LOS ANGELES, CA. - While pondering what has given him the strength to trek from rural West Virginia to the bright lights of Los Angeles to chase the dream of a successful modeling and acting career, Alex Barlas remembered his roots.
"Being an adopted child is where the chip on my shoulder comes from," he said thoughtfully. "My strength comes from my parents who worked so hard for so long so I could have a good life. They taught me the value of hard work and they inspire me to be the best I can be."
Barlas, 24, grew up in Kanawha County but attended school in Boone County until he graduated from Sherman High School in 2012. He played football and also ran cross country. His mother, Linda Barlas, is a retired Boone County Schools educator and his father, Sajid Barlas, is an engineer and project manager for the WVDOH. His half-sister Olivia Barlas, also adopted, completed the family of four.
"I lived in Big Chimney but I always felt like I grew up in Boone County because I went to school there," he said. "It always felt like home to me. We lived 20 miles away from anything so when we were young we learned to be creative and we learned how to entertain ourselves. I didn't have cell service. I couldn't be on my phone all day."
Barlas' journey is a success story through education alone. He graduated from West Virginia University in 2017 with a degree in business administration and he is on track to earn a masters degree in fine arts from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2020.
In his last semester at WVU, he had an epiphany.
"I realized that I wasn't doing what I really wanted to do," he said. "I met with the assistant dean of the business school and I told him how I was feeling. I told him I felt like my real talent wasn't in business but in the world of the arts. I told him I wanted to go and get a masters in acting. He told me that it doesn't make sense to do something I didn't want to do. He told me the best thing I could do was to drop out of the MIS (Management Information Systems) program and finish my business degree and go to an acting school for my master's."
Barlas began looking at the top acting schools around the world including Juilliard and Yale while researching schools as far away as London.
A friend told him about a large audition in New York where representatives for the top schools evaluated the auditions, and chosen students could secure an interview for entrance into the institution.
"I had two weeks to prepare two monologues and I hit up an acting teacher that I had for an elective in college and he worked with me the day before I left on both monologues," he said. "I get to New York City, I feel prepared and I walk into this gigantic hotel right off of Broadway and everybody is warming up in this room. There were about 50 people and I was thinking that these kids have been doing theater all their lives. They acted, got a degree in acting, got a job on Broadway, maybe even as a performer and decided they needed more training. I walk out of the room and I sat in a corner and listened to music. I was more than a little intimidated."
Barlas was called to a small stage for his monologue and immediately found an abundance of courage.
"I killed it," he said. "It felt so good to nail it and then I did the second monologue and forgot the second sentence. I said thank you and I panicked and walked out. I thought I blew it."
Barlas returned to his room at 7 p.m. that evening and learned that he had calls from CalArts, University of Connecticut and Brooklyn College.
"These are all really good acting schools," he said.
At the advice of a trusted colleague and friend, he chose to interview with CalArts. Barlas called his interview a "spiritual awakening" that confirmed to him that he had made the right choice and he knew that his path was now clear. He had found his purpose.
Today, he looks back on leaving West Virginia and the vortex of emotions that crept into his every thought.
"I actually still had to pass a pretty big class at WVU to graduate, so I had to push that aside momentarily and focus on that," he said. "I knew that class was my first step to getting to California so it was all hands on deck for this class. During that time, I had began doing some modeling and I had done a shoot with a photographer. He told me I had the look but if I was going to do male modeling, I was going to have to lose some weight and get really cut. I'm 6-2 and I weighed 220. I ended up eating healthy, working out and I was losing weight in a healthy, sustainable way. I felt like I could make some extra money in California modeling. I see myself in a Nike ad. I thought, why not me?"
Barlas passed the class, graduated and took a job in retail to save some cash for his trek across the country. He knew that even with roommates, rent in Los Angeles would far exceed anything he had seen at home.
"Then, my parents said they would pay for my trip to get out here and the pressure eased to some extent," he said via a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I was so worried about planning the trip that I really didn't think much about leaving West Virginia. That came later."
Barlas sold his car before he left and took a bus to school every day for a while.
"Once I moved, I realized how much I am like my parents," he said. "I always tried to not be my parents. I even deliberately did things to not be like them. When I got to California, the only thing I really had was what my parents taught me. The values they taught me, most importantly, was the drive and work ethic they gave me has kept me alive and sustained me. That is what separates me from other people and the person I was before. It all came into focus when I got here."
Barlas talks about an incident in sixth grade where his mother left an impression on him.
"Growing up as a biracial or mixed kid really wasn't a problem for me," he said. "My father is from Pakistan and my mother is white. I knew I was adopted but I still looked at them and it made sense to me somehow. A kid on the playground called me the "N" word and I was riding home with my mom and asked her what that meant. After explaining it to me, which broke her heart, I know, we went back to the school and she dealt with it. It was a moment that I'm thankful I never dealt with again throughout my school years. That was it."
Barlas' first professional job was for a company called ThreadBeast. The 3-part campaign gave him his first notch on his resume. He was signed to an agency for six months before he secured his inaugural gig. In Los Angeles, a European photographer named Erwin Olaf worked with Barlas. He showed up on set and learned that a documentary was being shot while his shoot was taking place.
"It went great," he said. "I ended up being on the cover of his new book and that work is featured in galleries across Europe and will land in the U.S. in the next few months."
The actor/model worked with the Wolf & Shepherd dress shoe company for an ad campaign that features Barlas stepping out of a taxi.
He is prepping for an independent film where he will play a UFC fighter. He will travel to Nebraska for some of the shooting in August. He is taking Jujitsu classes in preparation for a physically demanding role. The film is tentatively titled, "The Traveler."
Los Angeles theater director Edgar Arcenexuex has tabbed Barlas for a production that he is excited about. The one-time performance at the Ford Theater could lead to a 30-show season of performances.
"The story is about (the pop group) Milli Vanilli and I am playing Rob Pilatus," he said. "The story focuses on my character and his rise to fame and his unfortunate suicide."
Barlas said that he is told that his humility and honesty are traits that others in the entertainment industry have spoken about when describing him; he credits that to his Mountain State roots.
"West Virginia," he said. "Growing up in West Virginia. I learned to listen to people. I learned to survive and I learned to laugh at myself and that is endearing to others. I'm proud of where I'm from and I'm excited about where I'm going."
Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @philipdperry.