Alex Cherry

Maryville High School graduate Alex Cherry (left) and Taylor Duenas prepare for their internships with Disney in early 2020.

It was, without being melodramatic, a movie that changed the course of Alex Cherry’s life.

As a theater kid, Cherry — who graduated from Maryville High School in 2015 — has always been a fan of make believe. Her father, John, has served as one of the principal organizers and artistic directors of Primary Players, the Blount County-based children’s theatrical troupe of which Cherry was a part since she was 6.

When she wasn’t on stage, she was in the audience, soaking up stories both timeless and contemporary, but by the time she hit her teens, she began to think about her future. The only problem, she told The Daily Times recently, was that she was unsure what it would look like — until one fateful day in 2012.

“My dad was randomly like, let’s go see this movie, ‘The Avengers,’” Cherry said. “At that point, I hadn’t seen any Marvel movies, and I didn’t know anything about them. But I just remember sitting there on the edge of my seat the whole time, and it was the best 2½ hours of my life. I loved the characters, I loved the spectacle of the giant alien attack in New York, and I fell in love with this fictional world. Superheroes, comic books — from that moment on, I ran with it, and I knew I wanted to be a part of creating stuff.”

Almost a decade later, that’s exactly what she’s doing — as a contract employee for the company that brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life. Now living in Los Angeles, she’s a production secretary on a major Disney film, so hush-hush that she’s legally bound to secrecy. Suffice it to say, she said, it will be a major release in the next year or two, and it all started at the Foothills 12 movie theater in Maryville.

“After that, I went and watched all of the Marvel movies I hadn’t seen, and I started buying comic books and reading whatever looked interesting,” she said. “I started to really figure out that I loved fantasy and sci-fi movies that were always taking place in this other world, these larger-than-life movies that had these characters I could relate to. I wasn’t into ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ when I was younger, but I started watching all these big sci-fi and fantasy movies, and I fell in love with film that way. That’s how I figured out I loved movies, which inevitably meant I wanted to be a part of making movies.”

After high school, she enrolled in the University of Alabama, and while the film program there isn’t considered prestigious, it was the first building block toward the career she has today. She made friends with fellow cinephiles, and together they began working on short films together and spent their nights animatedly discussing every minutiae of the process. As an intern for the campus public television station, she helped make small-scale commercials and became a part of other projects.

“They weren’t movies, but they had all of the building blocks I needed to learn: how to call people, asking people to be involved in a project, how to work a camera, how to edit on a computer,” she said. “Almost everything I did in college was outside of classes, just sharing passions with others and learning from their passions and collaborating that way. I found out that so much of this was just using every building block to get to the next thing.”

It didn’t hurt that she won a couple of high-profile honors: She was part of a team nominated for a 2019 Southeastern Emmy Award for the short public service announcement “Become a Social Worker,” and in 2019, her original screenplay, “The Ties That Bind,” won her a Holle Award from Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Science. The latter came with a $10,000 prize, which Cherry used to move to Los Angeles after graduation.

“In the middle of college, I started thinking about where to go, and L.A. was the obvious answer,” she said. “Once that became something I really wanted to do, I started researching how to move there, how to get started there, and I just gave myself permission to go. If it’s scary, that’s OK. If it doesn’t work out, that’s OK. And what I’ve found out that so much of this was just using every building block to get to the next thing, and I can trace a very clear line from theater to movies to an internship in college to my first internship in L.A.”

That was with the company Jumpcut, a small production firm that allowed her to make connections, expand her resume and eventually land an internship with the House of Mouse. She started out in early 2020 as a production intern before moving up to production assistant in September of last year.

“Almost everyone starts out as a production assistant, which is the bottom of the totem pole — getting lunch, picking up supplies, things like that,” she said. “I was doing that on various projects for a while, and I was fortunate enough that I started to meet people who really believed in me and wanted to help me get on bigger projects and connected me with other people.

“Now, I’m what’s called a production secretary, and my job is to send people their digital start paperwork when they get hired, send the script out to all of the crew, keep track of our crew list and keep track of all of our agreements and contracts we sign with various companies to rent equipment and spaces. I’m doing a lot on my computer, but I love logistical stuff and organizing things, and I love spreadsheets.”

While much of her work is done from home, she’s had plenty of those Hollywood moments that folks in the industry — and even regular denizens of L.A. who share a city with the rich and famous — experience daily. A recently completed job for Warner Bros. had her working with actors Greg Kinnear and Courteney Cox, and seeing an actor like Chris Evans — Captain America himself — duck into a coffee shop has become a regular occurrence.

“You’re kind of like surrounded by it everywhere,” she added.

She misses home, of course: Hitting up Vienna Coffee House and walking around a bucolic downtown Maryville on an autumn morning is worlds removed from gridlock on the 405, and the friends she made growing up here are lifelong ones, she said.

“I had a sense of community because I grew up there, and that really made me realize how difficult it can be to find community in a big city,” she said. “Other than people I meet through work, it’s hard to find people that really feel like family when they’re not your family. I went to First United Methodist from the time I was very young, and that felt like family. Several of my friends from school still live in Maryville, and of course all my family still lives there.

“But there’s something special about a smaller town in East Tennessee that’s full of people you know and support you, and it’s amazing to come out here and still feel supported by people from back home. Everything I’ve done has been a step to the next thing, whether I knew it or not, even though not every step I took was a direct step.

“I used to have this anxiety of, ‘What if I make the wrong move?,’ which I think a lot of young people have,” she added. “But I think I’ve come to a place of peace in realizing that everything I do is going to help me on to the next thing, whether I know it or not, because it’s all led me here.”

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