(Artwork by Anya Thakur)
Liberty High School

Actress and YouTuber Anna Akana on directing and starring in her own series, ‘Miss 2059’

Anna Akana is a triple threat: director and producer, actress, and YouTuber with over 2 million subscribers. After being devastated when her sister took her life, she used comedy to rebuild and heal, telling stories and reaching out to people with sage but brilliantly delivered advice and stories in the form of YouTube videos on her channel, branching out into directing and starring in her own short films, launching a YouTube Red series, and even acting, from cameos to supporting roles in mainstream films and leading roles in her independent projects.

And sitting confidently on the AOL Build series stage, tousled curls tumbling down her shoulders and eyes bordered by cat eyeliner and smokey lilac shadow is the striking and sharp Akana. In a washed denim jacket over a deep green eyelet top and knee-high beige boots, the petite comedienne, notorious cat lover (and adopter), and entertainer channels an appealing combination of smart, shareable and savvy.

“Miss 2059 actually started as a short film pilot called Miss Earth that I made back at the end of 2014,” Akana said of the series origins onstage. “I was part of the very first incubators programs with New Form Digital. We basically hired a bunch of creators and we’re like, ‘What would you make if you could make anything that you wanted to?’ So we went off and made those. They took the pilot, sold them, and here we are. The plot when I first conceived of the idea was initially a girl winning a fake contest at Comic-Con called Miss Earth. And then she had cancer, and then she went into space, and then she didn’t go into space, and it was crazy.”

With development, the original concept adapted and evolved.

“So there’s been quite a few changes,” Akana said at AOL. “We finally landed on something where there’s a pair of twin sisters. One is a beauty queen and one has been training her entire life to go into this galactic competition that everyone on earth knows nothing about. But on the day that she’s supposed to be beamed up, they accidentally switched places.”

Beginning filming was a fast-paced, but ultimately successful process yielding results that made Akana proud.

“I knew we were going to be filming back in July of 2015, but once things go into lawyer land, they take a very long time,” Akana said at AOL. “So once we got the a-OK from that, everything was just go go go go go. So we only had about two months of pre-production. We had a month in the writers room, and then we immediately went into casting and finding a director. Our poor VFX creature team only had two weeks to do all of the prosthetics for the aliens at our show, but they just kicked ass and now it looks amazing.”

Visual elements and set pieces in the story allowed her to delve deeper into aesthetic and artistic appeal than with her YouTube videos.

“I love visually stunning stuff like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy and in, like, Labyrinth. All that stuff — it looks like a dream, like a fantasy,” Akana said at AOL. “And so I’ve always been very attracted to creating that type of content, but it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of money and a lot of pre-production. So on my YouTube channel, I mostly focus on comedy videos with some graphics effects.”

She began her career, initially as a comedian, and has since progressed to become who she is today as an entertainer in many fields.

“I actually started out in stand up when I was 19, slowly transitioned into acting and then YouTube is actually the final thing that I ended up doing,” Akana said at AOL. “I auditioned regularly as an actor and it’s always fun to book, like, a little small part and then later they find out that I’m, uh, I’m big on YouTube. And they’re like, ‘Hey, can you do some promotion for a movie?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, give me a bigger part.’ But it never works, bro. My YouTube stuff — I wear all the hats. I’m writing it, I’m directing it, and producing it. I’m acting in it, I’m editing it, you know. It’s all within your control, so if it sucks, it’s your fault. If it’s great, you get the glory. With something like Ant-Man that I just came onto, I was, you know, one person.”  

Akana shares her candid experience in shooting films on sets.

“On a shoot day, they told me to show up at 5 a.m. with my own hair and makeup done,” Akana said at AOL. “I just do my lines and then I leave. It’s great though, because it gives me so much perspective on how easy acting really is. So when I go on a big set like that Thursday, for every single job there’s a person whose job it is just to make sure that your pants don’t crinkle. And so it’s wonderful to to go there and, like, really just be able to focus on one thing versus being completely scattered on everything.”

Shooting the series was both a tremendous project and a tremendous opportunity for her.

“This is definitely the biggest project I’ve ever been, like, the driving force of,” Akana said at AOL. “So I was the creator, I am the star, and I am a producer. But it is like right in that in between where we have like 75 people on this crew, so it’s still kind of big. But because we have so many people, we want to feed them well. We want to get a great set to make sure we’re putting a lot of money towards what you see on camera.”

Shoots are intensive but go by quickly with Akana’s team.

“There’s other places where we have to cut and and be willing to compromise on like 14 hour days and willing to work 6 o’clock six day work weeks,” she said at AOL. “Most of our shoot days are eight pages, which is kind of insane for sci-fi and with something that’s so heavily action-based. But we have two camera crews so that we get double coverage at the same time. So it makes things go a lot faster.”

She was impressed by the set-building and the work of her construction crew.

“I always assumed we would build the sets from scratch, just with with how we were shooting — relaxed shooting and all the makeup changes that needed to be made,” Akana said at AOL. “I was like, ‘There’s no way we can find something that looks like an alien planet here on earth unless it’s a very specialty location.’ But ever of course, we want to check all our options. So we went out and we looked at all these different clubs or these different abandoned warehouses and tried to find something that really fit our needs. But ultimately we realized our best bet to get the aesthetic that we wanted was to build everything from the ground up. It was a predominantly female construction crew just in here, like hammering away, day and night. And so it was great to see, like, these slabs of regular wood just became the doorway here that you see now.”

She takes pride in the project, and the resulting series and world created to support her cast.

“I think it we made the right choice because it looks so much better,” Akana enthused.