Renée Willett spent her 23rd birthday working, on the set of the movie “The Yellow Birds,” shooting scenes with Jennifer Aniston. “She came over to my trailer after shooting wrapped to wish me a happy birthday and talk one on one. It was a very sweet gesture,” says Renée, who is an actress, comedienne, producer, influencer, philanthropist and MBA student.
This was only the second film she had ever done. “It was inspirational getting to work alongside her on my second film. Learning from her methods was an unparalleled experience.”
It was a “pretty cool start” to her career, the classically trained New York actress notes. Her next film, “The Comedian,” starred Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco and Danny DeVito. “It was really exciting,” she says.
Now 26, she has since wrapped movies featuring Alec Baldwin, Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald. Renée worked with Daniel Radcliffe on the film “Beast of Burden,” and there was a lot of down time during which the two hung out. “Finding out he is also a die-hard New York Giants fan like myself was a surprise! We ended up having a lot to talk about.”
She got her start in acting in 2015, in “Sharknado 3,” soon after graduating from USC with degrees in economics, Spanish and theater. Renée obtained that first role through sheer persistence. “I met the producer at an event and got his email and basically emailed him until he had no other option but to introduce me to his casting director and let me audition.”
Rising Star Award – NYC Intl. Film Fest
On March 1, Renée is thrilled to be receiving the Rising Star Award at The NYC International Film Festival. “It is truly humbling to receive recognition for all of my hard work and dedication in this industry,” she says. “The Sopranos” star Vincent Pastore, will accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony.
A Talent for Comedy
While acting and auditioning for roles and working on her master’s degree, Renée also somehow found time to take classes at UCB and the Groundlings. She realized she wanted to do more comedic roles and started writing her own material. About a year ago, she reluctantly began doing standup comedy, and found that she loved it.
Serendipity struck at a party in the Hamptons when she told a woman she was a comic but hadn’t actually done any. It turned out the woman produced shows for clubs like Gotham, and she asked, “Do you want to do one tomorrow night in Manhattan?” Willett demurred, but the woman persisted, and she agreed to appear the following night at Comic Strip Live, where Jerry Seinfeld did his first show. “It went great and I haven’t stopped since.”
She now performs regularly, mainly in New York and Tel Aviv. A lot of her jokes are about the differences in dating between NYC and L.A., and dating men of different ethnicities and of all ages.
“My comedic idols are Will Farrell (if you haven’t seen my social media, I call myself ‘Will Ferrell with [bigger] boobies’), Judd Apatow (we went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school and college), and Ben Stiller (who is my wallpaper on my phone. Crazy I know, but you know, osmosis ha ha). I dream of working with any of these geniuses one day.”
Renée has already enlisted Andrew Dice Clay as a mentor. Prior to shooting a film with the comedian, she went to see him perform in Huntington, NY, and they met after the show. “I did some of my bits for him; he loved it,” she says. They and others continued the evening in Manhattan, making silly videos on their phones and spit-balling ideas over 2:00 am pizza. “He may even have me open for him soon!” Renée says.
Next up is her biggest role yet, opposite Val Kilmer and Dylan McDermott in the crime drama “Cutman,” from the same producing and directing team behind “Blind,” in which Renée also appeared. “They wanted to work with me again on their next film! It was an honor getting my first offer without having to audition for the role.” McDermott was also in “Blind,” and Renée is looking forward to working with him again.
Some of her other upcoming projects include a modern-day spin on the classic Romeo and Juliet story in which she plays a news anchor who narrates the entire film. “That one will be shooting in Europe, which I am thrilled about.”
In another film, “Juveniles,” about two delinquent young girls who form a friendship in a juvenile detention center, she’ll play a tough guard who ends up having a sweet spot for one of the girls. “I suggested to the director that I do my hair in cornrows,” Renée explains. “This is very opposite of my personality, you probably won’t even recognize me, so I’m very excited to play this role. It’s very special to me; it’s based on a true story and the writer, director, and leads of this film, are all female.”
This summer, Renée is shooting a film with Famke Janssen and Cary Elwes in Montauk, not far from her family’s Hamptons house, so she’ll get to sleep at home while filming. It’s too early to reveal details, but Renée is currently writing her first TV pilot.
Social Media Influencer
With over 500,000 followers on her Instagram account, Instagram.com/reneewillett, Renée works with brands, including hotels like Park Hyatt and Restaurants like Nobu & Matsuhisa.
“My Instagram has been called an ‘Upscale lifestyle for a down-to-earth girl.’ I document my exciting travels as well as funny life experiences. I care about making my followers laugh at the smallest anecdotal moments of my day.”
Her biggest ongoing partnership is with the Four Seasons. While in Thailand shooting a TV show recently, Renée decided to venture to Chiang Mai on a weekend off. The hotel arranged a Muay Thai personal training lesson, and sent her for a planting session in the rice paddys. “You want to see something funny, find my Instagram post at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai of me on a farm.”
Last summer she traveled to Argentina with her brother for snowboarding in a partnership with the Four Seasons, and to Rio and the Iguazu Falls in Brazil (over the winter/New Year’s) for a partnership with Belmond. Upcoming are trips to Tokyo, Kyoto and Hong Kong for partnerships with the Park Hyatt, Four Seasons, and the Ritz-Carlton, respectively.
