Alumni couple flexing creative muscle in Los Angeles

Jonathan F. McVerry
March 08, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Elle Jae and Thomas Stewart moved from Alabama to central Pennsylvania, it was a risk, an opportunity and a challenge. Today, from their Los Angeles production company, they say going to Penn State as returning students was the best decision they made.

Elle Jae developed a love for acting in high school and earned a degree in theater at Alabama State University, which is where she met Thomas. He was earning his degree in technical theater.

The two started a family and got jobs outside the entertainment industry. Elle Jae worked at a local college and Thomas was a quality inspector in the automotive industry. Elle Jae began searching for MFA programs in acting. That’s when Penn State appeared on the map.

“Acting has always been something I've been interested in,” Elle Jae said. “We got married and started our own family, and I was like, ‘I need to go back to school to further the thought process and my creative realm.'”

It was 2013 and the Stewarts moved to Happy Valley so Elle Jae could start working on her master of fine arts in Penn State’s School of Theatre.

Thomas, who always had a camera in his hand or on his shoulder growing up, had a similar calling. He wanted to expand his interest in film. Luckily, he said, he found what he was looking for at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and started earning his degree in film.

“It’s not that I didn’t have history of working in the industry,” Thomas said. “But the truth of the matter is you need a solid foundation, and I taught myself up to that point and I hit a ceiling.”

Plus, Elle Jae was going to be attending Penn State anyway, so Thomas knew the opportunity was there to finalize the dream. While visiting, he sat down with Bellisario College Assistant Dean for Academic Services Jamey Perry and said, “Dude, I’m coming to Penn State regardless, you might as well put me in school … it was the best decision I ever made.”

As adult learners with experience, the two became role models for other students and star pupils for their instructors. They also graduated with a few awards for their portfolios, including several awards for Elle Jae’s performance in “Junior,” a 28-minute, one-take short film about a mother coping with the murder of her son by an off-duty police officer.

Inspired by the case of Michael Brown in 2014, Elle Jae wrote and performed in both the stage play and the screenplay, which was directed and cowritten by Pearl Gluck, an associate professor of film production who serves as a Donald P. Bellisario Career Advancement Professor.

Thomas won a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences for a film he produced for his senior project. The film was called “Protect and Serve” and addressed police brutality.

Thomas Stewart at work

Thomas Stewart working on the set of "Public Relations," a 10-part episodic series he and his wife Elle Jae (both alumni) created, wrote, and produced.

IMAGE: Provided

“Thomas has a passion for issues, particularly those of racial injustice in policing, which of course is incredibly timely,” said Rod Bingaman, an associate teaching professor of film production. “I remember him as someone who worked and hung out in the equipment room, and no conversation was off-limits.”

Even though Elle Jae was not in the Bellisario College, Bingaman said she was “a bit of a celebrity” in the College of Arts and Architecture. He said the Stewarts were interested in important, timely and compelling film projects. “They just needed to get in an environment where they could collaborate with like-minded individuals and have access to the necessary resources,” Bingaman added.

"Invest in yourself."

— Elle Jae and Thomas Stewart, Penn State alumni

Finishing their degrees in May 2016, the family “put all of our eggs in one basket,” according to Elle Jae. They packed up their things and moved from Happy Valley to Los Angeles.

“We hit the road and arrived on July Fourth Weekend,” she said. “I started concentrating on booking acting gigs and Thomas already had a job working in the arts department at LA Unified School District.”

The Stewarts knew Hollywood was a town of networks and relationships and that no matter the experience or skill, they were “small fish in a big ocean.” Elle Jae continued writing and creating content. Thomas used his position at LA Unified to meet people and showcase their work. In a short time, they made an important decision: They’d do it themselves.

“We got tired of waiting on others,” Thomas said. “We said we would raise the money. Put the money toward our artistry. We can do this. Let’s make our stuff.”

In other words, “Invest in yourself,” which became the mantra of the couple’s production company, The WAZI Group. Their company develops and distributes original content and is comprised of about 35 creative minds across many projects and roles.

“That’s what we’ve been doing since we touched ground in LA,” Elle Jae said. “Everyone pitches in. If you're a writer on a project, you also need to serve a different role in another project, because the more hands and the more creativity involved, the better the project will be. No one is ‘just a writer.’”

The Stewarts said they look for collaborators, coworkers and partners who are “ready to work.” They say it doesn’t matter if it’s a five-minute short film or a feature film; Creative, reliable minds are welcome.

“We are always willing and completely open and available to people who want to see things come out to the best to their ability,” Elle Jae said. “That is the only requirement.”

Mara Shea, associate teaching professor of film production, follows the Stewarts’ careers on social media and says, “it doesn’t surprise me all that they’ve been successful. They are both very talented and work well together.”

And they find inspiration everywhere. Particularly Elle Jae, who said inspiration can come from “a smell, a color, or someone’s facial expression.” For their latest project, the series “Public Relations,” Elle Jae was inspired by an episode of “Love and Hip-Hop Atlanta,” a reality show on VH1.

Elle Jae Thomas

Elle Jae Stewart on the set of "Public Relations," a 10-part episodic series she and her husband Thomas, both Penn State alumni, created, wrote and produced.

IMAGE: Provided

Still in its proof-of-concept stage, “Public Relations” tells the story of a publicist who faces a public crisis when she learns of her husband’s infidelities. The team’s goal is work with another production company to produce and release the full 10-piece series. It doesn’t end there; Elle Jae says she sees the show visiting many different storylines under the “Public Relations” frame.

“Season two may be focused on a politician and all of the dirty dish that they're doing and trying to cover up within the public eye,” she said. “The third season may be someone in the religious sphere. Because believe it or not, even people who are reclusive are always wondering about images and how they are perceived. I've always been interested in that. How do we relate to the public?”

Almost all major productions were shut down for much of the past year in California due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomas said there had been a lot of “hurrying up and waiting,” and the pandemic has slowed things down even more. But it hasn’t slowed down the Stewarts, who are working and creating as much as possible so they will be ready when LA gets back to business as usual.

“Things are going to ratchet up real fast,” Thomas said. “Because there’s been no production, there's going to be a lot of content chasing and we're looking to take advantage of that. As soon as it happens, we'll be ready.”

Visit The WAZI Group for more information and to watch clips and films produced by company members.

Last Updated March 18, 2021