Many aspiring performers dream of moving to Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world.
That has been 17-year-old Graham Harper’s dream for many years. But unlike most Hollywood hopefuls, Graham is well on his way to making that vision come true.
Last week, Graham and his mother, Cindy, packed up their car and drove to their new apartment in L.A. where Graham will attend the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts.
Though Graham, a former Cal High student, is excited to have earned a spot in the senior class at Ramon C. Cortines, one of the premier California performing arts schools, his primary focus lies outside of the classroom.
“The real reason I’m going is not just the school,” said Graham. “August to December is pilot season (for television shows), so there will be a bunch of auditions and opportunities for me.”
In just the one week he’s spent in Southern California, Graham has already received a callback for the Disney show “Austin and Ally” and more auditions are on the horizon.
The road to L.A.
Graham’s move to L.A. is the culmination of major developments in his career during the last year.
In May 2010, Graham performed in the St. Joan of Arc Parish’s musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” during which time he developed a close relationship with show director Craig Heiting.
Heiting, with more than 20 years of experience working in the entertainment industry for Time Warner, learned of Graham’s ambitions to become a performer and offered to act as his manager.
Heiting said he formed a step-by-step plan for Graham, the first part of which was to build a résumé. To achieve that, Graham began taking acting classes. But because of the cost, Graham had to work for the instructor to pay off the lessons.
“You don’t see that very often: Someone that wants something so badly that they’re willing to just have all of these sacrifices to gets it, and that’s when you really know someone is going to make it,” said Heiting.
In addition to taking classes and working on school and church productions, Graham also began doing musical performances at Maria Maria Restaurant in Danville and Walnut Creek last November.
Graham, who began singing and playing instruments at a young age, enjoyed the opportunity to earn money performing in the restaurants on a semi-regular basis.
But his big break came in May when Heiting worked out an agreement for Polygon Group, an L.A.-based talent agency, to represent Graham.
Immediately after signing with Polygon Group, Graham’s agents presented him with several audition opportunities. The problem was that all the auditions were in L.A.
Heiting and Graham traveled back and forth to L.A. several times during the early part of the summer, but it soon became evident that if Graham wanted to seriously pursue acting, he could not do so from Northern California.
After discussions with Heiting and friends in L.A., Graham and his family decided the best option was for Graham to move to L.A. — what Heiting called a necessary step.
“I’ve been working so hard for it, and I’ve sacrificed so much for it, and I’ve had so much support from my family and my friends here,” said Graham. “It’s a huge decision, but with all the momentum going in, the interest could have been lost if I put off going to L.A. another year.”
Born to perform
Though he’s currently pursuing work as an actor, Graham’s focus was originally music.
Graham began participating in the San Ramon Presbyterian Church’s choir when he was just 7 years old, and it was then he discovered he enjoyed being on stage.
Soon after, he took the stage with the Dublin Theater Company, putting on productions like “Macbeth” and “Revenge of the Space Pandas.” It was at this time that one of the directors told Graham something he wouldn’t forget.
“He essentially told me I’d never sing, and I think hearing that drove me to prove him wrong,” said Graham.
Graham began taking every opportunity to perform and sing, from school talent shows to church events, and it was at this point that Mike Harper, Graham’s dad, began to realize Graham had a serious inclination toward music.
Though it was Harper who did his best to expose his son to as many types of music as possible, Graham was the one who pushed himself to develop as a musician, taking piano lessons and teaching himself guitar.
As he formed bands with his middle school friends and continued with music at church, it became evident that Graham had perfect pitch. He could hear a sound and identify the musical note, or he could play a song by just listening to it.
But those who have performed with Graham know his musical talents extend far beyond just that.
“He’s a guy who can pick up pretty much any music,” said Cal High senior Evan Hillis, who performed in concert with Graham for multiple years. “He’s always trying to make it interesting and exciting for the audience as well as the musicians.”
For Mike Harper, his son’s development was seen every Sunday when Graham would perform with the church band, playing guitar and piano.
“Sometimes it’s barely perceptible what he’s doing, but there’s something there, filling the space, that makes the music complete,” said Harper. “That gentleness and lightness, that’s what shows his talent.”
‘He’s such a warm person’
Graham’s journey to this point was not without its difficulties.
Graham’s mother, Cindy, contracted Lyme disease when he was in fifth grade.
Since then his mother’s health has had its ups and downs, and dealing with that has been, at times, a struggle for Graham and his two sisters, Kaitlyn, 19, and Abby, 17.
It has also been difficult for Graham to pay for everything necessary to pursue a performing career, from acting classes to recording studio sessions. But he’s made the sacrifices to get to where he wanted.
Helping him along the way has been his family, who agreed to let him go to L.A., a decision that has had a huge impact on all of them.
“They’re definitely supportive and they really do their best to make my dreams happen because they really believe in me,” said Graham.
But more than just Graham’s family believes in him. At his final Maria Maria performance on Aug. 7, friends and community members came to support the aspiring star who made appearances in various school productions, local concerts, and community events over the years.
Those who have known Graham agree that his winning feature, even more so than his talent, is his likeable personality.
“He is one of the people who can carry on a conversation and its not awkward talking to him,” said Kyra Uson, who worked with Graham in the Cal High choir and on the St. Joan of Arc Parish’s musicals. “He’s such a warm person.”
Becoming a star
After Graham has settled down in his L.A. apartment and purchased a car, his mother will come back to San Ramon to be with the rest of the family.
Graham will have the help of friends in L.A., but for the most part, he will be on his own, attending school, auditioning for roles, and working musical gigs.
With his versatility of talent and the support of loved ones back in San Ramon, Graham is confident that he can make his lifelong dream a reality.
“I’ve given up a lot and its finally paying off,” he said. “(Performing) has become my life force. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”