With her outsize personality and lots to say, Renée created a second, comedic Instagram account, Tits and Chocolate Chips. Instagram.com/titsandchoclatechips I love chocolate chip cookies, so I post cookies all over the world. It’s like a travel cookie blog with low-cut shirts.” It grew organically; people send her photos of cookies from all over, so she decided to create a separate account. “I have now become the database for all things cookie, like the best cookie locations in NYC and LA. I call it my fun alter ego.” Despite the title, the feed is PG-rated. “If anything, it’s funny-sexy; there’s nothing on there my grandma can’t see.”
Thailand TV Show
An exciting experience for Renée was working on a Thai television show that stars Praya Lundberg, a close friend and one of that country’s most famous actresses. “It was really cool; it wasn’t an American production in Thailand, it was an Asian production.” Renée teamed up with L’Oreal Asia and Maybelline for the project, “they treated me a like a princess.” It aired on the LINE app, which is very popular in Thailand, Japan and throughout all of Southeast Asia.
Renée played an American barista. “I have never made coffee in my life, so they had to have an official barista trainer, who didn’t speak a word of English, show me all the steps. You can just imagine, learning something I know nothing about in a language I don’t understand, it was hilarious.”
She had to learn Muay Thai for the role, and now has incorporated that into her workout routine. There were scenes taped in a famous Bangkok boxing venue in which women are not allowed in the ring. “When I first entered the ring I had to say a prayer, as is custom. Between that and seeing the chanting and spiritual nature of true Muay Thai preparation, I feel a spiritual connection to the sport and will forever hold the experience of shooting that episode in my heart.”
Some later episodes were set in New York. “It was in many ways a culture shock to work with the same people, many of whom I met in Thailand, in my hometown of NYC three months later. It was like we brought Thailand to New York.”
Renée is now earning an MBA at USC’s Marshall School of Business, focusing on film finance and the business of entertainment. Most of her classes are in the evenings, so they don’t conflict with her career. “I truly love school and am secretly a complete nerd at heart.” This semester, she threw herself a curveball, taking an advanced-level video games entrepreneurship course, where the final project consists of creating a video game and pitching it to developers. “I’ve never played a video game in my life, so this will be interesting,” she laughs.
Renée lends her time and energy to quite a few charitable causes, including UJA-Federation, Robin Hood, The China Institute, The Jewish Museum of New York and The Yiddish Theatre, and Shalva Children’s Center. She is one of the only females to play in the charity Pro-am tennis matches for The Michael Milken Prostate Cancer Foundation. “My partner is a 6’9” top Swedish player, so you can only imagine how funny we look together on the court, in contrast to my peanut height of 5’4.”
Her comedy work has had an unexpected benefit: Renée has become sought after to host charity events for the many organizations she supports. She writes different, less racy material for this type of charity gala, “so my grandma can hear it.”
She emceed the United Hatzalah gala in New York, helping to raise $1 million, all from young adults, and the organization recognized her in its “30 Under 30” list of young leaders giving back in a meaningful and impactful way to save lives in Israel. “When the founder told me the ceremony will be held in New York on my birthday to ensure I would be home to attend, I was truly touched.”
At the next gala in LA she will again be telling her appropriate-for-grandma Jewish jokes and presenting the Humanitarian award to Jay Leno. “What an honor to have that job for the night, sharing the stage with a man I look up to so much.”
Renée is active in the Shoah Foundation, which she holds close to her heart. The digital database of holocaust survivor testimonials, founded by Steven Spielberg. That database has now expanded to encompass nine genocides, including Rwanda, Nanjing, Cambodia, Guatemala, Yazidi, Rohingya and Armenian.
One moment at the organization’s recent annual gala in Beverly Hills touched her profoundly. The survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting attended and spoke about the horrific moments they experienced. “One major aspect I did not know until listening to these speeches, was that the students were all watching The Shoah Foundation testimonials when the shooter entered the classroom. I find it tragic that while learning of the horrors of humankind, so that we may never repeat them, the very purpose of the Shoah Foundation itself in its preservation of such memories, these students experienced another great historic horror.”
The Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program team, “The Jack,” is named for Renée’s grandfather, Jack Shapiro, who was an educator and phenomenal tennis player. “This foundation is special because we find inner city kids who have exceptional tennis skills and provide them with tutors and tennis coaches to help them earn scholarships for college.”
As a once professional junior tennis player, Renée is now a confirmed extreme sports junkie, indulging in activities like skydiving, paragliding and zip lining, in addition to less daring forms of exertion like spinning and boxing. Willett doesn’t just love tennis but is a dedicated football, basketball, baseball, and hockey fan of her favorite New York teams.
She loves the idea of combining her passions for sports and cinema whenever possible. She recently produced a tennis-themed short called “Love” with Peter Gallagher’s son, James, starring Susan Sarandon and Boris McGiver. “I hope to one day star in a sports drama, like one of my favorite movies of all time ‘Remember The Titans.’”
Thanks to 75 Kenmare for use of their space