SOUTH KINGSTOWN – It may have only been one scene and a few lines, but it’s not every day you tune into Netflix to find a local talent.
South Kingstown native Mark Atkinson, who now resides in sunny San Diego, recently landed a small role in a Netflix hit – “Selena: The Series.” Since dropping on the streaming platform in early December, the show has been widely viewed in the United States, as well as abroad.
“It’s not a huge part, but it’s a huge show,” Atkinson said in a phone interview on Saturday.
Although the Queen of Tejano Music wasn’t widely known in Atkinson’s hometown, or even New England for that matter, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is a household name in the southwest. He may not have grown up listening to her music, but Atkinson has come to realize how much she’s still celebrated in other parts of the country – even now, more than 25 years after her tragic passing.
“Down here, down in southern California and Texas, she has a huge, huge following,” Atkinson said. “I had no idea how much of a celebrity she really was until I booked this part.”
Fortunately, Atkinson was able to film his scene in the hit mini series last February, before words like social distancing and quarantine became part of our everyday vocabulary. His particular scene, in which appears as a Denny’s manager, was actually filmed at a Bob’s Big Boys in Tijuana, Mexico.
Since his scene was part of flashback, set in 1963, Atkinson had to spend some time getting ready to fit into the time period. The 41-year-old actor traded his beard for a bit of a mustache and some mutton chops, and the wardrobe department even put him in some white pleather boots. Unfortunately, the boots didn’t appear on screen after the scene was shortened to make room for other flashback content, but Atkinson still thoroughly enjoyed his days on set.
“It was a lot of fun to make,” he said.
While actor credits like this might be considered a dime a dozen in southern California, it’s not something you read about every day in South Kingstown.
Before leaving for the west coast, Atkinson was a “townie” in every sense of the word. He went to Matunuck Elementary, graduated from South Kingstown High School in ‘97, and then earned a bachelor’s from the University of Rhode Island four year later. He even worked as a lifeguard at South Kingstown Town Beach.
It was here in his hometown that Atkinson first discovered his passion for acting.
In high school, the event that started it all was the annual tradition of SKPades — a significant fundraising event that features a series of skits, music and dance numbers, written entirely by the students in the junior class — all poking fun at the school administration and senior class. Atkinson still remembers playing the part of Ace Ventura in his SKPades skit, back when Jim Carrey had been widely popular.
Atkinson also took advantage of some high school drama classes and even appeared in a few productions. In college, he would go on to earn a minor in film.
After college, following in the footsteps of many great actors before him, Atkinson broke into the stand up comedy scene. In Rhode Island, this included clubs like AS220 in Providence and the Station, which tragically burned down in February 2003.
Even then, Atkinson knew he wanted to make his way west, though. In college, Atkinson fell in love with San Diego while visiting his brother on spring break.
“I knew I wanted to move out here after graduation,” he said. “Rhode Island, I love it, I really do, but when you’re born and raised, and you go to college here, and you’re 22 years old you haven’t lived anywhere else, it’s time to do something.”
A year after graduating, and spending some time in the hospitality industry while saving up as much as he could, Atkinson made the move. Once he made it to San Diego, Atkinson frequently made the two hour commute and began studying at two legendary improv institutions in Los Angeles — The Groundlings and The Second City.
“I fell in love with acting again,” Atkinson said. “I started doing some student films and short films, and a couple of independent feature films.”
In 2007, Atkinson booked a national Kawasaki commercial that ran on ESPN & other networks for more than a year. Notably, it was his third-ever commercial audition.
The momentum he picked up from landing that commercial helped Atkinson book an agent, and it inspired him to move two hours north to Los Angeles. In a year’s time, however, he fell out of love with the struggle of acting.
After moving back to San Diego, a city that’s always felt more like home than Los Angeles, Atkinson made a return to the hospitality industry and entered into a serious relationship. Eventually, however, after taking a few years off from the acting, both his relationship and his positions in hospitality ran its course.
At that point in his life, roughly six years ago, Atkinson realized he “wasn’t quite an old man but not a kid anymore.” So he sat down and seriously took stock of his life and his happiness.
“I said, ‘What was the one thing in life that I really like?”
For him, that was the entertainment field.
This time, Atkinson decided to approach acting from a different angle. He started writing and producing his own content, and went on to form Kahuna Productions — a throwback to his college nickname — which he earned for wearing lots of floral hawaiian shirts.
During his time in California, Atkinson has racked up more than 70 IMDb (International Movie Database) credits, but the roles he’s taken on with Kahuna Productions are some of his proudest achievements.
Under his production label, Atkinson has helped everything from web series and short films come to life — and some of them will be touring the local film festival circuit in the near future.
Two of his films will premiere at Rhode Island’s own Southeast England (SENE) Film Festival this spring — “Leave ‘Em Laughing,” a semi bio piece about the late comedian Dick Shawn’s tragic last performance on stage, and “The Power Agent,” which Atkinson wrote, produced, directed and starred in.
Atkinson will definitely be returning home for the film festival, but even if it weren’t for his upcoming screening dates, he still likes to come home a few times a year. As much as he prefers winters in San Diego, Atkinson said he’s incredibly proud to call this unique, quirky state home.
And although it’s been some time since Atkinson initially broke into the entertainment industry, he did have some words of advice for the current generation of up-and-coming talent in Rhode Island.
With so many resources at their fingertips today, thanks to social media, Atkinson said you don’t have to move out to California to be discovered. You don’t even have to wait until after college, or high school for that matter.
“You can make something on a DSLR camera or your iphone, edit it and throw it up on YouTube or Facebook, or Instagram or TikTok” he said. “Don’t wait around. You don’t have to wait around for a high school play or to be an extra in a film production. You can start making your own content.”
“We’re at the best time, of all time, to be able to make your own content,” he added, pointing out one of the few positive highlights this pandemic has brought us.
Another word of advice? Don’t just think about it — actually bring your ideas into reality.
“You’ve got to be proactive,” Atkinson said. “This is a very competitive industry. It takes more than just wanting it.”