard work paid off and Armstrong got the opportunity to go to New York City and work with some of her idols in the industry like co-stars Indya Moore (“Pose”) and Victoria Pedretti (“You,” “The Haunting of Hill House”). Looking back, Armstrong feels that the entire experience was very affirming. “Throughout the whole time, I was treated with respect and dignity,” she says. 

I remember sitting and feeling like I had achieved one of my dreams. It affirmed something in my soul, that I am who I am regardless of what anyone else believes.

Aphrodite Armstrong on the 'Ponyboi' premiere

During the premier at Sundance, Armstrong recalls realizing the importance of the moment. “I remember sitting and feeling like I had achieved one of my dreams. It affirmed something in my soul, that I am who I am regardless of what anyone else believes.”

A multi-hyphenate artist

“There aren’t a lot of roles out there for girls like me and many of the roles that do exist do not feel authentic,” explains Armstrong. This reality of the industry has inspired her to be not only an actor, but also a writer and content creator. “You have to make that space for yourself and my dream is to make my own work,” she says. 

Thanks to the Keys to the Kingdom program in the School of Drama, Armstrong has already gotten the opportunity to work on developing those writing skills. “I wrote a play called ‘Superfake’ inspired by the idea of fake designer bags called superfakes, that are so accurate they are indistinguishable to the human eye. That felt like trans womanhood to me — the idea of passing as a ‘real woman.’ The play is about that dissonance of fake and real - the real world we live in versus the world we create on the internet.” Directed by her roommate and fellow graduating drama student Sam Lee Baladejo, this Keys to the Kingdom piece marks the first of many projects we can look forward to seeing from Armstrong. 

Looking ahead, Armstrong wants to continue developing her love of writing with the ultimate goal of creating a 30-minute comedy series. Other dreams include starring in a horror film, being featured on the cover of Playboy and eventually creating her own production company. “I want to write and create material that’s comedy for the LGBTQ+ community. Comedy is a critique of the world we live in and I love to look at the world and reflect back in a silly way.”  

When looking for inspiration and role models in the industry, Armstrong lists figures such as Micaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Issa Rae, who have made a name for themselves as both writers and actors. Other influences include Natasha Lyonne, Jordan Peele, Trace Lysette, Patti Harrison and Brian Jordan Alvarez. 

When giving advice to aspiring actors, Armstrong goes back to her roots in comedy. “Don’t take yourself too seriously because it’s a serious business full of unserious people.” She also emphasizes the importance of believing in yourself, “if you want people to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself first.” 

For those interested in writing, Armstrong believes real-world experiences are the most important. “You have to have a life if you want to be able to write,” she says. “Both screenwriting and acting are like journalism in that you have to do a lot of research to get it right.” 

Ultimately, a memorable message from Krakower that has resonated with her over the years and ties into her love for laughter: “You’re magic when you’re having fun.”

By Melissa Upton-Julio

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May 10, 2024