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Religion

Molly Z. Ephraim ’08

Actress

I had no idea I’d be a religion major when I entered Princeton. Not. A. Clue. What I remained fairly certain about was the career I wanted to continue to pursue post-graduation. I began performing at a young age and by the time I reached 17, I had two Broadway shows and a television pilot under my belt. My career was moving along steadily when I decided to make the transition to “take time off” and become a full-time student. I was mistaken though, in assuming I would simply return to the “business” four years and one degree in religion later, older and wiser but relatively unchanged as an actor. Beyond the effects of what you may expect, I think studying religion at Princeton has served to make me a more sensitive, more understanding actor.

How did I become a religion major, then?

My ideas about what interested me academically quickly winnowed down after my freshman and sophomore years. Psychology? Nope. Neuroscience made my brain hurt. English? While being an English major seemed like a natural path to me, I decided I wanted to be in a smaller major. Anthropology? I discovered that all the anthro classes I was attracted to were either cross-listed with religion or focused on some aspect of spirituality. I soon realized the religion department was the perfect amalgam of my interests; the department was small and had a personal feel that lent itself to a lot of flexibility when it came to independent work. The professors were incredible and the other students in the major were witty, whip-smart, scrappy, and fiercely loyal to their department. There was a whole lot of spirit in the religion department, no pun intended.

Exploring the ‘why’

When I tell people that I majored in religion in college, the follow-up is usually a tentative, “Oh, are you religious?” We all know that religion can be a touchy topic in a public forum. But what I found among my fellow majors was a sort of fearless sensitivity: the fine art of being thoughtful yet good-humored about the ever-complicated subject of belief. 

I won’t ever forget sitting in a precept for an introductory class on Buddhism, one of my first in the department, and leaving seeing things as if in high-definition. Studying the Lotus Sutra that day and Genesis the next made life seem more vivid and alive, more vast and complicated—and, for lack of a better word, more divine. Actors strive to be open and receptive to their surroundings in just this way. Understanding the internal life of a character you’re trying to play can be just as murky as unpacking and comprehending page after page of Biblical verse. But studying religion for me was to put myself in the place of the believer. It felt necessary to understand the “why” of religious precepts just as an actor is asked to “find the motivation” for their actions. Whether or not those beliefs overlapped with my own, I began to see the truly remarkable thing about being a religion major. This is the same (if not a little “touchy-feely”) reason why I love to act: The more you investigate the differences between people and their beliefs, the more the similarities come to light, too.

Combining academic and personal interests

As for my independent work in the department, I focused my efforts primarily on female figures in Indian religion. Something about the art and literature of ancient and medieval India really struck me. For my junior paper, I was able to combine several of my academic and personal interests. I wrote about the divine origin story of theater as told in the Natyashastra, an ancient Indian dramaturgical text and the basis for traditional Indian performance. I focused on the role of the beautiful and temperamental apsarases, or nymphs, which were effectively the first “actresses” in Indian lore. Then, during the summer after my junior year, I worked as an intern in the education department at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in New York and was able to stand face-to-face with some of the artwork I’d been ogling in books at Firestone Library. A few weeks later I was shooting scenes for a Disney movie. An atypical summer by any standards, I’d say.

My thesis followed similar themes as I moved from nymphs to dryads, or yaksinis, in an 11th-century Kashmiri collection of folklore called the Kathasaritsagara. Yaksinis could be seen in sculptures and friezes on temples, heard in a myriad of stories and song, and appeased with offerings as part of rites connected to fertility. I loved the variety of ways in which they were depicted; shape-shifting and mercurial, they could be both gently feminine and murderous within the same breath. As an actress, I can appreciate roles that offer multifaceted, complicated depictions of women. And as an undergraduate in the religion department, I was able to spend a couple of years delving into hundreds of stories about them.

After graduating, I moved back to New York City and got back into the swing of auditions. One of my favorite jobs included an Off-Broadway play titled End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer, which dealt with a dysfunctional family waiting for the Rapture. (The majority of the things I’m performing in aren’t directly related to religion so when they are, I get especially excited, as was the case with End Days.) Last summer, I landed a lead in Paranormal Activity 2, which came out last October. It was a blast to make and was certainly a boost for my career. At the same time, I was busy performing as Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank at Westport Country Playhouse, a role I’d been wanting to play for a long time. I was able to do a fair amount of post-show talk-backs and community outreach programs during the run of the play, which were really rewarding and combined arts education with some religion-based material.

Currently, I’m splitting my time between New York and Los Angeles, and enjoying a slightly nomadic lifestyle. A few days ago, I had a meeting with some casting directors, and they asked me about Princeton and why I decided to become a religion major. I told them that while I haven’t yet found anything that makes me happier than acting, it’s always been a pipe dream of mine to be a museum curator someday and work with religious iconography. One casting director looked at me and replied, “Most people would call it a pipe dream to be on Broadway. And you want to work in a museum?” I sort of smiled and said, “Yep.” And she laughed.

Molly Z. Ephraim