Actress Dana Powell Went from Hillcrest High School Plays to Modern Family
A nudge from her mother got Dana Powell into acting in high school, but now, after roles in Bridesmaids and Modern Family, Powell is making it big in Hollywood on her own.
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Dana Powell guest-stars on ABC’s Modern Family as Pam Tucker, the sister of main character Cameron Tucker (pictured), played by Eric Stonestreet.
Dana Powell’s mom surely had no idea that forcing a 14-year-old Powell to try to get into the Hillcrest High School musical after auditions were closed was preparing her for her future career. “When I got into high school, my mom really wanted me to audition for Fiddler on the Roof, and I did not get in,” Powell says. “So my mom made me go into school every day and ask the choir teacher if anybody had dropped out of the chorus, and finally I think that lady just felt so bad for me she was like, ‘Okay, you can just be in the chorus.’”
It’s taken exactly that bullish assertiveness to get Powell to where she is now. And where she is now is not bad at all—Powell is a successful comedic working actor who has had notable roles in some of the biggest comedies of recent years. She now has a recurring role as Pameron Tucker on Modern Family, and she’s made appearances on Veep, The Office, Reno 911!, Bridesmaids, Suburgatory, Clipped and more.
Discovering True Passion
Powell carries a lightness to her, and she is very easy to smile and maybe even easier to laugh, but all of that belies the tenacity and good old-fashioned Midwest work ethic she carries underneath. Hollywood is not always a meritocracy—even though you work hard and may have been great in one thing, you still have to prove yourself for the next. It’s a field that’s high on fulfillment but low on stability. “You have to keep believing and knowing for yourself that this is what you’re meant to do, and the day you don’t feel that anymore, you’re done,” Powell says. “There’s only been one time I thought, ‘You should be looking into something else.’ Then two days later, something came through, and that’s the last time I questioned it.”
After her mom pushed her into Fiddler on the Roof her freshman year, Powell got involved with drama and she says, “That’s when it became my love instead of hers.” That love led her to Missouri State University and to a degree in theatre, as well as to romantic love. At MSU, Powell met Dan Tipton, who would eventually become her husband and create his own Hollywood career in production, where he is now the production supervisor for Modern Family.
In the show’s fifth season finale episode, Pam (played by Powell) comes to town to be by her brother’s side as he marries his partner, Mitchell Pritchett, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (left).
Bright Lights, Big City, Bigger Success
Right after college, Tipton and Powell stuck around Springfield, following her parents’ urgings to seek stability and health insurance, as parents are wont to do. Powell chose the next best thing: a job working in local TV at KSPR. Tipton was unhappily selling cars when he declared to Powell that he was done. “He was like, ‘I’m selling cars. This is not what I want to be doing. I’m going to L.A. in a month, and I really hope you want to come with me,’” Powell says. “I was like, ‘Yeah I’ll go.’ I told my parents, ‘I think this guy thinks I’m really talented and wants to get me out of here, and he’s going to break up with me when I get out there.’”
Displaying some of her rare moxie, she also told her parents some ground rules. “I said, ‘Don’t let me come home for a year,’” Powell says. “I thought, ‘If this boy breaks up with me, I won’t be strong enough to make it on my own. I’ll have to come home to mommy and daddy,’” Powell says. “It was basically, ‘Don’t let me quit because I might try to.’”
Powell jumped into the improv scene in Los Angeles and got most of her early work through connections she made in that world. “The way I got started was through improv and people I met in those classes,” she says. “You’re meeting people who will eventually be writers, producers, so people would see me perform, and they’d be like, ‘Do you want to come do this for me, or audition for this?’ I started building a resume before I ever got an agent or a manager.”
Earning Her Fame
Powell’s first break came with a role on Reno 911!, an opportunity she got through the improv community. “The casting director brought me in, and the audition process for them was improv, as was the show,” Powell says. In that role, she played an American Idol–hopeful she named Cameo Hamilton, acting alongside Tom Lennon. Another break for Powell was in the hit movie, Bridesmaids, in which she played a flight attendant. “I know all the people in that movie, but at the time I was still coming up and couldn’t get that casting director to meet with me for the world,” Powell says. “I think I got recommended by several people but ended up auditioning like a real person. Kristen Wiig has remarked before how she thinks it’s amazing how I walked in, and nobody in casting knew me, and I got a role just based on my ability.”
Powell’s biggest role has come on the show Modern Family, on which she plays Pameron Tucker, the sister to main character Cameron, played by Eric Stonestreet, a longtime friend of Powell. “They had a different specific actress in mind when creating the character,” Powell says. “They had an idea of what they wanted. But I think over time they’ve learned my voice and who I am and what I’ve created her to be, more than the voice you see when you’re writing. Now it’s fun. They’re writing for me and we’re creating together.”
Through Modern Family, Powell can showcase her comedy chops. Her character, Pam, has a tendency to drive her brother-in-law Mitchell crazy with her emotional outbursts, and Pam’s questionable decisions, like smoking cigarettes out of her niece’s bedroom window (above), create even more opportunity for Powell to develop her character.
Not only does Powell find it exciting to be on a hit network show, but she gets to do it with a good friend and her husband. Her son, Henry, now 5, has been visiting her on set since, well, before he was born. Powell recalls one time when her sister, Tiffany, visited and witnessed the real glamour of Hollywood. “When I was pregnant, my baby sister visited while I was working on a show called Suburgatory, and she went with me to make sure I was okay because I was pregnant and had kind of a difficult pregnancy,” Powell says. “It was like 98 degrees, and we were standing out in the sun. I didn’t even have an apple box to sit on. She was trying to make sure I got snacks. by the end, she was like, ‘This is not glamorous.’”
Powell exists in this category of actor that the general public doesn’t often celebrate—actors that haven’t reached great fame but manage a fulfilling career through talent and relentless perseverance. Powell attributes her ability to do that to her upbringing in the Midwest, and as opposed to some who dismiss their hometowns, Powell is proud to be from Springfield.
“I talk about it all the time,” Powell says. “I love where I’m from. The biggest thing I want other people in the world and the industry to know is that we’re not stupid cowpokes. It makes me so mad when people say, ‘Oh flyover states.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s nothing like that.’ I want people to know the beauty of the people, the beauty of the land. I’m tired of the dark, Winters Bone perception of where I’m from. This is a beautiful and happy place,” she says.
“This place made me who I am, and I think I’m pretty cool,” Powell jokes. Hollywood agrees, and, by now, maybe that ninth grade choir teacher does, too.