Alumna’s acting spark catches fire

ELI alumna Ivette Li-Sanchez stars in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

Official promotion photo - Ivette Li-Sanchez

From the ELI Annual Holiday Newsletter 2013

When fans of the 2011 blockbuster film “Hunger Games” eagerly watch the newly released sequel, “Catching Fire,” they will grip the arms of their chairs as 24 young people — the “tributes” — fight to the death for the honor of their districts. And when the District Five tribute girl appears on the screen, some ELI alumni will do a double take to see the familiar face of a former ELI classmate. Session III 2010’s star student, valedictorian Ivette Li-Sanchez, never dreamed that in less than four years she would be a star on the big screen.

In her home country of Venezuela, Ivette studied animal husbandry. When she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009 to join her mother, she realized that to work in her field in the United States, she would have to retake her undergraduate courses — a discouraging prospect. As a result, Ivette found herself in search of a new career. First, however, she knew that no matter which direction she would eventually take, a key to her success would be mastery of the English language. When a friend recommended the ELI to her, she set off to Delaware to begin her American adventure.

Ivette decided to commit four months — two ELI sessions — to her language learning goals.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for a living and was really open to starting a new life path. That’s why I picked the ‘English for fun’ classes, as my friends taking the academic and pre-MBA courses used to call them.”

Ivette started at Level V in Leslie Criston’s “deeply moving” Read It! Watch It! and Walt Babich’s “unforgettable” Stories class. In the following session, she moved on to Carolina Correa’s Reading and Writing in Your Field — “My ‘serious’ class. I will always remember how inspired I got from day one.”

And, of course, there was Debbie Darrell’s English through Drama.

“It was phenomenal!  That was like my initiation as a scriptwriter, assistant director, production assistant, dancer … It was a team effort, just like all major productions.”

Debbie’s praise of Ivette is equally enthusiastic.

“Ivette was the focal point that brought the class together. She filled in all the gaps, making the flyers, working out costumes — she saved the day for the class, without ever taking the glory.”

Despite the triumph of the Drama class’s performance, “Oops 3,” the thought of acting as a career didn’t creep into Ivette’s mind just yet, but she says the ELI experience did empower her. “Communication is a vital piece in the process of adapting to a new country, and to me, being able to feel more self-confident with the language opened more possibilities for an enjoyable adventure as a newcomer in America.”

Back in Atlanta after her ELI stint, Ivette got a job at a staffing agency, at first performing short-term warehouse tasks such as gluing boxes and sticking bar codes into textbooks. Her ability and work ethic were quickly noticed. Within six months, she was promoted to production team specialist. The future looked bright. “Yet something in my life was still missing.” To fill that gap, Ivette sought out acting classes.

“At the beginning, I considered it as my way to stay in English training in a fun and interesting way. It was my little treasure — the hobby that balanced my warehouse work life with my artistic nature, the place where I could be myself and forget about the burden of the day.”

While her acting classes deeply satisfied her creative side, the production job did not. She resigned from her position and decided to “honor my second nature”: sewing, a craft she had learned as a child from her mother’s hand. She took up freelancing as a seamstress, with some occasional fashion designing, all the while religiously attending her acting classes.

As freelancing afforded her both time flexibility and financial peace of mind, Ivette started to consider her “little treasure” as a potential career. Through a contact in her acting class, she applied for a spot in a Hollywood production.

“When I was selected to work in ‘Catching Fire’ as the District Five female victor tribute, I got the sign that I needed to accept that acting was more than a hobby but a passion, and the journey as an actress began.”

Since “Catching Fire” completed filming in 2012, Ivette has been involved in a few independent cinematic projects, all the while remaining devoted to her beloved acting classes to continually improve her craft. Sewing and designing have not fallen by the wayside: she currently sews garments for SteamPunk Couture, an Oregon-based clothing company, and has paired up with a friend to make designs of their own.

Thinking back on her four months at the ELI at the very beginning of her American adventure, Ivette reflected,

“The ELI experience absolutely had a great impact on my life. I would live it again if I could. Everyone there is so involved and passionate with their work, and that is certainly contagious.”

ELI faculty and staff are delighted to have passed on a spark of their passion to a rising star.  SP

*Photo from

Article by: Sarah Petersen, Editor-in-Chief

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