The Anti Star

Wilmington’s Tracey Costello works more than most of the so-called actors in Los Angeles, though you’d never know it. Success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Photograph by Tony Sears

Have you seen this woman?
More than likely, the answer is yes.

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Years ago, Tracey Costello kept a jar of hope on the kitchen counter of her Los Angeles apartment.

Each day, she would tear a slip of paper from its binding, fill it with elegant script, then fold it into a compact, silent secret. If you were to unfold the papers and scatter them, you’d find a dizzying mix of names and dates, each significant to her in its way.

“I had an acting coach tell me early on to get a glass jar, and every time you get an audition, write it on a slip of paper and stick it in the jar,” Costello says. By the time the jar collected 100 slips, he’d told her, she’d have booked a job.

More than a decade later, the jar has long been absent from the counter, which is, instead, now littered with traces of Costello’s health food fixation. Acting jobs? They have been many.

You may not know it, but you have seen Costello, formerly of Wilmington, pop up all over the place. You couldn’t have missed her if you saw the Kay Jewelers ad that ran on every commercial break on every television station in the land over Thanksgiving weekend. If you watch Fox’s “Back to You,” you may have seen her with Kelsey Grammer. She also recently guest starred on another Fox show, “Unhitched,” with Craig Bierko. And she shares feature film credits with Hollywood elite such as William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen and Samuel L. Jackson.

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It’s quite a resume for a woman who claims she “just fell into acting.” So you could say Costello has arrived—at least as much as she wants.

Costello isn’t famous. She doesn’t get recognized by fans on the street. And she doesn’t care.

“I never wanted to be famous” she says. “My goal has always been to be a working actress. To me, it’s a much healthier frame of mind, not to mention lifestyle.”

So if she were to stumble upon unexpected celebrity, she wouldn’t need to leave a trail of bread crumbs to find herself.

“I am myself—neither Hansel or Gretel—and this is the real world,” she says. “I try to maintain a positive outlook. Negativity and desperation guarantee disastrous results in anyone’s life and career.”

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Los Angeles and the acting life is probably much what you picture—and it’s not.

Costello describes her SoCal apartment as like Melrose Place—lots of sunshine, a pool—but very different in one respect: “no drama.” It is close to the television studios and five minutes from the bustle of Hollywood, though she wasn’t always so close to Rodeo Drive.

Costello’s childhood was spent in Manhattan, where she dabbled in children’s theater. “When I wasn’t bouncing around doing a cartwheel or swimming, I was happiest drawing, painting, singing or performing,” she says. “The only actor I knew was my cousin’s friend, who was always doing obscure theater in the Village.”

Her interest in acting waned, partially due to her father’s negative view of the business. “My father managed a studio for some time,” Costello says. “He would say, ‘I watch kids come in and eat cereal all day [for a commercial] and hate it. I do not want my kids doing that.’”

When she was 14, a change in his employment caused the family to move to Wilmington. Costello participated in drama club at Claymont High School—“when Claymont had a high school,” she says—but by graduation, Costello had set her sights on modeling. “I went on to major in English-journalism at the University of Delaware,” she says. “My creative side was trying to find an outlet.”

As a senior at the university in 1990, she became a finalist in the Revlon Unforgettable Woman contest. “I was one of nine women selected to fly to New York to compete for the grand prize of $25,000,” she says. “I didn’t win, but I had a blast.”

That taste of success was all she needed. “I really wanted to model after college,” she says. “That is what I wanted to do. I did some research on the modeling market in Los Angeles and found out it was active. I saved all my money from waitressing and just went with it.

“It was a decision based on economics and the weather,” she says. “I was going, and that was that.”

Costello packed everything she owned into her Subaru hatchback, then started driving across the continent alone.

Along the way, she had a thought: “What the hell am I doing with my life?” She realized she had no plan, but she kept her hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and kept trucking. That’s Costello’s way—do or die.

Then “I had some car trouble, so I called my stepfather. We did some troubleshooting and found it was a clogged air filter,” she says. Costello spent a Sunday looking for a garage that would have the part she needed. She finally pulled her struggling vehicle into a gas station in the middle of nowhere. A mechanic in a disheveled uniform approached her.

“He tried to tell me I needed new tires, and that I wouldn’t last 10 miles without getting a flat,” she says. “What a lie. I think angels were really looking out for me that day. After that, I was back on track to L.A.”

I look back at [the move] and think, wow, that was pretty bold—OK, borderline crazy. But I’ve always believed that if you want something badly enough, you have to make it happen.”

According to Lisa Furman, Costello’s longtime friend in Los Angeles, that tenacious attitude is Costello’s calling card.

