Hailing from Wisconsin, Hans Obma ’02 studied broadcast journalism and Spanish while attending the UW and performed in local theater productions in his spare time. More than 12 years ago he took a chance, moved to Los Angeles, and has found career success in Hollywood. This fourth-generation Badger tapped into his superpower of perfecting accents and discovered his niche in playing foreign villains. Since then, Obma has played many roles — he enjoyed a stint on Better Call Saul, earned his way into the Marvel Universe by way of WandaVision, spent a little time with Grace and Frankie, and traveled to Mexico during the pandemic for a role in season three of Narcos: Mexico.
Your first “pandemic-era” job was for an episode of Narcos: Mexico. What was filming like?
This experience was particularly unique because we shot in Mexico. Accordingly, I locked down for nine days at a fancy hotel in Mexico City while undergoing coronavirus testing every couple of days. This was a stark contrast to how things usually go, because the making and saving of money dictates almost all entertainment industry scheduling. Typically, I fly in one day, have a fitting, shoot my scenes, and fly out the next day. So, a nine-day “chill-out session” as part of the job was unusual, to say the least. The most unique element was that the role required detailed prosthetics. This meant four hours with a prosthetics artist, which was wild because at that point, most of us hadn’t been alone with — or been touched by — nonfamily members in a long time. The weirdest part of the shoot itself was how isolated I felt. In addition to my trailer, I had a private tent near the shooting location. I wouldn’t interact with anyone at all for several-hour intervals.
How has COVID-19 changed what it’s like to be on set?
Being on set during the pandemic has exacerbated the sense of being an outsider. One of my best actor friends told me about a conversation he once had with a therapist. She said that 100 percent of the actors she worked with in L.A. said they felt like outsiders. … Usually, the permanent cast and crew know each other well and spend many hours together each week. Whereas when a new guest cast comes in every week, this person is going to be gone in a week or two anyway. With a pandemic further complicating things, there is a whole other reason to stay separate from guest actors because separation is the policy. People have still been polite and even friendly, but the only friends I made on my most recent acting job were the workers at my hotel restaurant, who were lovely.
As an actor, what are some of the bright spots about working during a pandemic?
For me, the pandemic has been all about perspective. For the longest while, everything really did shut down. Virtually nothing was being filmed. This gave me the opportunity to work without interruption on some things I’d been longing to do for some time! I set myself a seven-hour-a-day schedule, practicing Russian and consuming French, German, and Spanish media. I had about four months of foreign language immersion. The other lovely reality was people around the world were stuck at home, so they were much more inclined to have online discussion groups. I got to do a series of plays with a group of actors in London. A COVID-19 silver lining for me was getting to play British characters with British actors. Unprecedented riches! Another thing lockdown gave me was a 12-week study of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with an artist community called Epiphany Space. Through that process, I ended up writing a script called “A Question of Service.” … In May, some friends and I rented a black box theater in Los Angeles, built the interior of MI6 (think James Bond or John le Carré), and shot a 20-minute, proof-of-concept film … which I hope to pitch into a series.
What else did you do to fill your time during the production halt?
A year ago, I became the communication strategist for my brother’s company, Strive MedTech. I’ve already left a few times to go shoot projects, but between roles, I get to be on a mission with my brother and use my journalism degree. It was a delightful discovery that these skills remained intact. Thank you to the excellent Katy Culver and others in the UW journalism school for teaching me to write. For a variety of reasons, I have never worked as a journalist, but the ability to write well has served me in the entertainment industry and elsewhere.
Do you have any tips for aspiring actors when it comes to working during a pandemic?
During the pandemic — and always — figure out what your opportunities are, even when there don’t seem to be any. If you choose a skill, focus on something that both brings you joy and that makes you uniquely valuable. Pick something you’re naturally quite good at and persist until you become a 10 at it. People hire you for being a 10 at something. And if you’re stuck, or unsure how to progress, consider reading The Artist’s Way!