Briana Benitez, Class of 2017
Marisa Vitali remembers putting on variety shows in her grandmother’s backyard during the summer. She and her cousins would make and sell the tickets to the family. She was the main performance and all her cousins would shine flashlights on her as a spotlight. Even as a child she knew the limelight is where she wanted to be.
Vitali, an only child, was born in Huntington, Long Island and grew up in North Port. She attended North Port High School before eventually moving on to New York University.
“I was always performing growing up primarily as a dancer. When I went to college I wanted to study drama and I was accepted into the Lee Strasberg Program at NYU Undergrad Tisch,” said Vitali.
But then she found herself in another starring role, one that she had no control over. Vitali became addicted to heroin for five long years upon graduating from NYU.
As a child she was bullied growing up and had all these feelings of “Why me? Why aren’t I good enough? What’s wrong with me?” This caused a lot of emotional pain for Vitali that she did not know how to express other than to not express it all and keep it all in.
The actress remembers taking her first drink in junior high and feeling for the first time a sense of freedom from the pain she hid. She liked the feeling of freedom, but did not like effects of being drunk.
“When you have a piece of freedom from a deep emotional pain of low self worth you’re always looking for where that next piece of freedom is going to come from,” said Vitali.
She felt very dissatisfied following college.
“I didn’t feel prepared to pursue a career in acting. I felt trained as an actor with enough craft to create a character but I didn’t necessarily feel prepared in terms of getting an audition or headshots. This added to the disillusionment and questioning life like what is this all for what’s the purpose of all this?” said Vitali.
The actress started attending clubs with her friends initially for the music. Vitali recalls dancing as another way to escape the pain, but then found herself trying different drugs.
“Eventually I tried heroin and I was like ok this is the ultimate freedom where I never have to feel anything ever again. That was the progression of using for me. It goes from we’re partying and this being fun to I just want to be in this place all the time.”
Vitali was not living at home during her battle with heroin so she became very skilled at hiding her addiction.
“As an actor you can wear different masks and play different roles so I did my best,” said Vitali.
While she was using she always knew in the back of her mind that she needed to stop.
“Nobody grows up with the mindset that he or she is going to be an addict. The whole time I was using I knew it was wrong and it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing but because of the physical addiction of the drug you keep using just to kind of get straight. It was always a battle in my mind and heart of desiring to stop but physically needing it to not be sick,” said Vitali.
For Vitali it was a higher power that helped her get clean. She says it was divine intervention from God that saved her life. The actress also added that the journey of addiction and recovery is different for every person that experiences it.
“My first year clean from heroin I went to an acting class and that’s when I really realized acting is my calling. I really believe it saved my life. It gave me a place to put all my resentment, fear, anger, guilt, and remorse into work to make something positive. At that time is when I made the decision to pursue it professionally,” said Vitali.
Vitali put her efforts into making something truly positive and that was writing, producing and starring in a short-film titled Grace. The film is a story of inspiration and mirrors the Actress’ first year clean working at the diner in her hometown and the challenges she faced along with some fictional aspects.
While attending John Dapolito’s master class Vitali met close friend and fellow actress, Carrie Keranen.
“We got very close very fast early into her sobriety. I think that’s why Grace was such an interesting film for me to watch her make because my friendship with her has been her staying clean, what it’s like to choose to not go back,” said Keranen.
The actress added that you bring certain things to people and not everyone can share such hard-hitting life stories.
“I’ve been a safe space for her to go to and when I need to go to her she’s always 100 percent there for me. I feel so genuinely blessed to be apart of her growth. I feel very grateful to have someone as deep and thoughtful as she is on this journey of life. It’s brief and there’s not a lot of people you meet who become like your tribe,” said Keranen.
Journaling was a huge part of Vitali’s recovery and sorting through her thoughts and emotions. When she used it was with her ex-husband at the time. In her journal, she found herself writing the story of how they met and how she started using, but she never knew how the story ended because life is not finite. In the meantime she was going on auditions looking for work. One of her acting teachers at the time told her to “stop waiting for the phone to ring you all have a story go out and tell it”.
“I realized the story I have to tell was the story of my first year clean working in the diner in my hometown,” said Vitali.
This revelation set the foundation for what is now Grace. The actress work shopped the script for Grace with one of her friends and once she felt it was where it needed to be she sent it over to actress and producer, Alysia Reiner, who immediately loved it.
“It really just snowballed from there. In the filmmaking process passion and enthusiasm is contagious. I didn’t know where the money was going to come from but I was going to make this film,” said Vitali.
One of the producers of Grace, Claudine Marrotte, said that she feels the short film is important in the sense that it doesn’t depict the traditional detox of a user but rather the story of choice of staying clean and choosing life.
“I think that people need to see that it is a choice and when someone says ‘I don’t have a choice’ it’s a lie because you always have a choice. That’s what nice about the movie it can be used to work with addicts for positive good that you’re strong enough to make your own choices,” said Marrotte.
Grace has received a notable amount of awards and nominations including: Winner of Best Actress at Queens World Film Festival, winner of Best Drama at Cape Fear Independent film festival, winner of the Audience Award for Best Short Film at Long Island International Film Expo, and winner of Raising Awareness Film at Golden Door Film Festival. Grace also premiered and was nominated for Best Showcase Short Film at the Soho International Film Festival, was the finalist at the USA Film Festival (which is Academy Award accredited),and was nominated for Best Short film at the Lighthouse International Film Festival.
“I’m so grateful to be clean. I’m aware that my life doesn’t have to be this way I’ve lost so many friends to this disease and I’m so grateful that I have a second chance. That’s what inspires me to give back, tell stories that can help people heal, and keep going,” said Vitali.
She currently resides in Brooklyn and works as both an actress and producer. Vitali most recently starred in the film Catfight. She also currently does voiceover for Audible.com and is in the process of writing Grace the book.
“Being an actor is such an honorable profession in the fact that I’m so blessed that I have the opportunity for my work to mirror my life,” said Vitali.