Eugenie Bondurant and Paul Wilborn
By David R. Wheeler, Editor
Truth be told, Eugenie Bondurant didn’t really want to go to the party that night.
“The hostess, the first person I met, said, ‘Welcome. Would you like a glass of wine?’” says Bondurant, the Tampa Bay-based actress who played Tigris in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.
Eugenie said yes to the wine, preparing herself for what might be another long Los Angeles party, filled with predictable men. Being approached by flirtatious guys was a common occurrence for someone who’d been on the runways of Paris and New York before her acting career took off.
Was life in Los Angeles starting to get old? Maybe. On one hand, Eugenie was landing coveted movie and TV roles, but on the other hand, Hollywood was starting to lose some of its allure. In fact, Eugenie was already planning to move back to her native Louisiana.
Could she stand one more party? Sure. After all, she was specifically asked to come by the producer of the movie she had just starred in — Donald and Dot Clock Found Dead in Their Home. Plus, a big-time publicist would be there.
The last thing on her mind that night in 2002 was the idea that she might meet her future husband.
“Hi, I’m Paul Wilborn,” said a man who seemed to come from nowhere. “What’s your name?”
Wow, that was fast. A guy was hitting on her already. She didn’t even have her glass of wine yet. “Hi. I’m Eugenie Bondurant, and I’m moving to New Orleans,” she quickly replied.
Paul and Eugenie laugh as they recount this conversation during an interview with me for AliveTampaBay. We’re sitting in a back office at St. Pete’s Palladium Theatre, the gorgeous Romanesque Revival structure built in 1925, where Paul is the executive director and Eugenie is an actress and singer.
“She wasn’t saying ‘Don’t talk to me,’” Paul assures me, leaning back in his desk chair. “She wasn’t being mean. But she was laying it out there: ‘I’m moving to New Orleans, so don’t get any ideas.’”
Don’t get any ideas? Too late. Paul was smitten, and he skillfully jumped through each successive hoop Eugenie persuaded him to jump through.
“I put up the barriers to see how interested he was,” Eugenie admits. “And every time there was a barrier” — she gives a quick clap for emphasis — “he went right through it.”
They were engaged six months later. And since they became a couple 14 years ago, Paul and Eugenie have found that they can make beautiful music together. Literally. Not only do Paul and Eugenie perform American songbook numbers together at the Palladium, but they also entertain friends, acquaintances, casual observers — and journalists — with their undeniable chemistry.
‘Be the character’
“Rejection” is probably the last word you would associate with a Hollywood actress and former runway model. But rejection is what Eugenie says unites those two professions. It was only through making peace with rejection that she learned the true meaning of perseverance.
“And specifically rejection based on looks,” she adds. Examples: You don’t look right. You’re too tall. You’re too small. You’re a brunette; we wanted a blonde.
Also: “We wanted someone who didn’t look like the director’s ex-girlfriend.”
But if you can get past rejection for unfair and seemingly random reasons, you might find yourself scaling the ladder of success. This is one of many lessons Eugenie teaches the young performers in Tampa Bay who are lucky enough to study acting with the Hunger Games star.
In fact, it was at an acting class that Eugenie learned she got the part of Tigris. Her students — the precise demographic most excited about The Hunger Games — erupted into rapturous applause for their teacher.
“I can honestly say that Eugenie is one of the most genuine, compassionate, and inspiring people I know,” says Haley Kanzer, one of Eugenie’s acting students. “She’s much more than an acting coach — she’s a life coach.” Haley says she was accepted to the New World School of the Arts in Miami thanks to Eugenie’s advice and instruction.
“She told me that I had a way of lighting up a room and making everyone feel at ease, that I have a certain energy that gradually builds whenever I enter a room,” Haley adds. “I don’t know if she knows how much that meant to me.”
Shelby Ronea, another student of Eugenie’s, was so inspired by Eugenie that she threw her a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party as a thank-you. “I tell her all the time that she is like a superhero because she has the power to bring out the good from people,” says Shelby, who has landed enough movie roles to have her own IMDB page.
One of Eugenie’s signature pieces of acting advice: When you’re going into the first audition, or the callback, absolutely be the character.
“Don’t act like the character,” Eugenie says. “Be the character. The whole vibe. Everything. When you walk into the room, where the director might be sitting, you walk in as the character. You speak as the character. You are the character.”
‘A Piece of Paul Wilborn’
“Music was always a big part of my life,” says Paul, who sings and plays several instruments. “As a kid, I remember being in my room lip syncing with the doors closed, and my mom would come in and laugh at me.”
His favorite song at the time? “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles. His favorite microphone prop? A hairbrush.
“Please tell me you were jumping on your bed,” Eugenie says, clasping her hands together.
“I was on the floor, so I could move better,” Paul replies.
Being a musician has helped Paul in all aspects of his career, including the period when he was a journalist.
“It taught me to listen,” says Paul, who was an Associated Press reporter in Los Angeles when he met Eugenie. “One interviewing technique is: Don’t ask the next question. Sit and let them talk. Chances are, they’re going to volunteer something you never would have expected.”
His musical background helped him in other ways, too, such as feeling at ease in different social circles. “Music really mixed me into the community,” he says. “A lot of journalists are insulated. They’re in their building all day. But I was out there meeting all these people, socializing.”
At this point, Eugenie chimes in.
“It’s also helped you with your job here,” she says, referring to his position as executive director of the Palladium. “Look at how you relate to people, and how people love you, and how musicians want to return here.”
In Eugenie’s words, “Everyone wants a piece of Paul Wilborn.”
“Look at our social schedule, honey, and it’s all because of you,” she says. “It’s special.”
‘Let’s Fall in Love’
Paul and Eugenie moved to Tampa in 2003 so that Paul could become the Creative Industries Manager for Tampa’s then-mayor Pam Iorio. When the Palladium asked him to do an American songbook cabaret series, he couldn’t quite find the right female singer. So he turned to an obvious solution: Eugenie.
Or maybe it wasn’t so obvious. After all, Eugenie had never sung in front of an audience before. Could she sing?
“She took a lot of voice lessons, and it turned out she was a natural,” Paul says. “And cabaret is really 75 percent acting.”
But would it work on stage? They needed a way to try it out. So Paul asked her to do a shtick during the song “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love),” — more popularly known as “Birds do it, bees do it.” Eugenie felt the most appropriate costume for the song would be what she calls a sexy “Jessica Rabbit” dress from the vintage store, along with a blond wig and long gloves.
In the full version of the song, every creature imaginable is “doing it.” And for each one, Eugenie holds up a card, asking the audience to participate by shouting out the name of the animal.
The best moment of that first show was when Eugenie accidentally dropped some of the cards. Uh-oh. How do you recover from that? For a less seasoned performer, it might have been embarrassing. But not for Eugenie Bondurant. She just went with it, playing up the clumsiness, even adding to it, and the audience loved it.
“I’m wondering why the audience is laughing,” Paul says. “Well, Lucille Ball had appeared on stage. And a star was born.”
At this point, they give each other a quick kiss.
“We tend to work well together,” Paul says, by way of understatement. “There’s a chemistry on stage that you can’t make up. You try to fake it, and it doesn’t work.”
Tomorrow: A video by AliveTampaBay.com with Eugenie Bondurant and Paul Wilborn.
David R. Wheeler is Editor of Alive Tampa Bay.