Furman and Costello met about 10 years ago while working at a dance studio in Studio City, checking people in and out of the class, sweeping floors and “making sure nothing weird was going on,” Furman says. On the occasional Sunday, the duo was able to take a free dance lesson.

“Tracey is a very private person,” says Furman, now a legal assistant in Century City. “She’s not right ‘out’ there. After we spent some time together, I really liked her, and told her about an apartment for rent next to mine. So we became neighbors.”

Furman admires Costello’s resolve. “She absolutely owns being an actress,” she says. “She doesn’t back down on any of her principals, even on something as simple as flubbing a resume. And somehow she manages to be in the right place at the right time.”

Case in point: Modeling didn’t pan out, so Costello “killed some time exploring the music industry” as assistant to the president of a record company. “For someone who wanted to be in the music industry, they would have thought I was the luckiest person in the world.”

After three years, Costello left the job, then found herself back at square one: clueless about what to do with her life.

“I met my roommate’s cousin, who was an actress,” she says. “A career in acting seemed too far fetched to me, but this person was making it happen.” The actress took one look at Costello’s exotic Cuban, Native American, African American and German looks, then suggested she meet with her agent, stat.

“They loved me,” Costello recalls. “I had no idea I would wind up acting when I moved to California. But I’m very outgoing, always smiling. I have nice teeth and a very commercial look. Seven months later, I booked my first national commercial. Then I got a new agent for television and film.”

On audition days, Costello spends 20 minutes meditating after her shower, then enjoys a breakfast of oatmeal and decaf coffee with a side of “The Today Show.”

“I allow myself plenty of time for traffic. Everything in L.A. does not take 20 minutes to get to,” she says with a laugh. “I arrive at my appointment and prepare to wait.”

And wait.

“Waiting is a huge part of the business. I’ve had to wait on set for an entire day before I was called to shoot my part. There’s a lot that goes into a production: lighting, set design, props, camera angles, rewrites.”

Unlike most members of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, Costello is a working actress, which means no nights spent hawking overpriced martinis at the local watering hole to Hollywood’s movers and shakers.

“Acting for me is a very real profession,” Costello says. “It’s something that I took over 10 years to study and to really learn the craft. It’s an expression of emotion and creativity. I love the job, breaking down a script, bringing myself to a role. It has so little to do with the glitz and the glamour that you see.”

“She’s certainly not like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, in regard to a social life,” Furman says. “She doesn’t go to all these hip clubs—that was more of my thing than hers. And she’s very modest when she gets a great party invitation. I still can’t believe I am friends with an actress. Tracey is so sweet and kind and generous. I used to wonder how she’d make it in this business, because you have to be ruthless. But Tracey is so calm. When she does get a big movie part, she’s going to handle it beautifully.”

Which begs the question: Is a big break coming?

“I don’t think of my career in those terms,” Costello says. “That’s something people outside of the business see, because big breaks can come from a little short on YouTube. Thinking you are on the verge of greatness is like being a girl who wants so desperately to get married that she looks for the one everywhere, but doesn’t find him. You just have to live in the moment and let life happen.”

Costello’s current commercials include spots for Home Depot, Cocoa Puffs, ING Direct, Visa and Kay Jewelers. She has starred in “The Nine,” “Days of Our Lives,” “CSI: NY,” “The West Wing,” “My Wife and Kids,” “ER,” “Charmed” and “Party of Five.” She played a reporter in “Coach Carter” and an assistant district attorney in “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

Recurring roles on “The West Wing” and “The Nine” share one element: Costello played a gun-wielding bad ass.

“I’ve played an FBI agent, a Secret Service agent, a jail warden. These roles are intelligent women who can handle their own with men,” she says. “The way I carry myself in auditions proves I can handle myself in any arena.”

But she wasn’t always so confident. She froze during her first audition.

“A lot of actors experience this. It’s just something you have to get over, but I was so nervous,” she says. “I spent so much time memorizing the script so I didn’t have to use the page, and I had the nicest casting person who really believed in me and wanted me to get the job.” When Costello choked, the agent give her simple advice: “It’s OK. Use the page.”

“That was such a lesson to me,” Costello says.

She’s been looking forward ever since.

“I know some 60-year-olds, and they are working like crazy,” Costello says. “I know I will be that woman. Casting chances transition from year to year—an ingénue to a leading lady. I’m not looking to retire. I’ll have plenty of money to retire if I want to, but I don’t think that’s something that I want to do. What am I going to do? Go sit in a beach chair all day? I’d much rather be sitting in a set chair in a trailer getting ready to go on set to shoot a great scene.”

For now, she auditions for feature films, shoots commercials and, most important, looks for nothing more than chances to indulge her passion, practice her craft.

“I don’t walk around with stardust in my eyes,” she says. “I just use the page.”

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