LOS ANGELES • Will Stewart had two goals in mind when he wrapped shooting his short film “All We Are.”
One was to show the film in Los Angeles. The other was to screen it in his home state of Mississippi.
Last year he fulfilled the first half of that dream. This weekend, he’ll have the chance to finish it.
“Twenty years ago, the idea of bringing a gay short film to Mississippi wouldn’t have even registered for me at all,” Stewart said. “To find out about Oxford’s film festival and it’s LGBTQ section makes this screening all the more personal because it never seemed possible. It’s exciting and nerve-racking.”
Stewart, a 1996 graduate of Tupelo High School, left for the bright lights of Hollywood more than 20 years ago.
“I had spent a summer in Los Angeles after fifth grade and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I always felt drawn to come back out here. I was a business major at Ole Miss and closeted and I had to leave to find out more about myself.”
As of this year, Stewart has lived longer on the West Coast than he did in Mississippi, though he still considers this to be home.
After arriving in LA, the 40-year-old found a knack in the world of casting.
Serving as casting director for shows like “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Friday Night Lights,” the role enabled Stewart to make his first foray into filmmaking with “All We Are.”
“All those years of casting is what made me feel comfortable directing actors,” Stewart said. “I mean, that’s what we’re doing in the room every day.”
In 2006, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Killing Eve” actress Sandra Oh thanked Stewart from the stage during her Screen Actors Guild win for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series.
“That was a defining moment,” he said of the mention. “It was the best thing. I was so thankful to be a part of those Shonda Rhimes shows that impacted diversity in the current TV landscape. That’s the world we live in and we wanted to mirror it on the screen.”
Stewart said his years of consuming television and films as a child in Mississippi led to his passion for working in the fold.
“It’s something I was always drawn to. Back when HBO was one of those physical boxes with a lock on them, if we got in trouble, that was our huge punishment. They would lock the box,” he said, laughing.
Decades later, Stewart found himself surrounded by friends in the industry taking a chance on him and his vision for his own film.
“My buddy John, who did a polish on my script and mentored me through the beginning of the writing process, has an Oscar nomination for “Straight Outta Compton.” My director of photography, Xavier, is in Atlanta right now shooting “Watchmen” for HBO. I got to stand on so many people’s shoulders and that’s what made it shine. I was lucky, in that regard.”
Pulling the trigger to get the film rolling was a long time coming, but Stewart said he knew when the time was right.
“I had all that support that pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I had always wanted to write and direct something. I had been saying that for 20 years. Of course, everyone out here is also saying that. It’s always talked about. I was tired of talking about it.
“It was one of those experiences that defines you when everything comes together. It was amazing.”
Stewart is now writing a feature-length film which he calls a Mississippi story.
Those experiences of growing up here defined him as much as his time as a casting director, he said.
“Getting to share that with people that I love makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
“All We Are” will have its Mississippi premiere Friday at 8:30 p.m. at Malco Oxford Commons Cinema Grill during Oxford Film Festival’s LGBTQ block of short films.
For more information, or to purchase tickets to the festival, visit oxfordfilmfest.com.