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Alumnus Stars in Hit Netflix Show

Frank Oakley III draws on his theatre training in role on "Sweet Magnolias"
Frank Oakley as Harlan Bixby in Sweet Magnolias.

We caught up with Frank Oakley III (B.A. ’14) a theatre performance grad who is part of "Sweet Magnolias" on Netflix. He spoke with us about what he's learned in the acting biz, his favorite UMKC memory and what’s next.

Frank Oakley III headshot
Frank Oakley III, B.A. '14
Photo credit: Mike Senior
How does it feel to be part of “Sweet Magnolias,” one of the most popular shows on Netflix right now?

It honestly still hasn’t fully hit me yet! “Sweet Magnolias” was released on Tuesday, May 19, and the very next day we were #5 in the U.S. We kept climbing up the ranks, and by that Sunday were #1 on the world’s largest streaming platform! After holding down that spot for a few days, I think that’s when things started hitting me. To say the very least, it’s surreal to be a part of a show that so many people connected with, supported, and loved so much to get us to that point in less than a week! 

Was Harlan Bixby, in "Sweet Magnolias," your first recurring role on a series? What did you learn from the experience?

Yes, it was my first recurring role on a series. I’ve learned so much from filming the first season, but the two biggest things came from the callback room and being on set. 

First, I learned that you really can’t go off of how you feel you did in the audition/callback room, because it isn’t always true. I felt like I was completely bombing my callback audition — and in front of some major players in the process! I psyched myself out by getting into my head too much, but once I was able to relax, I feel like I did much better.

Then, the filming process just really affirmed how valuable my training from UMKC is. I was able to do my job, play with other seasoned actors and adapt to any changes made during the process in a quick manner. 

The takeaway in both lessons: it’s all about your mental game. From the audition to working on set, you have to trust your training, trust the process and keep a strong mental game.  

What are the challenges of being an actor? The benefits? 

Some of the more universal challenges I’ve found as an actor are getting established, creating a name for yourself, defining what your brand is and booking work. For the most part, we as actors can have some control over those challenges, with the exception of the seemingly most important one — booking. That said, I’ve found that once I was able to define what my brand was for me, set up boundaries, and was willing to stand firm on what I mapped out, everything followed suit.

The benefits (besides booking work) are doing work that you’re proud of and believe in and getting to collaborate with some amazing people to create and play! I know it sounds like an artsy-fartsy thing to say, but man, it is real and rewarding. To be a part of a larger picture or body of work, and to share that with both fellow artists/creators and the audience, is truly a blessing and privilege.

Frank Oakley III in episode four of Sweet Magnolias.
Oakley, pictured right, with Justin Bruening in episode four of "Sweet Magnolias." Still courtesy of Netflix.
What brought you to UMKC?

It is truly a long story, but in an attempt to condense a bit: one audacious prayer, teachers and mentors believing in me, and the kindness and support of people. At the beginning of 2011, I was sitting in contemplation in my dorm room at my first college, trying to figure out whether or not I’d be truly satisfied with a career in broadcast journalism. A thought sparked in my mind: maybe acting.

I reached out to my high school debate/forensics coach, Ms. Michelle Lee, about possibly trying out acting. She sprang into action and shared with me a bucket of resources — everything from colleges with awesome theatre programs to prestigious theatre summer camps. After some research, I was considering transferring to UMKC and auditioning for the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp. 

While waiting to see if I got accepted, I auditioned for the camp. And I got in with a partial scholarship! I couldn’t afford to pay the remaining balance, so Ms. Lee helped me sell candy bars. I knew this was a really hard hump to overcome, so I prayed “God, if this is something I supposed to do with my life, help provide a way for me to attend this camp. If I’m able to go, then I know this is what you have for me to do with my life.”

As it got really close to time to go, I was told that the rest of what I couldn’t earn from selling candy bars was covered, and that I’m heading to camp. Later in life I found out that Ms. Lee and Melinda McCrary (director of education and community programs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre) funded the rest.

Once I got that confirmation of being able to go, and getting accepted into UMKC, that was all I needed to know. It was off to UMKC with purpose and a mission!

Frank and Anna in the production of Three Sisters at UMKC in 2013. Photo Credit: Brian Paulette.
Oakley pictured with his future wife, Anna, in the production of Three Sisters at UMKC in 2013.
Photo Credit: Brian Paulette.
Do you have a favorite memory from UMKC?

Cheesy, yes, but true: meeting my wife, Anna Oakley! (She was Anna Day at that time, B.A. '15). We met and worked together for the first time on a show “Cover of Life” in November of 2012. But our relationship actually started to bloom while we were doing a show together “Three Sisters” in October of 2013. Hands down, favorite memory.

What advice do you have for students entering UMKC?

I actually have three pieces of advice. And honestly these are for everyone, no matter what your life path is. I say these a lot, but it’s something that is extremely imperative to grasp and understand from the beginning. It will save you a lot of time, frustration, and darkness:

  1. You are always enough, no matter what!
  2. Don’t give up, what is for you is for you. Regardless of the circumstances or odds.
  3. Don’t find your identity in your craft. Your worth is in who you are, and not what you do! 
What other projects are you working on? Where else can we catch your performances? 

As of now, there isn’t anything I’m working on, due to the pandemic. However, I will be in an episode of a series called The Underground Railroad. It is an upcoming American historical fiction drama limited series directed by Barry Jenkins. The series is set to premier on Amazon Video in the near future. I’ve had the privilege to be a part of some really amazing and special projects, and almost all of them can be found online. Feel free to go to my website at www.frankoakleythethird.com to check them out!

Published: Jun 18, 2020

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